“I am not an atomic playboy”

09Aug10

This animated map showing all 2,053 of the nuclear detonations that occurred during the 20th century, recently featured on Boing Boing, is a stark reminder of the political insanity at the core of the nuclear arms race.  Because most of these detonations were secret, or at least kept out of sight, it’s startling to realize now just how constant the regime of test explosions was; while we usually think of the Chernobyl disaster as the example par excellence of the release of deadly radioactive particulates into the atmosphere, all you have to do is look at the amount of  tests that took place in the open ocean during this era to realize that vast amounts of primarily uncontrolled releases of dangerous radioactive contaminants occurred with tremendous regularity throughout the last half of the 20th century.

Though I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a bastion of the anti-nuclear movement that includes two cities — Berkeley and Oakland — that have proclaimed themselves nuclear-free zones, the Bay Area is still inextricably linked with the history of nuclear arms.  Nuclear material and perhaps entire bombs were shipped through the San Francisco Bay Area as part of the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, and the ships that were used to test the effects of the explosions (filled with live animals so the effects of radiation could be studied) were brought back to the Navy shipyard at Hunter’s Point for decontamination.  There are still traces of low-level radioactivity in various buildings and dumps at the shipyard, and at least some of the waste from the Bikini Atoll tests made its way into the 47,500 fifty-five gallon steel drum containers (many of them now open to the ocean) full of ostensibly low-level radioactive waste that are still lying underwater near the Farallon Islands, only 27 miles from San Francisco.

I can still remember a time in high school, at the height of the Cold War, driving aimlessly on a summer night with a car full of friends.  It was a beautiful night — the air was just warm enough and the sky was quietly littered with the crisp lux of stars — and we were driving through a quiet suburban neighborhood.  One of my friends called attention to a bright, slow streak of light in the sky.  It was too bright to be a meteor, so we stopped the car to get out and look.  The bright streak continued moving across the sky and none of us said what we were secretly thinking, which was that this was perhaps the first missile in a series of nuclear strikes that could end up destroying everything we knew.  Though all of us knew that a nuclear strike was a distinct possibility we didn’t say anything because I think we also thought that voicing this might somehow make it real, like a spell.  Then there was a bright flash at the head of the streak, and a new streak of light split off at a trajectory of 30 degrees or so.  And that was when we all new for sure that it was a stage rocket, or more precisely, a multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicle.  We stood and waited, and talked quietly.  Everywhere around us, the neighborhood was quiet; sometimes there was the sound of the odd television, carried from a distance, or the rustle of a breeze through the trees.  After 20 minutes or so it began to seem unlikely that anything serious had happened so, sobered, we decided to make our way home.  The next day the newspaper reported that a Trident missile had been test launched from a nuclear submarine off of the coast of California.  We had been witness to the actual sight of what an attack by a nuclear missile would look like.  A horrible and quiet vision.

The Cold War is over, but the world is still in danger of nuclear attack (though, thankfully, “mutually assured destruction” doesn’t seem to be as inevitable as it once did).  And, finally, it looks like there’s a growing worldwide renewal of anti-nuclear sentiment, though primarily among citizens and less so among governments.

It seems then, a perfect time to revisit The Atomic Cafe, a brilliant documentary by Jayne Loader and the Rafferty brothers, Kevin and Pierce.  The film covers the first 30 years of the nuclear era and is comprised entirely of archival footage and clips from “duck and cover” civil defense films.  A lot of the ideological insanity on evidence in The Atomic Cafe might seem kitschy and safe from the viewpoint of the present, but those bombs are still with us, waiting.



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