Nuclear Comic Relief

I was visited by the ghosts of Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield lately. Seems they’ve been hanging around Chernobyl and Fukushima and various related places. I couldn’t get them to stop with the corny one-liners…

Did you hear the NRC commissioners wouldn't buy air tickets to come up to Boston to debate Helen Caldicott?
They were too cheap to meet 'er.

Why did the man in Fukushima get angry when his wife and children moved away to Okinawa?
He wanted a nuclear family.

They say the economy is dying up there in Fukushima, but I don’t know. I got in a taxi there and the driver took me around to all the hot spots.

Doctor: You can eat anything you want from inside the exclusion zone.
Patient: Really? I heard it was dangerous.
Doctor: No, not at all. Just be sure to bury your shit in a lead box, though.

During the nuclear emergency they told us to shelter in place. So we did. After a couple hours in the room this nice young woman started pounding on the door. Finally, I had to get up and let her out.

Japanese PM Abe loosens his necktie and squirms uncomfortably, “Geez. I can’t get no respect,” he says, “Take my wife… please.”

What’s up with this news about them using kitty litter to keep nuclear waste dry? Man, now I know why cat eyes glow in the dark.

The government in Japan decided to do something in response to Fukushima. They got a bunch of doctors a big budget and told them to go form an NGO called Physicians for Social Irresponsibility.

I heard this nuclear industry guy say they were building a nuclear waste repository, but I misheard and thought he said suppository. It makes sense, though, right? Stick it in the hole and later it just sort of melts in…

These pro-nuke guys keep talking about lessons learned and perfecting the technology. Yeah, I guess so. Fukushima was definitely the beta version. Lots of alpha and gamma too, if you know what I mean.

I tell ya, us anti-nuclear guys don’t get no respect.


An Uncannily Good Read: Nuclear Borderlands

Review of
The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, by Joseph Masco, Princeton University Press, 2006.

(This post is a follow up article on the previous post about the nuclear uncanny in the cable TV drama Breaking Bad.)

A superficial understanding of the nuclear era is that it is a series of famous atrocities and disasters that have occurred since 1945. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first events, followed by the Cold War showdown that peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Afterwards, there were the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. For the majority of people who have no interest in learning what lies behind the headlines, these famous milestones are likely to represent the common knowledge about the nuclear age. Nuclear technology is something that is occasionally terrifying, but it disappears out of everyday consciousness when the news cycle moves on.
Historians and anthropologists who have studied the nuclear era find that this collective amnesia is in itself an interesting aspect of the age because the advent of nuclear weapons was perhaps the most significant and socially disruptive change in human history. In The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, anthropologist Joseph Masco wrote about the American nuclear program, in particular how it unfolded in the birthplace of the atomic era. In this study, he illustrated quite effectively that the nuclear weapons program has had, and will have far into the future, deep economic, ecological, cultural and psychological impacts which, ironically, appear to be inversely proportional to the collective awareness of them.
The US nuclear complex covers a total of 36,000 square miles, the size of the state of Indiana. $6 trillion was spent on it over 50 years, and the US government conducted 1,149 test detonations between 1945 and 1992, 942 within the continental United States. The cost of remediating and containing the damage caused by the nuclear age will cost far more because of the duration of nuclear wastes into the distant future. The psychological and social impacts of these facts become apparent when we gain awareness of how they force us to change the way we understand citizenship, national identity, and relationships to the land. What does it mean for politicians to talk about enduring American values, or the lasting integrity of the nation, when the government must also plan for a time one thousand or fifty thousand years into the future when a country called the USA will no longer exist? What does it mean for individuals to realize that their pursuit of security and comfort makes the present and the distant future less secure and less comfortable? Humanity never before had to consider much besides the near past and near future. In terms of our genetic evolution, we are hard-wired to be altruistic toward our immediate social group and the few generations of genetic kin we know during our lifetime.
Masco contends that our confrontation with the dangers of radiation creates a strange rupture in the collective and the individual psyche. Adapting a Freudian concept, he labels this phenomenon the “nuclear uncanny.” Freud himself struggled to find a definition of unheimlich (translated as uncanny) which satisfied the theoretical concept he had in mind. In the essay The Uncanny, he wrote:

Many people experience the feeling [of uncanny] in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts... some languages in use today can only render the German expression ‘an unheimlich house’ by ‘a haunted house.’ [1]

Masco stressed this sense of haunting when he wrote that the uncanny refers to sensory experience becoming haunted and untrustworthy, and to the return of the repressed. There seems to be a further uncanny irony here in the fact that the scientific age did much to dispel irrational beliefs but then revealed a fearsome secret of the universe that would be dreaded like a malevolent ghost. The hidden energy from the birth of the solar system was revealed to be—one might say “repressed”—below the earth’s surface in uranium ore. Because radiation is intangible and dangerous, doing its harm imperceptibly over time and distance, people react to it just as they would to a perceived supernatural force. Thus radiation evokes what can be called the nuclear uncanny.
Nuclear Borderlands describes the many ways by which the nuclear age has made our times uncannily out of joint. I would add that the uncanny should include the instances of irony, paradox and Kafkaesque absurdity one encounters in the nuclear era. The summary below covers some memorable aspects of the Nuclear Borderlands; however, I advise readers that this is only a cursory overview of a book that deserves to be read in its entirety.

Uncanny #1.       
Rule 1: Spend $trillions on nuclear weapons
Rule 2: Hope you never have to use them

The description of absurd paradoxes begins with the Los Alamos scientists who have to manage the aging nuclear arsenal without ever being able to test a nuclear weapon. The generation that experienced the visceral effects of above-ground tests is no longer working, and many of the scientists employed today are too young to remember even underground testing, which ended in 1992. All they can do now is manage the existing weapons, maintaining all their parts but never testing a weapon to see if it actually works. They say it is like having to maintain an old car in perfect condition but never being allowed to turn the key. The goal is to make the weapons functional, but if they ever needed to really find out if they functioned, that would be horrible because it would mean nuclear apocalypse had begun.
If children constantly receive contradictory messages from their parents, they will grow up to be neurotic, and so one might expect that the contradictions of the nuclear weapons program would create neuroses in the people who live with its trappings. Maintaining the weapons stockpile and providing long-term stewardship of the nuclear waste legacy have become a techno-scientific fetish. When Los Alamos scientists talk about nuclear weapons they adopt human and animal metaphors to humanize the maintenance of weapons of mass destruction. For example, the old weapons receive “geriatric care.” Like a human face, nuclear core implosions are better when they are symmetrical.
Masco notes that many people consider the $6 trillion as money well spent because of what is called the “Tang© effect,” the term which describes the famous freeze-dried orange juice that was invented, as is widely believed, because astronauts had to take orange juice to the moon. From the arms race came other benefits such as rocket and satellite technology, computers, the Internet, interstate highways, and nuclear medicine. However, this retroactive reasoning is illogical because it dismisses alternative courses history could have followed, and it is an arbitrary judgment to say that it was essential for the human race to have Internet access. Tang© was, in fact, first made by General Foods in 1957. It was later adopted by NASA but it was never made for NASA. With this myth out of the way, it seems reasonable to believe that computers and the Internet might have appeared sooner or later regardless of the impetus given by the budget for nuclear weapons. And if they hadn’t been invented, so what? Would life not be worth living? The absurdity of retroactive justification is easier to see if we note that Hitler restored the German economy and made the trains to Auschwitz run on time, but no one would justify Nazi atrocities today by celebrating the technical achievements of WWII Germany. In fact, if Americans and Russians want to celebrate how they produced ballistic missiles, they really have to thank the German scientists who developed the technology during the Nazi period.

Uncanny #2        
Claims on the Land, Claims on Upward Mobility

Los Alamos and northern New Mexico were occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years before the Spanish colonized the area in the late 16th century. It was later part of Mexico after the War of Independence ended in 1821, then it recently became American territory in 1848. The Spanish settlers lived apart from industrial development in a barter economy until the American takeover, so they had worked out how to co-exist relatively well with the Pueblo Indians. That stability began to unravel as America expanded westward and Spanish landholders were cheated out of their titles, even though some of them still possess deeds granted by Spain that go back “only to 1714” (original Spanish settlement occurred in 1598). The upper Rio Grande area is so isolated that linguists from Spain came in the 20th century to observe the last remnants of the language as it sounded in the time of Cervantes (1547-1616), a fact which makes my choice of blog mascot a little uncanny also. Local historian Larry Torres stresses that the arrivals from Spain were so early that settlers never experienced the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. They came straight out of medieval Spain, and in 1942 this culture met the nuclear age on its own land.
By the time the US military came to expropriate land for the Manhattan Project, both the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish/Mexican inhabitants were impoverished. To this day, many of them have positive, but also ambivalent, feelings about the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The lab provided jobs in the wage economy, and the Indians and the Spanish inhabitants served in WWII. Because they accepted the narrative that said “the bombs ended the war,” they were proud of the American achievement.
This is why there is nothing straightforward about how the history of Los Alamos is contested. Within each group there are proponents and opponents, and sometimes the same person who is grateful for economic opportunity is also the person who resents the fact that his ethnic group has always done the menial work at Los Alamos, or that too many of his relatives have died too early of cancer. Sometimes the disadvantaged groups make alliances with the environmental and anti-nuclear groups, which tend to be made up of recent arrivals in New Mexico. At other times they resent the way environmentalists persisted with legal challenges to land use that took no account of what traditional inhabitants wanted. Some Indian groups threatened to accept above-ground storage of nuclear waste, but they did so as a bargaining tactic against elements that would disallow them from operating casinos. The bottom line for everyone is that there is no going back to living off the land. Everyone needs to be part of the cash economy.
One of Masco’s more interesting findings was a video made by some of the Hispanic workers who did cleanup work in Area G of Los Alamos. The video shows a ruptured canister in a dump, and the panicked reaction of the staff to the leak. The class distinctions of the workplace are on display when the white Anglo scientists come to the scene in full protective gear to take measurements of the radioactivity while the Hispanic workers stand in the same spot in regular attire. Later in the video, one of the workers recounts his memory of what happened to the remains of Karen Silkwood, the famous whistleblower who was contaminated with plutonium on the job and later died in a mysterious car crash. Some of her remains came to the lab to be put in a tissue registry, but a refrigerator failed and the stored tissues were dumped unceremoniously with other waste, according to the witness in the video.
Racism and disregard for human rights were evident in other aspects of operations at Los Alamos. Implosion experiments required a stand-in for plutonium, and for this lanthanum 140 (half-life 1.6 days) was used. The experiments were conducted only when the winds blew in the right direction, away from the town of Los Alamos but over “uninhabited” land where there were Pueblo Indians. In another case, for research done on the absorption of radionuclides in the body, tissue samples were collected without consent from deceased members of the Los Alamos community.

Uncanny #3        
Contested Narratives

At the end of the Cold War, a great deal of information was de-classified, and this gave rise to a strong anti-nuclear movement which was now armed with information about environmental contamination, unethical experiments on human subjects, and the health effects suffered by thousands of nuclear workers, downwidners and veterans of weapons tests. However, this gave rise to anti-anti-nuclear groups who fought over the way the nuclear legacy would be defined in Los Alamos. For them, the nuclear era had been a positive force because it was the peacemaker that ended WWII and kept the peace during the Cold War.
In 1989, students at an elementary school in Albuquerque planned to build a peace statue which they hoped would be placed in Los Alamos in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings. As news of the plan spread and financial contributions poured in, the city council of Los Alamos was forced to vote on whether to allow a space for the statue. By a narrow vote it was rejected. Although the statue displayed no overt ideology other than a wish for peace, the opposing city council members resented that it was an outsiders’ project. It smelled of backing from anti-nuclear groups they suspected of wanting to teach that Americans should feel guilty for the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This conflict played out the same way on a national scale when the Smithsonian in Washington tried to create a full-context exhibit about the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. After much political interference and lobbying, the plan was rejected in favor of a display of the aircraft devoid of serious historical analysis. The children’s peace statue was eventually given a space in a museum in Albuquerque.
In another battle over access to public space, anti-nuclear activists demanded space in the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos in order to teach about the environmental and human costs of nuclear weapons. There had been a previous legal challenge that won similar space at a museum at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, so the Bradbury museum relented and permitted a contrary view to be displayed on a wall that measured all of fifteen by eight feet (4.5m x 2.4m). The comment book became a popular place for visitors to exchange heated views, and by 1995 veterans and former LANL workers had, predictably, demanded and won their own counter-counter-exhibit. Managers of the museum were taken aback by the passions displayed by both sides of the controversy. They seem to have thought that their sterile and apolitical exhibits extolling the virtues of the technical achievement would satisfy the public.

Uncanny #4        
Forest Fire = Hiroshima

While Los Alamos citizens and veterans groups insisted that the history of Los Alamos should be presented either as ideologically neutral or as nothing to feel guilty about, the great Cerro Grande forest fire of May 2000 evoked some reactions in them that Sigmund Freud would have found very intriguing. Nothing besides a guilty conscience could have made so many local residents relate the fire to Hiroshima. They readily conflated the two conflagrations, taking the event as a way of making an empathetic connection with the city they were historically linked to. One scientist even did calculations to compare the heat of both events. Another LANL employee said, “We are all thinking of Hiroshima. We know what that was like.” Yet aside from being very hot, the two events had nothing in common. The forest fire, horrible though it was, was not an act of human aggression designed to kill thousands of people, and no one died because of it. The forest fire came with no shock wave or radiation, except for the relatively small suspected amounts caused by the release of radionuclides that had accumulated in the forest after years of operations at LANL.
Immense forest fires came close to Los Alamos again in 2011.
Uncanny #5        
Are secrets still secrets when millions of citizens have security clearance?

In the closing chapters, Nuclear Borderlands posits that the post 9/11 obsession with security was an expansion of what had been established during the Cold War arms race. The national security fetish that arose in the Cold War had a profound influence on all aspects of life while it presented citizens with numerous contradictions, ambiguities and absurdities. Masco wrote, “Secrecy… creates not only hierarchies of power and repression, but also unpredictable social effects, including new kinds of desire, fantasy, paranoia, and, above all, gossip.”
As an example, he describes how the rules sought to define in granular detail the permitted number of times a nuclear scientist could have sexual encounters with a foreign national. Security clearances involved investigations of family and friends, and required employees to report on each other. As such regulations piled up, the enemy had become the citizens who were supposedly being protected. National security became national sacrifice. The security state turned nuclear workers and all citizens into the enemy because public understanding of the weapons, or knowledge of ecological damage and health effects, would threaten the mission.
The definition of an act of espionage was also highly contextual. For example, one could not bring an orange or other round objects into the secure work area at LANL because the shape might be a hidden message that a plutonium core was spherical rather than ovoid. Yet it was alright to leave the orange in the non-secure area.
The obsession with secrecy led to forgetting that in many cases a government with access to enough resources often overcomes technical obstacles without having to steal secrets. The LANL scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused in the 1990s of giving to the Chinese the secret of how to make an ovoid plutonium core, a significant step allowing for lighter high-yield weapons. China succeeded in testing a bomb with such a core, but American investigators had to admit later that the information Lee allegedly gave was not enough to teach the Chinese how to succeed. Either they got the information by other means, put the pieces of the puzzle together from information that was openly available, or (surprise surprise) figured it out from scratch just as the Americans had.
Lee was eventually exonerated, but the lengthy investigation reignited Cold War paranoia and demotivated many of the scientists working in the nuclear program, especially those who were foreign-born American citizens now aware of the racial profiling that was in effect. In the end, many wondered if the Americans had been played by China. The whole affair served to discourage foreign-born Americans from working in the nuclear program, which might have been China’s objective. It is plausible that the Chinese deliberately provoked the Americans into believing a foreign-born national had betrayed them.
The Lee case underscored the essential racism of building nuclear weapons in the first place. They are, after all, deployed in order to kill foreigners. In the process of developing them, anyone who is racially or ideologically different is suspect. Moreover, marginalized minorities are dispossessed when land is taken over to build weapons facilities or they are abused when weapons are tested on their homelands. Just as the Lee case erupted into the news, LANL was hit with lawsuits from Hispanic and indigenous groups over the confiscation of their land in 1942 (note how uncanny it is that the four digits are a rearrangement of the year Columbus landed in America). Once the Cold War was over in the early 1990s and documents were declassified, these long-suppressed grievances came to the surface.

Uncanny #6        
Long-Term Stewardship

Perhaps nothing produces the sense of uncanny more than a full understanding of the contamination that has been created by the nuclear era. Various regulatory agencies like to soothe the public and their staff with assurances that the waste problem can be dealt with, so they write memos like this recent one by a high official of Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission:

The recent tailings dam breach that occurred at the Mt. Polley mine in British Columbia on August 4, 2014 has raised awareness of issues associated with tailings impoundments. This is a reminder that vigilance must be maintained by ensuring that tailings dams continue to be properly designed, constructed, operated, maintained and monitored to prevent such occurrences.[2]

Such language avoids mentioning what is actually at stake, for the last sentence should really continue by stating “… prevent such occurrences for the next 100,000 years.” However, most often the unpleasant reality is repressed in both internal and public communication.

Scientists have been tasked with guaranteeing something that is utterly unprecedented and probably impossible. They must plan for the perpetual management of a dangerous waste product, and doing so presumes that the task can be handed off in perpetuity to a society that has the required competence and resources.
   Alternatively, it is hoped that the wastes can be left in passive storage, requiring no action by future generations, but this cannot be guaranteed either. In February 2014, waste canisters at New Mexico’s WIPP storage facility exploded underground after only fifteen years of operation, long before the site was to be sealed for eternity.
Masco found that a bizarre product of the long-term stewardship program was the science fiction that nuclear waste scientists were tasked with writing. They were told to imagine the political and technological changes that might occur over the next few hundred years and plan nuclear waste storage accordingly. The sample that Masco found imagined a 26th century in which the United States no longer existed. It described an American southwest that had become a failed state where people lived in a pre-industrial state of chaos and poverty. Characters in the story find maps and diagrams in the ruins of a laboratory and head out to look for the buried treasure, which is actually the contaminated clothing and equipment that had been buried at WIPP in the 21st century. With this creative writing assignment, the United States government had, perhaps for the first time, officially commissioned government workers to envision the demise of the United States government.
Thus it is that the government, nuclear workers, and eventually all citizens will realize the awesome legacy that has been created. There are contaminated sites being promoted as wildlife refuges simply because this is a convenient way of keeping people from living on them while not admitting the impossibility of restoring them. Another 109 sacrifice zones in the US are so badly contaminated that they can’t even be passed off as wildlife habitat. Because the burden stretches out to a practical eternity, the future environmental and health costs, and the costs of maintenance and cleanup are sure to be more than the damage inflicted on enemies and more than the cost of building the nuclear arsenal. The legacy tells us that there will never be a “nuclear-free” world, but there could be a time when we at least stop adding to the problem. Yet among the five nuclear powers, the same nations that also make up the UN Security Council, none has shown the slightest interest in stopping proliferation by disarming itself and leading the world out of the era of nuclear weapons production.

Uncanny #7        
Hiding in Plain Sight

Masco concludes his book by recounting the strangeness of his own interactions with people when he talked to them about his project. It was difficult to make publishers interested, and members of the general public were puzzled that there would be anything at all to write about nuclear weapons. In the popular consciousness, the era was over in 1991 when the USSR collapsed, or perhaps earlier when atmospheric testing ended in 1963. The public seemed to equate nuclear dread with ephemeral cultural fads like hippies and Beatlemania. They have their time then they are gone forever.
Writing in 2006, Masco wondered how a $6 trillion-dollar project, which was still very much a going concern, could so easily fade from public awareness. It was clear that it wasn't necessary to have a nuclear war in order for the nuclear arms race to have devastating impacts on society. The effects of “radioactive nation building” were plain to see everywhere. Masco defined them as “the long-term effects of participating in national-cultural logics that mobilize resources in the name of security and community, but that do so in ways that are unsustainable and that create both social and material toxicity.” The final uncanny absurdity is that these effects have become the new normal that no one thinks twice about.
It’s worth mentioning here that not everyone is convinced that the nuclear program played such a significant role in shaping the modern world. The counter-narrative says that the “nuclear uncanny” is just another fanciful construct of the social sciences. There are those who say that nukes are just another kind of weapon and that the Cold War would have played out in the same way without nuclear weapons.[3] Such critiques tend to be welcomed by the nuclear energy industry which is always eager to make the public think of nuclear technology as something mundane.
Certainly, the war machinery in use in the years just before 1945 was doing a fine job of turning the world upside-down, creating its own “mechanized war uncanny.” The byproducts of conventional industries left their own nightmarish legacy of PCBs, dioxin, ozone holes and of course fossil fuel by-products. The Alberta Oil Sands will leave their own giant sacrifice zone. Nonetheless, I don’t know how one could see the opening of the nuclear era as anything less than a quantum leap that goes beyond any comparison with conventional threats. Within ten years there was enough weaponry to send mankind back to the Stone Age in the space of an afternoon, as Einstein famously said. The creation of plutonium and other radioactive elements was pure alchemy, and through weapon testing, mining and nuclear accidents they found their way into the tissues of every living thing on the planet.
Those who would like to make nuclear mundane may just like staking out a contrarian position for the sake of being contrarian. The unfortunate thing about working in counter-factual history is that there are no facts and real events to contend with. I prefer to base my views on the testimony of people who actually witnessed nuclear explosions and lived in the time when they first appeared. Everyone who witnessed a nuclear blast, even people who were proponents of nuclear weapons, was utterly transformed and traumatized by the experience. Robert R. Wilson, a physicist who witnessed the Trinity test, said, “I was a different person from then on.”[4] I would bet that the same is true of the societies that have had to live with nuclear weapons since the day after Trinity.

A final New Mexican uncanny:
Why did it always take so long for gravity to work?

Another review of Nuclear Borderlands:

David Kaiser, “In the Shadow of Los Alamos,” American Scientist, January-February 2007, review of Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006) http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/in-the-shadow-of-los-alamos

New book in press:

Joseph Masco, The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Duke University Press, 2014).

Audio: LĂ©opold Lambert interviews Joseph Masco:


1. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (1919).

3. John Mueller, Atomic obsession: Nuclear alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). In a brief review of this book in Foreign Affairs, the reviewer wrote, “In a world of bad people and dangerous weapons, there is no room for complacency, but Mueller has found it anyway.” The reviewer in the Wall Street Journal noted Mueller was alarmingly dismissive about the blast effects of bombs and the biological effects of nuclear fallout: “Mr. Mueller also offers a thinly sourced disquisition on the health effects of radioactive fallout. Exposure to low doses of radiation, he says, might actually be ‘beneficial by activating natural coping mechanisms in the body.’”

4. John H. Else, The Day After Trinity, Directed by John H. Else (1981; Pyramid Films) 00:49:45~00:50:05.


Breaking Bad and the New Mexican Nuclear Uncanny

The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.

William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch[1]

Western civilization’s social, man-made and natural environments are dysfunctional, decaying and polluted. This dystopia is familiar to everyone because we see it in the mass media and we see it reflected in popular entertainment. It is common for film and television writers to choose the decline of empire as a central theme of their work. Disaster movies are all too familiar, and high quality cable television dramas such as The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad come to mind as examples of long-form fiction that cover the topic better than any two-hour movie could. Yet in spite of the apparent interest in the grand theme of cultural supremacy and decline, these works reveal the extent to which both the producers of mass entertainment and its audience are unconscious of the fact that their stories are tales of the nuclear age.
"Radioactive nation building: … the long-term effects of participating in national-cultural logics that mobilize resources in the name of security and community, but that do so in ways that are unsustainable and that create both social and material toxicity." (p. 213) (Review of the book here.)

Noam Chomsky wrote recently, “If some extraterrestrial species were compiling a history of Homo sapiens, they might well break their calendar into two eras: BNW (before nuclear weapons) and NWE (the nuclear weapons era).”[2] As significant as this break in history was, it is seldom portrayed in popular entertainment. Nuclear weapons appear occasionally in disaster movies as scary terrorist threats, but the real stories of the nuclear age, of the victims and veterans of nuclear testing, for example, remain hidden. Films such as Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July told the fictional stories of Vietnam veterans, but there is yet to be a Hollywood film about a veteran who came back from the Nevada Test Site, or a story told about the hibakusha of the Bikini Islands.
The generation that lived through the rupture in history was much more aware of how the atom bomb had transformed society. In the book American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin wrote:

"Nineteen forty-eight was the crucial postwar year,” Ginsberg explained. “It was the turning point. Of course the atom bomb had already gone off in 1945, and Kerouac and Burroughs and I had talked about it, but the psychological fallout from the bomb—the consciousness—didn’t really hit until 1948. There was the splitting of the atom and the splitting of the old structures of society and also a sense of the inner world splitting up and coming apart.” Like many other writers around the world, Ginsberg turned the atom bomb into an all-inclusive metaphor. Everywhere he looked he saw apocalypse and atomization.[3]

In Kerouac’s On the Road, there is no mention of the atom bomb until the final pages of the story set in Mexico, yet it delivers the explanatory punch of the tale. The refusal of the characters to take part in the post-war economic boom, and all the preceding delinquency and mad wanderings of these “best minds of a generation” now seem to be explained by this painful consciousness of how the world had changed:

Strange crossroad towns on top of the world rolled by, with shawled Indians watching us from under hatbrims and rebozos. All had their hands outstretched. They had come down from the backmountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer and they never dreamed the sadness and poor broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and banks and reduce them to jumbles like the avalanche heap, and we would be as poor as them someday and stretching out our hands in the samesame way.”[4]

This essay seeks to illustrate the decline of nuclear consciousness in popular art by suggesting that the nuclear age is implicit in every frame of the masterpiece Breaking Bad,[5] even though the story never explicitly touches upon any aspect of America’s nuclear history. The story, centered on a high school chemistry teacher who embarks on a criminal career as a supplier of crystal methamphetamine, was set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a state which was ground zero for much of America’s nuclear program. In The Inconceivable Atomic Legacy of New Mexico, Sam Gilbert wrote:

A former Los Alamos scientist, who requested anonymity, told me, “The US nuclear complex is either unacknowledged or considered antiquated Cold War stuff. But look at the world today—Iran and North Korea, the global investment in nuclear energy, and the meltdown in Japan. It’s coming full circle, with New Mexico at the center.”
And that’s not just patriotic hyperbole; in his book The Nuclear Borderlands, author Joseph Masco describes New Mexico as “the only state in the US supporting the entire cradle-to-grave nuclear economy.” This includes uranium mining, nuclear weapons design and testing, the largest single arsenal of nuclear weapons, and the country’s only permanent depository for US military industrial nuclear waste.[6][7]
New Mexico is home to Los Alamos National Laboratories, the primary site of the Manhattan Project and still a leading nuclear technology center and waste storage facility. Sandia Labs in Albuquerque “strives to enhance the nation’s security and prosperity through sustainable, transformative approaches to the world’s most difficult nuclear energy challenges.” In the south of the state, there is Alamogordo, site of Trinity, the world’s first nuclear test in 1945. In the southeast corner of the state is Carlsbad, site of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), the nation’s only nuclear waste repository. It functioned for fifteen years before recent failures and radiation leaks raised serious questions about the viability of all such plans to bury nuclear waste. Finally, in the northwest corner of the state there is Church Rock, the site of the July 16, 1979 uranium mine tailings breach (occurring to the hour on the 34th anniversary of the Trinity test) that went into the forgotten history books as America’s worst radiological contamination of the environment—worse even than the famous Three Mile Island disaster that happened three months earlier.[8]
All of these nuclear sites have made New Mexico a nuclear state, a state that has grown and benefited over the last seventy years thanks to infusions of federal spending on defense, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy. In all this time, New Mexico has received more federal funds than it contributes back to the federal government. Thus the broken society depicted in Breaking Bad is the product of the nuclear technocratic economy that dominated the state in the late 20th century. New Mexico is an extreme case, but if other states and other nations look similar it is because they too have been affected in the same way.
Breaking Bad was, however, not consciously created as a story about the nuclear legacy. The creator, Vince Gilligan, had originally set it in southern California, but he was asked to film in New Mexico strictly for the financial incentives offered by the state. For a while he considered how to set up his shots to look like California, but then he decided it would be simpler just to set the whole story in Albuquerque.
The central character of Breaking Bad is Walter White, but he is a chemist who has never done any work related to American defense or nuclear programs. Again, this is a sign that the makers of the story had no intention to write a “nuclear” story. It never crossed their minds to set any of the action at the nuclear sites mentioned above, or to introduce a character who had a connection to them. Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend at one point mentions wanting to see New Mexico’s famous Georgia O’Keefe paintings, but no character ever went to The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, “an intriguing place to learn the story of the Atomic Age [with] exhibits spanning the early research of nuclear development through today’s peaceful uses of nuclear technology.” All of this just goes to show how much the cultural norms created by the nuclear age have been submerged beneath conscious awareness. The story creators and their characters think about them as much as a fish thinks about water, but they permeate the environment of police stations, junk yards, strip malls, drug dens, suburban swimming pools, Indian nations and, most of all, the surrounding desert that serves as a constant reminder of what nuclear technology threatens to deliver on thirty minutes notice. Furthermore, the plague of crystal meth addiction at the center of the story underscores a fact of life in the techno-scientific age. Nuclear weapons are essential, so it is humans who must adapt or be anesthetized to what the construction of a nuclear weapon state demands. 
Whether the creators of Breaking Bad were aware of it or not, the setting seems to portray what  Joseph Masco meant when he wrote of New Mexico’s “nuclear uncanny”—an anxious “new cognitive orientation toward everyday life” and “reconfigured concepts of time, nature, race, and citizenship” (see note 7). New Mexico is a “home to both the hyperwealthy and the poorest of the poor, one that is simultaneously sacred space, US experimental laboratory, tourist fantasy land and national sacrifice zone.”[9] Vince Gilligan was probably quick to realize it was a stroke of luck to make his story in New Mexico, for the setting itself seems to be a central character or even a creative force of the story. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine it would have struck such a chord with its audience if it had been set elsewhere.
As the story begins, our non-smoking hero is diagnosed with lung cancer, while the aunt of his young partner in crime had been stricken the same way. Cancer is the affliction that has made them break bad, broken their hearts and turned them into pessimists and realists who now know that they have to survive like outlaws on the old frontier. The technological age brought no social progress at all. There was always enough money for nuclear weapons, but none for those now suffering from the plutonium blowing in the wind. The bright future promised by the technological age didn’t provide a minimum of health care and social security.[10]
Furthermore, Walter Jr. has cerebral palsy, adding to the pall cast over the technological landscape. Many people accept such afflictions as naturally occurring, but at the same time we have the uneasy feeling that something is amiss. Formerly rare conditions seem to touch every family on every street. Walter’s radiation treatment burn is recognized by his scientifically illiterate partner because it is such a commonplace thing.
While the story portrays these physical diseases, Breaking Bad is mainly about the social disease of drug addiction and the war on drugs, and thus it follows in the literary tradition of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in portraying drug addiction as a metaphor for the organizing principle of modern life: addiction to power and control, to consumption, to machines, to oil and uranium, and addiction to making others addicted. As Cold War spending declined in the 1990s, New Mexico was primed to turn from one kind of fix to another.
Into the breach comes Walter White like a latter day Robert Oppenheimer, a man of science reluctantly tempted into an evil scientific endeavor that will happen with or without his participation. Oppenheimer made an atom bomb, whereas Walter White makes a neurochemical weapon of mass destruction. Incidentally, we can note that the criminal undertaking involves the same toxic secrecy and insecurity that nuclear weapon states require. Walter comes to his life of crime first telling himself that his motives are pure. He will take just enough to save his family. If he doesn’t do it, someone with lower motives will do it anyway, with an inferior product, right?
Oppenheimer, the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, rationalized his participation in the same way. He said famously about the first nuclear detonation:

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince [Arjuna] that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.[11][12]

The historian Alex Wellerstein explained in his interpretation of this quote that Oppenheimer was not claiming god-like powers, as many people have understood his words. The story from Hindu scripture shows that the prince did not want to serve in the war, but the god stood before him, proved his divine power by taking multi-armed form, and showed that the prince must submit to the fate that was demanded of him. To put it in the simpler language of the contemporary Dionysian gods Jagger and Richards: “I’m simply dying for some thrills and spills. If you can’t rock me, somebody will.”[13]
Thus we are to accept that these rational men of science justified their participation in the nuclear weapons program by comparing their necessary obedience to the US government with the superstitions of an ancient belief system. They had to participate because it was destiny, so morally they were off the hook. The destruction was ordained to happen anyway, and someone more evil might have made the bomb first. Or conventional bombing would have ruined Hiroshima and Nagasaki anyway. I find it to be a dubious argument that uses Eastern mysticism as a way to deflect attention from a moral dilemma that can’t be resolved so easily. 
As the story of Breaking Bad progresses, Walter’s hands get bloodier as his motives get darker. When he has more than enough to provide for his family, he still wades in deeper, like Macbeth trapped by the “insane root that takes the reason prisoner.” (Macbeth I.III.83). No one starts out shooting heroin with the intention of becoming a junkie. Breaking Bad has been called a great modern tragedy, and the parallels to Macbeth run deep. Some of Macbeth’s lines would fit right into the mouth of Walter White: “It will have blood they say: blood will have blood” (III.IV.122), or “I am in blood stepped so far that I should wade no more. Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (III.IV.136-138).
As Walter White succumbs to his addiction to power, he takes on the pseudonym Heisenberg, which is perhaps the story’s only explicit reference to nuclear physics. The name serves as a metaphor for the moral enigma that is Walter White. Werner Heisenberg was famous for formulating the uncertainty principle which states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known. Heisenberg’s life itself had many uncertainties, as it was known that he did research in nuclear fission in Germany during the early 1940s, but the extent of his enthusiasm for building an atom bomb for Hitler remained a mystery.
graphic from www.infobytes.tv/breakingbad 
Walter White is an enigma in the same way. Can we observe at what point he loses our sympathy and becomes loathsome? While we observe we can measure one aspect of him, but not others. Is his addiction to power any different than the addiction of a meth addict, or any different than that which we see in our institutions and corporations and in global politics? For the police he is like a subatomic particle: the meth kingpin Heisenberg’s existence may be known but his meth-making cannot been observed. When his actions are observed, his mind and his nature are unfathomable. Robert Oppenheimer alluded to this when he said, “There are no secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men.”[14]
Walter White uses science in one other way to hint at duality and ambiguity. In his mundane role as a chemistry teacher, he tells his students about chirality, the property of asymmetry derived from the Greek word for “hand,” a familiar chiral object. An object is chiral if it is, like a hand, not identical to its mirror image. As a metaphor for moral agency, Walter is hinting that people too are chiral opposites with Jekyll-and-Hyde like properties. A molecule has different potential when its orientation is reversed. Walter may appear to others as his well-known self, but he has been flipped and is now capable of things which no one expects of him.
In the finale, Walter White admits to his wife that he didn’t really do it for the family. He did it because he was “good at it.” He knows he will die soon, by cancer or violence. He knows he has lost his family, that his son will despise him forever, but he has not come to his wife one last time in order to apologize. He wanted to speak the truth that he believes she deserves to hear, but what he says falls short of showing contrition. Later, when he is dying of a gunshot, he staggers to his lab equipment and dies caressing his precious creation. He bears a great resemblance to other men of science who gave up their personal lives and scruples for the chance to exercise their genius. No regrets, and sorry, not sorry. As Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it, and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success.”[15] Breaking Bad is a work of art that has much to contribute to this argument over what to do about the technical successes of the 20th century.


The promotional trailer for the final season of Breaking Bad features Bryan Cranston reciting the famous poem Ozymandias that provided the title of one of the episodes.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:`Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'


1. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959). See also Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (Grove Press, 2000) that notes the irony in Burroughs having attended the Los Alamos Ranch School before it became the birthplace of the atom bomb. The school was purchased by the United States Army’s Manhattan Engineering District in 1942.

3. John Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (University of California Press, 2004). Ginsberg's concern with the nuclear threat continued throughout his life as he participated in protests in the 1970s at the Rocky Flats plutonium pit factory, and wrote a poem called Plutonian Ode.

4. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (original scroll), 1951.   

5. Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad, (2008-2013; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2013), DVD.

7. Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006). The publisher’s blurb for states, “The atomic bomb… is not just the engine of American techno-scientific modernity; it has produced a new cognitive orientation toward everyday life, provoking cross-cultural experiences of what  calls a ‘nuclear uncanny,’ revealing how the bomb has reconfigured concepts of time, nature, race, and citizenship.”

8. Linda M. Richards, “On Poisoned Ground.” Chemical Heritage Magazine, Spring 2013. http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/media/magazine/articles/31-1-on-poisoned-ground.aspx

9. Joseph Masco, 35.

10. Perhaps the most implausible aspect of the story is in its portrayal of this suburban family as prosperous enough to own a home but not a life insurance policy.

11. Alex Wellerstein, “Oppenheimer and the Gita,” Restricted Data: Nuclear Secrecy Blog, May 23, 2014.

12. James A. Hijiya, “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 144, no. 2 (June 2000), 123-167.

13. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “If You Can’t Rock Me.” It’s Only Rock and Roll (1974; Universal Music, 2009), CD.

14. Interview with Edward Murrow, A Conversation with J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1955. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_Oppenheimer

15. Robert Oppenheimer testifying in his defense at his 1954 security hearings, page 81 of the official transcript. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_Oppenheimer

Some information not referenced in the notes can be easily traced with internet searches.


Reasons to Oppose the India-Japan Nuclear Deal

If you agree that the India-Japan Nuclear Agreement is a bad idea, please put your name on the petition.

In late July and early August, a leading member of India’s Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Kumar Sundaram, visited several Japanese cities in order to speak to the mass media and Japanese citizens about the proposed Japan-India nuclear energy agreement. He timed his visit to Japan to precede that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of August. Modi will meet with his Japanese counterpart in hopes of finalizing a deal to allow the purchase of vital components of nuclear power plants that are proposed or under construction.
Mr. Sundaram wished to draw attention to numerous problematic aspects of India’s nuclear energy ambitions, negative aspects which the mass media, intellectuals and politicians have failed to criticize sufficiently.
On July 31, Mr. Sundaram gave a press conference in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. During his hour at the microphone, he gave a detailed explanation as to why he believes the plans for nuclear energy development in India will lead to disastrous consequences for both India and foreign countries. This report summarizes the information given by Mr. Sundaram, with additional background information and commentary.

The Nuclear Energy -- Nuclear Weapons Connection

Since India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974, it has had pariah status as a nuclear power. Like Pakistan and Israel, it possesses nuclear weapons but never signed the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In response to India’s first test of a nuclear weapon, the Nuclear Suppliers Group was formed by Canada, West Germany, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States in order to stop exports of nuclear technology to countries that refused to sign onto the NPT. In 1998, after another nuclear test, India faced further sanction, but the pressure decreased after Western nations shifted their emphasis to “the war on terror.” At the same time, their nuclear energy suppliers grew more interested in exporting nuclear technology to developing nations, and the Indian market was too tempting to ignore. During the G.W. Bush presidency, ways were found to skirt around the problems with India’s status as an intransigent possessor of nuclear weapons, and thus the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement came into force in 2008. This waiver made India the only known country with nuclear weapons which is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but is still permitted to engage in nuclear commerce with the rest of the world.
In addition to the US deal, India now has bilateral arrangements with France, Canada, Russia, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, and Australia. The present push for a Japan-India agreement could be seen as a multi-lateral effort that aims to facilitate nuclear deals for multinational corporations. 
The preferential treatment for India set an obvious dangerous precedent. It signaled to other nations that there was a double standard, and it suggested that if they too defy international agreements to not develop nuclear weapons, they merely need to endure rogue status until pragmatic considerations force other nations to legitimize their nuclear power status. It signaled to China that the US was tacitly approving India’s nuclear weapon status in order to have a strategic balance to China in the region. It signaled the same to Pakistan, with the added message that its political instability would prevent it from getting the same treatment as India.
In spite of the opening for nuclear energy created by the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement, there was still a drawback in the works. The major American corporations that want to build India’s reactors have become American-Japanese hybrids such as GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse-Toshiba. Other corporations building plants in India are dependent on parts from these companies. In order for construction to proceed, a Japan-India deal is necessary, but traditionally Japan has taken a hard line against nuclear weapons proliferation, the obvious reason being its status as the only victim of nuclear weapons in an act of war.
The present Japanese government is willing to abandon the strong stance on disarmament and non-proliferation and instead just pay lip service to the issue, as it did this month with regard to the 69th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Times of India reported that on August 10th, the foreign ministers of India and Japan, Sushma Swaraj and Fumio Kishida, met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum to exchange what, to my skeptical eye, was no more than cynical pieties regarding the Hiroshima memorial. The Times report played up the fact that Kishida is from Hiroshima, as if that necessarily makes one sincere on nuclear proliferation issues. Then it portrayed an Indian parliamentary observance of silence for Hiroshima as a blessing by the people of both countries for everything that the two nations are planning to do with regard to nuclear energy development. After this brief ritual of mutual flattery, both ministers emphasized it was time to cut to the chase, to finally sign a civilian nuclear trade deal, regardless of the numerous valid objections their own citizens have. 
No matter how much the Indian and Japanese governments would like to pretend otherwise, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are inextricably linked, especially in South Asia. For India, the primary motive for pursuing nuclear energy is to obtain legitimacy for its nuclear weapons. In this pursuit, all other considerations have been ignored. The government has not considered whether nuclear energy is worth pursuing in terms of its social, environmental and economic costs.

Neglecting safety, local opposition, environmental damage, economic viability, and the decline of nuclear energy in developed nations

Mr. Sundaram pointed out that even among various Indian government agencies the methods of developing nuclear energy have not been unanimously approved. Official environmental reviews have raised strong objections. Even among those who are, in general, supportive or undecided about nuclear power have voiced objections about the methods and the scale of the nuclear expansion. Nonetheless, diplomatic imperatives always sideline these concerns.
For example, after the Bhopal disaster, laws were strengthened to make foreign corporations liable for the damage they may cause, but these laws are now being rolled back in order to please the corporations that are building nuclear reactors. The citizens’ right to information is being curtailed for the benefit of foreign corporations as well. The comptroller and auditor general raised severe concerns about nuclear regulation, and secretaries from eight ministries said they are not in a position to deal with a nuclear emergency. Local opposition to plant construction has been brutally oppressed, with trumped up charges of vandalism and violence laid on peaceful protesters. Five thousand people have been charged with sedition because the government now construes opposition to nuclear energy as treason. Nonetheless, the protests continue. Security agencies now keep files on organizations such as the Coalition for Nuclear Peace and Disarmament (CNDP), Greenpeace, and individual activists (including Mr. Sundaram) because they are defined as threats to national economic security. If they obtain funding or cooperate in any way with groups and activists abroad, they are viewed all the more as traitors.
During the question period after the news conference, I asked Mr. Sundaram to speak about the front end and back end of the nuclear cycle; that is, to describe India’s record in dealing with safety and environmental issues in uranium mining and processing, and issues in the disposal of nuclear waste. He said there have been significant health and environmental impacts from mining, all documented by independent scientists, but the government has continued with complete unaccountability. As for the waste problem, the government is in “complete denial,” asserting even that there won’t be any waste to worry about for another thirty years.
Mr. Sundaram concluded by emphasizing that the pursuit of nuclear energy is an anachronism. India has been targeted by multinational corporations who can no longer make profits from nuclear energy in the countries where they built plants in the past. In this sense, India might be the lynchpin that the global nuclear industry is depending on for its survival. Indian elites are allowing themselves to be used in this way in order to legitimize the nation’s status as a nuclear power, but they have failed to consider whether it is necessary for any other reason. Since India has a chronic trade deficit, these very expensive, high technology deals will be financed by debt that the country cannot afford. Nuclear energy should be opposed in India because it is an undemocratic, unsafe, uneconomic, unaccountable expansion of a technology that will bring horrors and great costs on the nation’s most vulnerable people.