Nuclear Reading List

I'm on a break from the blog, so I'll fill the gap this week with a simple display of references I've used over the past two years. These sources are a good reminder that it is important to look away from the daily output of blogs, news media, twitter and facebook and instead dig a little deeper into long-form writing on nuclear history. 
Many of the "shocking" revelations that appear on social media are actually rediscoveries of issues that were written about 20-40 years ago. Just to take one example, this week I read the "news" from a new book that tells of prisoners in the US who were the subjects of experiments investigating the effects of radionuclides on reproductive organs. While it is important to teach this history to a new generation, we should remember that it is old news and look back at the work of the researchers who were the first to record the history. In this case, it was the journalist Eileen Welsome in the 1990s who wrote the first comprehensive study of America's radiation experiments on uninformed citizens. In the same way, all the books displayed below provide a nuclear education that cannot be had by reading blogs and twitter feeds. Anyone who has been following this blog might be interested in going offline for a while and reading some of these:


Will Disaster Capitalism Win Out?

Ishinomaki before the tsunami - not an enviable model of urban planning - 
little green space, high density neighborhoods, the lowland ecosystem 
completely paved over.
   There has been an impolitic and perhaps insensitive thought on my mind since the first days I saw towns in northern Japan swept away by the tsunami. I could cry for the loss of lives, homes, communities and jobs, but I hesitated to say that I couldn’t regret the loss of a slice of 20th century Japanese urban landscape. Perhaps it is time now to have a conversation about what is obvious to everyone who has traveled through Japan. Many towns look like they have already been hit by a slow-moving disaster.
Japanese cities were rebuilt quickly after WWII. Even if there had been planners with inspired visions for new urban landscapes, the nation was bankrupt and starting over from zero. The emphasis of national planners was all on industrial revitalization. The result was densely packed cities with very limited zoning to separate heavy, polluting industries from residential neighborhoods. Streets are narrow, often with no sidewalk for children to safely walk to school. Parks are an afterthought, and if they exist they are located in a place that was worthless for any other use.
In addition to the lack of funding and imagination, another factor that made Japanese cities an irregular jumble of aluminum siding and wooden firetraps is, ironically, a certain degree of freedom that is not allowed to prevail in the freedom-loving West. Rational zoning and urban planning require top-down governance and a willingness of individual stakeholders to go along with what has been decided through the democratic process - to accept land swaps and buyouts, for example. In Japan, much is decided by consensus, which means that quite often nothing is done at all because it takes only one individual to shut down a proposal. This might be why the big national projects, like the construction of Narita Airport, failed so badly. When the government knows the consensus building approach won’t work, they ram through their plans unilaterally. So in Japan the landscape is either an un-zoned chaotic expression of freedom, or a heavy-handed obliteration of it.
   Nowadays urban planning and ecological sciences are more advanced than they were in the mid-20th century, and Japan is not devastated from a recent war, but it seems like Japanese bureaucrats are not able to imagine anything other than the urban environment that they are accustomed to living in. On an individual level, people are turned inward, focused on the meticulous cultivation of their inner environments, but oblivious to a local environment of bleak architecture, pachinko parlors, and small industrial incinerators.
The plans for rebuilding the northeast coast are stuck in the old mindset, as they are influenced by an unattainable wish to bring back exactly what was lost. The global fame of the victims and the disaster is getting in the way of clear thinking about what should be done with the region. The victims genuinely deserve the sympathy, and deserve much more material support than they have received, but it would be wrong to go along with a nostalgic wish to give them back their towns just as they were before. This is a chance to build something much better in their place.
Is anyone really going to miss above-ground wires or the kitsch of 
Statue of Liberty replicas? Will reconstruction consist only of 
continued destruction of the environment?
I understand why the towns’ elders want to rebuild what was there before. It is possible to long for an ugly place and not realize that the longing is for something other than the parking lots, aluminum siding and billboards. I can get very sentimental for the suburban landscape of strip malls and freeways where I grew up, but I have to remember that I am really missing what I was then, and the moments and the people I was with. I might suffer from the illusion that the place was beautiful, but this is only because of the associations it has for me. As much as the whole world sees the pain of people in places like Ishinomaki, it would be a shame if Japan spent its precious remaining wealth on a promise to the middle-aged and elderly to bring back all that has been lost.
There are signs that two years after the disaster, others are raising the alarm about the way rebuilding has been conceived so far. Winnie Bird wrote in The Earth Island Journal this month about the possibility that Japan is losing a chance to move away from disaster capitalism toward disaster environmentalism. The former consists of the traditional approach to development: pouring concrete. Heavy machinery is to be applied to building seawalls and rebuilding towns and roads on the flood plains behind them. The latter concept, disaster environmentalism, would see the disaster as a chance to restore what had already been destroyed before the disaster.
The plan would consider whether economically viable towns could or should exist in the same places. Since before the disaster young people were already leaving for the big cities, and they are unlikely to come back. If the majority of the population is going to be senior citizens, they can collect their pensions anywhere. These regions might be more valuable to the nation as protected floodplains free of human habitation. Farmers and fishermen can commute from residences inland and leave the shoreline for better uses. Rather than just letting the land go back to nature – which would result only in weed-infested lots among the concrete rubble – managed ecological preserves could be established. Wildlife could be restored for the enjoyment and economic profit of people living nearby but not on the valuable floodplains that will, in any case, be hit by a tsunami again someday.
Winnie Bird visited the coast near Sendai and spoke with ecologist Takao Suzuki there:

To our left, bulldozers and cranes shaped a huge mound of earth into a new seawall. Suzuki told me walls like this one could threaten the future of tidal flats by cutting them off from the ocean and rivers. “The government didn’t consult biologists when planning the seawalls. When the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism proposed the walls, they issued a statement saying they would consider ecosystems. But the ecosystem is different in each location, and they don’t have specific information about each one,” he had explained earlier in his office. He is lobbying the government to modify the plans in order to preserve at least some important tidal flats.

She goes on to write, “… much of what I saw this time around looked like plain old disaster capitalism — devastation as a chance for the government to funnel money towards huge corporations and promote a pro-business agenda… In the case of sea walls and breakwaters, which are being rebuilt taller and more extensively than ever before by Japan’s infamous concrete and construction companies, the recovery threatens to create new environmental problems." She described the situation further by relating what she was told by long-time resident of Japan and environmental writer, C.W. Nicol:

“Seventy hectares of [rice] paddy land has been submerged in Higashi Matsushima. It was formerly wetland. The land sunk a meter or so, and also, the tsunami and tidal water since then has made trenches four to five meters deep, with a covering of water everywhere. We are doing surveys on water birds . . . fantastic! There are shellfish clinging to half-submerged telephone poles, and I know that the area is thriving with sea life.” Nicol wants to transform the area into a wetland park, but says local officials insist on reclaiming the land for agriculture. “The cost for this will be astronomical and nobody really wants to farm the place anyway,” he concluded.

Two years after the disaster, the political machinery that built Japan’s urban landscape is back in power. So far, their vision of the future is entirely retrograde. The best they can think of is to suggest that hosting the Olympics, pouring concrete and printing cash will produce the pixie dust that takes the nation back to an imagined better past. Just as the radioactive “decontamination” around Fukushima was a farce that funneled money to a few construction firms, the reconstruction projects for the towns destroyed by the tsunami might end up being more of the same - a sham that will fail to improve the ecology or the lives of the people in the affected regions.


Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, 2008.
From Amazon.com review:
“Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine advances a truly unnerving argument: historically, while people were reeling from natural disasters, wars and economic upheavals, savvy politicians and industry leaders nefariously implemented policies that would never have passed during less muddled times. As Klein demonstrates, this reprehensible game of bait-and-switch isn't just some relic from the bad old days. It's alive and well in contemporary society, and coming soon to a disaster area near you.”

Short video about The Shock Doctrine.

Winnie Bird, "Japan’s Reconstruction Two Years On — Plain Old Disaster Capitalism," The Earth Island Journal, March 11, 2013.

Just after I wrote this post, Ms. Bird wrote more on the topic for The Japan Times:
Winifred Bird. "Tohoku Coast Faces Man-Made Perils in Wake of Tsunami." The Japan Times, March 17, 2013.


Two Years Since the Earthquake-Tsunami-Meltdown Syndrome

Today the world media is focused on the second anniversary of the triple disaster in Japan, and I don't have much to add to the wide range of reporting that can be found in the mainstream media and all the alternatives to it. But to sum up, I'll just say that the prevailing attitude I have observed is expressed by this comical translation error I have seen on signs for sale in hardware stores.

It is unfortunate that more people don't want to reflect on the disaster and use it as a teachable moment about the need to come up with better solutions to the energy crisis. Instead, Japan is more interested in “recovery,” and not in a good way. The concept of recovery is one of denial. The present government, with its high approval ratings, dreams of the impossible return to the comfortable past - the past of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics followed by decades of economic growth.
As I'm an educator, I’m interested using this historic event to make people question this juvenile fantasy of recovery. I've locked onto the nuclear crisis because it is such an effective way to teach across the curriculum. You can't understand it unless you engage with chemistry, physics, biology, political science, history, economics, sociology, philosophy and psychology, and the subject areas where these all come together - the arts. The men of science will scoff at this idea, but I think if there is a way out of this mess, it will be philosophers, novelists, poets, filmmakers and musicians who lead the way. After being warned for decades by protesters - who were repelled by the very water cannons which would one day be used to cool the damaged reactors - the nuclear engineers, politicians, bureaucrats and corporate executives were not wise enough to take heed of their "amateur" critics. It would be foolish to look to the "experts" for future solutions.

The Fukushima meltdowns could be a pivotal moment that prompts us to turn away from self-destructive technologies and ideologies. Otherwise, we'll end up like the guy in the cartoon. Two years have passed and it seems like the teachable moment is fading away.

cartoon by TomToro
My pick for the best of the 3-11 memorial stories:

David McNeill, "Japanese Media, International Media and 3.11 Reportage," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 11, Issue 10, No. 3, March 11, 2013.


Uranium Enrichment, Moral Impoverishment

The latest uranium enrichment method using lasers:
cheaper, smaller, less energy intensive
One of the less examined aspects of the nuclear debate is the enrichment process. Blogs and editorials make frequent mention of the famous disasters, the health effects or radiation, regulatory lapses and the risks of mining uranium and operating nuclear plants. However, a crucial, overlooked step in the process is enrichment, and it is a step where the civilian and military uses of uranium intersect and become indistinguishable. Nuclear security and economic advantage are blended together as powerful nations vie for where enrichment will happen, how it will happen, and who is allowed to do it.
One thing that mitigated the dangers of the nuclear age was the fact that making a nuclear weapon was a massive industrial enterprise. Few countries had the resources for it, and those that tried to make nuclear weapons could not conceal their intention.
The Manhattan Project of the early 1940s required scientific and engineering expertise, a large workforce, access to the raw materials, and electricity supplies equal to what lit up New York City at the time. It was the lack of all these prerequisites that made it impossible for the USSR, Japan and Germany to produce nuclear weapons during WWII, though historians debate whether Germany, using other methods, might have been able to scrape together enough fissile material for a bomb. 
After worrying that the enemy might get the bomb first, people running the Manhattan Project quickly realized the enormous scale of the project. They knew at that time that no country but the U.S. had the capacity to build a bomb. If Germany or Japan had tried to set up the required gigantic enrichment facility, it could have been found easily and destroyed in an air raid. The Soviets were set back by having had massive losses on their own territories. This implies that the US could have called off the Manhattan Project at this time, if the true concern had been that WWII enemies would get the bomb first. However, there were obvious reasons to develop this new weapon for the post-war world that was coming into view.
Since the UN and nations of the world applauded themselves for signing the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, they have done a good job of not mentioning that uranium enrichment facilities were never forced to reduce their emissions of banned substances. According to Arjun Makhijani et al, the gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment process at the American USEC facility (and at perhaps similar facilities in other countries) continued to emit CFCs at its usual levels until 2002. Internet searches for exemptions to the protocol turn up some for asthma inhalers and other uses that account for trivial amounts, but there is no mention of the large consumption of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) used in uranium enrichment since 1987 at the USEC facility in Paducah, Kentucky. It seems to have been tactfully left unmentioned in UN documents that were meant to tout the victory and not allow the public to question the judgment that nuclear was clean and green enough to be given a pass on its ozone depleting emissions. Although no one wanted to draw attention to the exemptions, CFC pollution by the nuclear industry has long been an open secret, and it is not denied by the polluters themselves.
The additional problem with CFCs is that, as well as being ozone depleters, they are said to trap heat 10,000 to 20,000 times more effectively than CO2. Thus the global warming impact of nuclear energy (mining, processing, construction of plants, cooling of fuel, decommissioning of plants, decontamination, transport and storage of waste) takes a huge increase when we consider the energy used to run the cooling systems and the impact of coolant leaks. 
Because of the Montreal Protocol and the desire to portray nuclear as green and carbon free, the nuclear industry has been highly motivated to reduce the energy and CFC inputs required to enrich uranium. In addition, there would be tremendous cost advantages to any nation that could secure a less energy intensive way of enriching uranium.
The gaseous diffusion method was Cold War technology that was finally headed for phase out in the early 21st century. It was overtaken by the less wasteful method of using centrifuges, but since the 1960s, the holy grail of enrichment technology has been to use lasers to separate the valuable U-235 isotope from other uranium isotopes. This technology has become viable in the last decade, and in September 2012, GE Hitachi finally won approval to operate a laser enrichment facility in North Carolina, but this has come with some very anxious concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation. Just as a gaseous diffusion plant in Nazi Germany would have been easy to find and bombard, enrichment facilities have always been relatively easy to detect. This will no longer be the case if laser enrichment technology becomes widespread.
The US government is confident that its laser secrets, shared with GE Hitachi, are safe, but there is no guarantee that this situation will last. If the secrets are not stolen, they could be rediscovered independently. A criticism quoted in a New York Times article was “the demonstration of a new technology often begets a burst of emulation because the advance opens a new window on what is possible.”
Within the reports that mention this new laser technology, proponents of it make no mention of the wasteful CFC and energy consumption of the old enrichment technologies. They merely use words like “more efficient” and “less costly.” To speak of the carbon footprint of the old methods would be to admit that all along nuclear energy wasn’t as clean and green as was advertised.
The US government seems willing to take the proliferation risk in this case in order to make nuclear greener, but it also seems to want this as a way of cornering the market in enriched uranium fuel production. A strategic interest in controlling proliferation risks is also obvious. If the laser method is 70-80% cheaper (as claimed in this report by The Center for Strategic and International Studies), and the US can justify not sharing the secrets of laser technology (because of the proliferation risk), then it has the potential to become the sole supplier for the dozens of new reactors being built in China and India, as well as for existing nuclear power plants. By gaining exclusive control of this technology, the US gains both geopolitical and economic advantage, but at considerable risk that the exclusivity might not last. However, the CSIS report cautions that even the large cost reduction may not be enough to make energy companies switch suppliers. The biggest cost of nuclear remains the cost of building and operating power plants. If this is true, the political support for laser enrichment might be rooted more in the lobbying efforts of GE Hitachi.
This sheds light on why Barack Obama pivoted to a strongly pro-nuclear stance once he was elected. In 2008, during the campaign, he said the NRC was a “moribund agency” that was “captive of the industries it regulates” (Gar Smith, p. 137). After the election, the Obama administration became firmly pro-nuclear, offering loan guarantees of billions of dollars for projects that can’t obtain financing without a promise of government bailout if things go wrong. And GE Hitachi has also had its hand out for loan guarantees for the new enrichment facility. Just in case something happens to turn global opinion against nuclear (what could possibly go wrong?), all nuclear ventures these days want government to provide loan guarantees and liability insurance.
Since Obama came to power, there has been no reform of the “moribund” NRC, and no enforced closures of aging nuclear plants that are plagued with safety issues. Some utilities have announced the shutdown of aging, troubled reactors, but these have occurred because the facilities were no longer financially viable.
The strong commitment to laser enrichment is, to say the least, a strong disincentive for the US government to reduce dependence on nuclear energy. It is committed to extending licenses on aging reactors and expanding the industry, even when they are financially unsound. The financial incentive to profit from laser uranium enrichment makes the US promote nuclear expansion abroad, yet the promotion of nuclear energy abroad wouldn't be taken seriously if the US had a domestic policy of reducing reliance on nuclear. Thus the commitment to enrichment reinforces the commitment to nuclear power plants, and vice versa, no matter how costly and dangerous it becomes to operate its fleet of troubled reactors.
After the Fukushima disaster, the US government joined the Japanese government in playing down the implications, and was alarmed when the Japanese government indicated that it might withdraw from nuclear entirely. The promotion of a global expansion of nuclear energy provides more reasons to add to the list of complaints that the satirical Final Edition listed in their article Nobel Committee Asks Obama “Nicely” To Return Peace Prize. A Nobel Peace Prize should not belong to a leader who wants to increase weapons proliferation risks and add to the stockpiles of nuclear waste for which there is still no disposal solution.

Sources and Further Reading:

Arjun Makhijani, Lois Chalmers, Brice Smith, Uranium Enrichment: Just Plain Facts to Fuel an Informed Debate on Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Power, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, (October, 2004). "The manufacture, import, and use of CFCs were substantially restricted by the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, which the U.S. is implementing through the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act. As a result of these commitments, the manufacture of Freon in the U.S. ended in 1995 and its emissions to the air in the United States from large users fell by nearly 60% between 1991 and 2002. The emissions from the Paducah gaseous diffusion plant, however, have remained virtually constant over this time, falling just over 7% between 1989 and 2002. In 2002, the Paducah enrichment plant emitted more than 197.3 metric tons of Freon into the air through leaking pipes and other equipment. This single facility accounted for more than 55% of all airborne releases of this ozone depleting CFC from all large users in the entire United States in 2002."

Christopher Donville. “GE, Hitachi to Seek Guarantees for Nuclear Project,” Bloomberg. June 30, 2009. 

Gar Smith, Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), p. 137. 

International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, United Nations. 

Matthew Fargo. “The Commercialization of Uranium Enrichment,” The Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 17, 2012.

Norm De Pleume, “Nobel Committee Asks Obama 'Nicely' To Return Peace Prize,” The Final Edition, (2011).

Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, USEC.

Uranium Plant Using Laser Technology Wins U.S. Approval, Associated Press, (September 27, 2012).

William J. Broad, “Laser Advances in Nuclear Fuel Stir Terror Fear,” The New York Times, (August 20, 2011).


Hamlet was The Bomb

Arnold Schwarzenegger spoofs Hamlet
in The Last Action Hero (1993)
Whose ideas was it to nickname a nuclear bomb after Hamlet?
How does Shakespeare’s tragedy of the melancholy prince provide insight to the dilemmas of the nuclear age?

   The United States conducted 1054 nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1992, mostly in Nevada and The Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. Sub-critical tests continue to this day.

List of American Nuclear Tests Series Above and Below Ground,1945-1992. Many of these were test series that included a number of "shots," each with their own names.
Hardtack I
Hardtack II
Little Feller
Project 56 
Project 57
Project 58 
Project 58A 
Roller Coaster 

   I have been unable to find information on who chose these names, or the thinking behind the choices.* There seems to have been a lot of thought put into them, perhaps by officers and soldiers who tossed around suggestions during long, boring nights in the desert. The names evoked traditional weaponry with crisp, explosive imagery. Within each series, many of the shots were named after women. There is no way to know if this was meant as a compliment (as in she’s the bomb) or if it was an ugly form of payback on relationships that had gone sour. The names all seem to have arisen from the clipped syllables and drawls the Old West, as if they had been uttered by saddle-hardened cowboys and gunslingers. The tradition seems to have been lost because the recent sub-critical test in Nevada (Dec. 2012) was given the urbane, gentrified name “Barolo B” – a name seemingly phoned in from a wine bar in Washington, D.C.
The strangest series name of all must be Upshot-Knothole, and within this there were ten shots, mostly named after women. A sampling of names: Annie, Nancy, Ruth, Dixie, Ray, Badger, Simon, Encore, Harry (the test event was Harry, and the device used in it was nicknamed Hamlet), Grable, and Climax. The most exceptional one in the list is Harry. The Nuclear Weapons Archive describes it thus:

12:05 19 May 1953 (GMT)
05:05 19 May 1953 (local)
Nevada Test Site (NTS), Area 3
Test Height & Type:
300 Foot Tower
32 kilotons

This device, known as Hamlet was designed by Ted Taylor at Los Alamos and holds the distinction of being the most efficient pure fission design with a yield below 100 kt ever exploded (the most efficient fission weapon of any size was the 500 kt Ivy King also designed by Taylor). This implies an unusually effective compression of the fissile material....
Hamlet used the TX-13D heavy weight strategic bomb design. The system was 56 inches in diameter and 66 inches long and weighed 7000 lb (without the outer bomb case), full weight was 8000 lb. A betatron was used for initiation. This design was never deployed because the design optimization chosen--using a large heavy bomb to get an efficient yield out of a small amount of fissile material--was obsolete in an era of rapidly expanding fissile material supply and with thermonuclear weapons nearing deployment status.
The Harry shot is notable for another reason. It resulted in the heaviest contamination of "downwinders"--civilians living downwind of the Nevada test Site--of any U.S. continental test, as measured by external gamma ray exposure. For the period up to the end of 1958 (through Operation Hardtack II) it is estimated that a cumulative total of 85,000 person-roentgens of external gamma ray exposure occurred. Of this, Harry contributed 30,000 by itself.

   It’s is especially noteworthy that the bomb was “never deployed” and was soon “obsolete” with the arrival of the era of mega-yield hydrogen bombs. In other words, this heavy contamination of downwinders was utterly unnecessary, both in terms of forethought and afterthought. It was just boys with their toys on an unstoppable bureaucratic juggernaut.
One year later, in the Bikini Atoll, the Castle series of hydrogen bomb tests completely reshaped strategic thinking about nuclear warfare. It was no longer realistic to think about using small warheads on the battlefield. Now it was obvious that a superpower could be defeated in a single strike that could wipe out an urban agglomeration the size of the Washington to Boston corridor. If not every building and person were destroyed, the fallout and collateral damage would destroy the social fabric and the ability to wage war.
   The nickname Hamlet got me wondering about the thinking that went into this curious choice. At first glance, the early 17th century tragedy appears to have nothing to do with a technology and a social structure that Shakespeare could not have imagined.
Tom Stoppard wrote, in what is perhaps the most concise summary of Hamlet, (in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead):

Your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice… Now... why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?

In as much as the play is about an offense of both legal and natural practice, Hamlet might, in fact, be very relevant to the nuclear era. I can imagine that whoever applied the nickname to the bomb must have been contemplating themes from the play during his time in the Nevada desert. There are many lines which can be taken from their context in the plot and reapplied to aspects of nuclear weapons development. If we substitute mother earth for the queen, military and political leadership for the king, and everyone else for Hamlet, then the play is transposed readily to the Cold War of the 20th century.
The psychologist Theodore Litz believed Hamlet illustrates "… the many fundamental issues of … how primal sin corrupts; how corruption disillusions; how disillusion breeds preoccupation with death and destroys Eros; and how avengers lose their souls in the inexorable conflict and turmoil that afflict them." (Litz, 1975)
In the analogy set out here, the citizens of the world have been the witnesses and victims of the “foul and most unnatural murder” of nature, and we have reacted like Hamlet. We hesitate, we look away, lose sense of purpose. If we regain it, we lash out impulsively at a Polonius behind the curtain. Eros is destroyed, at least with regard to the diminished interest in having children. Jim Morrison spoke for the baby boom generation when he said, “I'm gonna get my kicks before the whole shit house goes up in flames.”
When the lines from Hamlet are re-contextualized for the nuclear age, they seem to have been written for the occasion, always maintaining the connection to the offense of both legal and natural practice.

1. The Existential Question

For starters, there is the most obvious existential question spoken by Hamlet:

To be or not to be, that is the question.

2. Quintessence

Hamlet described mankind, or the world, as a “quintessence of dust,” but what is that supposed to mean? Look it up and you see that quintessence is:
  1. the fifth and highest element in ancient and medieval philosophy that permeates all nature and is the substance composing the celestial bodies
  2. the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form
In the nuclear age we learned about the common elements that permeate all nature and compose celestial bodies, while enriched uranium was the essence of a thing desired (energy) in its purest and most concentrated form.

3. Strange Eruption

Upshot Knothole-Harry (Hamlet)

the time is out of joint…

our state to be disjoint and out of frame…

this bodes some strange eruption to our state…

something is rotten in the state of <fill in your own blank>.

4. Awesome Beauty

The eruptions and lights in the sky had something awesome and beautiful about them. Even though they were secret, some people living close enough in Las Vegas and in southeastern California knew that if they went to rooftops before dawn they would sometimes see a special fireworks display.

But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill

5. As Bright as a Sun

If you look too long at this energy of the sun brought forth on earth, you will say:

I am too much i' th' sun.

6. Dust to Dust

Disposal of radioactive isotopes is impossible, and they pass through rich and poor alike. You can move the poison around in so-called “decontamination work,” and have some limited success in isolating it from the ecosystem, but you cannot dispose of it or render it into a harmless form. Cesium, the element of most concern in the food supply, goes through the ecosystem, but is never disposed of until it decays away over a few hundred years.

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm… Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

7. God Laughs When We Make Plans

For the hubris behind every failed nuclear technology, or, specifically, about the unintended consequences of that bomb called Hamlet:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

8. Poison

The potent poison quite o'ercrows my spirit...

Yet have I something in me dangerous

9. The Fallout

now pile your dust upon the quick and dead…

foul deeds will rise…

but this most foul, strange, and unnatural…

this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory;
this most excellent canopy, the air,
look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament,
this majestical roof fretted with golden fire-
why, it appeareth no other thing to me
than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours

10. The Double Helix

How could Shakespeare have known that 350 years later scientists would describe the code of life as a coiled double helix, liable to being damaged by the energy of the atom that we unlocked just at the time we were learning the genetic code.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil?

11. Madness

Though this be madness, yet there is a method in't...

As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on...

That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft...

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw...



     Nuclear history has its own example of a character, who, like Hamlet, faked madness in order to disorient his opponents, but came to a bad end nonetheless. In 1969, President Nixon was growing frustrated with the unwillingness of North Vietnamese leaders to budge in negotiations. He got the idea that he would repeatedly send stratofortress bombers loaded with hydrogen bombs to the edge of Soviet air space – for no apparent reason. He and Henry Kissinger believed this would frighten the Soviets into thinking they were dealing with a madman, and this would lead them to pressure the North Vietnamese to make concessions. The historian Jeremi Suri recounted:

"The madman theory was an extension of that doctrine [flexible response]. If you're going to rely on the leverage you gain from being able to respond in flexible ways--from quiet nighttime assassinations to nuclear reprisals--you need to convince your opponents that even the most extreme option is really on the table. And one way to do that is to make them think you are crazy…. The nuclear-armed B-52 flights near Soviet territory appeared to be a direct application of this kind of game theory. H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, wrote in his diary that Kissinger believed evidence of US irrationality would 'jar the Soviets and North Vietnam.' Nixon encouraged Kissinger to expand this approach. 'If the Vietnam thing is raised' in conversations with Moscow, Nixon advised, Kissinger should 'shake his head and say, 'I am sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but [the president] is out of control.'"

   The flights ended abruptly, also for no apparent reason, in order to lend a further appearance of irrationality. Nixon and Kissinger maintained that the strategy was effective, but as the historical record shows, the North Vietnamese outlasted Nixon. By 1974, it was over for Nixon, as he was forced to resign to avoid impeachment. In the feigned madness ruse he was hoist with his own petard. As was the case with Hamlet, no one was sure anymore whether the madness had ever been truly fake. The public and the Washington establishment had been slow to react, but by this time they were ready to say:

Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.

12. Readiness

   And if we should hesitate to do something now about the dangerous nuclear legacy still threatening civilization, fearing the personal costs, we might eventually come to accept what is laid out for us to do. After all his hesitations and distractions, Hamlet goes to his fateful duel saying only:

the readiness is all…

13. Wisdom

Finally, what should have been obvious to those who came to drop bombs on deserts and tropical islands:

Let be.

*Robert Jacobs, associate professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute and expert in American nuclear history, was able to provide (in email correspondence) some information about how names were chosen for weapons tests:

"...the names are all from randomized lists. Some were proper names, some were names of elements, some were names of places. These were for security reasons, so that they could be discussed in documents with no indication of what they referred to. The early ones, for example at Bikini in 1946 used standard military abc sequences, Able, Baker, Charlie. But later tests involved larger numbers, so they picked topics and randomized the names. In terms of the famous Dirty Harry test (as the downwinders called it) the device being tested was called Hamlet. This is separate from the name given to the test as an event, which was Harry. This was not uncommon when specific technologies were being tested rather than effects. The device in the Bravo test was called Shrimp."

(This post was updated on June 4, 2015)

William Shakespeare. Hamlet.

Theodore Lidz, Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in 'Hamlet' (Vision Press, 1975.) (the description of the book, paraphrased above, is from the book jacket)

Karen Dorn Steele, "Time Bombs Keep Going Off for Cancer-Plagued Families in Idaho who Lived Downwind of Nuclear Testing in the 1950s." The Spokesman Review. Spokane, Idaho. October 24, 2004.

Alex Wellerstein. "The Secret Song." The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. February 25, 2013.

William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, "Nixon, Kissinger, and the Madman Strategy during Vietnam War: Using Nuclear Threats to Intimidate Hanoi and Moscow," Global Research, May 29, 2015. http://www.globalresearch.ca/nixon-kissinger-and-the-madman-strategy-during-vietnam-war-using-nuclear-threats-to-intimidate-hanoi-and-moscow/5452705