|IN MORTAL HANDS
A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age
New York: Bloomsbury, 2009
On reading its Introduction, I was prepared to dislike this book. I feared it would resemble the work of Helen Caldicott: sincere and virtuous, but flawed by a loose grasp of the science and technology it criticized. This fear was based on mistakes like the one on page 11, where Ms. Cooke states that even a little radiation is harmful. Evidently, I thought, she is unaware of background radiation.
I was wrong in that assessment of the book.1 Its author is not deficient in understanding, but merely has a problem at times expressing herself clearly, and a tendency to use imperfect metaphor and simile.
The blurb on Books-a-Million's Web site, drawn from the book jacket, says: "The evolving story of nuclear power, as told by industry insider Stephanie Cooke, reveals the gradual deepening of our understanding of the pros and cons of this controversial energy source. Drawing on her unprecedented access, Cooke shows us how, time and again, the stewards of the nuclear age—the more-is-better military commanders and civilian nuclear boosters—have fallen into the traps of their own hubris and wishful thinking as they tried to manage the unmanageable. Their mistakes are on the verge of being repeated again,2 which is why this book deserves especially close attention now."
Ms. Cooke writes of the post-war effort some scientists made to ensure that nuclear weapons would never again be used in war. They were swimming against a strong tide; the mere existence of this powerful new capability created incredible momentum for its use. The military dictum that capability implies intention is a valid one, as this passage demonstrates.
"The war gamers and military commanders had other priorities and they were busy figuring out ways to use what the scientists had invented. It might come as a shock to learn that in 1963, a multiple choice question on a U.S. Air Force nuclear weapons employment course exam asked students to calculate how many tons of nuclear force it would take to knock out a bridge in North Vietnam. The idea was to achieve, with 95 percent probability, severe structural damage, but without destroying a schoolhouse a few miles away. Most of the students, including an air force [sic] colonel, picked the highest number—five megatons—but it turned out the answer was lower, one hundred and twenty five kilotons. The examiner, an air force [sic] captain, found himself apologetically explaining to his superior why the lower figure was correct, according to Victor Gilinsky, a scientist who took the test and observed the scene. Exasperated, the colonel asked, 'Is that all we're gonna use, a li'l ole one hundred and twenty five kiloton bomb?' " (pages 163-164; emphasis mine)
This assessment is accurate. Ms. Cooke has reported on the nuclear industry for almost thirty years, has many of its pioneers among her contacts, and conducted extensive research in preparing to write this book — which preparation consumed eight years of her life. The book is timely, as warnings against the allure of overwhelming power always are.3 (See the sidebar.) The result is a fascinating series of episodic histories that together illustrate the dangers attendant to the development of the power of the atom as well as the impossibility of removing that power from the world.
The world is paying a price for the fear that sat quietly and pervasively in most of us over the cold war years. It would be difficult to draw a straight line between then and now, but if it exists it is along a taut seam of anger that grew among nations and people who resented the reckless behavior of the superpowers. This manifested itself not only in the intractable threat of nuclear war but in events suggesting the mighty powers had lost control over their nuclear weapons. To the masters of this supremacy, one mistake was only that, and somehow it could always be fixed. Certainly it was no cause for undue alarm. Even a disastrous accident was, as Voltaire's eternal optimist Pangloss repeatedly said, as it should be.
To keep the juggernaut going, decorated men could not afford to think too much about the dark consequences of their mistakes. But for a young Spanish girl, the meaning of nuclear power was fixed forever in a memory of the sky aflame and shards of metal falling to earth, and of being warned to touch nothing.
– pages 211-212
Two things concern me about this book. The first is incomplete reporting, as this example illustrates:
"The Cuban crisis, for all its tense moments, did little to advance the chances of a comprehensive test ban treaty such as Kennedy, Rabi, and Zuckerman had hoped for, because the cold war [sic] rivalry still revolved around the power of the atom. The special interests supporting that dynamic had little desire to see it radically changed. To be sure, there was an uplift to the test ban talks, but the nuclear bomb lobby moved in to thwart the chances of a comprehensive sweep."
– pages 198-199
Ms. Cooke does not explain how "the nuclear bomb lobby" accomplished this thwarting.
The second is the author's apparent attitude toward scientists.
"Scientists were many things, but policemen they were not. When political leaders turned to them for answers to the problem of proliferation, they had no magic answers. Laypeople within the political establishment, grappling with the complex basics of nuclear energy and the dangers inherent in the production of nuclear fuel, failed to understand the limits of what science could achieve. The scientists, flattered by all the attention they were receiving, never really faced up to their own shortcomings, particularly in their naive assumptions about human motivations and the dynamics and pressures of international politics. As a result, the momentum [behind the development of nuclear power] proved unstoppable, and the failure to adequately address the challenges posed by the links between the civil and military uses of nuclear energy made the world a more dangerous place."
– page 39
It's unclear how she feels the scientists fell short. Does she think they should have refused to work on the Manhattan Project? Lobbied harder for international control of nuclear weapons after WW2? Come up with some technical means of preventing proliferation? (Her use of the phrase "magic answers" is revealing.) It seems to me she places too much responsibility on scientists.
But Ms. Cooke is right about the present increase of danger: With more countries joining the "nuclear club", and with global warming driving renewed hope for nuclear energy, it is especially imperative to remember the risks that come with the promise of the power of the atom. Fortunately, In Mortal Hands cogently assists that remembrance. Despite the shortcomings mentioned, and a longer than usual list of errata, the quality of its writing and its thoroughness of annotation bring it my highest recommendation, and its richness of detail4 prompts me to rate it a keeper.