Reviewed 11/18/2009

In Mortal Hands, by Stephanie Cooke

Access to this book courtesy of the
Santa Clara, CA City Library
A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age
Stephanie Cooke
New York: Bloomsbury, 2009




ISBN-13 978-1-59691-17-3
ISBN-10 1-59691-617-6 487pp. HC $27.00

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."

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.

1 One other statement in the Introduction seemed a mistake. But when I checked, I discovered Ms. Cooke was right about Harry Truman being a Democratic Senator from Missouri after the end of World War II. (See page 28.) I had thought he was already FDR's vice president.
2 Sticklers take note: the quote is not exact; this use of "again" does not appear on the jacket (and it is redundant).
3 She confesses to feeling that allure herself: "The civilian nuclear enterprise is more politicized than any other industry, even oil, because of its close link to nuclear weapons. Power, secrecy, fear, and greed run like currents through the underbrush, and that has always drawn people in. It drew me in. There is a dark allure about the hidden channels of nuclear commerce and the people who do not want to talk about them." (page 5) I think here of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien's cautionary allegory. And in that gripping tale, the power of the One Ring drew in not only those who wished to use it but those who sought to expose it and end its baleful influence. Given her mindset, I judge Ms. Cooke to be motivated by the latter impulse.
4 Those details include the origin of the peace sign (see page 172) and the human impact of Chernobyl (see Chapter 17, "Vesuvius" — and have a strong stomach.)
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