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1,269 words
SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Black-Powder Summer and Nuclear Winters: Nukes

by Skip Eisiminger

Some feared the bomb might kill the biomass,
but it just turned the sand a dark-green glass.
The Wordspinner
Endless as the dust at the lip of the pan
is the Geiger’s tick in Southern Japan.
The Wordspinner

One of my favorite poems is William Stafford’s “At the Bomb Testing Site,” starring a lizard. This cold-blooded reptile is tuned by an apparent increase of atmospheric ions to the atomic blast that’s seconds from annihilating it and everything else in a vast stretch of expendable desert. Regrettably, the information many of my warm-blooded students shared with me about nukes and nuclear energy appeared to have come from a long-running televised cartoon. Unlike the “factoids,” however, the facts deserve a serious forum. To begin, consider a hurricane: the power of all the nuclear warheads ever built is equivalent to about ten minutes worth of Hurricane Camille with a top speed of 190 MPH. It’s a miracle there’s life with any temperature left on this planet at all.

So, nukes are small potatoes, you say? Before you sign your name to that opinion, ask the agitated spirits of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Semipalatinsk, Eniwetok, and Yucca Flat.

Thanks to Einstein’s elegant equation E=MC2, physicists can calculate the stored energy in a known quantity. For reasons I cannot fully explain, but which really don’t matter, if “M” equals 1,000 grams of uranium, “M” is 1, not 1,000. Now multiply 1, as the equation instructs, by “C2” or 34.6 billion, which is light speed squared. “E” then equals 34.6 billion joules, a measure of electrical energy, which roughly is the annual output of the reactors at Keowee-Toxaway, operating about thirty miles from here and supplying the power I need to see and write.

After WWII, at the start of what might be called the “pre-oblivion age,” some called for atomic explosions on the moon to show the world, as my father once said, that the “US of A ruled the roost.” In 1954, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission crowed that one day soon, electricity would be too cheap to meter. Another “rooster” claimed that by 1965, tiny home reactors would power our vacuum cleaners. One “realist,” however, a candidate for the New York state legislature, said that meltdowns were possible, but he was confident Long Island could be evacuated in three to five days. Glossy Life photographs showed smiling families of four in corrugated-pipe homes no larger than the average bathroom. Of course, Life did not speculate on what this family would find on climbing from their cozy metal pipe following a thermonuclear war. As Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said, “The living will envy the dead.”

Of course, it’s true that France today safely generates 80% of its electricity in reactors, and 10% of American electricity comes from recycled Soviet warheads. But I am not heartened by the fact that Chernobyl fungi have adapted to feed on radiation, nor would I cheer if the last person alive was an American. The record speaks for itself:

  • Nearly a century after Madame Curie’s death from radiation, her notebooks are still too dangerous for anyone to handle.

  • The bomb that vaporized Hiroshima detonated only 1% of its core, and no one is sure why it “misfired.”

  • The bomb that vaporized Nagasaki was a mile off target.

  • In 1980, a faulty computer chip, retailing for $0.46 at Radio Shack, led the Strategic Air Command to alert its fleet of B-52s to meet what radar falsely reported were 220 Russian missiles.

  • Once, a rising moon prompted SAC to scramble its bombers.

  • Using old radium-dial clock faces and other mail-ordered radioactive materials, a Michigan Boy Scout made a near-viable atomic weapon in his backyard.

Stuff happens, as people say, but some precautions may be taken as the Swiss have shown. Proportionally, they have more civil-defense shelters than the US does. In fact, the Swiss have more safe places than they have people, but not enough for 300 million Americans much less a billion Chinese. Recently, there’s been some reduction in nuclear stockpiles, but does the world still need 16,000 nukes? Some feel safer knowing that just one Trident submarine packs eight times the total explosive power unleashed in all of WWII, but I fear that if there is a WWIII, there won’t be a world left we’d recognize. The latest hydrogen bomb, after all, needs an atomic bomb, a thousand times smaller, to detonate it. Thank you, Dr. Teller.

What keeps the world safe today is the rough balance of power (often called the “balance of terror”) which induces restraint. The theory goes something like this: we won’t use our nukes because if we do, Russia will use hers, and both of us realize that we have more to lose by using them. This strategy is often abbreviated “MAD” for “mutually assured destruction.” Indeed, this form of insanity, which is ironically dependent on human reason, has kept peace in the asylum for seventy years. But as I’ve tried to show above, “rocket rattling,” “brinksmanship,” accidents, faulty equipment, “dirty bombs,” “backpack nukes,” and the terrorists who would detonate one are real and present. Thus, the atomic scientists’ “doomsday clock” stands at three minutes before midnight. You don’t want to be sober or conscious when that clock strikes twelve.


In 1945, the lives of my father and his brother were spared by the two bombs that took 120,000 lives in Japan. Both were heading west on troop ships when word came of the Emperor’s surrender. Between 1944 and 1945, another uncle, judged too short for the military, worked at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He and most of the other 75,000 government employees working there did not know what they were making until the war ended. In 1953, my father was sent to Nevada with hundreds of others to witness an above-ground atomic explosion. Exposing these men and women to massive amounts of radiation could have been avoided with the simple expedient of a film, but to the best of my knowledge, that card was never on the table. Meanwhile, I was cowering under my desk at PS 201 in Brooklyn next to crates of freeze-dried food. In 1962, in the Army then myself, my buddies and I began working 12 and 12 when Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off in the Cuban missile crisis. It took a few weeks for me to catch my breath after both parties “blinked.”

Until a few years ago, I played softball with a fellow nicknamed “Sponge,” who works for a company that handles radioactive waste. He volunteers to absorb extra radiation during the winter in order to have time off to play ball. I expected him to glow in our night games, but, while his wife’s Trinitite necklace glowed, as Sponge told us, he didn’t. Nevertheless, she had to wear it over a turtleneck sweater to keep it from burning her. Recently, I learned that those three reactors where Sponge and his wife work are built near a fault line. I have also learned that the Air Force accidently dropped atomic bombs near Goldsboro, NC; Mars Bluff, SC; and off Tybee Island, GA. Not one has been recovered, so I’m virtually triangulated. Finally, a decade ago, Duke Power sent all residents, who live within a fifty-mile radius of their reactors, some potassium iodide pills, but the tin-foil packages were unmarked, and I’ve misplaced most of ours.

All of this has left me feeling like Stafford’s bomb-site lizard, grasping at loose sand, waiting for the ruptured atom and the blast of light that blinds the sighted and suffers the blind to see.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury