May 21, 2013

Interview: Rudolph Herzog, author of A Short History of Nuclear Folly


In A Short History of Nuclear Folly, Rudolph Herzog presents a devastating account of history’s most irresponsible uses of nuclear technology. From the rarely-discussed nightmare of “Broken Arrows” (40 nuclear weapons lost during the Cold War) to “Operation Plowshare” (a proposal to use nuclear bombs for large engineering projects, such as a the construction of a second Panama Canal using 300 H-Bombs), Herzog focuses in on long-forgotten nuclear projects that nearly led to disaster.

In an unprecedented people’s history, Herzog digs deep into archives, interviews nuclear scientists, and collects dozens of rare photos. He explores the “accidental” drop of a Nagasaki-type bomb on a train conductor’s home, the implanting of plutonium into patients’ hearts, and the invention of wild tactical nukes, including weapons designed to kill enemy astronauts.

We spoke to Herzog about miniature nuclear weapons, John Wayne, and human nature’s role in nuclear folly.

Melville House: In the introduction to the book, you talk a little bit about your personal history with the possibility of nuclear calamity—growing up in Germany you were, as you write, “directly in the crosshairs of the atomic conflict.” Do you think those experiences, coupled with the fact that, as you say now, “I can hardly imagine that scenes like that were once my reality,” lead you to write this book? 

Rudolph Herzog: Yeah, I think it was formed by my childhood, which now seems [to have occurred] in a different world—from experiences which seem long ago now but were very real at the time. I caught the tail end the Cold War and it’s been at the back of my memory for some time. Why it came out at this specific point in time… it’s difficult to say really. I think it partly has to do with the fact that I always liked films like Dr. Strangelove.

The Cold War does feel very far away, and yet so much of your book suggests that we’re still living very much in its aftermath (and will continue to for hundreds and hundreds of years). Do you think that the distance we place between ourselves and 1989 has been a disservice, in terms of the ways in which we think about nuclear power?

What’s definitely changed for Germany—and the U.S. as well—is that we’re not in the crosshairs of a future conflict anymore. For the time being at least. And unfortunately it doesn’t mean the crosshairs don’t exist; they’ve just moved elsewhere. I think we’re at the beginning of a new acceleration and spread of nuclear weapons. Not in the Western World—not in the US or Germany—but in Asia and the Middle East… these kinds of places worry me and we can see a specific acceleration of nuclear weapons that could actually become a threat to us just as much as they would be a threat to the people of that region.

Why choose to omit familiar topics like Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, and Fukushima?

Well I think they’ve been covered extensively and there are numerous things you can look up on them. I was interested in “folly,”  human error, on a sort of massive scale, the total irresponsibility—the kind of “euphoria” even—that was especially abundant at the start of the nuclear age. The topics you mentioned really don’t fit into those category. I’m more interesting in people who wanted to blast a second Panama Canal using 300 H-bombs. You can’t really compare that to anything, really… it’s just folly on a huge scale and there’s no rationality behind it.

For the first two decades or so, a number of the scientists—most notably Edward Teller—believed that nuclear technology could be used for good and, with this in mind, set out on a number of quixotic, increasingly foolish experiments. Do you think those early utopian ideals have haunted the history of nuclear energy, as it pushed people to attempt to find ways to use it that would benefit humanity?

It has for a long time. Folly takes various guises—reactors set up to space as satellites that accidentally [plummet back to earth]; it can be injecting plutonium in children to see what will happen.

As strange as it may seem to us today, some of the people that I wrote about had good intentions. [One thing I’m particularly fascinated by] is human nature: How does that work? What happens if we’re given some kind of radically new form of technology? What do we do with it? And the answer is, if you look at the atomic H-bomb, is basically everything. Short of all-out nuclear war, we’ve sort of done everything with it. There was no limit to the irresponsibility. I think that’s really interesting and also quite scary when we think of new technologies that may emerge—from robotics to biotech to whatever—how do we go about things like that? 
I think we just need to know about our own human nature.

Many of the nuclear tests you write about were filmed, which is insane. Have you watched many of the films?

There’s some amazing stuff. [For instance,] there’s footage of a man in something like a diving suit, but on his back he has some sort of rucksack nuclear weapon and he jumps from a helicopter into the water. You have to think—what was that all about? What happens to the man if he sets that off? Is that even supposed to be underwater?

It certainly has a Dr. Strangelove feel but this is all real. Rockets are way up into the stratosphere and higher, almost into outer space, setting off bombs there, and it creates a kind of eerie, northern light kind of firework. They did that so they could see if [weapons set off in the atmosphere could] maybe have some effect on incoming missiles,  but there were other reasons as well—they wanted to see if they could knock out enemy space stations…

It was totally strange—[almost like] images from a fantasy world—but they were real. I was often stunned to see them. Seriously strange stuff.

Speaking of strange images, after reading your book I became obsessed with the “Davy Crockett” a “miniature” nuclear weapon system that was fired like a mortar by a small team and could destroy everything in something like a 400 meter radius. Can you talk a little bit about the proliferation of miniature nuclear weapon systems during the Cold War? 

A couple of them are even in museums. Those miniaturized weapons made nuclear war more likely. They were arguably made to be “warning shots.” Major strategists thought they would make the Soviets stop them in their tracks, and thus prevent an all out strike and attack Moscow. But after the Cold War ended, they asked the former Soviet commanders, and they said, “If you launched a single one of those, we would have retaliated with a nuclear strike.” They wouldn’t have made that distinction.

They were controlled by relatively low-ranking officers, too. So essentially you could have a Major or a Colonel instigate the apocalypse.

Exactly. So if you had some sort of ongoing war/situation it would have been very easy for things to get really messy—especially as the chain of command became more and more unclear. Someone in the battlefield [could fire a Davy Crockett] and start a chain reaction. So those were very very dangerous weapons even though the yield wasn’t high. They were very small weapons but they were nuclear weapons and it would have all gone down if they were ever used.

The U.S. Army’s Davy Crockett rocket launcher fired a nuclear warhead that weighed only thirty-four kilos.

A lot of unexpected people show up in your book—John Wayne and Howard Hughes get prominent screen time, for instance, during your discussion of the movie The Conqueror, which starred Wayne and was produced by Hughes, which was filmed downwind of a nuclear test site. Over the next 50 years, nearly half of the cast and crew, including Wayne, got cancer. Was there anyone you were particularly surprised to discover had an unexpected connection to nuclear power? 

That’s a tricky one to answer, [though John Wayne was particularly interesting to me.]  There’s actually a picture of John Wayne with his two sons and he’s holding a Geiger counter! So they were aware that there was radiation there, but, they were “butch” and they didn’t want to seem like sissies. They were doing some sort of western. I’ve actually watched it multiple times—and yes,it deserves to be in that list of world’s worst film.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that nuclear power would attract eccentrics like Howard Hughes and Edward Teller—and more than a few other fascinating, if lesser-known, people. 

Those people were definitely characters. You get so many strange things, like in Brazil where people who were salvaging metal come across cesium-137 [in an abandoned piece of radiotherapy equipment]. So he see this blue thing nd he breaks it open. He then gives the cesium to his friend because he thinks it’s an interesting substance. His friend handles it, and because it’s glowing he thinks it’s got magical properties. It’s almost like something from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, isn’t it?

As they wonder what this substance could be, their children play with it and put it on their skin. Not long after, four people are dead and many, many more are suffering from burns and radiation. It’s really a big tragedy. These kinds of people all of a sudden gain access to hazardous materia. Of course, this kind of thing is very improbable, but it happened because the people and the government were not behaving responsibility and there was a lot of negligence.

With all of the talk about fracking here in the U.S. I was pretty surprised to discover that nuclear bombs had once been used to attempt to extract natural gas. 

They used it for fracking the U.S. I’m not an engineer, but I know fracking uses liquids, but [in the 1970s the U.S. government] used nuclear charges to do it. I think they did 3 tests to extract shale gas and that was another great pipedream, another one of Teller’s pipedreams. [The gas] came out so radioactive that they could not actually use it. It was impossible to use. So that’s interesting because fracking is such a controversial thing but nuclear fracking is… something else. Back then nobody talked about it.

It’s incredible how many instances there are of people just happening upon nuclear waste or nuclear tests in your book. 

Occasionally that happened because the governments [of various countries] were doing tests in places they described as “uninhabited” that actually weren’t.It’s kind of unfair to pick on any specific nation, though, because they all kind of did it. Teller wanted to blast [a harbor using nuclear devices] in Alaska but of course there were Native Americans there.

The Russians blasted some stuff in Kazakstan and there were people in that area that was declared uninhabited… The Brits used parts of Australia—there were huge areas but they used only one single man to clear the area. I’m not sure of the equivalent size but it would probably be the size of the state of New Jersey. One single man running around chasing these nomadic/semi-nomadic tribes and it’s basically “good luck.”

Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb” on a PR tour through Alaska. Teller wanted to use five nuclear bombs to build a new port in the far north.

Do you have any inkling as to the scope of nuclear accidents? Do you think that the kind of “folly” you describe has decreased or will decrease? 

Not at all. I think the more I researched it, the weirder it got… I don’t think a state like Pakistan or North Korea will be behaving more responsibly,compared  to the superpowers of the cold war. How are they handling those weapons? I don’t even want to begin to think of what they’re doing there. I’m sure there is plenty that doesn’t show up on record. Accidents, human error, irresponsible decisions—we just don’t know. And the longer these weapons are out there, the more the risk increases.

Would you advocate an absolute moratorium on nuclear weapons?

I think what we should do is set an example and, you know, get rid of as many as possible. The U.S. should set an example. If you look at China, for instance, they’ve been quite responsive about it in that they have a small nuclear arsenal, which they use just for deterrence. But they’ve never gone into these crazy cycles, like acquiring 1000s of them, to use as a sort of threat.
Before we [reduce the number of nuclear weapons]  it it will be very difficult to demand for any other nation, regardless of how its disposed towards us or to its own people or its neighbors, to not have this technology. I think we need to set that example; although it’s not guaranteed to stop other nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, it might help. It needs a lot of attention. Nuclear disarmament is a really important topic for everyone.