Drive-in Saturday: David Bowie's Tale of Fallout Saturation

Let me put my arms
around your head
Gee, it's hot, let's go to bed
Don't forget to turn on the light
Don't laugh babe, it'll be alright
Pour me out another phone
I'll ring and see
if your friends are home
Perhaps the strange ones in the dome
Can lend us a book we can read up alone

And try to get it on like once before
When people stared in Jagger's eyes
and scored
Like the video films we saw

His name was always Buddy
And he'd shrug and ask to stay
She'd sigh like Twig the Wonder Kid

And turn her face away
She's uncertain if she likes him
But she knows she really loves him
It's a crash course for the ravers
It's a Drive-in Saturday

Jung the foreman prayed at work
That neither hands nor limbs would burst
It's hard enough to keep formation
amid this fallout saturation

Cursing at the Astronette
That stands in steel
by his cabinet
He's crashing out with Sylvian
The Bureau Supply
for aging men

With snorting head he gazes to the shore
Which once had raised a sea
that raged no more
Like the video films we saw

David Bowie wanted his music to be more than just three minutes of singing on a stage. He wanted it to be three-dimensional sound and vision, multimedia, literary and theatrical. He attracted a broad audience, from teenyboppers to punks, dopers and avant garde artists. For those who didn’t want to follow the complex narratives, the music had, as they said on American Bandstand, “a good beat and you could dance to it.” Some admirers could see it was richly layered with connections to philosophy and art, but for the most part fame obscured the intelligence and thought that Bowie was putting into his work.
Bowie had a great interest in dystopian, surrealistic science fiction, an interest he shared with the novelist who inspired him, William S. Burroughs. In 1972, he recorded the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The songs on this album told a story of aliens who came to earth in the dying days of civilization, and Bowie performed as the main character during the tour that accompanied the album. He had become a master in telling a complete story within the limits of a three-minute pop song, or the two hours of a stadium rock concert. He cited Burroughs’ The Wild Boys and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as influences. In 1974, Bowie and Burroughs sat together for a long three-way interview with Rolling Stone journalist Craig Copetas.
One song from this era that stands out as a masterpiece of Bowie’s science fiction, one that has come to seem more ingenious as the years pass, is Drive-in Saturday, written in 1973. Like Ziggy, it is set in the near future, a post-apocalypse from which the characters look back at the present (late 20th century America) longing for the golden years of an empire that collapsed, a time that they can glimpse only when they are fortunate enough to read old books and view the old films that young couples used to see at drive-in cinemas.
In the song there is one reference to fallout, so it is clear that the setting is the years following some level of nuclear warfare that forced people to live under domes or the “Astronette.” When he first performed the song, Bowie told the audience that he wrote it on a train while traveling between Seattle, Washington and Phoenix, Arizona. At some point in the journey he saw some eerily glowing domes which inspired the song.
He was likely aware, as was common knowledge then, that the American West was the birthplace of the nuclear age. His train route would have taken him nearby the Hanford Reservation, the place where plutonium was made for nuclear weapons. From there it would have gone through Idaho, Nevada or Utah where the fallout from hundreds of nuclear weapons tests came down. Bowie told the audience that the song is about young people trying to survive in this future after something horrible has happened. Somehow, they have forgotten how to make love, so they look to old films and books to learn all about it.
Thinking about this story now, knowing the damage that was done to the human genome by the Soviet and American nuclear disasters (Chernobyl, Mayak, Semipalatinsk, Hanford—see the review cited below of the documentary film After the Apocalypse), we can look at these young people in the story in a different light. Perhaps it is not a matter of them forgetting how to do it but rather of them not wanting or not being able to do it.
The Japanese, Chinese, French and American nuclear disasters undoubtedly left their marks on the health and the genes of their victims, but the Soviet disasters have left the most vivid record of birth defects, disease and reproductive failure. Even before the disasters happened and photojournalists went to record the aftermath, artists were writing stories of a mutant human race that would come after a nuclear disaster. It is hard to know what was in Bowie’s mind when he wrote this song, but there are clues that he was consciously suggesting a darker scenario than a typical pop-music audience would expect. In fact, few people would catch all the lyrics as they listened or try to understand how they told a coherent story. It was a minority of die-hard fans who gave it any thought while they sat on floors intently listening and reading the lyrics in the LP artwork.
The song begins with the line “Let me put my arms around your head.” Kind of strange, that line. Lovers put their arms around shoulders and waists, but not heads, so we are dealing here with a very large head or very short arms in order for this to be a good fit. From the very first line there is an image of mutants awkwardly trying to figure out how to embrace each other.
There is an interesting philosophical and scientific question to ask about whether people afflicted by the fallout in utero would grow up to have a longing for emotional attachment or even normal sexual drives. It was perhaps the artist’s conceit to assume they wanted to make love and had merely forgotten how. There is plenty of evidence in our real world to suggest that the toxic environment we live in has altered the genome, endocrine functions and even human psychology. One just has to consider all the news reports about rising rates of autism, declining sperm counts, or the hand-wringing editorial writers who complain that young people these days aren’t interested in relationships and raising the next generation. Perhaps the apocalypse has come upon us in slow motion. Nevertheless, no one can say what post-nuclear-war people would feel. The lament of the Chernobyl liquidators was “Radiation made it so that I can’t, so why didn’t it make it so that I don’t want to?” Like the characters in Drive-in Saturday, a longing was still there.
To satisfy their curiosity, the young people of Drive-in Saturday read old books and watch old films, the kind where the hero was a good old American boy named Buddy. The heroine is “uncertain if she likes him, but she knows she really loves him.” In its simplicity, this line succeeds in stating exactly what might challenge the young mutants’ understanding. They could figure out the mechanics of the act by looking at the old books, but all the ambiguous gestures--the shrugging, the sighing, the looking away, and the uncertainty might seem intriguing but incomprehensible to the mutants. Or courtship might be just a luxury that is now beyond reach. The social intelligence necessary to fall in love would be something to study with detached formal analysis in a “crash course for the ravers” every drive-in Saturday.
The only other character in the story is an older man, Jung the foreman, someone who remembers what the sea looked like in days of old. He prays that his limbs will hold together because in the “fallout saturation” sometimes they don’t. He gets through life on a government-issued anesthetic called Sylvian. It may be therapeutic, but the lyric says only that it he “crashes out” on it. In the final lines Jung gazes to a shore that no longer raises a raging sea. Like the young couple in the story, the sea too is barren and impotent.

More Sources:

Butts, Anthony (director). After The Apocalypse. Tigerlily Films, 2010.
Copetas, Craig. “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman.” Rolling Stone. February 28, 1974.
Critchley, Simon. Bowie. OR Books, 2014.
Savage, Jon. “When Bowie met Burroughs.” The Guardian. March 9, 2009. 

“This ain’t rock and roll. This is genocide.”
    -from another of David Bowie’s post-apocalyptic tales, Diamond Dogs
While science fiction has its cautionary and educational value, it is essential to keep in mind that in some places the apocalypse has already happened. This film review describes the aftermath of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan: 

After The Apocalypse (2010) Directed by Antony Butts
Reviewed by Jennie Kermode Eye for Film UK, October 13, 2010
(reprinted with permission)

In cinematic terms, nuclear apocalypse has always had a certain appeal. If we think of the human journey as a story, it offers a dramatic possible ending, the chance (so it would seem) to go out with a bang. It's the perfect disaster that must be prevented at all costs, those who might contribute to it the ultimate villains. If we consider it survivable, then we can move on to a genre in which brave bands of survivors try to rebuild civilisation or create something new and better from out of the ashes.
So much for cinematic speculation. In 1949, the Soviets wanted to know what would happen for real. If a nuclear exchange took place between them and America, could they survive it, and what would they need in order to do so? So they set about dropping nuclear bombs. The Americans already had two test subjects, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviets were not at war, so they dropped bombs on their own people, in Kazakhstan; they knew a real nuclear war would involve more than just two bombs, so they dropped 256.
In 2009, a documentary crew visited the region known as The Polygon, where the tests took place. "We used to watch the bombs fall. We felt them in our bodies. Our mother covered us with thick felt," recounts an elderly peasant woman. When we see her face, the chromosomal damage caused by radiation poisoning is shockingly visible. We meet her daughter, Bibigul, who has clearly inherited this damage. Now Bibigul is pregnant and must decide what to do.
During my career as a film critic I have seen a lot of horror films and documentary depictions of human suffering, and I'm not sure that I have ever seen a film as horrific as this. If it were simply the story of an atrocious crime committed against helpless villagers by a remote government, it would be bad enough, but the real horror here is the set of problems the Kazakhstani community faces today. The Russian government has formally apologised. Special funds have been allocated for support. Ultimately, this means very little. A local obstetrician shows us his collection of mutated babies preserved in formaldehyde. I have seen babies like this in real life; they happen all over the world, for all sorts of reasons, but never with this frequency. Later we tour a ward where babies so misshapen that their parents have abandoned them are cared for by affectionate yet distraught nurses. They are the survivors, and while they're little they remain loveable, but what kind of future will they have? Our elderly heroine tells us that she has been mocked throughout her life because of her deformity.
In the face of this, medical staff who would elsewhere be devoted to assisting with pregnancies focus instead on trying to persuade would-be mothers to abort. Knowing, as they do, the risk of abandonment as well as pain and suffering, they lament that it is not possible for them to force abortions, sterilise afflicted adults, or kill the babies at birth. Frequent references are made to infanticide as practised in ancient Sparta. There is talk of giving people genetic passports, permission to breed. But you don't ask a girl to show you her medical documents before you ask her out on a date, they observe. There are no trained medical ethicists here. Disability of any sort is seen as a burden on society; the mutated are stigmatised, not encouraged to develop what talents they may have. There's also a complete absence of psychological expertise. This creates a gulf between the doctors and the patients. There's frustration and agony on both sides. It's not that Bibigul and others like her are stupid, it's just that they're human, that they want to experience the simple human joy of parenthood. Nobody seems to take this into account. Doctors speak to one another in Russian in the presence of patients who only half understand them. The cultural distance that allowed those bombs to fall remains present.
Up on the mountains, we follow a shepherd. At 45, he considers himself an old man with little left to worry about. He only has five teeth left. He drinks vodka to keep his stomach radiation-free. He enjoys living the traditional Kazakh life in these remote, snowy steppes. But the young, he says, should be afraid. We know now that the inherited problems can persist for at least four generations. Some say they're getting worse. 
There are shades here of John Wyndham's classic novel The Chrysalids, as the film crew's quiet observation brings us face to face with questions about what it means to be human, and about what it means to be a monster. "Kazakhstan is not a nuclear country," says a visiting scientist, "And we don't want to be. We don't want this."

Reviewed by Jennie Kermode Eye for Film UK, October 13, 2010
(reprinted with permission)




(updated 2016/03/18)

Yes, this is a shameless attempt to create some click-bait. Nothing attracts internet traffic as well as putting a complex message in the format of a ten-point listicle related to dating tips, so I've put this spin on a list that sums up the pro-nuclear talking points that anti-nuclear proponents have tirelessly refuted over the years. It wasn't too much of a stretch to put the nuclear energy issue into this format because it can actually be seen as a perverse sort of mating ritual. One side wants to mess with the other’s genetic material, and the other has to decide whether to let that happen. Thus nuclear energy proponents play the suitor to a very skeptical object of attention who wishes not to have herself or the planet despoiled by radiation. Overconfident about their weak arguments and rhetorical skills, and underestimating the strength of counter-arguments, the would-be seducers miss the subtle cues that indicate they are failing to persuade. They might benefit from reading this list so that they can start thinking of better rhetorical tricks and pick-up lines, but I suspect that if there were any, they would have used them by now. Unfortunately, the majority of the population doesn't think too critically about the issue, so the lame arguments have been good enough to fool most of the people (and most journalists) most of the time.
Read more on this topic in this free book written by Ace Hoffman
1. You can use electricity and still be anti-nuclear

Supposedly, one is a hypocrite to be anti-nuclear if one has ever used an electrical appliance, as if there are no other ways electricity could be generated, or ways we could use less of it. Jane Fonda had great big hair in The China Syndrome way back in 1979 when she played a journalist investigating corruption at a power plant. The engineers in the story muttered among themselves about her hypocrisy because they were sure that she couldn't live without her hairdryer. Dan Aykroyd made great fun of this argument on Saturday Night Live the same year in a hilarious Point-Counterpoint segment of Weekend Update:

Who’d be the first to complain when the electricity goes out, Jane? You and your horde of promiscuous anti-nuclear harpies. I can just see you now sitting alone in your darkened apartment staring forlornly at your now useless vibrator. You’ll be humming a different tune then, Jane.

2. Anti-nuclear people are not unscientific, extremist conspiracy freaks

Someone, somewhere found a map of the 2011 tsunami rippling over the Pacific and declared over the internet that it showed the spread of Fukushima radiation stretching all the way to Chile. The message went viral for a while, and nuclear advocates had great fun using it as an illustration of the irrational panic over the disaster. Anti-nuclear people were said to be just a bunch of scientifically illiterate conspiracy freaks, incapable of rational assessment of the risks. The ridicule conveniently ignored the fact that most of the anti-nuclear movement is serious, well-informed and careful not to spread bad information. It was actually not too paranoid to suspect the easily-ridiculed rumors were a deliberate disinformation campaign designed to discredit legitimate criticism. When the truly awful news coming out of Fukushima isn't so easy to laugh at, the pro-nuclear side decides to lie shamelessly, turn off monitoring equipment, hide data, deflect attention, or just say nothing.

3. Nuclear energy is not the solution to global warming

The nuclear industry has been quite successful in getting the mainstream media to perpetuate the myth that nuclear energy is carbon free. But the line only works on people who don’t bother to ask some simple questions. If the pro-nuclear seducer realizes his target knows too much, he’s likely to become evasive and make excuses to move on. When pressed on the point, they admit that nuclear does have a carbon footprint, it involves tremendous ecological and health damage and risks, and—even if these problems didn't exist—it costs too much to provide a timely and significant reduction of global warming effects.

4. Nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are connected

Many have tried to argue that the world could have nuclear energy after abolishing nuclear weapons. Yes, hypothetically, it is possible. Thousands of people throughout history have taken vows of celibacy, so tomorrow it is possible that the entire population of the world will suddenly want to follow their example. In the same way, one can argue that nations could continue to mine uranium and enrich it, and create plutonium in their nuclear power plants, and never once be tempted to put a little aside for use in a bomb. However, sensible people are pragmatic when they look for ways to restrain the worst impulses of human nature, and pragmatism dictates that one should stay several steps removed from the most dangerous objects of temptation. The idealism of the nuclear proponents in this argument is remarkable because in most other cases they view themselves as the hard-headed pragmatists and their opponents as utopian dreamers. You actually have to be a utopian to insist that the nuclear industry could be de-militarized yet continue to exist only for peaceful purposes.

5. The banana equivalent and natural background radiation

All potassium on earth consists of a small percentage of radioactive isotopes. Bananas are rich in potassium, so every time you eat a banana you load your body up with a bit of radiation. Pro-nuclear explainers love to use the banana equivalent to tell people that they have nothing to worry about when they are caught downwind of a nuclear accident, or they have to accept a certain amount of radioactive cesium in the food grown on contaminated land. Potassium is a vital mineral that is always in our bodies, so we always carry a certain amount of internal radioactive contamination.
It is sad that so many professional engineers and scientists are not able to see the flawed logic here, or worse that they see it but don’t care because they think the argument is good enough to have an effect on the majority of people who won’t think about the issue too much. Potassium is always in our bodies, and the amount is always in the equilibrium that lets our nervous system function normally. Life has evolved over a billion years to co-exist with this very low level of radiation from a limited amount of potassium. Although cesium is chemically analogous to potassium in many biochemical reactions, the body doesn't have a way of keeping the level of cesium in equilibrium. If it is continuously present in the food supply, it accumulates in muscles and other tissues and can do serious damage. It doesn't just cause cancer. It kills cells and can, for example, cause fatal amounts of muscle atrophy in the heart.
In addition to cesium, nuclear accidents expose people to other isotopes that get absorbed internally. They pose specific radiological and chemical risks to different organs of the body. It is absurd to compare natural radiation exposure to the exposure that happens from man-made nuclear technologies. There is no banana equivalent.
A variation of the banana equivalent canard refers to natural background radiation. Various forms of natural radiation exposure (from high altitude flying, for example) are compared to the types of contamination that are caused by the nuclear industry. Nuclear advocates deliberately speak only about the external gamma radiation dose, always deflecting, or deaf to, questions about internal contamination. However, people living in a contaminated environment want to know specifically what damage will be done, for example, by the strontium in their bones or the plutonium in their gonads.

6. The total supply chain matters

The belief that nuclear energy is safe and carbon free relies on keeping people focused on nuclear fission, and not on how nuclear fuel is created or what is to be done with it after it is used. When nuclear waste must be discussed, nuclear experts ignore the larger volumes of mining waste and depleted uranium that have been left in tailings ponds, dumped in mine shafts, or spread more widely through the ecosystems around mines or in war zones where depleted uranium weapons have been used. Ideally, we should be asking questions about collecting and permanently isolating mining wastes from the environment, just as we do about storing used nuclear fuel, but the solution to the latter problem has been so elusive that no one in the nuclear industry wants to talk about the former. As with most of the items in the list, the attitude in the industry is to assure that the public maintains an awesome regard for the wizard while asking no questions about the man behind the curtain.

7. A nuclear waste solution does not exist

The nuclear industry likes to say that a solution is at hand, but they’ve been saying this for a long time. Nuclear power plants have existed for over fifty years, yet no country has built a permanent, functioning repository for nuclear waste. A few have been built, but waste containers in them failed just as critics predicted they would. The failure to construct repositories is often blamed on NIMBY politics, which is surely a factor, but the truth is that projects like Yucca Mountain in Nevada have been cancelled because of technical uncertainties about whether waste containers can stay intact for hundreds of thousands of years, and whether geological features will be reliably stable over the same length of time.
Another supposed solution for nuclear waste is that the next generation of nuclear reactors will burn up nuclear waste or leave only short-lived waste products. The problem is that the next generation is actually the last generation. Fast neutron reactors and thorium reactors have been built over the decades, and they have failed or been abandoned in development in almost every case. Only Russia successfully operates a couple fast neutron reactors, while France, the US, the UK, Japan and Germany have all wasted billions of dollars on this technology. Rebuttals to the next generation proposals raise objections in terms of long-term management of the complex technology (the need to dismantle and build new reactors long into the future in order to "burn up" all the existing nuclear waste), ecological issues related to mining thorium, high costs, long development timelines and political acceptance.
There is also the possibility that present marketing campaigns are no more than elaborate Ponzi schemes that have come into existence at a time when central banks are “printing” money and letting it slosh around in the financial system (as opposed to putting it in consumers’ pockets). You know something is fishy when you see banner ads suddenly appearing frequently that tell how you too can learn how to invest in thorium, “the future of nuclear energy.”

8. Flawed models for health surveys

The established norms for radiation safety were created by the military and civilian nuclear complex which had no motivation to support research that would produce unfavorable data. Dissenting scientists were continually sidelined, and the official view came to focus on external gamma radiation and cancer, whereas victims are more concerned about the long-term effects of internal alpha and beta radiation, and about both cancer and the non-cancerous health effects of radiation.
From the very beginning, doctors on the ground in Hiroshima protested against the censorship and the neglect of some of the observed health effects, by both the American Occupation and the Japanese government. In subsequent years, any time researchers found illnesses related to nuclear accidents, their findings were dismissed because they didn't fit the established “Hiroshima model” that was, besides being flawed, based inappropriately on a unique event in terms of bomb type, population affected, geography, soils and weather conditions.

9. False analogies to other risks

Hey, life is dangerous, right? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We take risks just get to a workplace every day. The average schmuck puts so much tobacco, booze, drugs and bad food into his body that it is hypocritical of him to worry about a few atoms of tritium in the drinking water. So the argument goes, but pointing out humanity’s tendency toward self-destructive risk-taking doesn't seem to support the pro-nuclear argument. This reasoning also conflates the risks that people freely choose to take with those that are imposed on them, or imposed on people yet to be born far into the future. Furthermore, even though it is natural to take risks, we have lines we will not cross in order to achieve our goals. If we are not pathological, we don’t sell our children into prostitution, or hire hit men to eliminate our rivals. The continuing accumulation of nuclear waste at nuclear power stations is the same sort of moral line many people do not want to cross. We don’t want to gain a benefit from anything that leaves future generations with this hazard.

10. No one has died from radiation at a nuclear power plant

Your point being???
The point doesn't seem relevant to anything, but even for this statement to be true, it has to be so narrowly defined that it loses whatever persuasiveness it might have. OK, no nuclear plant worker has ever died from acute radiation sickness during a nuclear emergency, but in order to celebrate this achievement, we have to say the firefighters who died at Chernobyl weren't officially nuclear plant workers. And, of course, the pro-nuclear lobby follows a capitalist ideology that easily dismisses Chernobyl as an anomaly created by an inferior political system. That line of thinking lost its power when three General Electric reactors melted down in capitalist Japan.
The statement is also true only if we exclude the two radiation deaths that occurred in 1999 in the Tokaimura accident in Japan. Those workers don’t count because they were mixing fuel at a nuclear facility but not at a nuclear power plant. The list of exclusions goes on like this. More importantly, any honest discussion of nuclear energy has to include all of its effects, including those that are inseparable from the military applications. Uranium is mined, processed and enriched to make fuel for both reactors and bombs, and the depleted uranium is used in weapons. Millions of people have been, and will be for a very long time, affected by the radiation that has spilled out of the activities of the nuclear industry, though no one can put a definitive number on the toll of death and disease. Additionally, the narrow focus on fatalities at nuclear power plants is also an absurd distraction from the sacrifice zones, social disruption, national security anxiety and social engineering that the nuclear age brought with it.

Further reading

I haven’t footnoted and referenced the points made here. Readers who want to question or know the basis of the information above can begin with these sources:

Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl (Picador, 2006).

Chris Busby, " It's not just cancer! Radiation, genomic instability and heritable genetic damage," The Ecologist, March 17, 2016.

Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Y.I. Bandashevsky, “Non-cancer illnesses and conditions in areas of Belarus contaminated by radioactivity from the Chernobyl Accident.” Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, Lesvos Greece, May 5-9th 2009. Brussels: ECRR.

Helen Caldicott (editor), Crisis Without End: The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Catastrophe (The New Press, 2014).

Stephanie Cook, In Mortal Hands (Bloomsbury, 2009).

Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear (MIT Press, 2012).

Shuntaro Hida, Under the Mushroom-Shaped Cloud of Hiroshima: A Memoir by Shuntaro Hida, M.D. World Citizens for Peace, 2006. (Free book, published online).

Takashi Hirose, Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster (Createspace, 2012 Amazon e-book).

Ace Hoffman, The Code Killers. 2008. (Free e-book, pdf format).

Joseph Mangano, Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment (OR Books, 2012).

Gar Smith, Nuclear Roulette (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012).

Eileen Welsome, The Plutonium Files (Dell Publishing, 1999).


Nuclear Comic Relief

I was visited by the ghosts of Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield lately. Seems they’ve been hanging around Chernobyl and Fukushima and various related places. I couldn’t get them to stop with the corny one-liners…

Did you hear the NRC commissioners wouldn't buy air tickets to come up to Boston to debate Helen Caldicott?
They were too cheap to meet 'er.

Why did the man in Fukushima get angry when his wife and children moved away to Okinawa?
He wanted a nuclear family.

They say the economy is dying up there in Fukushima, but I don’t know. I got in a taxi there and the driver took me around to all the hot spots.

Doctor: You can eat anything you want from inside the exclusion zone.
Patient: Really? I heard it was dangerous.
Doctor: No, not at all. Just be sure to bury your shit in a lead box, though.

During the nuclear emergency they told us to shelter in place. So we did. After a couple hours in the room this nice young woman started pounding on the door. Finally, I had to get up and let her out.

Japanese PM Abe loosens his necktie and squirms uncomfortably, “Geez. I can’t get no respect,” he says, “Take my wife… please.”

What’s up with this news about them using kitty litter to keep nuclear waste dry? Man, now I know why cat eyes glow in the dark.

The government in Japan decided to do something in response to Fukushima. They got a bunch of doctors a big budget and told them to go form an NGO called Physicians for Social Irresponsibility.

I heard this nuclear industry guy say they were building a nuclear waste repository, but I misheard and thought he said suppository. It makes sense, though, right? Stick it in the hole and later it just sort of melts in…

These pro-nuke guys keep talking about lessons learned and perfecting the technology. Yeah, I guess so. Fukushima was definitely the beta version. Lots of alpha and gamma too, if you know what I mean.

I tell ya, us anti-nuclear guys don’t get no respect.


An Uncannily Good Read: Nuclear Borderlands

Review of
The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, by Joseph Masco, Princeton University Press, 2006.

(This post is a follow up article on the previous post about the nuclear uncanny in the cable TV drama Breaking Bad.)

A superficial understanding of the nuclear era is that it is a series of famous atrocities and disasters that have occurred since 1945. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first events, followed by the Cold War showdown that peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Afterwards, there were the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. For the majority of people who have no interest in learning what lies behind the headlines, these famous milestones are likely to represent the common knowledge about the nuclear age. Nuclear technology is something that is occasionally terrifying, but it disappears out of everyday consciousness when the news cycle moves on.
Historians and anthropologists who have studied the nuclear era find that this collective amnesia is in itself an interesting aspect of the age because the advent of nuclear weapons was perhaps the most significant and socially disruptive change in human history. In The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, anthropologist Joseph Masco wrote about the American nuclear program, in particular how it unfolded in the birthplace of the atomic era. In this study, he illustrated quite effectively that the nuclear weapons program has had, and will have far into the future, deep economic, ecological, cultural and psychological impacts which, ironically, appear to be inversely proportional to the collective awareness of them.
The US nuclear complex covers a total of 36,000 square miles, the size of the state of Indiana. $6 trillion was spent on it over 50 years, and the US government conducted 1,149 test detonations between 1945 and 1992, 942 within the continental United States. The cost of remediating and containing the damage caused by the nuclear age will cost far more because of the duration of nuclear wastes into the distant future. The psychological and social impacts of these facts become apparent when we gain awareness of how they force us to change the way we understand citizenship, national identity, and relationships to the land. What does it mean for politicians to talk about enduring American values, or the lasting integrity of the nation, when the government must also plan for a time one thousand or fifty thousand years into the future when a country called the USA will no longer exist? What does it mean for individuals to realize that their pursuit of security and comfort makes the present and the distant future less secure and less comfortable? Humanity never before had to consider much besides the near past and near future. In terms of our genetic evolution, we are hard-wired to be altruistic toward our immediate social group and the few generations of genetic kin we know during our lifetime.
Masco contends that our confrontation with the dangers of radiation creates a strange rupture in the collective and the individual psyche. Adapting a Freudian concept, he labels this phenomenon the “nuclear uncanny.” Freud himself struggled to find a definition of unheimlich (translated as uncanny) which satisfied the theoretical concept he had in mind. In the essay The Uncanny, he wrote:

Many people experience the feeling [of uncanny] in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts... some languages in use today can only render the German expression ‘an unheimlich house’ by ‘a haunted house.’ [1]

Masco stressed this sense of haunting when he wrote that the uncanny refers to sensory experience becoming haunted and untrustworthy, and to the return of the repressed. There seems to be a further uncanny irony here in the fact that the scientific age did much to dispel irrational beliefs but then revealed a fearsome secret of the universe that would be dreaded like a malevolent ghost. The hidden energy from the birth of the solar system was revealed to be—one might say “repressed”—below the earth’s surface in uranium ore. Because radiation is intangible and dangerous, doing its harm imperceptibly over time and distance, people react to it just as they would to a perceived supernatural force. Thus radiation evokes what can be called the nuclear uncanny.
Nuclear Borderlands describes the many ways by which the nuclear age has made our times uncannily out of joint. I would add that the uncanny should include the instances of irony, paradox and Kafkaesque absurdity one encounters in the nuclear era. The summary below covers some memorable aspects of the Nuclear Borderlands; however, I advise readers that this is only a cursory overview of a book that deserves to be read in its entirety.

Uncanny #1.       
Rule 1: Spend $trillions on nuclear weapons
Rule 2: Hope you never have to use them

The description of absurd paradoxes begins with the Los Alamos scientists who have to manage the aging nuclear arsenal without ever being able to test a nuclear weapon. The generation that experienced the visceral effects of above-ground tests is no longer working, and many of the scientists employed today are too young to remember even underground testing, which ended in 1992. All they can do now is manage the existing weapons, maintaining all their parts but never testing a weapon to see if it actually works. They say it is like having to maintain an old car in perfect condition but never being allowed to turn the key. The goal is to make the weapons functional, but if they ever needed to really find out if they functioned, that would be horrible because it would mean nuclear apocalypse had begun.
If children constantly receive contradictory messages from their parents, they will grow up to be neurotic, and so one might expect that the contradictions of the nuclear weapons program would create neuroses in the people who live with its trappings. Maintaining the weapons stockpile and providing long-term stewardship of the nuclear waste legacy have become a techno-scientific fetish. When Los Alamos scientists talk about nuclear weapons they adopt human and animal metaphors to humanize the maintenance of weapons of mass destruction. For example, the old weapons receive “geriatric care.” Like a human face, nuclear core implosions are better when they are symmetrical.
Masco notes that many people consider the $6 trillion as money well spent because of what is called the “Tang© effect,” the term which describes the famous freeze-dried orange juice that was invented, as is widely believed, because astronauts had to take orange juice to the moon. From the arms race came other benefits such as rocket and satellite technology, computers, the Internet, interstate highways, and nuclear medicine. However, this retroactive reasoning is illogical because it dismisses alternative courses history could have followed, and it is an arbitrary judgment to say that it was essential for the human race to have Internet access. Tang© was, in fact, first made by General Foods in 1957. It was later adopted by NASA but it was never made for NASA. With this myth out of the way, it seems reasonable to believe that computers and the Internet might have appeared sooner or later regardless of the impetus given by the budget for nuclear weapons. And if they hadn’t been invented, so what? Would life not be worth living? The absurdity of retroactive justification is easier to see if we note that Hitler restored the German economy and made the trains to Auschwitz run on time, but no one would justify Nazi atrocities today by celebrating the technical achievements of WWII Germany. In fact, if Americans and Russians want to celebrate how they produced ballistic missiles, they really have to thank the German scientists who developed the technology during the Nazi period.

Uncanny #2        
Claims on the Land, Claims on Upward Mobility

Los Alamos and northern New Mexico were occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years before the Spanish colonized the area in the late 16th century. It was later part of Mexico after the War of Independence ended in 1821, then it recently became American territory in 1848. The Spanish settlers lived apart from industrial development in a barter economy until the American takeover, so they had worked out how to co-exist relatively well with the Pueblo Indians. That stability began to unravel as America expanded westward and Spanish landholders were cheated out of their titles, even though some of them still possess deeds granted by Spain that go back “only to 1714” (original Spanish settlement occurred in 1598). The upper Rio Grande area is so isolated that linguists from Spain came in the 20th century to observe the last remnants of the language as it sounded in the time of Cervantes (1547-1616), a fact which makes my choice of blog mascot a little uncanny also. Local historian Larry Torres stresses that the arrivals from Spain were so early that settlers never experienced the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. They came straight out of medieval Spain, and in 1942 this culture met the nuclear age on its own land.
By the time the US military came to expropriate land for the Manhattan Project, both the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish/Mexican inhabitants were impoverished. To this day, many of them have positive, but also ambivalent, feelings about the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The lab provided jobs in the wage economy, and the Indians and the Spanish inhabitants served in WWII. Because they accepted the narrative that said “the bombs ended the war,” they were proud of the American achievement.
This is why there is nothing straightforward about how the history of Los Alamos is contested. Within each group there are proponents and opponents, and sometimes the same person who is grateful for economic opportunity is also the person who resents the fact that his ethnic group has always done the menial work at Los Alamos, or that too many of his relatives have died too early of cancer. Sometimes the disadvantaged groups make alliances with the environmental and anti-nuclear groups, which tend to be made up of recent arrivals in New Mexico. At other times they resent the way environmentalists persisted with legal challenges to land use that took no account of what traditional inhabitants wanted. Some Indian groups threatened to accept above-ground storage of nuclear waste, but they did so as a bargaining tactic against elements that would disallow them from operating casinos. The bottom line for everyone is that there is no going back to living off the land. Everyone needs to be part of the cash economy.
One of Masco’s more interesting findings was a video made by some of the Hispanic workers who did cleanup work in Area G of Los Alamos. The video shows a ruptured canister in a dump, and the panicked reaction of the staff to the leak. The class distinctions of the workplace are on display when the white Anglo scientists come to the scene in full protective gear to take measurements of the radioactivity while the Hispanic workers stand in the same spot in regular attire. Later in the video, one of the workers recounts his memory of what happened to the remains of Karen Silkwood, the famous whistleblower who was contaminated with plutonium on the job and later died in a mysterious car crash. Some of her remains came to the lab to be put in a tissue registry, but a refrigerator failed and the stored tissues were dumped unceremoniously with other waste, according to the witness in the video.
Racism and disregard for human rights were evident in other aspects of operations at Los Alamos. Implosion experiments required a stand-in for plutonium, and for this lanthanum 140 (half-life 1.6 days) was used. The experiments were conducted only when the winds blew in the right direction, away from the town of Los Alamos but over “uninhabited” land where there were Pueblo Indians. In another case, for research done on the absorption of radionuclides in the body, tissue samples were collected without consent from deceased members of the Los Alamos community.

Uncanny #3        
Contested Narratives

At the end of the Cold War, a great deal of information was de-classified, and this gave rise to a strong anti-nuclear movement which was now armed with information about environmental contamination, unethical experiments on human subjects, and the health effects suffered by thousands of nuclear workers, downwidners and veterans of weapons tests. However, this gave rise to anti-anti-nuclear groups who fought over the way the nuclear legacy would be defined in Los Alamos. For them, the nuclear era had been a positive force because it was the peacemaker that ended WWII and kept the peace during the Cold War.
In 1989, students at an elementary school in Albuquerque planned to build a peace statue which they hoped would be placed in Los Alamos in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings. As news of the plan spread and financial contributions poured in, the city council of Los Alamos was forced to vote on whether to allow a space for the statue. By a narrow vote it was rejected. Although the statue displayed no overt ideology other than a wish for peace, the opposing city council members resented that it was an outsiders’ project. It smelled of backing from anti-nuclear groups they suspected of wanting to teach that Americans should feel guilty for the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This conflict played out the same way on a national scale when the Smithsonian in Washington tried to create a full-context exhibit about the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. After much political interference and lobbying, the plan was rejected in favor of a display of the aircraft devoid of serious historical analysis. The children’s peace statue was eventually given a space in a museum in Albuquerque.
In another battle over access to public space, anti-nuclear activists demanded space in the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos in order to teach about the environmental and human costs of nuclear weapons. There had been a previous legal challenge that won similar space at a museum at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, so the Bradbury museum relented and permitted a contrary view to be displayed on a wall that measured all of fifteen by eight feet (4.5m x 2.4m). The comment book became a popular place for visitors to exchange heated views, and by 1995 veterans and former LANL workers had, predictably, demanded and won their own counter-counter-exhibit. Managers of the museum were taken aback by the passions displayed by both sides of the controversy. They seem to have thought that their sterile and apolitical exhibits extolling the virtues of the technical achievement would satisfy the public.

Uncanny #4        
Forest Fire = Hiroshima

While Los Alamos citizens and veterans groups insisted that the history of Los Alamos should be presented either as ideologically neutral or as nothing to feel guilty about, the great Cerro Grande forest fire of May 2000 evoked some reactions in them that Sigmund Freud would have found very intriguing. Nothing besides a guilty conscience could have made so many local residents relate the fire to Hiroshima. They readily conflated the two conflagrations, taking the event as a way of making an empathetic connection with the city they were historically linked to. One scientist even did calculations to compare the heat of both events. Another LANL employee said, “We are all thinking of Hiroshima. We know what that was like.” Yet aside from being very hot, the two events had nothing in common. The forest fire, horrible though it was, was not an act of human aggression designed to kill thousands of people, and no one died because of it. The forest fire came with no shock wave or radiation, except for the relatively small suspected amounts caused by the release of radionuclides that had accumulated in the forest after years of operations at LANL.
Immense forest fires came close to Los Alamos again in 2011.
Uncanny #5        
Are secrets still secrets when millions of citizens have security clearance?

In the closing chapters, Nuclear Borderlands posits that the post 9/11 obsession with security was an expansion of what had been established during the Cold War arms race. The national security fetish that arose in the Cold War had a profound influence on all aspects of life while it presented citizens with numerous contradictions, ambiguities and absurdities. Masco wrote, “Secrecy… creates not only hierarchies of power and repression, but also unpredictable social effects, including new kinds of desire, fantasy, paranoia, and, above all, gossip.”
As an example, he describes how the rules sought to define in granular detail the permitted number of times a nuclear scientist could have sexual encounters with a foreign national. Security clearances involved investigations of family and friends, and required employees to report on each other. As such regulations piled up, the enemy had become the citizens who were supposedly being protected. National security became national sacrifice. The security state turned nuclear workers and all citizens into the enemy because public understanding of the weapons, or knowledge of ecological damage and health effects, would threaten the mission.
The definition of an act of espionage was also highly contextual. For example, one could not bring an orange or other round objects into the secure work area at LANL because the shape might be a hidden message that a plutonium core was spherical rather than ovoid. Yet it was alright to leave the orange in the non-secure area.
The obsession with secrecy led to forgetting that in many cases a government with access to enough resources often overcomes technical obstacles without having to steal secrets. The LANL scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused in the 1990s of giving to the Chinese the secret of how to make an ovoid plutonium core, a significant step allowing for lighter high-yield weapons. China succeeded in testing a bomb with such a core, but American investigators had to admit later that the information Lee allegedly gave was not enough to teach the Chinese how to succeed. Either they got the information by other means, put the pieces of the puzzle together from information that was openly available, or (surprise surprise) figured it out from scratch just as the Americans had.
Lee was eventually exonerated, but the lengthy investigation reignited Cold War paranoia and demotivated many of the scientists working in the nuclear program, especially those who were foreign-born American citizens now aware of the racial profiling that was in effect. In the end, many wondered if the Americans had been played by China. The whole affair served to discourage foreign-born Americans from working in the nuclear program, which might have been China’s objective. It is plausible that the Chinese deliberately provoked the Americans into believing a foreign-born national had betrayed them.
The Lee case underscored the essential racism of building nuclear weapons in the first place. They are, after all, deployed in order to kill foreigners. In the process of developing them, anyone who is racially or ideologically different is suspect. Moreover, marginalized minorities are dispossessed when land is taken over to build weapons facilities or they are abused when weapons are tested on their homelands. Just as the Lee case erupted into the news, LANL was hit with lawsuits from Hispanic and indigenous groups over the confiscation of their land in 1942 (note how uncanny it is that the four digits are a rearrangement of the year Columbus landed in America). Once the Cold War was over in the early 1990s and documents were declassified, these long-suppressed grievances came to the surface.

Uncanny #6        
Long-Term Stewardship

Perhaps nothing produces the sense of uncanny more than a full understanding of the contamination that has been created by the nuclear era. Various regulatory agencies like to soothe the public and their staff with assurances that the waste problem can be dealt with, so they write memos like this recent one by a high official of Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission:

The recent tailings dam breach that occurred at the Mt. Polley mine in British Columbia on August 4, 2014 has raised awareness of issues associated with tailings impoundments. This is a reminder that vigilance must be maintained by ensuring that tailings dams continue to be properly designed, constructed, operated, maintained and monitored to prevent such occurrences.[2]

Such language avoids mentioning what is actually at stake, for the last sentence should really continue by stating “… prevent such occurrences for the next 100,000 years.” However, most often the unpleasant reality is repressed in both internal and public communication.

Scientists have been tasked with guaranteeing something that is utterly unprecedented and probably impossible. They must plan for the perpetual management of a dangerous waste product, and doing so presumes that the task can be handed off in perpetuity to a society that has the required competence and resources.
   Alternatively, it is hoped that the wastes can be left in passive storage, requiring no action by future generations, but this cannot be guaranteed either. In February 2014, waste canisters at New Mexico’s WIPP storage facility exploded underground after only fifteen years of operation, long before the site was to be sealed for eternity.
Masco found that a bizarre product of the long-term stewardship program was the science fiction that nuclear waste scientists were tasked with writing. They were told to imagine the political and technological changes that might occur over the next few hundred years and plan nuclear waste storage accordingly. The sample that Masco found imagined a 26th century in which the United States no longer existed. It described an American southwest that had become a failed state where people lived in a pre-industrial state of chaos and poverty. Characters in the story find maps and diagrams in the ruins of a laboratory and head out to look for the buried treasure, which is actually the contaminated clothing and equipment that had been buried at WIPP in the 21st century. With this creative writing assignment, the United States government had, perhaps for the first time, officially commissioned government workers to envision the demise of the United States government.
Thus it is that the government, nuclear workers, and eventually all citizens will realize the awesome legacy that has been created. There are contaminated sites being promoted as wildlife refuges simply because this is a convenient way of keeping people from living on them while not admitting the impossibility of restoring them. Another 109 sacrifice zones in the US are so badly contaminated that they can’t even be passed off as wildlife habitat. Because the burden stretches out to a practical eternity, the future environmental and health costs, and the costs of maintenance and cleanup are sure to be more than the damage inflicted on enemies and more than the cost of building the nuclear arsenal. The legacy tells us that there will never be a “nuclear-free” world, but there could be a time when we at least stop adding to the problem. Yet among the five nuclear powers, the same nations that also make up the UN Security Council, none has shown the slightest interest in stopping proliferation by disarming itself and leading the world out of the era of nuclear weapons production.

Uncanny #7        
Hiding in Plain Sight

Masco concludes his book by recounting the strangeness of his own interactions with people when he talked to them about his project. It was difficult to make publishers interested, and members of the general public were puzzled that there would be anything at all to write about nuclear weapons. In the popular consciousness, the era was over in 1991 when the USSR collapsed, or perhaps earlier when atmospheric testing ended in 1963. The public seemed to equate nuclear dread with ephemeral cultural fads like hippies and Beatlemania. They have their time then they are gone forever.
Writing in 2006, Masco wondered how a $6 trillion-dollar project, which was still very much a going concern, could so easily fade from public awareness. It was clear that it wasn't necessary to have a nuclear war in order for the nuclear arms race to have devastating impacts on society. The effects of “radioactive nation building” were plain to see everywhere. Masco defined them as “the long-term effects of participating in national-cultural logics that mobilize resources in the name of security and community, but that do so in ways that are unsustainable and that create both social and material toxicity.” The final uncanny absurdity is that these effects have become the new normal that no one thinks twice about.
It’s worth mentioning here that not everyone is convinced that the nuclear program played such a significant role in shaping the modern world. The counter-narrative says that the “nuclear uncanny” is just another fanciful construct of the social sciences. There are those who say that nukes are just another kind of weapon and that the Cold War would have played out in the same way without nuclear weapons.[3] Such critiques tend to be welcomed by the nuclear energy industry which is always eager to make the public think of nuclear technology as something mundane.
Certainly, the war machinery in use in the years just before 1945 was doing a fine job of turning the world upside-down, creating its own “mechanized war uncanny.” The byproducts of conventional industries left their own nightmarish legacy of PCBs, dioxin, ozone holes and of course fossil fuel by-products. The Alberta Oil Sands will leave their own giant sacrifice zone. Nonetheless, I don’t know how one could see the opening of the nuclear era as anything less than a quantum leap that goes beyond any comparison with conventional threats. Within ten years there was enough weaponry to send mankind back to the Stone Age in the space of an afternoon, as Einstein famously said. The creation of plutonium and other radioactive elements was pure alchemy, and through weapon testing, mining and nuclear accidents they found their way into the tissues of every living thing on the planet.
Those who would like to make nuclear mundane may just like staking out a contrarian position for the sake of being contrarian. The unfortunate thing about working in counter-factual history is that there are no facts and real events to contend with. I prefer to base my views on the testimony of people who actually witnessed nuclear explosions and lived in the time when they first appeared. Everyone who witnessed a nuclear blast, even people who were proponents of nuclear weapons, was utterly transformed and traumatized by the experience. Robert R. Wilson, a physicist who witnessed the Trinity test, said, “I was a different person from then on.”[4] I would bet that the same is true of the societies that have had to live with nuclear weapons since the day after Trinity.

A final New Mexican uncanny:
Why did it always take so long for gravity to work?

Another review of Nuclear Borderlands:

David Kaiser, “In the Shadow of Los Alamos,” American Scientist, January-February 2007, review of Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006) http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/in-the-shadow-of-los-alamos

New book in press:

Joseph Masco, The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Duke University Press, 2014).

Audio: Léopold Lambert interviews Joseph Masco:


1. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (1919).

3. John Mueller, Atomic obsession: Nuclear alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). In a brief review of this book in Foreign Affairs, the reviewer wrote, “In a world of bad people and dangerous weapons, there is no room for complacency, but Mueller has found it anyway.” The reviewer in the Wall Street Journal noted Mueller was alarmingly dismissive about the blast effects of bombs and the biological effects of nuclear fallout: “Mr. Mueller also offers a thinly sourced disquisition on the health effects of radioactive fallout. Exposure to low doses of radiation, he says, might actually be ‘beneficial by activating natural coping mechanisms in the body.’”

4. John H. Else, The Day After Trinity, Directed by John H. Else (1981; Pyramid Films) 00:49:45~00:50:05.