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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I think we all know the theory of nuclear fission. You split one atom of uranium-235, and you get two free electrons. Those electrons smash into two more u-235 isotopes, releasing four electrons. Those four release eight, which release sixteen, which release thirty-two, etcetera, until BOOM! It ain't that simple, of course. Theory is never reality. You have to engineer the components to within tens of thousandths of a millimeter to get the uranium to reach critical mass at the correct microsecond. And in 1946 the U.S. Congress created a bureaucracy, the Atomic Energy Commission, to design and build these complicated and delicate weapons of mass destruction.
Then, after a couple of years testing their new toy, two nuclear physicists, Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam came up with an idea for an even bigger bomb. First they set off a fission bomb, which produced gamma and x-rays which compressed and heated two different isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. And if the compression was perfectly designed and imploded in exactly the right order, this thermonuclear bomb would achieve fusion, and an even BIGGER BOOM! About the same time, it occurred to certain members of the scientific and military community (it occurred to Ulam but not to Teller) that maybe nuclear weapons were not just big bombs. So in 1951 the AEC gave birth to the Civil Defense Agency, which was supposed to protect America from the other guy's nukes. And right from conception, this bureaucratic love-child suffered from schizophrenia.
You can hear the insanity in the March 11, 1955 congressional testimony from the new administrator of the agency, Val Peterson. He suggested that every America immediately start digging a bomb shelter in their backyard, because once the Soviet Union developed an intercontinental ballistic missile, “we had all better dig and pray. In fact, we had better be praying right now.” Well, this scared a lot of people, especially the tens of millions of apartment dwellers in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco, who did not have a backyard. But they were only collateral damage. Peterson's real target was to terrorize the members of Congress. After spending $139 million ($11 billion in 2012 money) his agency had stockpiled barely half of the 12 million burn dressings they figured they would need when the bombs started to fall, less than half of one percent of the 1 million gas masks they needed, and just 13% of the Geiger counters the survivors would need to locate radioactive death zones. But at the same time the latest results from Operation Tea Pot, out on the Nevada Proving Grounds 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, were strongly hinting at the lunacy underlying his agency’s entire raison d'etree. 
See, in the spring of 1955 about 700 US Army and AEC staff exploded 14 nuclear bombs in Nevada. They buried one, dropped one from a B-36 ten engine bomber and put the others atop 4 and 500 foot towers. They were looking to perfect their weapons designs. But they also parked a full 1,300 man Marine armored battalion 1 ½ miles from the fire ball, and then had them charge right up to ground zero after the blast, just to prove the viability of combat in the atomic age. And civilians were next About a mile from ground zero the CDA built what they officially called “Survivor Town” with paved streets, and five home styles, two even with fallout shelters. They also constructed a complete electrical transmission substation, with towers and transformers. They erected a telephone exchange with poles and lines, and file cabinets stuffed with papers, a Standard Oil gas station, a bank, complete with a vault, a functioning radio station and a clinic. The shelters and kitchen cabinets were stocked with all the average food items found in an American home, even beer. New cars were parked in the desert driveways. The town was then populated with manikins, purchased from the JC Penny Company, and dressed in various fabrics and clothing styles.
Just after 5:30 in the morning of May 5, 1955, 18 year old James Tyler, 2nd battalion, 5th Marine infantry, was kneeling in his 6 foot deep trench. "We assumed that the people in charge knew what they were doing." Then suddenly, "everything went blindingly white."  Eight minutes after detonation, the armored battalion was ordered to advance. After sticking his head out of his tank's turret (as ordered), one of the marine “guinea pigs” noted, “...the desert was on fire, every plant was burning. The yucca trees were like torches sticking out of the sand and never realized how many little animals lived there until they were all dead. We passed through a small town that had been built for the test....Not much was left standing....They marched us back to Ground Zero....The AEC was waiting for us....dressed in white coveralls. Each of us stood as one man ran over us with a radiation counter and took readings. Then another used a broom to brush us off, and the first man would retake the radiation reading. They repeated this around 4 or 5 times until, I assumed, the radiation reading was lowered to their satisfaction.”
Reading the reports after this blast (one of some 980 set off in Nevada over a quarter century),  was disturbing, to say the least. The 7,000 soldiers cowering in trenches and the Marines in their tanks received the maximum allowable yearly limit of 6 rems (or 6,000 milirems) of gamma radiation Of the eight pilots who flew “sniffer” missions into the radioactive clouds after each blast, two received doses that exceed 21 rems. Two years later, after the data from Tea Pot had been digested, the maximum exposure per year for a worker in a nuclear facility would be reduced to five rems. And the AEC experts decided “Exposure of volunteers to doses higher than those now thought safe may not produce immediate deleterious effects; but may result in numerous complaints from relatives, claims against the Government, and unfavorable public opinion, in the event that deaths and incapacitation occur with the passage of time.” To continue stuffing soldiers into trenches to see how the blast effected their combat readiness, said the AEC bureaucrats, “cannot be expected to produce data of scientific value.”  In 1995 the U.S. Congress, would allow up to $75,000 to Atomic Veterans and their families, for cancers suffered in these tests. 
As to the in-home bomb shelters, they offered only, “some degree of protection”. About the only positive result found in “Doom Town”, was that even irradiated bottles of soda and beer “could be used as potable water sources for immediate emergency purposes as soon as the storage area is safe to enter”. The problem was, of course, that the stores and homes would not be safe to enter until many of the survivors had died of dehydration, and after a nuclear war no one would be bottling any new Coke or Budweiser. After thinking about the situation for five more years, one CD wag suggested that a fall out shelter might be constructed entirely of cases of beer, and “by the time you drink your way out of the shelter, it should be safe to go outside.” This gallows humor was another indication that insanity had become epidemic in the Civil Defense Authority.
It was on display again on June 15, 1955, when the CDA staged Operation Alert in 55 cities across America, 13 of which had no advance warning of the drill. When the sirens went off in Houston, Texas, authorities effectively evacuated a 275 block area of downtown. But in Los Angeles, there was “"considerable confusion, some panic, and a number of traffic problems.” Still, local authorities insisted, “the population responded well.” However, in Peoria, Illinois, the local CDA director kept his people in their offices, while insisting the public go to shelters. In the District of Columbia, the local director called the entire drill “ridiculous” Both of these sane men were fired.
In all the United States set off  925 nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test range. You can now tour most of these ground zeros, and even visit the remains of Survival Town. But you cannot stay for long. Sixty years later the debris are still dangerously radioactive. Everything that was learned about nuclear weapons by those whose livelihood was derived from building and testing the bombs, convinced them that any theory about using them was insanity. We are now waiting for the leaders of Iran, Pakistan and India to come to same sad conclusion. The American Civil Defense Authority was gradually starved for funds until its remains could be quietly folded into the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The dooms day sirens, installed across the Midwest and south to warn of an impending nuclear war, now alert citizens of approaching tornadoes. As surrealist Franz Kafka put it, “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”
I would say that all the great strides of human civilization are built upon our previous bouts of insanity.
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