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'A Short History of Nuclear Folly' and the lasting effects of the nuclear arms race

Rudolph and Werner Herzog at KPCC.
Rudolph and Werner Herzog at KPCC.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Though Russia and the U.S. are working together when it comes to investigating the bombing suspects in Boston – their relationship wasn't always so amicable. Even today we have our problems.

Back in the 1980s there was always the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction. Many people probably remember a time when, as schoolchildren, they were trained to hide under their wooden desks during nuclear blast drills. Had a blast actually happened they'd essentially be hiding under kindling, but that's beside the point. 

Before the threat of World War III, however, countries at the forefront of the nuclear arms race had to test these new weapons of mass destruction. The United States in particular tested weapons across the West, and radiation is still found in places like Nevada and Utah today. They treated Earth as their own nuclear testing playground, but that process could have a nasty effect on the environment.

In Rudolph Herzog's new book, "A Short History of Nuclear Folly: Mad Scientists, Dithering Nazis, Lost Nukes and Catastrophic Cover-ups," he traces the history of the nuclear race and what effects it has on the world today. 

Interview Highlights:


How nuclear testing may have affected the cast of a John Wayne film:
"It's called "The Conquerer." Basically John Wayne plays Genghis Khan…As a set, they decided to go to Utah, which has a beautiful canyon there, Snow Canyon, and a year before in neighboring Nevada there was a huge explosion at the test site there. It was one of the dirtiest of all time in the sense that there was a huge amount of fall out, which drifted towards Utah and settled in Snow Canyon. That was really hot in the sense of radiation, and they knew there was radiation, they worked there for months galloping around on horse, doing stunts, breathing in radioactive dust. After they finished shooting, they moved 60 tons of radioactive sand to the studios in Hollywood to do the closeups. In 1980, someone looked back and counted and of the 220 [people in the] cast, something like 96 had developed cancer and 46 had died of it, including John Wayne himself, Susan Hayward, who was the female lead, and Dick Powell who was the director. Some of these people were heavy smokers, but it's way above the statistical average and some people argue that there's a connection.

"There was as strange appendix to this whole story in the sense that Howard Hughes was the producer, he lived in Las Vegas and was this eccentric billionaire, and he must have been quite freaked out by this. He was living close to the testing site, Las Vegas is not that far away. He fought a relentless campaign talking to Ronald Regan to move the tests from Nevada to Alaska, and they actually explode some huge bombs in the '60s and '70s in Alaska, which is a very unknown thing. Some of the biggest were exploded in Alaska, not Nevada or the Pacific."

On how irresponsible nuclear has testing been around the world:
"It's been very irresponsible in the sense that these places are declared uninhabited when they're not. The Soviets did that in Semipalatinsk Kazakstan, there are people living there. There are people living there, the British did that in Australia, they exploded several weapons in the the Maralingua testing range, which is in the desert. You have aborigines and nomadic people roaming around and there was only one single person in charge of getting them out of the area, but we're talking about a huge area, like the state of New York. There's just one person to get them away, and some people got into alarms way and they perished. In that sense, there was not limit to irresponsibility."

On his reaction to some of his more outrageous discoveries?
"There was a thing called Project Plowshare, which was an idea to use nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes, like excavating harbors. He wanted to blast a second Panama Canals with 200 hydrogen bombs...a lot of money was put into feasibility studies…"

On whether there were good intentions behind these plans:
"Sometimes the intent was very good. Like for instance, pacemakers, when they were first made the batteries were very weak and had to constantly be exchanged. So someone had the idea to use plutonium batteries, which will last you way beyond your life time. They actually implanted dozens of these in America and the Soviet Union, and Germany. That's all fine, it's not dangerous for the user, because the plutonium is in a casing and it's a type of radiation that can't get out. The only problem is what happens when these people die? In America there are these records and they know who these people are, but the Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore and there are dozens of people around with plutonium in their chests and we don't know who they are. They're dying and they'll be cremated or buried and the plutonium will get into the environment."

How difficult is it for terrorist groups to create a bomb and use them?:
"It is difficult, you need the nuclear material. Theft is problematic, too, because these weapons need maintenance. The problem is that these groups could be given weapons or they could acquire weapons by overthrowing a state. Some of these states [Iran, North Korea] are possibly quite unstable. What would we do then? Then they've got even the way to deliver these weapons. So it could be very messy."

On what he learned through his research:
"Well, there's no limit to human imagination and irresponsibility. They did pretty much anything you could imagine with this technology, short of an all-out war. They acted quite irresponsibly, building a reactor in Kinshasa in the Congo, and that thing feel apart, using forces for experiments. Generally mishandling weapons. Some went down with submarines. In one case a bomber went down in the Carolinas, and one of the hydrogens fell into a swamp. The secondary stage of the hydrogen bomb that actually does fusion was never recovered. These kinds of things happened and if you have a big nuclear arsenal like that, mistakes happen. Will we learn from history? I'm a bit naive hopefully in thinking that we can actually learn from history."