The "Baker" explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the US military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, 1946 (Photo via)
The history of nuclear technology isn’t all drawn-out military stand-offs and catastrophic power plant disasters – there’s also a load more depressing stuff you’ve probably never heard about. Did you know, for example, that John Wayne – as well as 46 members of crew – died of cancer after shooting a notoriously bad B-movie named The Conqueror in a contaminated canyon near a Nevada nuclear testing range? Or that around 40 nuclear weapons just disappeared during the Cold War, some of them in populated areas of the US?
Rudolph Herzog – writer, producer and director (and son of Werner) – released a book charting some of these little known stories last year. And considering the documentary adaptation of A Short History of Nuclear Folly just aired on TV in France and Germany, I thought it made sense to have a catch up. Over the phone we spoke about how governments got away with a century’s worth of damage and the potential for a nuclear-free world.
VICE: Hi Rudolph. At the start of the book you say your childhood influenced your interest in nuclear history.
Rudolph Herzog: Yes, the nuclear threat was very much on our minds. Germany was implicitly designated as the nuclear battlefield number one, so if there had been a nuclear conflict, Germany would’ve gone first. We were really keenly aware of that. I remember watching this cartoon about an elderly couple in England during a nuclear war – they suffer radiation poisoning and they get these spots on their skin – and thinking, 'Golly, that could happen to us, any day.'
People had nuclear bunkers in their front yards. I remember a classmate of mine had a rich dad, and they basically dug this nuclear shelter in the garden. Of course, we had no such thing at all. But yes, that does inform why I’m so interested in it. It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but I can tell you it’s very depressive.
You call the centrifuge – a seemingly innocuous bit of lab equipment – the world’s second most dangerous invention. Why so?
One of the major obstacles when you build a nuclear weapon is what kind of material you use. If you’re using enriched uranium, that’s extremely difficult to extract from natural uranium. One of the only ways is using centrifuges. They’re cylinders that spin gasses at a supersonic speed – like a drum that does your washing. Nowadays, centrifuges are being used in all sorts of smaller countries to make that enriched uranium for bombs. It’s basically allowed for the “poor man’s bomb”.
A room full of gas centrifuges at an American enrichment plant (Photo via)
What would larger countries be using?
There’s a thing called SILEX, which is much more effective than centrifuges, that uses lasers to isolate the isotope. It’s smaller and very compact, so if you wanted to conceal that you had that technology that would be the way to go. We don’t really know how far it’s developed or how it works exactly, but there appears to be a quantum leap in technologies that will make centrifuges obsolete.
You also talk about how the sea has essentially been used as a nuclear dumping ground since day one.
Dumping nuclear waste into the sea was a widespread practice, unfortunately. People thought at least they’d be superficially rid of it. Of course, it gets spread and disseminated in other ways and into the food chain. One effect of this would be substances like plutonium getting into the food chain through algae and fish to humans. That’s a huge possibility. That wasn’t as far as people were willing to think at the time.
And now it's set to affect everything in the long term.
Yes, unfortunately. Once you’ve put waste down there, it’s almost impossible to get it back up. That decision has kind of been taken, for better or worse. Sadly, there’s no telling what the effect will be. We just have to hope that it’ll decay. The half-life of the radiation causes it to become less active over time, but we’re talking long periods of time here – thousands of years.
A nuclear shell being tested at a Nevada test site in 1953 (Photo via)
The effects on people in Utah, for example – after the US tested bombs in Nevada and the cloud drifted east – was disastrous.
It’s scientifically proven that certain types of cancers – bone or blood cancers, like leukaemia, for example – are far more common in parts of Utah that were affected by fallout than in any other place in the United States. There’s a woman featured in my film called Claudia. She didn’t have cancer in her family at all, but when they moved there, there was this big massing of cancer, which she blames on the nuclear testing. Many people have tried to claim compensation for what’s happened to them. Claudia is one of them. Of course, it’s just money and it doesn’t bring these people back to life.
What's stopping more from being done about it?
It’s partially a cultural thing. That area is largely inhabited by Mormons. Generally they are law-abiding citizens. They believe in the state. I believe that, for them, the state has some legitimacy from God. It’d take a lot for these people to stand up against the state.
Obama says he wants a “nuclear free world”. What do you think about that?
It’s totally unrealistic. While I don’t think there will be a Cold War between the powers, there are these little regional conflicts that could erupt. In Asia they’re actually stocking up on weapons. It’s the countries like Pakistan that are maybe less mature in their understanding of nuclear weapons and haven’t had to learn the lessons of the Cold War that are a concern. We don’t know what’s going on in North Korea, even.
We should be worried about how safe these weapons are in terms of how they’re stored and maintained and how they’re moved about between states. There’s a danger of terrorism or of mishandling weapons and them going off accidentally. All of these things aren’t just possibilities, they’re real things that could actually happen.
So there's nothing that could make the world disarm?
No, it’s impossible. Unless there was a vast catastrophe, you know, or a vast exchange that would make everyone stand down and try to abolish all nuclear weapons. But I don’t even want to think about that frankly.
*Neither do I. Thanks, Rudolph. *