Posts Tagged ‘1980s’


Duck and Cover All Over Again

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Hiding from nuclear attacks under ones school desks has got to be one of the most salient memories of Americans who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. I get told about it with some regularity when I tell people about my work — the recollections of the “Duck and Cover” drills are spoken of with a sense of grim humor, in a tone of “can you believe they made us do that?”

I’m not the world’s biggest critic of Civil Defense measures of this sort. Yes, Bert the Turtle is a bit condescending, but he was aimed at children, and for 1951 his message isn’t too far off. In 1951 the Soviets still lacked ICBMs and had bombs no more than double the yield of the Nagasaki weapon. Hiding under your desk probably wouldn’t help you much if the bomb went off right over your head, but could be significant for all of the people who were within a mile or so of the blast.

Cold War children performing a "Duck and Cover" drill.

Civil Defense became a more problematic affair in the megaton and missile ages, especially since the Civil Defense planners were often kept out of the loop as to what the actual state-of-the-art was regarding bombs and tactics. There’s also a broader question about whether confidence (justified or not) in one’s ability to survive a nuclear attack drives states or individuals towards more dangerous behaviors with regards to nuclear weapons. But as a whole I think we’ve probably gone a little too far, culturally, in ridiculing Cold War Civil Defense measures — thanks in no small part by handling such as that in Atomic Caféwhich uses these films out of context.

I grew up in California in the late 1980s. I never did any “Duck and Cover” drills for nuclear threats — I wasn’t even aware of nuclear threats, to be honest. One of my first “political” memories is of the Berlin Wall coming down, when I was in the 6th grade. I remember being irritated, since I had just memorized which of the Germany’s was the “good” one and which was the “bad” one — no easy task for me at the time, given that the one with “Democratic” in its name was anything but!

FEMA poster for earthquake drills

I don’t remember being told to “hold” in the 1980s, but it was more or less like this.

We did have drills, though. The most common were the standard fire drills that everybody does — flee (“leave your bags!”) and line up a safe distance from the school. Boring. Next on the list were earthquake drills, a staple in California. These are basically “duck and cover” drills with less fear. You hide under your desk, or you stand in a doorway. The hardest part about earthquakes is recognizing when one is happening; unless you’ve been through a few of them (I had some practice when I lived in Berkeley) it can take practically the length of the whole earthquake for your brain to realize exactly what’s going on. What I think people who haven’t been in one don’t realize is how strangely noisy they are — they make doors shake in their hinges, and it is a very unusual sound, and your brain (at least, my brain) takes a little time to process this, which makes it hard to act rapidly.1

But the most unusual drill we did where I grew up was something quite different, and I was reminded of it when I read about the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last week. I may digress a minute here.

"Stockton, California: These are the most interesting things we could find to photograph."

“Stockton, California: These are the most interesting things we could find to photograph. Two of them are the same thing from different angles.”

I grew up in Stockton, California. It’s right in the middle of the long Central Valley that runs through the middle of the state; it’s about an hour-and-a-half drive northeast of the Bay Area, or a 45-minute drive south of Sacramento. “I’ve driven through there,” people often tell me. Rarely anybody knows much about it though, if they aren’t from California, despite its being a perennial favorite for top slots in Forbes’ America’s Most Miserable Cities list (#1 in 2009 and 2011!) and occasionally making the front-page of The New York Times for its economic woes (housing bubble, city government going bankrupt,  and so on).

The reason you probably don’t know much about it is because there isn’t a whole lot to say, and certainly very little to romanticize. It doesn’t have a “company town gone bust” story (e.g. Flint), or a “former grandeur gone to squalor” (e.g. Baltimore), and nobody makes national commercials using it as some kind of comeback story (e.g. Detroit). It’s a medium-sized American city that has many of the problems of other medium-sized American cities, just more so. It’s problematic mixture of bad economy, crime, and mundanity isn’t glamorous, and it doesn’t fit into any of the well-worn American archetypes.

1989 - LA Times - Stockton massacre

But we did have a school shooting. On January 17, 1989, a disturbed loner, Patrick Purdy, brought a Chinese-made AK-47 to the Cleveland Elementary School and started firing. He killed five children and wounded 30 others, including one teacher. He then killed himself. The victims were mostly from Cambodia and Vietnam — Stockton is one of the major hubs for South Asian refugees.

I didn’t go to Cleveland Elementary; I was on the other side of town. I want to make explicit that I’m not trying to co-opt any tragedy, whether the one at Sandy Hook or at Cleveland, nor am I claiming any special knowledge of these things. But I remember the day pretty clearly. Not out of horror — I don’t think I was old enough to really process horror very well — but just out of awe. How does one live in a city, or in a world, where this sort of thing happens? What do you, as a kid, even think of in such a situation? (I didn’t know much about my own mortality at age 8, so that didn’t really factor into it.)

Michael Jackson visiting Cleveland Elementary after the shooting.

Stockton was in the national news — as always, just for something awful. Michael Jackson visited the city to show support for the children at Cleveland (very eighties). The state passed an assault weapons ban, part of a longer push for the Congressional assault weapons ban that was passed in 1994, and was allowed to lapse in 2004. The same ban that they are talking about revisiting today, as a result of Sandy Hook. As Michael Herr put it, “Those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it too, that’s a little history joke.” 

But, to circle back, after the Cleveland massacre, all of the elementary schools in my town had “guy on campus with a gun” drills. Specifically, if the adult “yard duty” dropped to one knee and blew a whistle in three, long tones, we were all supposed to hit the deckThis wasn’t something we were just told, or that teachers had contingency plans for — we practiced it. I can remember this pretty vividly. It was our “Duck and Cover,” I suppose. 

I’ve told this as stories to people before — prior to Sandy Hook — and their eyes widen, their mouth drops. Some have accused me of making it up! (I didn’t, and I’ve double-checked with others who I went to school with.) One friend of mine who grew up on the East Coast suggested that as children we must have been terrified. But I don’t remember being terrified. One isn’t terrified of fire when one is lining up outside, one isn’t terrified of earthquakes when one is standing in a doorway. The drills aren’t the thing. If anything, they’re either welcome interruptions to your daily routine, or they are boring activities involving standing in lines until everybody is accounted for.2

Human beings, especially children, have a tremendous capacity for normalizing the horrific, if it is presented to them as “normal,” if they live it as “normal.” We’ve gone, over the space of six plus decades, from teaching our children that they will be atom bombed by the Soviet Union, to teaching them that they will be shot by unstable loners. What was a war from above became a war from below.

"1989 file photograph: Stockton Police Capt. J.T. Marnoch holds up a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle that gunman Patrick Purdy used to kill five schoolchildren and injure 30 others at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)"

“1989 file photograph: Stockton Police Capt. J.T. Marnoch holds up a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle that gunman Patrick Purdy used to kill five schoolchildren and injure 30 others at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)”

In a way, wars from below are always the scarier threats, the ones that keep families and policymakers up at night, even though their ability to do mass damage is considerably diminished most of the time. “Conventional” threats, like other nation-states, can be understood through the sanitized lens of game theory, rational actors, and deterrence. Such a lens might not actually tell you much about real world behavior, but it makes the problem seem solvable. Threats that seem to come from everywhere at once, from the social fabric itself, are necessarily more diffuse, appear un-categorizable, and sometimes seem to have cures that are worse than the disease.

I don’t know what the exact response to the Newtown massacre should be, other than a long, long-overdue patching up of gun sales loopholes and maybe a reinstatement of that lapsed assault weapon ban. But I’m glad it’s not my job to try and hash out the details, or try and sell them politically. I do hope, though, it goes beyond telling children to hide under their desks, to expect that they might have to “hit the deck” to hide from their fellow countrymen. The “Duck and Cover” drills of the Cold War were evidence of a dangerous international regime — one where a “full nuclear exchange” was seen as a likely future outcome. School-shooter “Duck and Cover” drills of yesterday and today are evidence that something’s very profoundly wrong with how we’re doing things in this country.

  1. When we had that earthquake in DC in 2011, I was completely prepared, I have to admit. I recognized it for what it was very rapidly, and moved to a doorway. All of that California training was put to use. Part of my rapidity, then, was that I was too daft not to realize that earthquakes were so very rare in the mid-Atlantic states, and so didn’t rationalize it away. I did, however, do a back-of-the-envelope reasoning about what the effects of a thermonuclear blast set off in DC would feel like at my office in College Park, Maryland… []
  2. And in any case, Stockton had enough horrors to go around. Among other things, the apparent inspiration for that urban legend about flashing your headlights at gang members was the shooting of a secretary at my own elementary school. Even that is more sensational and unusual than the more quotidian threats that one felt in a city with a pretty high crime rate, gang problems, drug problem, etc. The place was once Steinbeck country, it’s now something more like Breaking Bad country. []

Plutonium Lives and Half-lives

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Plutonium is a fascinating element. It’s named after the Roman God of Death (by way of being named after a former planet). Its atomic abbreviation, “Pu,” was chosen to sound like “Peee-yooou,” as in, something smells bad. It doesn’t exist in nature (at least not in more than trace quantities) — all plutonium of significance currently in the world was created by human beings. And of course it is fissile, and so can be used as fuel for nuclear bombs or nuclear reactors.

It’s also pyrophoric, which is a fancy term to say it combusts on contact with air. It’s chemically unusual — it’s right on the juncture point between two different groups of elements, so it has six allotropic phases and four oxidation states. In non-sciency terms, this means that its volume and density changes radically as a factor of its temperature. This made it a tetchy addition to the wartime bomb project, where things like volume and density made a big difference when trying to use it inside of an exploding nuclear bomb. (They found that a plutonium-gallium alloy was a bit more stable.)

And hey, at least one form of it, Plutonium-238, actually glows in the dark! It does so because it’s radioactive enough to be scalding hot, which is why it is useful as a power source for things like the Curiosity rover currently tooling around Mars.1

A glowing pellet of plutonium-238. And you thought The Simpsons wasn’t factually accurate.

If you’re something of a science geek, all of the above is, again, terribly fascinating. And I think it’s been established on here that I am, among other things, something of a science geek. There’s something alluring to folks like me about the idea of a chemically irritable, glowing man-made element named after the god of the dead that catches fire on its own and can be used to blow up entire cities. It sounds like something out of the worst types of science fiction, where authors just make up goofy substances to advance the plot.

Oh — I left out one key thing. It’s also toxic. Exactly how toxic is up for some debate — some informed sources say it is intensely, acutely toxic in very small inhaled amounts, others suggest its toxicity is a lot lower than that, making it more of a long-term threat — but either way, it’s not good for you if it gets into your body. 

Because of its connections to nuclear weapons, the United States produced some 100 metric tons of plutonium over the course of the Cold War. And it was produced and operated on in big factories, under lots of secrecy, surrounded by lots of regular people. And there’s the rub: part of me wants to geek out on how awesome plutonium is, and part of me keeps saying, hey, idiot, don’t forget how it affects individual human beings — men, women, children, families. People who have been inadvertently exposed to it, for example. People who went out of their way to live next to a plutonium fabrication facility, for example, because it promised them good jobs and work that helped their country. 

Map adapted from P.W. Krey and E.P. Hardy, “Plutonium in Soil around the Rocky Flats Plant,” HASL-235 (1970). This adaptation is taken from here.

I find nuclear history fascinating, from an intellectual point of view, and all of its little detailed ins and outs continually draw me in. But I endeavor to not be too fascinated by it — so attracted to the “technically sweet” bits that I lose sight of the big picture, and lose any empathy I might have with those who lived it. It’s all too common that in our rush for objectivity, especially about Big Male Military Subjects, that we take solace in the cold, hard facts, and disregard accounts that come from other perspectives.

I was reminded of this last week, when I went to see a talk at the National Museum of American History. The speaker was Kristen Iversen, talking about her new book, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (which recently got a very favorable review from the New York Times). Iversen directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Memphis, and gave a good, heartfelt presentation to a packed room. Interestingly, the room was packed with mostly women, which is highly unusual for nuclear-themed talks, in my experience.

The book is part memoir, part investigative account. Iversen’s family moved to Arvada, Colorado, in the late-1950s. Arvada, a small town north of Denver, was next to Rocky Flats, a plutonium fabrication facility owned by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and operated initially by Dow Chemical.

Hanford would breed the plutonium in their mammoth nuclear reactors, and the metal would be shipped to Rocky Flats, where workers would shape it into forms useful inside nuclear weapons — the “pits.” The pits would then be shipped to the Pantex Plant in Texas for final assembly into bombs.

In theory, all of this would be well-contained within glove boxes and filters and sensibly designed waste systems. In practice, plutonium is a messy substance, and for a variety of reasons, a lot of corners were cut. The result is that map up above — a fairly large plume of plutonium was deposited in the soil around the plant and the surrounding communities.

An employee at Rocky Flats holds a plutonium “button” inside of a glove box, 1973.

From Iversen’s presentation, it sounded like a pretty interesting read. It’s historical, it’s journalistic, and yet it’s read through the lens of the personal. This sort of thing is necessary — we need to keep in mind, when talking about grand strategy and big motivations, that there are all sorts of regular people caught up in this as well. That most of the world is not comprised of heads of state, or even heads of agencies.

The residents of the towns around Rocky Flats were ill served by nuclear secrecy. They weren’t told, for example, that a fire in 1957 spread a wide plume of radioactivity across the area. Or when it happened again in 1969. They weren’t given information on the sorts of diseases that are associated with coming into contact with heavy actinides. They were assured, again and again, that everything was under control.

And from Iversen’s account, most of them believed it. Why wouldn’t they? They had skin in that game — the livelihood of their town depended on it, and, as we’ve all seen again and again, human beings, for all of their famed skittishness, are quick to rationalize the big, unwieldly long-term risks that they live next door to. This is something that people in the field of risk communication have known for a long time: we learn to ignore risks that we live next to, especially when we have a personal incentive to do so. (In fact, many of those cut corners mentioned above were done by the employees themselves, because the profit incentive was on speed, not safety. This is unfortunately an all-too-common story with toxic industries.)

An “Infinity Room” at Rocky Flats — a room so contaminated by radiation that it was never to be occupied by unshielded humans again. From the DOE Digital Archive.

To give you an idea of how not under control things were, though, Iversen tells a gripping account of when the FBI raided Rocky Flats in 1989. Alerted by whistleblowers for egregious safety violations inside the plant, the FBI eventually concluded that the only way to find out what was being done inside Rocky Flats was to bust on inside. But you can’t just walk into a plutonium fabrication facility, even if you’re the FBI. So they came up with what was really an ingenious plan. The FBI told the Department of Energy officials at Rocky Flats that they had to brief all of them on a potential eco-terrorist threat — they said that Earth First was planning to attack the plant. Once the FBI had all of the senior management rounded up in a room for the briefing, they served them with search warrants, and along with the EPA, they invaded the facility and occupied it.

The DOE and the contractor (by then Rockwell) got off the hook pretty much scott free, despite plenty of evidence that they had in fact been complicit in plenty of environmental crimes — which are, as well, crimes against the community at large. Such is how things go, sometimes, when you’re talking about plants that do secret things for the nuclear weapons industry.

I’m looking forward to reading Iversen’s full book. Because I work primarily with records of the state, I always risk seeing like a state — or at least seeing history like one. Stories of the personal effects, ironically, can help one keep some distance from that standpoint. This isn’t to say that the personal, individual perspective is everything — the “big picture” still undoubtedly matters — but I think a serious historian excludes it at their peril.

One little announcement: In today’s issue of Science, I have a review published of Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovksy and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (University of Chicago Press, 2012). I’ve reviewed a number of Michael’s books over the years, but I think this one is his best-written one yet, and I really enjoyed it a lot. It’s not very nuclear, but it does have an important Cold War theme. Check it out.

  1. A correspondent also notes that this heating is from alpha emission, which also tends to break the Pu-238 into small particles — meaning they can contaminate a volume rather quickly. Charming. []

Enough Fallout for Everyone

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Nuclear fallout is an incredible thing. As if the initial, prompt effects of a nuclear bomb weren’t bad enough — take that and then spread out a plume of radioactive contamination. The Castle BRAVO accident was the event that really brought this to the public forefront. I mean, the initial effects of 15 megaton explosion are pretty stunning in and of themselves:

But the fallout plume extended for hundreds of miles:

Why yes, you can get this on a coffee mug!

Superimposed on an unfamiliar atoll, it’s hard to get a sense of how long that plume is. Put it on the American Northeast, though, and it’s pretty, well, awesome, in the original sense of the word:

Of course, it’s all about which direction the wind blows, in the end.

And remember… that’s just a single bomb!

Of course, if you’re interested in the more diffuse amounts of radioactivity — more than just the stuff that you know is probably bad for you — the fallout maps get even more interesting. Here’s what the BRAVO fallout did over the next month or so after the detonation:1

Now, you can’t see the numbers there, but they aren’t high — it’s not the same as being immediately downwind of these things. They’re low numbers… but they’re non-zero. But one of the “special” things about nuclear contaminants is that you can track them for a very long time, and see exactly how one test — or accident — in a remote area is intimately connected to the entire rest of the planet. 

And, in fact, nearly everyone born during the era of atmospheric nuclear testing had some tiny bits of fallout in their bones — you can even use it to determine how old a set of teeth are, to a very high degree of accuracy, by measuring their fallout content. (And before you think atmospheric testing is a matter of ancient history, remember that France and China both tested atmospheric nuclear weapons long after the Limited Test Ban Treaty! The last atmospheric test, by China, was in 1980!)

The same sorts of maps are used to show the dispersion of radioactive byproducts of nuclear reactors when accidents occur. I find these things sort of hypnotizing. Here are four “frames” from a simulation run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on their ARAC computer showing the dispersion of radioactivity after the Chernobyl accident in 1986:2

Chernobyl ARAC simulation, day 2

Chernobyl ARAC simulation, day 4

Chernobyl ARAC simulation, day 6

Chernobyl ARAC simulation, day 10

Pretty incredible, no? Now, the odds are that there are lots of other contaminants that, could we track them, would show similar world-wide effects. Nuclear may not be unique in the fact that it has global reach — though the concentrations of radioactivity are far higher than you’d find anywhere else — but it may be unique that you can always measure it. 

Yesterday I saw a new set of plots predicting the dispersion of Caesium-137 after the Fukushima accident from 2011. These are just models, not based on measurements; and all models have their issues, as the modelers at the Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherche en Environnement Atmosphérique (CEREA) who produced these plots acknowledge.

Here is their map for Cs-137 deposition after Fukushima. I’m not sure what the numbers really mean, health-wise, but the long reach of the accident is dramatic:

Map of ground deposition of caesium-137 for the Fukushima-Daichii accident

Map of ground deposition of caesium-137 for the Fukushima-Daichii accident by Victor Winiarek, Marc Bocquet, Yelva Roustan, Camille Birman, and Pierre Tran at CEREA. (Source)

Compare with Chernobyl. (Warning: the scales of these two images are different, so the colors don’t map onto the same values. This is kind of annoying and makes it hard to compare them, though it illustrates well the local effects of Chernobyl as compared to Fukushima.)

Map of ground deposition of caesium-137 for the Chernobyl accident

Map of ground deposition of caesium-137 for the Chernobyl accident, by Victor Winiarek, Marc Bocquet, Yelva Roustan, Camille Birman, and Pierre Tran at CEREA. (Source)

Lastly, they have an amazing animated map showing the plume as it expands across the Pacific. It’s about 5MB in size, and a Flash SWF, so I’m just going to link to it here. But you must check it out — it’s hypnotic, strangely beautiful, and disturbing. Here is a very stop-motion GIF version derived from their map, just to give you an incentive to see the real thing, which is much more impressive:

Fukushima-Daichii activity in the air (caesium-137, ground level) (animated)

There’s plenty of fallout for everyone — well enough to go around. No need to be stingy. And nearly seven decades into the nuclear age, there’s a little bit of fallout in everyone, too.

Update: The CEREA site seems to be struggling a bit. Here’s a locally-hosted version of the full animation. I’ll remove this when CEREA gets up and running again…

  1. Image from “Nature of Radioactive Fall-Out and Its Effects on Man, Part 1,” Hearings of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Special Joint Subcommittee on Radiation (May 27-29 and June 3, 1957), on 169. []
  2. These images are courtesy of the DOE Digital Archive. []

Elusive Centrifuges

Friday, June 1st, 2012

To round off this week of centrifuges, I thought we might actually look at a few of them. Photographs of real-life enrichment technologies are not too common. You can find quite a number of pictures floating around of Calutron (electromagnetic enrichment) technology from World War II, but that’s because the United States decided pretty early on that Calutrons weren’t too sensitive. (Rightly or wrongly; just because they are inefficient doesn’t mean they don’t work. Iraq famously pursued Calutron technology during its pre-1991 nuclear program; the major technical snag seemed to be that somebody bombed the facilities.)

But gaseous diffusion? Laser enrichment? Aerodynamic enrichment? Not so much, beyond photographs of BIG buildings or very schematic conceptual diagrams. With centrifuges, though, there are some images from a variety of time periods and sources. As I mentioned on Monday, you can find some pretty nifty Zippe-type centrifuge photographs in old research reports from the 1950s that the Department of Energy still hosts pretty accessibly. These are kind of amazing, given how they more or less disassemble the devices in what looks like a pretty helpful fashion.

“Scoop assembly for handling gas inside the rotor and parts of rotor.” (1959)

“Molecular pump and rotor.” (1959)

…and so on with the “powdered magnetic core, completed stator, and driven end of rotor showing steel plate and supporting needle,” and “upper magnetic bearing, rotor, and top of scoop assembly,” and even a nice little one of the rotors mounted up for stress testing. Interesting that these things are out there — especially when the CIA apparently decided, in 2003, that showing rotors of pre-1991 Iraqi centrifuges was too sensitive to put up on the web (after they had already put them up for awhile).

There are a few photos of URENCO centrifuge plants from Europe, but not as many as you’d think from a venture whose corporate slogan is “enriching the future.” I’m partial to this gold-tinted one that’s been floating around the web for awhile; it looks like Scrooge McDuck was the contractor (but I’m pretty sure it’s just the lighting — other images I’ve seen show them to be silvery):

It’s hard to get a sense of scale from cascade photos like this, though.

In the early 1980s, the United States’ DOE built a prototype centrifuge plant at Piketon, Ohio, but abandoned it by 1985. Much more recently (the 2000s) the private United States Enrichment Corporation took over the site and has been building a demonstration plant on it. What’s interesting about these centrifuges is that they are of a different model than the previous ones; the “American centrifuge” is a colossally large design. (The fact that they have to label them as “American” is a nice reflection of the fact mentioned on Monday that the US lost its initiative in developing centrifuges. We don’t have the “American” gaseous diffusion method or the “American” electromagnetic method.)

The 1980s Piketon photos are pretty impressive. These are from the DOE Digital Archive:

The last one really gives you the sense of scale with those suckers — they are huge!

The current Piketon plant looks pretty similar. USEC has a few photos on their own website:

I find these less inspiring, photographically, than the ones from the 1980s, but they look like the same centrifuges. The length here — some 12 meters long — is functional, and not just an example of the Supersize-Me American culture.  The “American centrifuge” is much more efficient than the other models currently being used, apparently.

Now, all of the above is sort of interesting, but is just something of a prelude for the next batch of photos. In April 2008, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made an official visit to the Natanz site, one of Iran’s controversial centrifuge facilities. Surprisingly, his office took several dozen photos of the visit and posted them on the official Presidential website. These have been a goldmine for wonky types wanting to understand Iran’s centrifuge developments, and have, of course, served as the illustrations for half a million articles about Iran and the bomb since then. A few of my favorites:

The last one I like because of a small, easy-to-miss detail: you can see one of the blue IAEA safeguard cameras above Ahmadinejad’s head. The blue box is a sealed case inside which the video camera is locked, and the closed-circuit camera feed is beamed back to IAEA headquarters in real-time (so I gather). (A correspondent e-mailed to say that at the plant in question, a pilot plant, the cameras aren’t real-time — they just stored the footage for the IAEA to pick up, which is every other week or so. I thought I had heard somewhere that they were real-time, but I can’t remember where. They do have real-time monitoring in their plants that can do up to 20% enrichment, though.)

Given how relatively few photos there are of centrifuges floating around, why did Iran post so many on its Presidential website? I think the message is pretty clear, personally: they are trying to demonstrate a lack of anything to hide. If the centrifuge program isn’t “secret,” then it isn’t scary, right?

Of course, the obvious rejoinder to this is that they are of course being selective about what they show. Such is the nature of any kind of publicity like this. You show a little, to show that you aren’t secretive, but of course, you do hold things back. Whether that holding back violates the NPT or the Additional Protocol and so forth is a question for another day. But I’m always fascinated by the theatre of “transparency,” which has — since the early days of the bomb — been part of maintaining nuclear secrecy. Secrecy has never just been about holding things back: it has always been a game of simultaneously withholding and releasing, of giving a little so you can hold back a lot.

How do we distinguish between genuine transparency and transparency in the name of secrecy? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? Because when you get it wrong, you get a situation like Iraq: trying to prove a negative (that they didn’t have active WMD programs hidden away) turned out to be an impossible job (not because it is inherently impossible, but because of the various political and organizational forces stacked against the attempt). One can distinguish between the two in retrospect — once you’ve actually dismantled the country and its programs and whatnot — but that’s disturbingly too late.


Visualizing the Stockpile

Friday, May 11th, 2012

How does one make visual sense out of the size of the nuclear stockpile?

On paper it’s just a number. Or a lot of numbers, if you’re talking about it historically. Or even more numbers, if you’re concerned with things like delivery platforms, megatonnage, or megadeaths, what have you.

It’s easy to make visual sense of one or two bombs. A few hundred is still within the realm of sensible representation. But thousands?

The standard method for awhile has been to use a graph showing stockpile sizes over time. In 2010, the Department of Defense declassified the size of the stockpile (present and historical) and included a rather ugly graph show its change over time:

I don’t want to pick on the DOD, but whoever made this graph could use a little more Edward Tufte in their lives. Beautiful evidence it ain’t. Why is it in pseudo-3D? Come on, guys, this is “How to Make a Chart 101″: don’t use 3D unless there’s a really compelling reason to.

This is itself a variation on a graphic tendency that, as far as I can tell, only began as recently as the early 1980s. NGOs like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) began making systematic stockpile estimates around this time. Their original 1984 Nuclear Weapons Databook featured what I believe is one of the first attempts to give something of a comprehensive graph of past US nuclear warheads:1

Here’s a more updated version of the NDRC historical stockpiles graph, something you’ve probably seen variants of before:

This is a sensible way to show historical trends, of course. But as a graphic representation of complicated information, it can be misleading as well.

For example, these graphs just show warheads. Warheads, by themselves, do not really represent the full nuclear threat. Yes, they’re a big part of it! But one wouldn’t realize from such a graph that by the early 1960s, even though the USSR had thousands of warheads, it didn’t have really great ways to get them to the United States.

And not all warheads are the same — the huge apparent advantage of the USSR/Russia in terms of nuclear arms in the late Cold War is mostly tactical nuclear weapons. (So is the huge ramp-up in the US arsenal before it levels off.) Some warheads are “small” — under a kiloton — and some are massive, region-destroying monsters. In a graph like this, though, they’re all just numbers. Even if you do add in separate lines for them (as in the original NDRC graph, and in many of their nation-specific graphs), it still doesn’t quite convey what kind of nuclear world we’re talking about.

There have been alternative visualizations. One which features prominently in another 1980s product, William Bunge’s wildly unusual Nuclear War Atlas (worthy of its own posting at a later point), is what we might call a “dot graph” showing relative total megatonnage:2

This would be a little more useful to the expert if we were given some kind of numerical equivalent (I think the dots are about 2Mt each, and I’m not sure if this is meant to be the world arsenal or the US arsenal), but, in any case, it’s a striking attempt to make visible the power of said weapons. It is, of course, not historical — it represents a specific moment in the history of the nuclear arsenal.

I bring all this up as a prelude to talking about another visualization which has been floating around the Internet this week, a visualization of the world nuclear arsenals by Andrew Barr and Richard Johnston of the National Post:

The dataset this is based on is from the Federation of American Scientists, who seems to have inherited the NDRC’s old mission (and dataset) of making these kinds of estimates.

It’s a cool graphic, and not a representation style I’ve seen before. What they’re showing, here, are strategic launchers — not warheads — represented by little pictures of the weapons in question. This does two things that I like very much: it gets away from focusing just on warheads, and it also makes them feel more “tangible.”

Warheads are important. They shouldn’t be ignored. But if the worst were to happen, it’s the launchers that are going to be what causes all the damage. The warheads stashed in a cave somewhere are politically important, and important from a safeguards and security perspective, but they’re not part of the immediate calculus of nuclear war.

I like representing these as discrete entities, as opposed to just a line on a graph, or just a number. 1,379 launchers — the US estimate — doesn’t sound that big in any of itself. And if you look at it historically, like the NDRC warhead graphs, it’s hard not to see that as a huge improvement over the situation in the Cold War! But when you draw each of them out individually, and know that each of them has essentially a city-destroying, megadeath-creating consequence, it suddenly looks like quite a lot indeed

I also like that even the “small” arsenals of the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel, look pretty large enough when you draw them out this way.

And putting the poor little Earth at the center was a stroke of graphic genius. If the missiles were lined up in a row, pointing at the sky, it might be possible to see them as a sign of safety or security. But they’re pointed at a tiny, vulnerable planet. They’re pointed at all of us.

(Which is not actually an exaggeration. Even regional nuclear wars would be global in consequences. Anyone who thinks that it would be fine to let India and Pakistan blow themselves to hell should read this article. As with all expert estimates and simulations, there are those who will quibble with it one way or another, but it seems like reason enough to think that we’re all in the same boat on this.)

There are, of course, issues to be taken with it. One that the authors acknowledge is MIRVs — putting more than one warhead on each missile. My understanding is that under the various arms control treaties, we don’t actually do a whole lot of that these days (certainly not the maximum “12 warheads per missile” for some of them), but it’s still worth noting that some of these missiles actually contain two or three nuclear weapons each — which multiplies the total destruction significantly. The authors do note this.

Another is that these are only strategic weapons — that is, the big bombs meant to be used only in the event of total nuclear war, destroying whole cities, etc. Lacking are tactical weapons — the little bombs that states might actually be tempted to use in local conflicts, blowing up bunkers, etc. The problem is that it’s hard to get a handle on tactical weapons, as David Hoffman recently wrote, and ignoring them has consequences.

Furthermore, there is a lot of fuzziness in estimating actual launcher types. From this graph alone, you’d think that the USA was the only country that still used atomic bombs dropped from airplanes, and that everyone else used exclusively missiles. But that’s probably not the case — all estimates about the Indian, Pakistani, and Israeli programs are very fuzzy, and it’s likely that some of the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal is delivered through gravity bombs as well.

Anyway, I’ll concede that some of these are nit-picky, wonky points. On the whole, I think this new visualization is a great success: it actually conveys some realistic, wonky technical information in a way that your average Internet user can make sense of and recognize as being relevant to the world they live in, without wildly distorting the facts very much. That’s not an easy thing to do!

  1. Thomas B. Cochran, William M. Arkin, and Milton M. Hoenig, Nuclear Weapons Databook: Volume I: U.S. Nuclear Forces and Capabilities (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publishing, 1984), on 14. []
  2. William Bunge, Nuclear War Atlas (New York, N.Y.: Blackwell, 1988), on 12. []