« Effects of possible solar influence on radioactive decay rates on HotBits-generated random sequences | Main | Reading List: Hostile Intent »

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reading List: Under The Cloud

Miller, Richard L. Under The Cloud. The Woodlands, TX: Two Sixty Press, [1986] 1991. ISBN 978-1-881043-05-8.
Folks born after the era of atmospheric nuclear testing, and acquainted with it only through accounts written decades later, are prone to react with bafflement—“What were they thinking?” This comprehensive, meticulously researched, and thoroughly documented account of the epoch not only describes what happened and what the consequences were for those in the path of fallout, but also places events in the social, political, military, and even popular culture context of that very different age. A common perception about the period is “nobody really understood the risks”. Well, it's quite a bit more complicated than that, as you'll understand after reading this exposition. As early as 1953, when ranchers near Cedar City, Utah lost more than 4000 sheep and lambs after they grazed on grass contaminated by fallout, investigators discovered the consequences of ingestion of Iodine-131, which is concentrated by the body in the thyroid gland, where it can not only lead to thyroid cancer but faster-developing metabolic diseases. The AEC reacted immediately to this discovery. Commissioner Eugene Zuckert observed that “In the present frame of mind of the public, it would only take a single illogical and unforeseeable incident to preclude holding any future tests in the United States”, and hence the author of the report on the incident was ordered to revise the document, “eliminating any reference to radiation damage or effects”. In a subsequent meetings with the farmers, the AEC denied any connection between fallout and the death of the sheep and denied compensation, claiming that the sheep, including grotesquely malformed lambs born to irradiated ewes, had died of “malnutrition”.

It was obvious to others that something serious was happening. Shortly after bomb tests began in Nevada, the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester, New York which manufactured X-ray film discovered that when a fallout cloud was passing overhead their film batches would be ruined by pinhole fogging due to fallout radiation, and that they could not even package the film in cardboard supplied by a mill whose air and water supplies were contaminated by fallout. Since it was already known that radiologists with occupational exposure to X-rays had mean lifespans several years shorter than the general public, it was pretty obvious that exposing much of the population of a continent (and to a lesser extent the entire world) to a radiation dose which could ruin X-ray film had to be problematic at best and recklessly negligent at worst. And yet the tests continued, both in Nevada and the Pacific, until the Limited Test Ban Treaty between the U.S., USSR, and Great Britain was adopted in 1963. France and China, not signatories to the treaty, continued atmospheric tests until 1971 and 1980 respectively.

What were they thinking? Well, this was a world in which the memory of a cataclysmic war which had killed tens of millions of people was fresh, which appeared to be on the brink of an even more catastrophic conflict, which might be triggered if the adversary developed a weapon believed to permit a decisive preemptive attack or victory through intimidation. In such an environment where everything might be lost through weakness and dilatory progress in weapons research, the prospect of an elevated rate of disease among the general population was weighed against the possibility of tens of millions of deaths in a general conflict and the decision was made to pursue the testing. This may very well have been the correct decision—since you can't test a counterfactual, we'll never know—but there wasn't a general war between the East and West, and to this date no nuclear weapon has been used in war since 1945. But what is shocking and reprehensible is that the élites who made this difficult judgement call did not have the courage to share the facts with the constituents and taxpayers who paid their salaries and bought the bombs that irradiated their children's thyroids with Iodine-131 and bones with Strontium-90. (I'm a boomer. If you want to know just how many big boom clouds a boomer lived through as a kid, hold a sensitive radiation meter up to one of the long bones of the leg; you'll see the elevated beta radiation from the Strontium-90 ingested in milk and immured in the bones [Strontium is a chemical analogue of Calcium].) Instead, they denied the obvious effects, suppressed research which showed the potential risks, intimidated investigators exploring the effects of low level radiation, and covered up assessments of fallout intensity and effects upon those exposed. Thank goodness such travesties of science and public policy could not happen in our enlightened age! An excellent example of mid-fifties AEC propaganda is the Atomic Test Effects in the Nevada Test Site Region pamphlet, available on this site: “Your best action is not to be worried about fall-out. … We can expect many reports that ‘Geiger counters were going crazy here today.’ Reports like this may worry people unnecessarily. Don't let them bother you.”

This book describes U.S. nuclear testing in Nevada in detail, even giving the precise path the fallout cloud from most detonations took over the country. Pacific detonations are covered in less detail, concentrating on major events and fallout disasters such as Castle Bravo. Soviet tests and the Chelyabinsk-40 disaster are covered more sketchily (fair enough—most details remained secret when the book was written), and British, French, and Chinese atmospheric tests are mentioned only in passing.

The paperback edition of this book has the hefty cover price of US$39.95, which is a lot for a book of 548 pages with just a few black and white illustrations. I read the Kindle edition, which is priced at US$11.99 at this writing, which is, on its merits, even more overpriced. It is a sad, sorry, and shoddy piece of work, which appears to be the result of scanning a printed edition of the book with an optical character recognition program and transferring it to Kindle format without any proofreading whatsoever. Numbers and punctuation are uniformly garbled, words are mis-recognised, random words are jammed into the text as huge raster images, page numbers and chapter headings are interleaved into the text, and hyphenated words are not joined while pairs of unrelated words are run together. The abundant end note citations are randomly garbled and not linked to the notes at the end of the book. The index is just a scan of that in the printed book, garbled, unlinked to the text, and utterly useless. Most public domain Kindle books sold for a dollar have much better production values than this full price edition. It is a shame that such an excellent work on which the author invested such a great amount of work doing the research and telling the story has been betrayed by this slapdash Kindle edition which will leave unwary purchasers feeling their pockets have been picked. I applaud Amazon's providing a way for niche publishers and independent authors to bring their works to market on the Kindle, but I wonder if their lack of quality control on the works published (especially at what passes for full price on the Kindle) might, in the end, injure the reputation of Kindle books among the customer base. After this experience, I know for sure that I will never again purchase a Kindle book from a minor publisher before checking the comments to see if the transfer merits the asking price. Amazon might also consider providing a feedback mechanism for Kindle purchasers to rate the quality of the transfer to the Kindle, which would appear along with the content-based rating of the work.

Posted at September 2, 2010 23:23