Living in the shadow of the mushroom cloud

I’ve recently been reading (or in one case, re-reading) three books with a common theme. Nuclear war. This might seem a little morbid, but growing up as a kid in the Eighties, this was a real possibility. The US and USSR could hardly be said to be on congenial terms with one another, and the numbers of nuclear weapons in play were truly frightening. One day in the late 1980s, an electrical fault caused all of the air-raid alarms in Edinburgh to go off in unison. Living in a time when nuclear war was a realistic threat made this scary in a way that today’s kids probably can’t empathise with. I remember wondering if the missiles were in the air, and what to do with my four minutes. Might seem funny nowadays, but it certainly wasn’t then.

Secret State - preparing for the worst 1945-2010

First book I read recently was “The Secret State”, by Peter Hennessy (ISBN 978-0-141-04469-9). This is a history of how the United Kingdom prepared and planned for the unthinkable – total nuclear war. I was lucky enough to attend a lecture given by Peter this year, and ask him when he believed the moment of greatest peril of nuclear war occurred. Without hesitation, he said “The Cuban Missile Crisis. If Kruschev hadn’t backed down, the UK Government would have escalated its preparations for war to a new level”.

What made this read so compelling is the insight it gives to the workings of government, when trying to plan for a series of events that will literally be the end of human life on Earth. Instructions are given to the commanders of each of the UK’s Trident missile submarines, to be opened in the event of nuclear war. But how would you know if war had broken out? Guidelines were given for this, including listening for BBC Radio 4. I would imagine that sitting down and writing these instructions (a task for each new Prime Minister) is a sobering task, and it apparently even quietened Tony Blair down for a little while.

More sobering still was the idea that to render the UK unusable as a stage for military operations, it would only be necessary to drop ten 10MT (megatonne) hydrogen bombs off the west coast, and the prevailing weather would blow contaminated material across the entire country. This is military-speak for “everyone wiped out, or dying”. Figures from the Joint Intelligence Committee for the Clyde area show a projection of 10 weapons dropped on Clydeside, for casualties of 98,000 killed and 57,000 seriously injured. 979,000 homes would be either destroyed or uninhabitable in the short term. Faslane, less than a mile from where I am typing this, would be expected to be hit by 2 500kT missiles and two 1MT groundbursts from air-launched weapons.

While this was going on, or about to happen, selected Government staff would be heading for a “secret” bunker, known as “TURNSTILE”, under Box Hill, Corsham. Sadly, it turns out that the Russians knew all about this bunker, and would have sent some quite large warheads their way.

You might be wondering why I read this. Well, firstly, it was a fascinating account of a very dark period in our recent history. Peter Hennessy writes very well, and his access to Government documents and insiders makes the account remarkably readable. Secondly, reading about how the world was, rather than is, makes me appreciate it more. The threat of global nuclear annihilation has receded, and is probably less likely than for forty years or so. Nuclear weapon stocks are falling, numbers now in thousands, rather than tens of thousands.

Making of the atomic bomb, by Richard Rhodes (image from

Second on my list was “The making of the atomic bomb” by Richard Rhodes (ISBN 0-684-81378-5). This won the author a Pulitzer Prize, deservedly, I think. As the title suggests, the book focuses on the efforts to make an atomic weapon. The characters are very well drawn, and the story moves along rapidly. From a scientific point of view, the technical accomplishments were staggering, and the collection of scientists at Los Alamos possibly the greatest of the twentieth century. From a human perspective though, it must have been terrible to witness. Two cities wiped out in the blink of an eye. Many said that the ones who died immediately were the lucky ones. Anyone who thinks that the weapons were glorious, or the action laudable, probably doesn’t have much empathy. I understand the strategic reasons for deploying the weapons, but what terrible weapons they were.

Rhodes’ book leads directly on to the third book I’ve finished,¬† “Dark Sun” (ISBN 0-684-82414-0) by the same author. After the Second World War had ended, the race was on for the USSR to develop nuclear capability, and the US to develop “the Super”, the Hydrogen Bomb. What made this book so compelling was the relentless surge to develop larger and larger weapons, for fear that the enemy would surpass and then destroy them. A chilling insight into a nuclear scientist’s mind was shown when Jon von Neumann was asked to brief the US military on nuclear strategy. He had determined that the best strategy, as the USSR had yet to develop atomic weapons, was to strike first. In theoretical terms, this was an excellent solution, but showed a disconnection between von Neumann and the real world. Probably fortunately for us, the Russians soon afterwards detonated “Sudden Lightning”, and the balance was restored. This balance has kept us away from the abyss so far. When the Americans managed to detonate a hydrogen weapon on November 1st 1952, they weren’t even sure how large the explosion would be. Their estimate was 5MT, a huge amount in anyone’s book. The actual yield was 15MT. The Russians quickly followed with a hydrogen bomb of their own, and China has also got in on the act.

Mike test shot, photo copyright USAMHI.

The sheer destructive power of these weapons is almost unimaginable. The Mike test-shot, that ran away to 15MT, left a crater two hundred feet deep and more  than a mile across. However, I recently found something even more appalling. The Russians hold the dubious record for detonating the highest yield weapon ever, over Novaya Zemlya, on October 30th 1961. As with the American Mike shot, the Russians were uncertain as to the exact yield, so they replaced part of the weapon with a lead tamper. As it turned out, the weapon yielded 50MT, was visible from 600 miles away, and would have caused third degree burns at a distance of 62 miles. For a detailed account of the test, see here.

So, three books on nuclear weapons. Sobering reading, but as I said, giving me hope that these weapons will never be used in anger again. As a scientist, the technical side of this is very interesting, but both Richard Rhodes and Peter Hennessey manage to bring a human element into the story.

For the final word, I will point you at the book or film that first showed me how appalling such a war would be. “On the beach” by Neville Shute. His story is set in a post WWII pacific theatre, after a massive global exchange of dirty atomic weapons has taken place. The northern hemisphere (where all of the protagonists lived, ironically enough) has been contaminated by lithium-cobalt bombs, and everyone is presumed dead or dying. The focus of the story is a submarine crew relocated to Australia. The contamination cloud is spreading southwards with the prevailing weather systems, and ultimately everywhere on Earth will be contaminated. There will be nowhere to shelter or hide. Everything is going to die. I think that everyone should have to read this book. There is nobody who could read it and come out thinking that anyone could “win” a nuclear war. The film reference is here. The book can be bought here. I recommend that you do. I don’t mind admitting that I cried. How could we ever be so stupid? Thankfully, we haven’t (yet), and therein lies the ray of sunshine. Thanks to Richard for reminding me of it. Read it.

On the beach, by Neville Shute