Nuclear Blast From The Past: Tectonics of Science, Politics, War, & Climate Change

Portrait of Linus Pauling. Image credit:Academy of Achievement

It's unclear to what extent radioactive materials have been released from the earthquake-ruined Japanese nuclear power plant(s). For background, see NYT story, Danger Posed by Radioactivity in Japan Hard to Assess.

In the meantime, let's hope for the best.

Having grown up in a time when nuclear bombs were commonly tested above ground (a practice which was ended by UN Treaty, as implemented in fall of 1963), I thought it might add some perspective to discuss how Americans responded to the the nuclear hazards of a half century ago and also to draw some parallels to the present threat of climate change.Well after the atmospheric test ban was implemented, US public school teachers were still handing out monthly potassium iodide tablets to students in grades K-12. We kids appreciatively chewed the tablets, as they tasted much like Malted Milk Balls. (Oddly, there were no iodide tablets given out over summer vacation, which made me think - I was a kid remember - that either in summer we were relatively safe from nuclear attack or else somebody in charge was just plain stupid. Not sure how private schools handled it- if at all.)

Note: at the time it was not explained to school children whether the KI tabs were given to protect against an imminent nuclear attack versus preventing uptake of iodine isotopes already in the food chain.

The science behind potassium iodide tabs.
Non-radioactive iodine contained in the KI tablets saturated childrens' growing thyroid glands, preventing uptake of the hazardous iodine-131, which, produced mostly by the atmospheric detonation of atomic bombs by India, [then] Russia, France, England, and the USA, was precipitating on all lands of the world, along with equally or more dangerous Strontium-90 and cesium 137.

These hazardous radionuclides were getting into human food - especially dairy products and meat - as animals grazed on the 'hot' grass. (In that I lived in Wisconsin, the 'Dairy State,' I can recall that the dairy lobby was not pleased with this information. Discussing it was a bad move for a while. The adverse publicity might have pushed some conservative dairy farmers toward the 'liberal' camp (meaning they became opposed to atmospheric bomb testing), kinda like those Milwaukee County Sewer Socialists, opposed to pooping in the drinking water, and proud of their stance. Aside: my guess is that the current WI Governor, Scott Walker, is too young to have experienced these political sentiments.

Following several mandatory classroom showings of the totally-lame Duck and Cover film, in which it was taught that hiding under one's desk and putting hands behind one's head would actually protect kids from an atomic bomb, I realized that much of what 'the authorities' were telling us could well be total BS. When I saw bomb shelter construction being pushed on TV (might have even been a Disney production - was Goofy a character in it - anyone remember?) that nailed it for me. Governments could not be trusted to tell the truth about something this dangerous.

A sudden shift to trust, or to lack of trust, in government has a long half-life.
When I later read about what happened to the famed scientist Linus Pauling for opposing the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, I decided that science was totally cool and that only scientists could be trusted when stakes were this high. (Shades of Climate Change). I have a hunch there are many who shared this sentiment, having gone through the same experiences. But, many others fell into the other bucket...more on that down the page.

This is what I'm talking about, courtesy of Academy of Achievement.

The detonation of the first atomic weapons in 1945 posed an ethical dilemma for Pauling. The more he studied the effects of radiation, the more he became convinced that a nuclear war, or even the continued atmospheric testing of these weapons, could do irreparable damage to the environment and the human population. Because the government was attempting to conceal the dangers of nuclear testing from the public, Pauling believed it was his duty to speak out, but in the first years of the cold war, many Americans considered such dissent treasonous. Pauling could not remain silent. In books, interviews and press conferences, he educated the public about the hazards of radiation and campaigned for peace, disarmament and the end of nuclear testing. These activities cost him friends, funding for his research, and the job he had held at Cal Tech for 33 years.

The State Department revoked Pauling's passport, but when he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954 and was unable to leave the U.S. to accept it, the pressure of world opinion forced the Department to relent. Pauling continued his peace activism, and in 1957 drafted a petition calling for an end to the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. By the time Pauling delivered his petition to the UN, he had collected the signatures of 11,021 scientists from all over the world. This campaign led to a Nobel Peace Prize for Pauling in 1962, and to the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.


Conclusions and exasperation.

  • If I lived in Japan I'd take my potassium iodide pills when they're offered - the medical science is solid.

  • Global hazards of atmospheric testing and nuclear war far exceed those posed today by earthquakes or by nuclear power plants.

  • Hazards posed by climate change far outweigh those posed collectively by nuclear war, nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

  • For about a year now I couldn't comprehend how self-proclaimed 'Tea Partiers' - typically middle-class and college-educated boomers - couldn't see the difference between trusting government and trusting reputable scientists who are struggling to shape public policy in an intellectually honest, courageous way. (Gen X'rs, Y'rs, and Millenials exempted.) Then it hit me...

    It was precisely because of the threat of nuclear war they grew up with and the because of the role of 'science' in creating a childhood dread about the future that they don't see scientists as any more trustworthy than politicians. Have you seen any Tea Party signs asking for more nuclear power?


  • Where are you Jim Hansen? Don't give up, man. You're all we have. Take your vitamin C and keep on truckin.'

  • I decided to only allow myself one day per week to be depressed about climate change. Today is it. Is that too much?

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