Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age, by Fred Pearce, Beacon Press.

Fallout Fred Pearce Book Cover

Fred Pearce’s “Fallout” provides a broad overview of humanity’s 73-year-long experience with nuclear technology, covering everything from Hiroshima to Fukushima and all of the significant disasters that occurred in between.

So it’s hardly a surprise that “Most of us never believe what we are told about anything nuclear and always think the worst,” writes Pearce in the book, which relates more than a few examples of nuclear accidents where authorities have withheld the truth from those who have been impacted. Nobody told people near Denver that they had been showered with radioactive material after a fire at Rocky Flats, to name one less-well-known example.

Pearce begins the book with his visit to Hiroshima before moving on to the subject of atomic testing, much of which took place in the American West and the seemingly idyllic Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. (It’s in the Marshall Islands where one finds Runit Dome [aka “The Tomb”]—a “concrete capped sarcophagus … that looks like a half-buried UFO sticking out of the sand,” which is leaking its buried radioactive soil into the soil and ocean.)

But American readers are less likely to know about the extent of Russia’s testing of nuclear weapons. Notably, more than half of the cumulative explosive force of all weapons tested into the atmosphere occurred on the Russian Artic island of Novaya Zemlya, which on October 30, 1961, hosted the test of the biggest nuclear weapon ever exploded—the fifty megaton Tsar bomb.

The Tsar bomb was “more than three times bigger than the largest U.S. bomb. It had ten times the explosive force of all the weapons used in the Second World War, and its mushroom cloud grew to seven times the height of Mount Everest and measured sixty miles across. The heat caused third-degree burns seventy miles away and window panes shattered six hundred miles away,” relates Pearce.

And that’s just one of “more than five hundred atomic weapons that have been tested into the atmosphere at thirteen main sites, with a cumulative explosive force of 400 megatons, equivalent to a staggering twenty-nine thousand Hiroshima bombs,” notes the author.

The bottom line is that no part of the world has been spared from radioactive fallout, and there are parts of the planet you’ve probably never heard of that have been devastated by, say, radioactive effluent. In fact, the most compelling parts of the book cover the places and events you’re less likely to have heard of, like the contamination of Siberia’s Techa River and the explosion at [what is now known as] Ozersk and its impact on the nearby village of Satlykovo.

Along those lines, there’s a chapter on the silos in Colorado that contain weapons designed to obliterate cities in other parts of the world. Colorado, of course, was once home to Uravan, the former uranium mining town that was razed and buried due to fears of environmental contamination.

Then, the reader is also reminded of the events of January 17, 1966, when a B-52 holding four hydrogen bombs crashed into its refueling plane, with three of the bombs landing in Palomares, Spain, and another offshore.

Going even further back in history, Pearce devotes a few pages to reminding us that once-upon-a-time radium was believed to have healing powers. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, with the risks of exposure eventually coming to light via the horrific deaths of The Radium Girls.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is Pearce’s discussion of the breakdown of security at former nuclear labs, testing sites and power plants—particularly those across the former Soviet Union—which has long been a tremendous concern, as it raises the chance that a nuclear weapon or nuclear materials could get into the hands of terrorists.

Finally, in the penultimate chapter, Pearce explores the problem of dealing with the world’s growing inventory of radioactive waste, little of which “has been successfully put out of harm’s way,” he notes.

All this said, Pearce isn’t particularly optimistic about the future. “I have begun to wonder if we can ever get this right, or if there is something irretrievably dysfunctional about our relationship with nuclear technology,” he concludes. “After more than seven decades living with the power of the atom, surely we should have learned to make sense of it by now. But all the evidence suggests not.”

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