“Seldom more than thrice annually did any layman or stranger travel the old road that passed the abbey, in spite of the oasis which permitted that abbey’s existence and which would have made the monastery a natural inn for wayfarers if the road were not a road from nowhere, leading nowhere, in terms of the modes of travel in those times. Perhaps, in earlier ages, the road had been a portion of the shortest route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso; south of the abbey it intersected a similar strip of broken stone that stretched east- and westward. The crossing was worn by time, but not by Man, of late.”
I traveled that “old road” when it was still relatively new and heavily trafficked, and I was already a grown-up. I also traveled it when I was a teenager -- the version with “broken stone” -- through the blistered backlands of what had once been the American West, coming upon the “sports,” the mutants, “the misborn” who, in those grim lands, sometimes looked upon human stragglers “as a dependable source of venison.”
And if you’re now thoroughly confused, I don’t blame you. Let me explain. The passage quoted above comes from A Canticle for Leibowitz, a still-riveting novel published in 1959. I probably read it a year or two later and in that I was anything but unique. Like many American teens of the 1950s and early 1960s, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the irradiated lands between the Great Salt Lake and Old El Paso or other planetary dead zones like it, thanks to what was then called “pulp fiction.”
In those days, post-apocalyptic futures were us.
Canticle, like many novels of its era, was set in a new dark age after humans had destroyed so many of their own and so much of their civilization, leaving behind a mutant planet. It didn’t take a lot of smarts to know how they did that either: with the newly discovered power of the atom -- already loosed on the perfectly real cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- aided and abetted by the hubris and bumbling of humanity. (I hope, given the headlines of the moment, you see where I’m heading.)
Canticle was the best of a bevy of post-apocalyptic novels. I read them often enough in those years, just I snuck into a Broadway movie theater in New York City, my hometown, to watch the world end in the long, dreary film version of Nevil Shute’s eerie novel On the Beach.
Of course, the great weakness of any novel in which life as we know it ends is that, when you shut the cover, your life and life around you go on as before. Still, in those years, we were gripped by the apocalyptic imagination of the moment, caught by pop novelists as well as a bevy of on-screen stand-ins for the split atom in B-movies aimed at a new teen audience -- alien intruders and invaders, mutant creatures (ants, spiders, even rabbits), previously slumbering dinosaurs and assorted reptiles, even irradiated clouds from atomic tests, not to speak of super weapons run amok on planet Earth and other planets as well. Our imaginations were repeatedly -- to use a word coined by the Hollywood magazine Variety -- “Hiroshimated.”
All of this, for the young, was given a certain reality by the sirens that periodically screamed outside our school windows to signal the start of citywide nuclear tests. We would then “duck and cover” under our desks as protection against Soviet A-bombs, while the Conelrad emergency warning network interrupted normal radio broadcasts and the press reported on how many millions of Americans had “died” in events no less imaginary or, in their own way, scary than the pulp fiction we read.
In his book Nuclear Fear, Spencer Weart reports, for instance, that the Detroit public schools of the early 1950s used the pamphlet “Survival under Atomic Attack” as a “fourth-grade text.” He adds: “Since the children might be separated from their homes, Detroit parents were asked to put names on clothing with indelible ink, and about half complied. But experts frowned on identification by marking clothes, since ‘clothing can be destroyed by blast and fire.’ Some cities therefore handed out metal identification tags to hundreds of thousands of school children.”
Peaceful as our actual American world was, it wasn’t that hard for us to imagine it in flames and ashes, and that was before President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation on television on October 22, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Soviet Union, to indicate -- or so it seemed to many of us at the time -- that we might really be toast tomorrow. ("We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth; but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.") I was then just 18 years into a life that, as far as I was concerned, hadn’t even begun.
Of course, when the worst didn’t happen and the first U.S-Soviet arms agreement sent nuclear tests underground and out of sight in 1963, and not so long after that, the Vietnam War sent protest in other directions, the anti-nuclear apocalyptic imagination was essentially entombed. It was so much simpler to stop thinking about end-of-the-world possibilities and let those mutants and “sports” wander the blistered landscape of our unconscious unnoticed.
Except for a sudden, startling, and massive anti-nuclear upsurge that began after a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 and lasted into the early years of the Reagan presidency, the nuclear issue remained largely absent from American lives. In more recent years, our nuclear fate (though not Iran’s, Iraq’s, and North Korea’s) has generally found itself elbowed to the back of a jostling cue of potentially apocalyptic dangers, including of course global warming.
And so, for decades, that part of my childhood remained the dark but largely forgotten underside of the golden 1950s. I never thought I’d want it back, but with six nuclear plants threatening to melt down in Fukushima, Japan, I find that I do.
The Alienation Zones of the Future?
Not to put too fine a point on it, as an unfolding nightmare Fukushima already inhabits territory perilously close to those irradiated landscapes of the pulp fantasies of my childhood -- only you wouldn’t know it. As “not as bad as Chernobyl” slips into the fog, it might be better to describe the situation at Fukushima as “remarkably unlike Chernobyl” in rural Ukraine, where almost 25 years ago, a single uncontained nuclear reactor with a graphite core blew.
We now contemplate the possibility of multiple reactors accompanied by multiple containment pools for what is euphemistically called “spent” fuel (when it isn’t “spent” at all) -- at least 11,195 such rods, 1760 metric tons of them -- self-destructing in a highly industrialized country smaller than California with the third largest economy on the planet. In a situation we’ve never faced before, except perhaps in fiction, to talk about “safety” and offer “reassurance” should ring oddly indeed.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m no scientist and have no scientific basis for assessing what’s going to happen in Japan, but after days reading the news copiously and watching endless TV reports, I do know a cultural taboo when I see one. In case you hadn’t noticed, while each morning’s screaming headlines contain terrible words -- “dire,” “catastrophic,” “ever worsening,” “racing against the clock” -- along with terrifying descriptions and ever-extending timelines for the crisis, few (not even, it seems, most anti-nuclear writers and groups) can bring themselves to speculate publicly about what might actually happen, no less ask the single scariest question: What’s the worst that might happen?
In mainstream news reports everywhere, you can feel the urge not to tumble into the irradiated zone of the nuclear imagination. And so one of the strangest aspects of the massive coverage of the Fukushima catastrophe -- wrapped as it is inside an earthquake/tsunami double-disaster -- has been the lack of reporting on or exploration of what the worst human and environmental consequences might be. It’s as if those who report on and assess reality for us had been shoved to the edge of some cliff and none of them could bear to look down or try to describe what might be below.
And yet the question unspoken isn’t necessarily the question unasked, or tens of thousands of Japanese outside the danger zone, including many residents of Tokyo, a city of 13 million that lies only 150 miles away, wouldn’t be turning themselves into “nuclear refugees,” despite the stated advice of their government. Otherwise Americans, thousands of miles away, wouldn’t be rushing to clear pharmacies of iodide pills, again despite the clear reassurances of top government officials and leading experts.
So what’s the worst that can happen? Obviously, I don’t know. All I know is that, with our experts largely silent on the subject, perhaps it’s worth calling upon those “pulp” novelists of the 1950s and 1960s to prod us into facing the unexplored question -- especially since their mutant landscapes are still part of our consciousness. We certainly know that, in the wake of Chernobyl, 15,000 square miles of Ukraine -- an expanse the size of Switzerland -- was designated a "contaminated area," including the "ghost town" of Pripyat a mile from that plant where 50,000 people once lived. Ukraine's uninhabitable areas exist inside what, as if out of one of those old novels, is still officially known as an “Alienation Zone.” We also know that, with spent fuel rods and one reactor core at Fukushima containing plutonium, an element with a half-life of 24,000 years (some of which will still be around nearly half a million years from now), damage could be long-lasting. Assumedly, the reactors themselves will have to be entombed in some fashion for all future history.
But what about irradiated zones? What, if the worst happens, about “dead zones” of “hundreds of square miles,” no less 15,000 of them, on the heavily urbanized main island of Japan? Or worse: What about the possibility that a city of 13 million inhabitants could become essentially uninhabitable? Small towns in Ukraine are one thing, but great cities, the very essence of modern civilization? What about that? What then? What in the world would that -- or worse -- mean in such a small, highly industrialized land (and what in the world would it mean for the rest of us)?
Calling on the Nuclear Apocalyptic Imagination
Right now, the experts and the media have barely raised the most expectable of possibilities in a situation that began with the thoroughly unexpected, a 9.0 earthquake, followed by a tsunami so powerful that it breached or topped defensive coastal walls and, in some places, swept six miles inland, leading to a nuclear disaster the likes of which has never been faced and for which no preparations seem to have been made.
Does this really give us confidence that the same event will somehow end within the bounds of the expectable? Is it better for governments to consistently underplay or lie about present and possible future realities, to offer ordinary citizens nothing but not the truth, lest they be “panicked” -- and for the media, however half-consciously, to similarly shy off possibilities that might truly frighten?
After all, we’re talking about atomic power; about, that is, the primordial forces of nature. So why shouldn’t we raise primordial questions that remind us of the powers we insist, most of the time, on handling so blithely? As Jonathan Schell wrote recently, “a stumbling, imperfect, probably imperfectable creature like ourselves is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom... The earth is provided with enough primordial forces of destruction without our help in introducing more.” Understandably, for all sorts of reasons, including venality and simple fear, governments (and those who write about them) have the urge to try to tame the atom even as it threatens us, to turn Fukushima into a garden-variety 24/7 story, which it isn’t.
It’s important, however, to ask about the worst, even in a purely speculative manner, since it lurks just below the surface anyway. The belief that panic will be less if we say nothing about what most of us are thinking is probably untrue. And should some unpredicted worst never happen, we can all breathe a sigh of relief, and consider whether we really want to face such worsts the next time around, whether this is actually how we want to live on this planet.
Consider one irony: from almost the moment they happened, the 9/11 attacks in New York City were treated as if a nuclear strike had occurred. (Hence, the instantaneous name for the site where the World Trade Towers once stood, Ground Zero, a term previously reserved for the place where an atomic explosion took place.) Ever since then, this nation has been convulsed by, and has discussed ad nauseum, various worst-case possibilities and potentially apocalyptic dangers from terrorism, which remains a relatively minor threat on our planet and has, since 9/11, posed few real dangers for Americans.
In those years, in fact, no apocalyptic fantasies about terror seemed too far out to raise publicly or too unlikely to grip a nation ready to be scared to death. To take but one example, in a 2008 presidential debate among four Democratic candidates, ABC’s Charlie Gibson devoted the first 15 minutes to “what is generally agreed to be the greatest threat to the United States today”: "a nuclear attack on an American city" by al-Qaeda. This was quite typical of American discourse for the last decade, despite no evidence whatsoever that al Qaeda had such a bomb or access to one or was capable of transporting it to, and setting it off in, an American city.
Isn’t it strange then that, faced with an actual unprecedented nuclear event following on natural disasters that verged on the locally apocalyptic, so few can bring themselves to discuss possibilities? Perhaps it’s time for our news outlets to call instead on Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road, and so on the nuclear apocalyptic imagination to give the experts a hand and remind us of the nature of Alienation Zones.
[Note for readers: In the couple of days since I first drafted this piece, a small number of articles speculating about worst-case possibilities have begun to appear (though generally not in the mainstream). Among them, the always sharp Justin Elliott over at Salon.com wrote “Japan’s Nuclear Danger Explained,” and at Mother Jones, Kate Sheppard interviewed expert Robert Alvarez who suggested that, under the worst conditions, an area “as large as several northeastern states” could become uninhabitable. In the mainstream, eleven days after the Fukushima incident began, pieces have begun sidling up to worst-case scenarios mainly via descriptions of what happened at Chernobyl almost a quarter century ago and through scattered Chernobyl references (“If the accident becomes bigger, like Chernobyl…”).
At TomDispatch, there are a few older posts that remain relevant: my own rather personal “Hiroshima Story” from 2004, a striking 2007 interview with Jonathan Schell, “The Bomb in the Mind,” and two memorable pieces on America’s Western nuclear testing grounds, “The Museum of Attempted Suicide” by filmmaker Jon Else (The Day After Trinity) and Rebecca Solnit’s “Nuclear Nevada,” both from 2004.]