Review: A Short History of Nuclear Folly by Rudolph Herzog

In the spirit of Dr. Strangelove and The Atomic Café, a blackly sardonic people’s history of atomic blunders and near-misses revealing the hushed-up and forgotten episodes in which the great powers gambled with catastrophe. Rudolph Herzog, the acclaimed author of Dead Funny, presents a devastating account of history’s most irresponsible uses of nuclear technology. From the rarely discussed nightmare of “Broken Arrows” (40 nuclear weapons lost during the Cold War) to “Operation Plowshare” (a proposal to use nuclear bombs for large engineering projects, such as a the construction of a second Panama Canal using 300 H-Bombs) . . . Herzog focuses in on long-forgotten nuclear projects that nearly led to disaster.

Translated by Jefferson Chase.

“The problem, both in the West and behind the Iron Curtain, was a lack of imagination. No one was able to picture the worst-case scenario.”

That was fun. Slightly preachy, but it comes with the territory of stating the obvious about dire things that threaten life on earth. Also, the author—or translator—likes to use the word ironically quite a lot which makes things a lot less ironic. This could have been an intentional choice considering the subject matter.

Herzog starts with a short personal history and an explanation. This book isn’t about the most well known nuclear events in our history—Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned in passing only—but about the lesser known chain(s) of events that led humanity to where we are now.

He talks about German scientists who were high currency in the nuclear game between superpowers before and after World War II. He talks about centrifuges, disasters and cleanups, the myth of tactical nuclear weapons, one man’s obsession, and nuclear tests in Australia as well as in Alaska. He talks about inhumane tests done in the name of medical science. The evolution of nuclear power and lost nuclear warheads are mentioned as well.

But what I found most fascinating weren’t the obvious problems with nuclear power—there’s waste, lots of it, and its half-life is 80 million years—or the ethical questions that come with it, nor was I particularly enthusiastic to read about the doomsday machines. No, it was the pacemakers.

Nuclear powered pacemakers. No need for battery changes!

Tiny problem is what happens after you’re dead. How do the authorities keep track of those plutonium batteries and do they end up in cemeteries or perhaps burning the back of an unfortunate orderly carrying a bin bag to trash. Oh, wait, that was the other interesting story. What happens when a company, a hospital acts responsibly but the government authorities do not? Four people die and hundreds suffer from radiation poisoning. And the death toll is relatively low thanks to an enterprising physicist.

I am somewhat familiar with the subject but people who hated sciences in school shouldn’t be afraid to read this book. There are a very few technical details and those that remain in the book are only there to further illustrate the historical context of each nuclear folly.

Because this book is more about the history and human stupidity when it comes to taking responsibility for scientific breakthroughs and how they’re applied. This book is about the dangers of letting military prioritise between human lives, nature, and fleeting glory in battle. Or worse than that, not even a victory in an actual battle, just a show of strength.

To learn from your mistakes or the mistakes of others, you must first study history.

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5 Responses to Review: A Short History of Nuclear Folly by Rudolph Herzog

  1. I am going to read this one for sure – as soon as I am being a bit less busy.

  2. rameau says:

    There's no rush. None. I've not read half of the books you've recommended and I've promised to read.

  3. LOL fair enough. Still I really WANT to read this one.

  4. I wrote a paper of the subject of the nuclear bomb and the arms race. One fact I thought was astonishing was when the scientists who split the first atom did it for the first time, they were not sure they could contain the reaction and that the fabric of the universe would not unravel.

  5. A very cavalier attitude – and it's been repeated over and over again. "Let's do it and think about the consequences later…" seems to be a kind of leitmotiv.

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