If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Los Alamos

A husband-and-wife team of tourists sees the sights of Cold War weapons projects

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Sharon Weinberger and her husband, Nathan Hodge, spent two years touring the world’s nuclear weapons sites. What they found calls to mind William Faulkner’s famous remark ”The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Though the ­public debate over nuclear ­weapons is alive, its terms are quaint, having hardly changed since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent illusion of being on a ­”holiday from history.” Neither those who favor the continued ­existence of a nuclear deterrent force nor those who oppose it seem to have bothered to update their arguments.

Those who argue for the weapons tend to base their reasoning on the Cold War policy of ”mutually assured destruction,” an ­incomplete argument in a time of ­suicide bombers. Those who argue against the ­weapons generally demand ­unilateral U.S. disarmament, which ignores the ­complexities posed by North Korea and Iran. But the real contrast is between those who care at all and the vast disengaged majority, which treats nuclear weapons and their regulation as a problem for the history books.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is making policy decisions to address its aging nuclear stockpile and ­deteriorating facilities—decisions that barely get mentioned in the newspapers. ”What ­happens when a war ends,” the authors ask, ”but the warriors don’t go home?”

The couple’s defense-writing credentials are as impeccable as they come. Weinberger is ­editor in chief of Defense Technology International, and Hodge writes for ­industry gold standard Jane’s Defence Weekly. Their book ­contains as much ­history as a ­college text, but years of magazine ­writing have given Weinberger and Hodge the spoonful of sugar they need to make the medicine go down.

That sugar is delivered in the form of jaunty, you-are-there travel writing big on local color from such undeniably colorful places as Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, the Kwajalein atoll, in the Marshall Islands, and Semipalatinsk Test Site, in Kazakhstan. The tone is neither pro- nor antinuclear, but the authors can’t resist making the occasional bone-dry aside in the footnotes. It comes rather as a shock to learn that the U.S. Department of Energy got around to canceling the annual deer hunt at Tennessee’s Y-12 National Security Complex only after 9/11. Before then, it seems, nobody had even worried about letting armed, uncleared individuals roam a nuclear installation.

The book, which goes on sale this month, succeeds in its attempt to resurrect the nuclear dialogue largely because it refrains from drowning the reader in facts. The fancy wrapping around the complex package makes this a good beach book for engineers.

For additional images, see Slideshow: A Nuclear Family Vacation.

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