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Nuclear City

In response to:

Our Town from the April 29, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

I was delighted to see the lengthy space allotted to my book, Nuclear Culture [NYR, April 29], but felt reviewer Roger Sale failed to understand some of my most important points. Sale attributed my unease at the Hanford nuclear complex primarily to atmosphere—“messiness and sprawl” and “a human landscape of gas stations, car lots and fast foods.” But Nuclear Culture is not about aesthetic discomfort but about the mechanisms by which ordinary humans distance themselves from the implications of their actions.

Sale claims that “Hanford has few people left who, during or after the war, made plutonium for use in weapons.” But this founding generation—who manufactured the plutonium for Trinity, for Nagasaki and for over half the thermonuclear weapons America now possesses—is still a major force in Hanford’s culture. They tinker in their basement workshops, displaying both an inventive prowess, my respect for which Sale recognizes, and an immersion in mechanical creation which allows them to surrender judgments of ultimate consequence to those they term “the men who know best.” By framing these central figures as now irrelevant, Sale ignores not only the book’s initial third and much of its concluding sections, but also the connection between the workers’ everyday casualness and the threat to the human species which is the unacknowledged result of their labors.

Similarly, Sale confuses my depiction of the younger workers with endorsement of their boomer sensibility. Quoting my description of a young man named Jim, he says Jim echoes my perspective and gives my worries a voice because he “knows Hanford is a place one wants to get away from whenever possible.” But escape through mobility is just another trap, like the young workers’ beliefs that cynical comments and the wonders of sex and drugs and rock and roll will ultimately cure all their ills. The reasons I examined the constant motion and gallows humor of people like Jim was not to find some hidden comrades to appease what Sale labels my “nervous” “urban leftist” sensibility, but to investigate different but equally deadly mechanisms of distancing. It is in fact one of the tragedies of the nuclear culture that young workers can recite a dozen atomic horror stories while accepting as a birthright their “fair share of the bucks going round.”

Sale complains near the end that I’ve not sufficiently detailed atomic risks, that I’ve not explained precisely how Hanford differs from “other industrialized and institutionalized places.” This atomic environment can, without a doubt, be viewed as an archetype for all others where citizens relinquish responsibility for decisions affecting their lives and the lives of others. But Hanford is also important in its own right because, as people are suddenly beginning to realize, the consequences of atomic weapons are unprecedented. They should not be treated as blithely as the residents here do with the miniature mushroom clouds they use to decorate the jerseys, pennants and football helmets of the local high school teams.

I also saw no need to recapitulate the hundreds of studies on the risks of nuclear accidents and radiation exposure. It seemed enough to describe how normal human distraction contributed to a dozen accidents whose consequences ranged from the comic to the deadly, to bring up the Mancuso report’s link between radiation doses and cancer incidence in Hanford workers, to explore major problems like tank leakage in the world’s largest atomic waste dump. To have abandoned examination of the ordinary humans for studies and statistics on nuclear hazard would have been to undertake a different effort.

The problem with the review is that Nuclear Culture is, more than anything else, about mechanisms of complacency. And for Sale to ignore this is to miss Hanford’s significance both for its workers and for all of us.

Paul Loeb

Seattle, Washington

Roger Sale replies:

I did not accuse Paul Loeb of having an aesthetic sense in his description of the TriCities, though I’m not sure having one might not have helped. Nor do I much like using “archetype” when one means “model.” But other than that, it seems to me Loeb describes his book well enough, and so too does my review.

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