The detonation of a Soviet hydrogen bomb, Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, 1953

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The detonation of a Soviet hydrogen bomb, Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, August 1953

Back when movies were still available on VHS, a friend gave me Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (1955). (The Japanese title, Ikimono no kiroku, translates literally as “Record of a Living Being.”) Like most of Kurosawa’s films set in contemporary Japan, it was eclipsed by his masterpieces set in the Heian or Sengoku periods, such as Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Ran (1985), and I rarely encounter anyone who has seen it. Even though I am no longer able to watch the videotape, I think about the movie constantly.

I Live in Fear tells the story of Kiichi Nakajima (played by Toshiro Mifune), an industrialist who has become obsessed with the prospect of a nuclear conflict between the superpowers, in which he fears that Japan would be among the first countries to be destroyed because radioactive fallout would concentrate over the archipelago. He wants to relocate his entire family—not just his wife and four children, but also his two mistresses and the children they have together—to a farm in Brazil. His legitimate children refuse, largely because of the comforts of their lives in the postwar economic boom, and they move to have him declared mentally incompetent.

The central question of the film is whether it is insane or irrational to think that Japan was particularly victimized by the terrors of the nuclear age. It was released a decade after American planes dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, devastating them in the final days of World War II. A year before, in 1954, radioactive ash from an American hydrogen-bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands blanketed a Japanese tuna-fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5, sickening the crew and killing one of them. Repeatedly I Live in Fear asks: Is it madness to be preoccupied with the nuclear danger, or is it madness to ignore it? Is the threat itself the cause of madness?

Since the atomic age began, Japan has occupied an unenviable place at the center of global nuclear fears. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Lucky Dragon have become bywords for the dangers of nuclear war and nuclear testing. And with the accident in March 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant—caused by a tsunami that flooded the facility after a massive underwater earthquake—Japan also experienced the terror of reactor meltdowns. One wonders what Nakajima would have made of that.

Other places beyond Japan are also fixed in nuclear memory, including Bikini, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island. The world tends to pay less attention to these disasters, focusing instead on the instantaneous peril threatened by nuclear weapons, which could be launched across the globe in under an hour and vaporize cities. This anxiety is constant—from North Korea’s periodic missile tests to Iran’s uranium enrichment and Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats in Ukraine—and more than justified. But we should not forget the plight of the residents at contaminated sites, who live not only with the radioactive poisoning of air, soil, and water during their lifetimes, but with the knowledge that it will endure for decades, if not centuries.

Four recent books chronicle the history of such literal hot spots, raising questions about how we got here—conscious of the dangers of nuclear technology but contemplating its expansion in response to a fossil fuel–induced climate catastrophe. Walter Pincus, widely known for his decades of national security reporting at The Washington Post, wrote his first short piece on one of these overlooked sites more than half a century ago, in 1966. Now in Blown to Hell he forcefully argues that blindness to the terrifying aftermath of nuclear detonations has consistently marginalized some of the most traumatized victims of the atomic age.

In a series of short chapters built on archival research and decades of interviews, Blown to Hell tells this history from the point of view of the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands in Micronesia—the location in the 1940s and 1950s of some of the most devastating American nuclear tests. Now a republic consisting of five islands and twenty-nine atolls, it is by any measure a small place; its population around 1950 was less than 15,000. Since the sixteenth century, the islands have been repeatedly colonized: first claimed by the Spanish (although their name derives from John Marshall, a British explorer who visited in 1788), then bought by the Germans in 1885, they were occupied during World War I by Japan, which ruled them after the war as a League of Nations mandate. In 1944 the Americans drove out the Japanese and then stayed, administering the islands as a trust under the auspices of the UN Security Council. When the US looked for a place to conduct nuclear tests in 1946, it settled on the Marshall Islands. The last explosion there took place in 1958, after which the tests moved to Nevada (and soon underground), but the Marshallese are still suffering the consequences.


Although Pincus works hard to put the islanders at the forefront of his story, it is not until the second half of the book that we hear in their words what they have suffered: environmental devastation, forced migration, elevated cancer rates, radiation sickness, and loss of livelihood and cultural continuity. Here Pincus gives us a concrete idea of what it might mean to be “caught in a future nuclear war.” For the first half of the book, however, he is constrained by the archival sources, so we see the Marshallese from the vantage point of the US government—the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the navy, and especially the Atomic Energy Commission—as it blew apart atoll after atoll.

The first nuclear explosions after Nagasaki were the Able and Baker test shots at Bikini Atoll in July 1946. Both were ostensibly to test whether naval vessels could survive an atomic blast, but Pincus shows that the main purposes were really to adjudicate interservice conflicts in the US military—to reassure the navy that it would not be eclipsed by an ascendant air force (established the following year)—and intimidate the parties negotiating atomic arms control at the United Nations.

Little was learned about the weapons from a military point of view. Able was a rerun of Nagasaki—an air drop from a B-29. Baker was the same device but detonated underwater. The explosion provided one of the most iconic nuclear images of all time, characterized by one Manhattan Project veteran as “Niagara Falls in reverse shot up over an area fully 2,200 feet in diameter.” (The news coverage around the test inspired the name of the “explosive” two-piece women’s swimsuit.) A prospective third shot was canceled only after President Harry Truman learned how few bombs remained in his arsenal.

But testing continued. Operation Sandstone, at Enewetak Atoll in 1948, validated new, much more efficient bomb core designs, as did the subsequent Greenhouse series of 1951. The first full-scale hydrogen-bomb test, Ivy Mike in November 1952, evaporated Elugelab Island in the atoll. And then the Castle Bravo test of March 1954, once again at Bikini, irradiated the Lucky Dragon and—almost always left unsaid in the standard reports—countless Marshallese.

They were shuffled around to clear the way for testing, and the fallout from each blast devastated the local fishing grounds and trade in copra (dried coconut kernels). Pincus documents that the US government knew fallout was dangerous years before it showered radioactive isotopes over an unwilling population. American physicians and ecologists took measurements and offered medical care, but it is hard to disagree with Pincus’s assessment: “Pawns or guinea pigs, the Marshallese were being used by their American overseers.”

As noted by the report of the Special Joint Committee of the Micronesian Congress on compensation for radiation damage, under the aegis of Senator Olympio Borja of the Northern Marianas, “No other group of people…has been exposed to the same amounts and differing kinds of radioactivity, and no other group in the world has been so carefully studied for the results of such effects.” The Marshallese deserve much more than the limited compensation the American government has offered. Although they gained independence from US control in 1979, much of Bikini, Enewetak, and Rongelap Atolls still cannot be inhabited, decontamination efforts having repeatedly failed to cleanse radioactive cesium and other isotopes from the ecosystem.

The other dominant nuclear power, the Soviet Union, had its own version of the Marshall Islands, but it was located in the center of the country: a test site known as the Polygon in Semipalatinsk, in the northeastern corner of what is today Kazakhstan. Togzhan Kassenova’s remarkable Atomic Steppe offers both a scholarly and a deeply personal view of the damage that more than seventy years of nuclear testing have caused to the soil and the people of this region. Her father, Oumirserik Kassenov, was the head of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies and helped craft nuclear policies during the 1990s.

Most of the Soviet nuclear tests took place at Semipalatinsk, beginning in August 1949. (From 1955 to 1990, roughly 130 explosions also took place in Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.) The first, which the Americans dubbed “Joe-1,” was succeeded by a staggering 455 others, including 116 atmospheric tests before the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty abolished these in 1963. Kassenova shows that the Polygon complex was the most significant manifestation of Soviet dominance in this region, which, though sparsely populated, had long had a strong cultural resonance for ethnic Kazakhs.

When Moscow’s control began to fray under Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the late 1980s, local mobilization around the environmental and health harm wrought by testing proved pivotal in the protests that spurred the transition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Kassenova emphasizes the initiative of Kazakh politicians, scientists, and activists in helping to end nuclear testing and close down the site; the Polygon’s last underground explosion was in November 1989.


The Kazakhstanis inherited more than toxic isotopes in the soil. The Soviets also left behind more than 1,400 strategic nuclear warheads—including 104 SS-18 missiles, each capable of carrying ten warheads and of reaching the United States—endowing Kazakhstan with the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal. As in independent Ukraine, which had the third-largest arsenal, the government of Kazakhstan did not have operational control—meaning Moscow had sole power to launch the weapons—while their possession imposed serious costs, not least diplomatically. Kazakhstan was faced with enormous pressure from the Russian Federation and the United States to turn the warheads over for destruction, in accordance with the 1991 START I treaty.

Now a nuclear policy analyst in the US, Kassenova is exceptionally clear about the intricate negotiations in the early 1990s that led to Kazakhstan’s ceding its weapons and joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-weapons state (by a parliamentary vote of 238 to 1). This was followed by numerous complexities in securing the warheads and removing stockpiled fissile material from Semipalatinsk. It’s especially surreal today to read about the close US–Russian collaboration during this period. Ultimately, American security guarantees to Kazakhstan and both technical and economic aid secured its cooperation. (The 1994 Budapest Memorandum assured Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine that Russia, as well as the US and UK, would never deploy military force against them—a promise flagrantly violated by Moscow this year in Ukraine.)

The most touching parts of Kassenova’s book, as with Pincus’s, document the suffering of those irradiated by repeated explosions. Rains following one twenty-seven-kiloton test in 1956 sent 638 people to hospitals with radiation poisoning. She estimates that more than a million people were displaced or harmed by the nuclear testing in Semipalatinsk, which led to thousands of deaths and thousands more illnesses. Although it has been over thirty years since its last test, residents continue to suffer severe illnesses, and the land is contaminated for the foreseeable future.

The rest of the planet is more connected to these sites than most people realize, through the radioactive residues released by both the nuclear arms race and the nuclear power industry. The extent of our vulnerability to toxic winds and waters is most visible when things go radically wrong.

Serhii Plokhy’s Atoms and Ashes focuses on the six worst nuclear accidents: the 1954 Castle Bravo test and the irradiation of the Lucky Dragon (discussed in every book under review except Kassenova’s); the apocalyptic explosion in September 1957 of a nuclear waste dump in the town of Kyshtym, in the Soviet Urals, which was successfully covered up until the late 1980s; the three-day fire at a fissile-material production reactor at Windscale, on the Cumbrian coast of Great Britain, less than two weeks later; the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania; the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant in Soviet Ukraine (the worst in its impact on populations, but still releasing less contamination than Kyshtym); and the multiple meltdowns at Fukushima in 2011.

He is far from the first to juxtapose these disasters, but it is not entirely obvious why one should. The latter three form a triad of catastrophic failures of civilian reactors dedicated to electricity production (though Three Mile Island was essentially contained); the first three, by contrast, were related in different ways to nuclear weapons: a test, a conflagration at a storage facility for waste from the production of fissile fuel for warheads, and a fire at a production reactor.

Each incident makes for absorbing reading. Plokhy invokes a world facing climate catastrophe and notes that 440 nuclear reactors currently supply roughly 10 percent of global electricity. That means less use of fossil fuels, but nuclear energy also costs more per unit of electricity than either fossil fuels or renewables; reactors are expensive to build because it is horrifying when they fail, so we encumber them with fail-safes. Plokhy’s conclusions are sensible but anodyne: “Strengthen oversight of existing nuclear facilities, increase security and safety of rapidly aging nuclear power plants, and invest resources to achieve those goals.” It is unclear, in the end, whether he wants to see more nuclear power or less.

Atoms and Ashes is a sequel of sorts to Plokhy’s Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe (2018), and this reminds us that he arrived at nuclear topics after many years of writing Ukrainian history. Chernobyl still evokes a particular horror for European and American readers, heightened for many by the vivid HBO miniseries in 2019. The seizure in February of the Chernobyl power plant by invading Russian forces on the first day of the war prompted widespread censure even amid the larger shock of the attack on Ukraine: unprotected Russian soldiers who surely did not know any better camped on contaminated soil and inhaled dust; there were reports of at least one death from radiation poisoning. (The Russians withdrew from Chernobyl at the end of March.) There are even greater dangers with military actions near operational nuclear power plants, such as the recent clashes around Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest.

Even as Plokhy ranges in Atoms and Ashes across the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the South Pacific, the questions he poses resonate especially with Chernobyl. His analytical perspective stresses political cover-ups, the heroic efforts of those on the scene to cope with the crisis, and the legacies of contamination. This is a salutary corrective to the established narratives of the atomic age, which often focus on American cases, and it leaves us with the clear impression that a Chernobyl can occur almost anywhere.

In Political Fallout, Toshihiro Higuchi likewise decenters an American perspective in his account of the origins of the “nuclear Anthropocene.” His history begins with the Castle Bravo test and follows the political repercussions in Japan, the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and then the international forum of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). By the time we get to the Partial Test Ban Treaty—which outlawed tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and in space—the dust had settled, literally and figuratively, with a scientific and political consensus about the harms of the fission byproducts strontium-90, iodine-131, and cesium-137. Higuchi’s careful analysis of reams of unpublished archival documents and tedious committee reports in three languages from half a dozen countries brings to light both the geopolitical and the scientific stakes in establishing the harms of atmospheric testing.

Decades before the Manhattan Project, the scientific community understood that radiation could cause physiological damage. What the Americans did not realize until the Trinity test of July 1945 in the deserts of Alamogordo, New Mexico, was how far the winds could carry radioactive isotopes. Dust from Trinity precipitated into an Indiana river, the water from which was incorporated into strawboard packaging, damaging films in upstate New York at Eastman Kodak. Following the dust clouds became a way of studying explosions for scientific and military purposes—and detecting Soviet tests in the gusts wafting across the Pacific from Semipalatinsk.

That Castle Bravo’s fallout strayed beyond the predicted exclusion zone should not have been a shock. In a gripping chapter, Higuchi follows the isotopes not only into the bloodstreams of the Lucky Dragon crew members, but also into the lucrative tuna markets of Japan in the weeks and months afterward. The repeated pleas by Japanese officials that the Americans admit what happened “badly shook the US-Japan alliance, stalled the bilateral settlement talks, and sparked the groundswell of antinuclear sentiments in Japan.” The pattern repeats many times: after a nuclear test Soviets and Americans alike were stunned by the unexpectedly rapid spread of contaminants across the planet and throughout the food chain. A memorable campaign in the 1950s documented the extent of exposure when American suburban mothers mailed in their children’s baby teeth so that the levels of radiation in them could be measured—radioactive strontium substitutes for calcium in human bones. Everyone alive, more or less, has been exposed to the radiation left over from this era.

The high drama of international diplomacy is balanced by its inevitable counterpart: committee meetings. The content may come across as dry, but Higuchi’s framing and analysis of it do not. He imbues as much energy as possible into American and British disagreements about what levels of radiation exposure were safe, thereby providing an opening for the non-nuclear states in the United Nations to advance their own analyses through UNSCEAR.

Higuchi ends, naturally enough, in 1963 with the Partial Test Ban Treaty and the end of atmospheric nuclear testing. Although activists (and President Eisenhower) had hoped for a complete test ban, that proved diplomatically intractable, and the tests were moved underground. (A comprehensive treaty banning all nuclear tests was not adopted by the UN General Assembly until 1996; it is not yet in force since eight nuclear powers, including China and the US, have not ratified it.) By eliminating the mushroom clouds, the limited treaty ironically undermined disarmament advocates, and superpower stockpiles continued to multiply. Instead of curbing the arms race, the treaty enabled an even more frightening nuclear stalemate. Meanwhile, France and China joined the “nuclear club” in 1960 and 1964, respectively, but without adhering to the limitations on atmospheric tests. China moved testing underground in 1980 and ceased altogether in 1996, the year of France’s last blast, also underground, after the Soviet Union and the cold war were no more.

These books all concern aftermaths—what happens after the bomb has gone off or the reactor core has been breached—which are enormously consequential issues; they quite literally, as Higuchi notes, define the Anthropocene, as the radioactivity that is embedded in post-1945 soils will mark our epoch in the geological record for eons. This focus on aftermaths comes at the expense, however, of examining the prologues. The books do not discuss the decisions and actions that brought the world to the point where the strontium-90 content of children’s teeth was a matter of everyday discussion.

The most obvious origin point is the decision—always a political one—to initiate a nuclear program, whether for weapons or for generating power (or, in the case of nuclear submarines, for both). The conventional place to begin this story is the inauguration of the Manhattan Project in August 1942, or Albert Einstein’s letter to Franklin Roosevelt informing him of the possibility of German research on uranium munitions in August 1939, or the discovery of nuclear fission at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin in December 1938. Each of those origin points yields a fairly America-centric history, one that peaks in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and culminates in the cold war standoff. But non-American (and non-Soviet) weapons programs have their own origin stories, and incorporating them would yield a new set of nuclear sites: London, Paris, Delhi, Jerusalem, Islamabad, Pyongyang, and more.1 (Including reactors adds at least Ottawa and Prague to this list of leaders in nuclear technology.)

Nothing nuclear happens without uranium. Not only is its isotope U-235—making up 0.7 percent of uranium ore—the fuel of nuclear fission, but the slightly heavier, much more abundant U-238 can be transformed into fissionable plutonium. Thermonuclear bombs, which work through the fusion of hydrogen nuclei, require fission bombs as triggers. The importance of uranium was embedded in the 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal Report for the international control of atomic energy, and it remains the centerpiece of global nonproliferation efforts. But uranium needs to be mined; mining, too, destroys both environments and human health, and the process emits significant greenhouse gases.2

For decades, into the 1970s, a significant portion of the commercial uranium trade started in Africa.3 Indeed, most of the uranium that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from Shinkolobwe, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Shinkolobwe, too, is a nuclear site, linked to those much better known Japanese cities through the US nuclear sites of Hanford, Washington; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. It is not just the drifting isotopes on the wind that connect the world—every aspect of the nuclear age links the planet together.