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We've had the bomb since 1945, and the United States is preparing to spend another $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize and overhaul our nuclear arsenal. I'm here to answer any questions you have about nuclear weapons: past, present or future.
The book's main characters are three peace activists who broke into a nuclear-weapons facility in East Tennessee four years ago this month. How and why they did this -- and the unsettling questions prompted by the intrusion -- inspired me to write a story that starts during the Manhattan Project, when the United States first developed the atomic bomb in the 1940s, and finishes with President Obama's remarkable trip to Hiroshima this past May.
Why are we spending all this money on nukes? What are we doing with them 25 years after the Cold War? AMA!
The book: amazon.com/Almighty-Dan-Zak/dp/0399173757
what was it like being on book leave in the day to day? how much did you travel and where? was it hard to adjust back to daily journalism?
I took a year off from the Post to report and being to write. In my normal work I careen from topic to topic, since I am a general-assignment reporter, so it was luxurious to spend all that time with one particular issue and one particular story. I had to be my own boss, though, and I'm not much of a taskmaster.
For research I traveled to Nevada, the Marshall Islands, Oak Ridge (Tenn.), Prague, Vienna and the United Nations.
It wasn't too hard to adjust back to daily journalism (which was a relief!). After writing 100,000 words for the book, I was glad to work on articles that were just a couple thou.
IIRC we still don't have a solid plan for civilian nuclear waste, so how is DoD addressing that now? Warheads don't actually last forever do they? I'm just thinking about corrosion and obsolescence being factors.
I don't know the answer on the DoD side. I know a bit more on the DoE side (Department of Energy, which handles nuclear materials and warheads that are not deployed into the military). There are people who want to bury nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, which Sen. Harry Reid has fought. The under-construction MOX facility in South Carolina was supposed to convert excess weapons-grade plutonium for use in nuclear power plants, but the project was billions of dollars over-budget and the DoE zeroed out its funding this year.
Warheads don't last forever. Some materials involved can, though. Pu-239, the isotope of plutonium used in the weapons, has a half-life of 24,000 years...
What was the most surprising thing you found in your research?
The money! Since 1940 we've spent $10 trillion on these weapons (adjusting for inflation); the only thing we've spent more on during that time is non-nuclear defense and Social Security. So you could argue that nuclear weapons have been our 3rd highest national priority, ahead of education, infrastructure, agriculture, and on and on.
How did you learn about the East Tennessee incident? Did you already know you wanted to pursue writing a book about nuclear weapons before you learned about the break-in?
No, I heard about the break-in first, from a colleague, and not til a month after the fact. The incident didn't make a ton of news. When I learned that an 82-year-old Catholic sister was one of the activists who intruded onto the site, that was enough to get me to dig a little deeper about how and why.
How do you think the book and its contents align with your day to day work? Or has it affected the sort of stories you are drawn to?
The book aligns with my day-to-day work because it's human-focused, and written for a general audience. So far it's had no real effect on the stories I'm drawn to, which are varied. I like long stories, short stories. Serious stories, funny stories. I like being a generalist, and I hope that mindset -- applied in the book -- renders the complex topic of nukes in an understandable manner...
Did you start digging thinking it could be an article for WaPo? When did you realize you wanted to turn it into a book?
I started poking around knowing that it could make a decent regular feature story. It eventually turned into a 9,000-word, 15-chapter story that ran over seven pages in the print newspaper of the Post. Online it's here:
I think when I was a few months into reporting for that Post story I realized there was enough material to write something bigger. That was in 2013, but I didn't finish a book proposal until 2014.
(1) I haven't read your book. But I am lawyer, and most of my work involves nuclear safety and environmental regulation. Does your work touch on these issues? I.e., the safety and environmental regulation of power plants or facilities used to enrich uranium or fabricate weapons or related brownfields.
(2) In college, I spent a year debating a US nuclear weapons topic (resolved: the US should reduce the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal or restrict the use those weapons). I also wrote my thesis on the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan. At the time, I felt that the most outspoken anti-nuclear activists seemed uninformed, strident, and strangely naive (not to say I necessarily disagreed or agreed with their positions). I never actually spoke to anyone involved with direct actions. What was your impression of these people?
(3) I remember reading arguments written by psychologists that said society is basically insane because it is able to ignore the threat of global nuclear war. And that those individuals who become obsessed with the risk of annihilation are actually behaving rationally. What do you think of this idea? Do you ever find it difficult to ignore the existential risk posed by nuclear weapons knowing what you know?
(1) I don't get into nuclear energy. Just nuclear weapons. That said, chapter 5 is set at Rocky Flats, the nuclear-weapons plant where we milled plutonium pits for decades, and workers affected by the safety conditions (or lack thereof).
(2) My impression of these activists is mixed. Their single-minded devotion is both admirable and frustrating. Their willingness to risk their lives is stunning, but it also endangers people beyond themselves. I found myself understanding their principles more than I understood their tactics.
(3) The psychologist Robert Lifton wrote about the "psychic numbing" that comes from Hiroshima, Nagasaki or the threat of nuclear warfare. The consequences are so immense and unfathomable that it's easier NOT to think about it. The risks inherent in maintaining a nuclear arsenal, and of having mountains of fissile material on the planet, are more on my mind than before, yes -- but we have to go about living, don't we?
Do you have any pets? tell us about them :)
I don't. I have some plants I'm trying to keep alive!
How hard does it hurt your narrative that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended a massive world war and possibly saved between 2 million and 3 million lives?
The bombs dropped on Japan are credited with ending the war, yes. But as early as 1946, the U.S. government estimated that the war would've been over by November 1945, before the land invasion that would've resulted in many American deaths. Japan was already on its knees, given the intense firebombing of dozens of cities, and the U.S. military concluded that its conventional superiority -- without nukes -- had ensured the war was approaching its end. We can't be sure what would've happened if the bombs had not been dropped; there are plenty of people who think it was worth it, and plenty of people who think it wasn't.
Interesting thought. The examples you chose to compare it to are very telling.
Education: a system designed from the ground up to be funded locally but foisted on the federal government by populist tax break politics.
Infrastructure: The majority of which is privately owned and thus not really a federal level issue outside of oversight and regulation.
Agriculture: A corporate welfare program we shouldn't be subsidizing in the first place since we've given up the ghost on the notion of the family farm.
It's almost like if you compare apples to oranges you too can be an author!~
I think it's fair to look at a nation's budget and ponder how massive amounts of money can be used differently.
The Japanese would have fought that war until there was 1 man left in Tokyo with a hunting knife.
This is more liberal propaganda garbage.
Nuclear weapons keep peace, and keep power. And the reason that liberals like yourself want to bring down the nuclear arsenal is because you all know that the only country who ever actually does reduce their arsenal is our dumbass Obama-led country.
With our arsenal depleting, all it would take is an alliance between Russia and China to send us down the ladder of power in the world.
That's why liberals keep pushing it.
The book does not advocate reduction or abolition of nuclear weapons. I do tell the story of anti-nuclear activists and what motivates them. It should be noted that President Obama has cut fewer numbers of nuclear warheads than either President Bush. The Pentagon has said we can cut our deployed nukes by one-third; Obama said he will not do so unless Russia does so.
Sure it's fair. What's not fair is artificially inflating your side of the argument by comparing it to small costs that are SUPPOSED to be small. Line up many tin cans today, Mike Tyson?
Intellectual honesty is a thing. If your rebuttals are indicative of the type of arguments you make in your book you should pay us to haul that junk paper away.
I'm a newspaper journalist, so I don't really have money to pay you.