Breeding too fast

John Ziman

There was a time when the only experts on matters related to nuclear fission were physicists. During the war, this expertise was extended to a highly selected corps of engineers. Nowadays, we need economists, industrial managers, medical specialists, military strategists and diplomatists to explain what is going on. There was a time when the whole affair was safely confined within the government apparatus of a few super-powers. Nowadays it spreads across the world, not only to Japan, India and China but also to smaller nations such as the Philippines and Israel, and has become a major factor of international commerce and private finance. The fiefdoms of the ‘nuclear barons’ extend from the uranium mines of Western Australia to missile warheads targeted across the North Pole. They influence, and are influenced by, the price of sugar in Brazil and the political status of the Golan Heights. They are prime movers of the world of today.

Peter Pringle, formerly of the Sunday Times, now of the Observer, and James Spigelman, with civil service experience inside Gough Whitlam’s Government in Australia, have put together a remarkably well-informed, coherent and readable survey of this vast territory, clear and simple enough for the absolute beginner and yet full of information for the more knowledgeable reader. Instead of trying to explain the technical background in depth, they tell much that is unfamiliar about such important matters as the management of the Russian nuclear-weapons programme, how German industry got into the nuclear-power business or the formation of a price cartel in the uranium-mining industry. It is a considerable achievement to give ‘coverage’ to such an immense variety of topics without losing touch with the central themes.

But before considering the overall effect of reading a book like this one from cover to cover, it is worth asking whether it is reliable in detail. The very diversity of topics makes this difficult to assess. It is certainly not without errors. It is disconcerting, for example, to read that because Lord Cherwell ‘had no executive power’ as Churchill’s war-time adviser ‘no one took much notice of him,’ or that the climatic effect of excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might be avoided because the ‘new coal-building [sic] technology was much cleaner.’ Obvious mistakes of this sort seem rare, but other reviewers might find similarly deep misconceptions concerning topics with which they happened to be familiar. On the other hand, the book has manifold virtues of composition and exposition. The authors have done a thoroughly professional job of setting out the principal facts to be found in the major secondary sources for each of their chapters. But they seldom interrupt the sharp smooth thrust of their narrative to entertain contrary opinions or alternative interpretations, and the only evidence of primary research on the original documents seems to be their horrifying revelation of how the US Atomic Energy Commission covered up a serious episode of radioactive fall-out, after atmospheric bomb tests in 1953. A work of such scope and generally high competence is bound to be referred to for information on many aspects of this tremendous subject. I would advise caution in taking its every statement as certain fact.

Decade by decade, the centre of emphasis shifts from the military to the civil sphere. Naturally enough, the narrative must begin in the late 1930s, leading into the era of the Manhattan project and Hiroshima. Is there much more to be said, now, about that dramatic course of events? There is a suggestion that if Truman had been told about the lingering horrors of radioactivity he might have decided against dropping the bombs on Japan, but that is sheer conjecture. In any case, the military thinking of the United States and Britain was by then completely closed to the moral objections to genocide, and firmly established along the path towards the strategy of mass destruction.

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