Making Angels Weep

Editor’s Note: Carol van Strum is one of the most important teachers and best friends I’ve ever had. I met her when I was a young reporter trying to sort out the PCB and dioxin scandal — something she had already been doing for 20 years the day I met her, and I owe my success to her generosity and faith in me. She is working constantly in the background of Planet Waves, helping us with fact checking, research, ideas, editing and plenty else. She’s also a voracious reader and loves to write book reviews — here you have two. –efc

Book Review By Carol Van Strum

  But man, proud man
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high Heaven
As would make the angels weep.

— William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

The typical advocate of nuclear weapons, like Shakespeare’s angry ape “most ignorant of what he’s most assured,” declares with absolute certainty that nuclear weapons are necessary, citing oft-repeated “truths” commonly believed to be self-evident:

— that nuclear weapons shock and awe our enemies into submission as they did Japan in 1945;

— that nuclear deterrence is effective in a crisis;

— that nuclear bombs’ awesome destructive power wins wars;

— that the existence of nuclear weapons has kept the peace for 65 years;

— and that anyway, it’s way too late to put the nuclear genie back into the bottle.

But what if our thinking about nuclear weapons is flat-out wrong? asks Ward Wilson.

What if the assumptions that undergirded the Cold War arms race are wrong? What if our military planning and budgeting are based on faulty logic? What if, during the seven decades that have elapsed since atomic weapons were used in anger for the first and only time, we have made our choices based on beliefs that have little foundation in reality and that have been repeatedly contradicted? What if our deep-seated fears are justified, but our decades-old belief that nuclear weapons are necessary is not?

With the precision of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s fussy little Belgian detective, Wilson examines each of these justifications for nuclear weapons in his book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013; $22.00), laying out what seems an irrefutable argument for each, and then with method and order proceeds to expose the fallacies, errors, misinformation, gross exaggerations, and even outright lies upon which our nuclear policies rely.

Because the first premise drives the logic of all the rest, Wilson examines in depth the historical, documentary evidence supporting it. Piece by piece, document by document, Wilson undermines the evidence that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war, “the heart of everything most people think they know about nuclear weapons.”

Horrible as the atom bombings were, their actual damage was in fact little more than our conventional weapons had already inflicted on 68 other Japanese cities. In the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Wilson finds no evidence that Japan’s leaders considered their destruction significant, much less strategically decisive.

What he does find are deliberate, concerted post-surrender lies and coverup by the Japanese government, which had been on the verge of total collapse before the bomb and was forced to surrender not by the destruction of Hiroshima but by fatal Japanese strategic errors that allowed the Soviets’ successful invasion of Manchuria three days later. Japanese leaders could save face — and their lives — by claiming to be defeated by the power of science rather than by their own errors or hubris.

Attributing the end of the war to the bomb served U.S. interests just as powerfully, increasing U.S. diplomatic influence world-wide, to say nothing of U.S. security:

If the Bomb won the war … the two billion dollars spent on the Bomb would not have been wasted. But if the Soviet entry into the war was what had caused Japan to surrender, then the Soviets could claim that they had been able to do in four days what the United States was unable to do in four years, and the perception of Soviet military power and Soviet diplomatic influence would be enhanced. … And denying that the actions of the Soviet Union had influenced Japan’s decision to surrender would soon become a matter of patriotism for Americans.

From this point on, all justifications for nuclear weapons become a house of cards built on smoke and mirrors. Calmly, pragmatically, Ward Wilson topples the edifice of myths that have shaped U.S. nuclear policy and foreign affairs, as well as our economy, for 70 years. The final myth — that once invented, nuclear weapons can’t be un-invented, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle or Pandora’s evil spirits stuffed back in their box — he shows to be “no more than a clever debater’s trick,” using a true but irrelevant statement to evade the real issue:

The real question is whether nuclear weapons are useful — not whether they are like evil spirits in some age-old myth. If nuclear weapons are useful, then we have to keep them. It’s as simple as that. … But if they are not very useful, if they are simply large, dangerous, clumsy explosives that spread poison downwind and have very few real applications, then we need to undertake an entirely new discussion.

That new discussion, he urges, must first of all dispel the myths and look on nuclear weapons as a tool subject to human choice and whim. “Tools are situational,” he says. “The question you ask yourself when approaching a task is not Do I have the biggest tool possible? but Do I have the right tool for the job?” These are the kind of questions “that would be asked in a pragmatic investigation rather than one based on mythology.”

Wilson does not address the issue of nuclear waste, an inevitable hazard of nuclear weapons manufacture. Because similar mythologies support nuclear waste disposal, a perfect companion volume to Wilson’s book would be Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t predict the Future, by Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis (Columbia University press, 2007; $25.00 paperback from Amazon).

A far more apt title for this little gem might be Fraudulent Arithmetic, as it exposes the shameless numerology that masquerades as science in mathematical models supporting hazardous, lethal and sometimes certifiably insane environmental projects. With alarming frequency, errors and faulty assumptions are entered as key factors in such models, which are then used by decision-makers, resulting in fishery collapses, eroded coastlines and nuclear waste boondoggles.

“Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments,” wrote Nicola Tesla in 1934, “and they wander off through equation after equation and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.”

With this prescient quote from Tesla, the authors introduce the flawed models supporting construction of a vast nuclear waste repository inside of Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Equally flawed, they point out, were the assumptions behind the development of nuclear power and weaponry in the first place: chiefly the assumption — blithely repeated to this day — that technology would solve the problem of how to dispose of thousands of tons of deadly radioactive wastes whose long-term health hazards “far exceed the known duration of civilization.”

A 1987 environmental assessment of suitable dump sites for this waste, conducted in a highly charged political battle, settled upon Yucca Mountain as the only suitable location. Since then, more than $4 billion has been spent devising models that meet the EPA’s court-ordered requirement that the repository be leak-proof for up to a million years (a preposterous standard, considering that humanity has yet to design a septic tank that is leak-proof for even fifty years).

The $4 billion Yucca Mountain model, the authors note, is actually a cluster of models:

There are 13 comprehensive mega models of model clusters based on 286 individual models. Clusters include models predicting future climate, infiltration, percolation, and water behavior in drifts. There are thousands of input parameters, hundreds of thousands of lines of equations in hundreds of computer codes, and hundreds of linked mathematical models in the system: complexity built upon complexity, assumption built upon assumption.

The whole elegant, artificial structure rested not on real data but on guesses, assumptions and made-up numbers, most notably the absurd assumption that groundwater would percolate through the rock no faster than half a millimeter per year. This model house of cards collapsed when construction of the tunnel began, allowing real-world, physical sampling of water percolation rates. Instead of the 0.5 millimeter per year assumed in the models, it turned out that water actually moved through the rock at 3,000 millimeters per year, completely undermining the entire hydrologic model for Yucca Mountain.

Not to worry, though! In the wonderful world of numbers, the Yucca Mountain modelers simply voted in a new percolation rate number to preserve the model — and added titanium drip-shields to protect the already-begun construction.

“Applied models,” the authors conclude, “out there in the midst of politically sensitive societal issues, are easily moldable to favor a cause, be it a cost-benefit ratio, an environmental impact statement, the cause of a disease, the size of a fish population, or a prediction of future hazard potential. Add a fudge factor here and tweak the model there, and you have the ‘correct’ answer. And the alterations are invisible to the managers who use the models.”

Since publication of Useless Arithmetic, for political rather than scientific or hazard reasons, Congress de-funded the Yucca Mountain repository in 2010, though the issue is not definitively decided. The highly toxic radioactive wastes from both weapons manufacture and power generation continue to accumulate around the country, with no solution in sight to the problem of safe disposal.

What neither book addresses is the real driver of both nuclear weapons manufacture and nuclear power generation: the huge profits made by the primary producers as well as by an entire universe of hazardous waste companies, engineers, risk assessment consultants, construction and other supporting industries. Neither science nor common sense have a chance against the power of money. So long as these industries control nuclear policies, the myths that generate their profits will endure.

You can tell the DOE to continue to keep its radioactive metal out of the commercial metal supply, commerce, and our personal items. Demand a full environmental impact statement, and consider signing this petition at

You can read another brief account of a recent nuclear development here.

6 thoughts on “Making Angels Weep”

  1. Excellent reviews, Carol. I can’t read anything about the corruption at the heart of nuclear issues without visions of Atlantis and its life/death struggle with ultimate power. It’s difficult not to believe this is a re-do, and discouraging to realize that we’ve allowed militarism to co-opt whatever integrity science has left.

    The worst of it, to me, is that it’s not like we DON’T KNOW. For decades our entertainment industry has given us clear images of our shadow-side — think Dr. Strangelove and Five Days in May during the 60s, Day of the Dolphin and The China Syndrome in the 70s, WarGames in the 80s, to name just a few — and we watch these movies, recommend them to others and give awards for them, without taking the next step, which is activism to curtail or at least contain the problems they illustrate. Plutonian for sure.

  2. The Western Shoshone, the indigenous people who have lived in the area we call Southern Nevada for time beyond count, have a different name for Yucca mountain. They call it Snake Mountain, both because it is shaped like a snake, and more importantly, when there is tectonic activity in the area the mountain wiggles like a snake. Our government wants to store radioactive waste in an area so prone to Earth movements that the locals named the mountain for the movement.

  3. Yes! the myths about the end of World War II are coming out just as surely and painfully as other myths–church sex abuse, etc.–looks like pluto at work to me. Also, we’re still hurting from the debacle caused by basing housing markets on wacky mathematical models, so we’re in for no big shock when action based on environmental predictive models starts killing us. Sad thing is, fault is not in our models but in ourselves–fear and greed guide the action; modeling and other information is just put to their service as justification and rationalization.

  4. hey all — comments on the book review were accidentally turned off due to a wordpress glitch. they are open now! and i am sure carol would be happy to read your responses.

    my apologies for not noticing that earlier!!!

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