As Guam’s Office of Civil Defense issues a series of guidelines on “preparing for an imminent missile threat,” and Hawaii tests a new system of warning sirens to be used in the event of nuclear attack, I’ve been thinking of another siren. On the morning of August 9, 2015, I stood in the Nagasaki Peace Park, head bowed, as the chiming of the peace bell marked the exact moment, seventy years before, that the American plane called Bockscar dropped a nuclear bomb on the city. After a few moments, the high keen of an air-raid siren joined the bell. There was, that day, no plane in the hot, blue sky, no actual threat of violence to this peaceful gathering. It seemed a fitting reminder of the precariousness of Nagasaki’s legacy: While Hiroshima will always be the first victim of nuclear war, Nagasaki may not remain the last. Today, remembering that siren, I think about the nuclear emergency we live through every day, whether or not the bombs drop again.
“We were bombed without a bang,” a woman named Janice Stokes likes to say of growing up in the vicinity of one of our nation’s nuclear complexes.
Once a city built in secret for the sole purpose of enriching uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb, Oak Ridge, Tennessee was named an EPA Superfund cleanup site in 1989. In the 1950s and ’60s, my grandfather, who first moved to Oak Ridge to work on the Manhattan Project, helped to oversee the production of fuel for hydrogen bombs, a top-secret process requiring massive amounts of mercury. Pumps broke, pipes leaked, and mercury streamed down walls, pooled on the floor, evaporated into the air. It slipped through storm drains and into the city’s waterways. In 1983, twenty years after the process had ended, it came to light that more than two million pounds of mercury had been lost to the environment or was otherwise unaccounted for. After nearly thirty years of remediation efforts, local waterways and soil still contain elevated levels of mercury, and storms churn up more from contaminated stream banks and the saturated ground beneath the now-defunct process buildings. Mercury is just one of the many contaminants released by the Oak Ridge nuclear plants.
Janice Stokes grew up outside of Oak Ridge on the shores of Watts Bar Lake, the same lake where I spent childhood summers swimming off my grandmother’s dock. Watts Bar is connected to Oak Ridge by the Clinch River, which historically received discharges of radioactive and chemical waste from the plants. She began to get sick, she tells me, in her late thirties. Now, Stokes attributes her mysterious and complex health issues to a childhood spent swimming those waters. She attributes them to breathing air, and drinking water contaminated by the Oak Ridge plants. She lists just some of her diagnoses for me: metal poisoning, chronic fatigue, avascular necrosis, neuropathy, fibromyalgia, immunodeficiency.
As the granddaughter of a one-time Manhattan Project scientist, I have spent more time than most millennials thinking about nuclear war, its causes, consequences, and uncounted costs. My grandfather built his career in the fledgling nuclear weapons industry powered by Cold War paranoia. Decades after his death, I began a wide-ranging quest to reckon with a history that haunted me, a journey which began with reflections in my journal and casual interviews with my family and eventually grew into essays and a book project.
Like most Americans, I used to consider nuclear weapons only in the context of war. Yet as I’ve traveled through landscapes intimately changed by their production and use—from the hills of East Tennessee to the deserts of Nevada to islands of Japan—I’ve learned to see the subtle violence wrought on a daily basis by nuclear weapons in conditions that we would not recognize as war.
Though the US stopped open-air nuclear testing with the signing of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, and halted underground testing in 1992, the continued production of nuclear weapons and the mess left behind by decades of rushed and secretive work remain a threat to nuclear workers and those living near production facilities. In Tennessee, I’ve sat in the living rooms of men and women who trace debilitating, life-altering health troubles to toxic and radiological exposures from Oak Ridge’s nuclear plants. And while they worry about nuclear war, they worry more, on a daily and visceral basis, about the chemicals and radiation that still slip into Oak Ridge’s waterways and soil, seep into groundwater, or disperse into the air.
In the 1990s, Stokes organized with other sick residents to demand transparency and cleanup in Oak Ridge. They raised awareness of the contamination and had some victories, but eventually, most of them burnt out or became too sick to continue.
“Does anything make you feel hopeful?” I asked her late one winter afternoon, sitting beside her on a floral-print couch.
She began to cry. She worries about her grandchildren, she told me, about all the invisible contaminants they could be exposed to, and her powerlessness to protect them. “It’s just, it’s too big for me. It’s too big for the earth. It’ll be the downfall of this earth,” she said.
Another woman, Janet Michel, tells me how she became sick with nickel poisoning after working in a contaminated office building at one of the Oak Ridge plants. She distrusts the Department of Energy’s assurances that the Oak Ridge operations do not pose a current public health risk; she’s installed a HEPA air filter on the house to protect from contaminants released into the air, and all of her drinking and cooking water goes through a reverse osmosis filtration process. A self-described “energizer bunny,” who spent weekends running, hiking, and kayaking, Michel now spends her days indoors, battling chronic pain and fatigue. Like Stokes, she was active in the 1990s; along with advocates from nuclear sites across the country, Michel worked for years educating congress about the plight of nuclear workers. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program was finally passed in 2000, and Michel has remained involved in the ongoing struggle to ensure the program is successfully implemented. Her own claim, she tells me, was denied twice before she was finally approved for compensation.
Now, Michel’s sun-lit house, tucked on a wooded ridge fifteen miles south of Oak Ridge and filled with house plants and Himalayan salt lamps, serves as a haven from a world that often brings her to tears in its injustice. She recommends books on the tobacco industry, on poverty in Appalachia. When I called her to set up our interview, she told me about an article she’d recently read on ProPublica , about widows of Vietnam veterans fighting to receive survivor benefits after their husbands succumbed to a rare brain tumor they believe was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. In their struggle, Michel recognized her own. She rants, gets teary, catches a breath, laughs, says, “I’m getting on my stump!”
Through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, the US government has paid more than $14 billion in compensation and medical expenses to current and former nuclear workers and surviving family members of those who developed certain kinds of cancers and other chronic or fatal illnesses traced to their nuclear-related exposures. About half of the claims are denied. There is no compensation program for area residents, like Stokes, who did not work in the plants.
When I began to reckon with my grandfather’s life and work, I thought I knew the ending—Hiroshima was the most obvious example of nuclear violence, the culmination of my grandfather’s work and the horrific consequence I would have to face. I knew I would have to go there, and in 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the bombing, I did. I spent hours interviewing atomic bomb survivors, called hibakusha. I walked bustling modern streets built from the smoldering ruins of the bombing, and wandered the Peace Park, a triangle of land cradled between two rivers and anchored at its northern tip by the distinctive T-shaped bridge that the airmen of the B-29 bomber, Enola Gay , sighted as a target from 31,600 feet above.
I met an artist, Shunya Asami, who makes images of trees that survived the bombing by exposing large sheets of photographic paper to the dappled light beneath their leaves. The trees are called hibaku jumoko ; while 67 percent of Hiroshima’s buildings were severely damaged or destroyed, about 170 trees, ginkgos and weeping willows, camphor, cherry, and eucalyptus, survived, re-sprouting from still-living roots or sending new branches from scorched trunks. In Asami’s images, the leaves come out dreamlike, silhouetted in blue, edges dark and crisp where they held still during exposure, hazy where they moved in the wind. In English, the project translates to “Breathing Shadow of A-Bombed Trees.”
As I sat with Asami in a small, light-filled gallery surrounded by his prints, he explained that the trees offered a way to commune with the past that the official memorials did not. The A-Bomb Dome, sitting on the northern edge of the Peace Park, is perhaps the city’s most iconic monument: The palatial municipal building, almost directly below the bomb’s explosion, was severely damaged by the blast; now its skeletal ruins sit in a state of arrested deterioration, preserved to stand as a testament to the bomb’s devastation. Asami felt alienated by the monument. Time had stopped there at seventeen seconds past 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. “Living things cannot intervene or enter,” he told me. I understood how he felt. Though Hiroshima is now a thriving modern city, it is impossible to escape August 6th, 1945, as if history had begun on that day. Most of the buildings are new, as most of the city was leveled, but the ones that survived the blast are marked with signs noting their distance from the bomb’s explosion, past and present overlaid with a geography of destruction written in concentric circles radiating from the center of destruction.
In the a-bombed trees, Asami found life despite damage, the way the trunks twisted around their scars. They were marked by the past, but not frozen in it. To me, they offered a way of thinking about the life, and pain, that continue after detonation.
I went to Nagasaki almost as an afterthought. Hiroshima’s mushroom cloud hung like a specter over everything; Nagasaki was just what came next. But by the time I arrived in Nagasaki, I had become less interested in the moment of the bombing, and more interested in what came next, in the tenuousness of life in a world with nuclear weapons.
A Nagasaki hibakusha named Sakue Shimohira told me, “You need to have a courage to die and a courage to live.” She was speaking of her sister who had survived the bombing of Nagasaki but not the physical and psychological toll of the aftereffects; ten years after the bombing, destitute, discriminated against, and suffering from wounds that would not heal, the eighteen-year-old stepped in front of a train. Shimohira, then twenty, chose to live. She hopes that by repeating her story, bearing painful witness again and again, she can help ensure that Nagasaki will remain the last place to be devastated by a nuclear bomb.
Today, I think less about the moment of detonation than about the long-term physical, environmental, and psychological effects of living in a world armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons far more powerful than those that so horrifically destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For decades after the bombings, the hibakusha lived in fear of the little understood and greatly stigmatized latent health effects of radiation exposure. They waited for their bodies to turn on them; they feared their children would be born deformed. Though many developed cancer, the fear that radiation exposure would cause monstrous mutations in subsequent generations has not manifested. What’s certain though is that nuclear weapons production has marked the earth in ways we still do not entirely understand.
Today, I think about the slow burn, the crisis that doesn’t begin with detonation but the one we are already living. A hibakusha in Hiroshima told me that she can no longer enjoy the sunset; it is a painful reminder of the way the sky glowed red on the day the bomb was dropped. As long as nuclear weapons exist in this world and the hazardous messes left behind by nuclear production are not cleaned up, we live every day under an ever-unfurling mushroom cloud, a bomb without a bang.
It’s a cloud that stretches from Japan to Tennessee. Across the aging nuclear weapons complex, a mix of defunct and still-in-use facilities, the Department of Energy has identified 203 highly contaminated and dangerously deteriorating unused buildings as “excess high risk facilities.” My grandfather’s old plant, Y-12, boasts nineteen of these; others are located in California, Washington State, South Carolina, New York, Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio. Such aging facilities pose “ever-increasing levels of risk” to workers and the public, warned a 2015 Department of Energy Audit, a rather alarming admission from an agency with a long history of downplaying risks to the public. Yet without the funds for decommission and demolition, not to mention a place to bury the waste, the Department of Energy has spent hundreds of millions of dollars simply maintaining these buildings in an attempt to stabilize the hazards. In the meantime, the US is on track to spend $1 trillion on modernizing our nuclear arsenal over the next several decades, threatening to heat up a global arms race. At Y-12, a $6.5 billion-dollar Uranium Processing Facility is due to be completed by 2025.
During the Cold War, Oak Ridge frequently tested the civil defense siren that would sound in the case of a nuclear attack. Now, at noon on the first Wednesday of every month, an emergency siren blares over the city for three minutes. This siren would sound in the event of an accident at one of the three DOE facilities in the city.
If you are standing outside, the siren is piercingly loud, one long, unceasing wail. If you are inside, say, twenty feet from the door at Walmart, considering a display of July 4th decorations and patriotic M&M’s, as I was this past July, you can hear the siren only if you strain, only if you know to listen, a faint, high-pitched note above the contented buzz of consumerism. Fifty feet in, and you hear nothing at all.