I had never met a nuclear physicist until I moved to Albuquerque. Now I know several.


I had never heard the term “atomic tourism” until a few years ago, when a seatmate on a flight told me why he was travelling to New Mexico.


In the wake of this week’s devastating tsunami in Japan, I am reminded of two things: the power of nature and the interconnectedness of humanity.


As the nuclear crisis unfolded in Japan, I started reading online. One of the first things I noticed was a quote from a former Sandia National Labs expert in nuclear accidents. I wasn’t surprised that we have experts doing this kind of work in our city, not with our history.


I was a little relieved (if that is the right word to use) that the lab mentioned was Sandia, not Los Alamos. Though there is some grim poetic appeal to New Mexico bringing the atomic age full circle in Japan. The thought that experts from this Land of Enchantment could provide assistance to Japan in their hour of need years after the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima both comforts and disconcerts me. 


I know there are those who will demonize nuclear fission and everything associated with it. I’ve attended more than a few children's birthday parties sullied by über-ardent pro and anti-nuke debate.


I spent my teen and young adult years hanging out with surfers at Trestles, in the shadow of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (When I was in middle school the boys called it the Dolly Parton Monument.) The water was warm and we invincible teens thought it was cool to laugh in the face of something that many thought symbolized death and destruction. Years later I think about the irony of Santo Onofre, desert dweller, and the water surrounding the land named for him.


I worked in a government building during college – the building had a fallout shelter. Since my job required that I use the back staircases constantly, I saw the graphic image of the fallout shelter sign constantly. I was taken by the bold visuals, though I really didn’t know what it meant until one day I mentioned it to my parents at the dinner table. They responded with “duck and cover” – which gave me some insight into their understanding of the nuclear age.


I remember the hoopla at school the day after The Day After. And the backdrop of SALT talks during my childhood.


Later in my life, I listened intently as friends described to me the haunting and beautiful shade of blue of Čerenkov radiation. (For some reason this always makes me think of Hume’s missing shade of blue.) I’ve never seen this with my own eyes, but I still hope to some day.


As a young woman I faced a fork in the road – science or philosophy? And to this day I wonder about the road not taken. I became a philosopher who deals with science and ethics, not a scientist.


Still, I vowed to pass on my passion for science to my children. It was easy to do in Albuquerque.


My own children have seen the models of Fat Man and Little Boy more times than I can count at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & HIstory. And we have read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes just as many times, if not more.


They know that the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center is based right in their home town. And for years, every August I brought my August-born children to local Peace Day events marking the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. 


We’ve had plenty of talks about the scientific challenge of breaking the atom, and of humans desiring to control nature. These days our discussions tend to be framed around Hayao Miyazaki’s art – Princess Mononoke, for one.


I marvel at the certainty of those who are convinced that nuclear power is the single best approach to satisfy our seemingly insatiable need for power to fuel our lifestyle.


Likewise, I marvel at the certainty of those who are convinced that nuclear anything is one of the greatest evils that humans have wrought upon humanity.


Far be it from me to knock the power of nuclear medicine. It saved my life once.


And I recognize that a good part of this state’s economy was built on the nuclear industry, which continues to sustain it.


In this city, where people holding these opposing positions dwell side by side, I’m somewhere in the middle.


I’m not so good at certainty.


I’m better at questioning and listening and forming tentative opinions that I’ll revise as new knowledge comes in. Call it the hallmark of the philosopher – or of the scientist. Both fields require one to consider new hypotheses and explanations when established ones become insufficient.


Like much of the world, I’ve got an eye on what is happening in Japan. I’m hoping for the best ending to what can only be described as a nightmare times ten.


I’m pulling for those nuclear experts, some of whom are right here in Albuquerque, to provide the knowledge and expertise that will result in the least amount of harm. 


The least amount of harm.


Isn't that what we all want, in some fashion?


It is the pesky details of this that confound us as humans - pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear and especially those of us in the middle. 




Header image is Hokusai's woodblock print, The Great Wave, courtesy of the British Museum.

Views: 23

Comment by cc on March 14, 2011 at 7:53pm

Quoting Barelas Babe: "I’m better at questioning and listening and forming tentative opinions that I’ll revise as new knowledge comes in. Call it the hallmark of the philosopher – or of the scientist. Both fields require one to consider new hypotheses and explanations when established ones become insufficient."

Such a right-on post - your position as clarified above is very inspiring.


Comment by Lahjik on March 14, 2011 at 9:54pm
I'm not a huge fan of nuclear power in its current state, simply due to the somewhat Rube-Goldberg assemblage of parts and systems that seem to make up a state of the art reactor/power station.  I do believe wholeheartedly, however, that we must invest not just in the power but the research to get to a better solution.  Only by doing and studying (and occasionally making a mistake that hopefully will not be too bad) can we learn enough to move beyond the weak links that we currently have.  Aside from coal, which we have in abundance in the states, and oil-shale which is still unproven, we have a lot of transitory technologies like solar and wind which can fill gaps but will never be able to supply even a major portion of our power requirements without significant, un-hinted-at breakthroughs.  That leaves fission as the stepping  stone to fusion.  There are risks, but they can be mitigated by good science and regulation.  Maybe not putting them along fault lines would be good, too, but that's neither here nor there.  Once we get through the heavy lifting and the heavy learning maybe we can get somewhere better.
Comment by Gonzalo Fuentes on March 15, 2011 at 8:39am

First. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan.

Second. To make light of this with the silly G.W.Bush comment is inappropriate.


We as a world of people have some serious soul searching to do when it comes to energy consumption. It has to come from somewhere. Nukes and coal have the ability to meet the growing demand but, as we seen and have seen, have some serious drawbacks. Solar and wind, have to be built on a large scale and could meet a lesser demand if people conserve and the barriers that prevent the transmission of the power to where it is needed are removed.

Comment by cathyray on March 15, 2011 at 9:35am
I think the silly GWB comment is hilarious! balanced, thoughtful post, BB. I always look forward to your take on things.
Comment by Ron Da Bomb on March 15, 2011 at 10:00am

I've been thinking about how to respond to this post, summing up my position. I've got to say that Lahjik pretty much nailed the way I feel. I tend to be pro-nuclear but don't feel that the industry is nearly as safe as it should be. I also feel that we need to continue to invest in research to advance the state-of-the-art.

Comment by JeSais on March 15, 2011 at 10:52am

Great post, BB. I love how you bring this right to the personal. ON a somewhat related note... have you read John D'Agata's book About A Mountain? it's about the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada...   but it's about so much more.


Whatever path we choose for energy, there are dangers involved--  can you say BP Oil Spill?  Mining (coal and uranium) ruins the environment... and mining a super dangerous profession.  Serious soul searching indeed!  

Comment by Barelas Babe on March 15, 2011 at 12:51pm
JeSais - I haven't read About a Mountain, but I will add it to my list! Speaking of Yucca Mountain, do you know about the Universal Warning Sign art project?
Comment by Barelas Babe on March 15, 2011 at 12:56pm
And on another note - I am so encouraged by the thoughtful comments people have made in response to my post, which is such a refreshing counterpoint to some of the other local media online commentator discourse. DCF readers are the best!
Comment by jes on March 15, 2011 at 3:21pm

I can't imagine what those people are going through.

I'm torn about nuclear power, but I had the opportunity to meet and work a little with the man responsible for the nuclear stockpiles. His intelligence, competence and thoughtfulness help me feel a little less scared about them.

Comment by Don Brown on March 15, 2011 at 5:55pm
Excellent post.Thank you!


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