A 'Nuclear' Vacation Your Family Won't Soon Forget Much of the nuclear weapons industry is top secret, but there are parts of the atomic establishment that a tourist can see.
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A 'Nuclear' Vacation Your Family Won't Soon Forget

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A 'Nuclear' Vacation Your Family Won't Soon Forget

A 'Nuclear' Vacation Your Family Won't Soon Forget

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This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. A little bit later, we'll be taking a tour of the country and talking about some of the best science and technology related tourist destinations, and we're looking for your advice. If got a tip for us, or a place that we should not miss, well, you can email your tip to travel@sciencefriday.com. And we'll put them up on our website, and also, try to talk about them on the air.

But first, a tour that is a bit, just a bit, more focused. What kind of vacation would you take if you're interested in history, technology and nuclear weapons? If you're a journalist who writes about defense and happens to be married to another defense reporter, how about a nuclear family vacation?

Sharon Weinberger is just such a person, and she did take that tour, visiting some of the world's most famous atomic sites, from Los Alamos to Iran, and she wrote about it. She's a contributing writer for Wired's Danger Room blog and coauthor, with her husband, Nathan Hodge, of the book "A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry." And she joins us from our NPR's studios in Washington. Happy 4th of July to you.

Ms. SHARON WEINBERG (Senior Reporter, Danger Room Blog, Wired Magazine; Coauthor, "A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry"): Hi. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Good day for you to talk about "A Nuclear Family Vacation"?

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yeah. It's vacation time of the year, certainly.

FLATOW: Now, what came over you? Are you that much interested in the history of nuclear weapons you just set out across the world to look at these famous sites?

Ms. WEINBERGER: You know, originally, it wasn't so much nuclear weapons that drew us to it. We were - about three years ago, we were trying to figure out a, you know, some sort of vacation to take over the summer and, you know, we wanted to do perhaps some work on the side. And we kind of half jokingly came up with this idea of nuclear vacation, because there is a sort of rise in nuclear tourism. And you know, we had an aunt in Las Vegas, not far from the Nevada test site. We had a cousin at Los Alamos, a brother in California by a nuclear lab, so we kind of came up with this itinerary.

FLATOW: So you could visit the folks and see the sites at the same time.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Exactly. And there is sort of this, you know, influx of people wanting to visit some of this former, and sometimes current, nuclear sites and we thought we'd check what they were seeing.

FLATOW: Now, tell us about a really interesting site in Sandia and Livermore. It seems like they were some really interesting things to see.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Well, basically you have the three nuclear weapons laboratories. You have Sandia and Los Alamos in Mexico, and you have Lawrence Livermore in northern California. And so that was part of our original itinerary along with the Nevada test site and Trinity site in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was detonated. And so you still have this three nuclear weapons laboratories that both - they have public tours. And then there are also of course there nuclear weapons laboratories. They work right now and maintaining our nuclear deterrent, they're involved in Homeland Security and numb proliferation. And sort of the Army that is on the flip side, then the public support, so you can go on tours of some of this still active places.

FLATOW: And you can see models of nuclear bombs there?

Ms. WEINBERGER: Some of them have bombs. Some of them - they all have museums associated with them. We wanted to do a little bit of both. In that we visited some of the museums. For instance, there's a new, well, relatively new, a couple of years old, atomic museum in Las Vegas, which is just a wonderful museum. But on the flip side of that, we also wanted to speak to people who are still active in this sites and laboratories. We wanted to speak to a nuclear weapons designer.

I mean, you know, we had the question of, well, we don't design new nuclear weapons right now in United States. So, what does a nuclear weapons designer do? Kind of, we found this sort of almost schizophrenic thing where you have this museums and tours dedicated to promoting our laboratories and infrastructure, and you know, at the same time the people who work within these places feel in a lot of cases very lost about what their purpose is in a world where you don't have mutually-assured destruction, and they're sort of groping for a purpose.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking with Sharon Weinberger, coauthor of "A Nuclear Family Vacation." And it's interesting you mentioned in your book one person who used to be, let's call him a hippie of the '60s, who actually protested against nuclear weaponry. Now he's the head of the museum with the research there.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Well, you have a number of these people. We talked a lot with people about what were their histories, what - I mean, you know, people don't usually wake up one day and say, I want to be a bomb maker. I want to be a nuclear weapons designer. And so, it was intriguing...

FLATOW: I think there a few people that might...

Ms. WEINBERGER: Well, yes, and you know, funny, you know, at Los Alamos laboratory, you have some nuclear weapons designers who play up, you know, the Doctor Strange Love. They sort of play these characters. And the case were talking about, we interviewed the head of nuclear weapons at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory who was, maybe not so much a hippie but he talked about his evolution from being sort of, you know, they could call themselves moderately anti-nuclear.

You know, he's a huge anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s, actually, in many parts during the cold war and he, you know, was sort of convinced by it. And it was slowly by slowly that he, you know, worked at a nuclear weapons laboratory, bought into the logic of deterrence and sort of converted into what he is today, which is the head of the nuclear weapons program. And so following that logic, and then asking this people, well, where do you see your role today? And you get a lot of confusion.

FLATOW: How many of these places that you went to are off limits to public after - you're a writer at - you're a well-known journalist and you write about nuclear weapons. Can we all get in to see the same stuff that you did?

Ms. WEINBERGER: The majority of the places, particularly at the United States, in fact, I would almost say, I think all of them, with one exception, they have some form of public tours. We went in parts that were public. We used our status as journalist to request interviews, and I think the public, of course, would have a harder time getting. But what's amazing is at a lot of these sites, there are public tours, the Nevada test site, where you still have not full nuclear test but some critical tests. The Department of Energy has a once-a-month bus tour. You can see these massive craters where we, you know, tested nuclear weapons.

FLATOW: Aren't you afraid of glowing in the dark after visiting these sites, a little bit?

Ms. WEINBERGER: You know, there was one - the site of Trinity, the first nuclear - when we asked, you know, that would - we'd ask that question and they said, well, you know, we're the government. We wouldn't let you in here. But it was...

FLATOW: Well, I'm not going there for sure with that assurance...

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes. I mean, in most places, yes. I mean, what they say is that the radiation is at background levels. It's safe. There are parts to Nevada test site that they won't let the public into. They didn't let us into for safety concerns. But you know, we take them at their word, take it on the fact that probably for a one-day visit, it's not going to harm us.

FLATOW: You even talked about visiting Iran. I mean, it seems like the wrong people can't get in there.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Well, you know, it was kind of intriguing, because what we wanted to do with the book is visit an example of different things, rather than everything in the nuclear worlds. We wanted to visit a country that was involved in sort of the proliferation/nonproliferation debates.

And while we are writing the book, in the process of it, President Ahmadinejad came forward and said, you know, we want to prove that Iran has only peaceful nuclear intention so we invite tourists, American tourists, American journalists, whomever to visit Iran sites. And we thought, well, we're writing a book on nuclear tourism. So we put in our applications. It took awhile, but we eventually were given, I think, about five days notice that we would be invited on a tour of the Isfahan during a conversion facility in Iran.

FLATOW: And did you go?

Ms. WEINBERGER: We went. And it was, you know, it was certainly probably out there with one of the more interesting trips that we made. In some ways, we saw a lot. We had a number of interviews with parliamentary government officials, nuclear scientists in Tehran. We were given a full tour of Isfahan, of their uranium-conversion facility. But the caveat being that at the time we visited, in February 2007, the focus of diplomatic back and forth and concerns about Iran's nuclear program wasn't Isfahan, the city we went to, or the plant there.

It was Natanz where they were building centrifuges. So, you know, we were there and we said, what about Natanz? This is the focus of things? And they said, it'll come in a day or two. Yes, you'll be allowed in. Well, it's a year and a half later, and to our knowledge, no tourists or journalists have been allowed into Natanz. So, you know, there were some interesting and good and transparent things about the trip, but there was some problems as well.

FLATOW: I'll bet. 1-800-989-8255. Nathan in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Nathan.

NATHAN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to bring up the Hanford facility in southeast Washington State. I just read an article in the Oregonian Newspaper actually. I think close to 100,000 people go tour that every year, where they made the plutonium for the bomb, the Trinity bomb?

FLATOW: Sharon?

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes. And in fact, you know, we get the most question most often, why not Hanford? I mean, apparently, it is just - it is overbooked. The Department of Energy can't accommodate all of the people who want to visit there. And so I highly recommend it. The reason why we didn't go there is we wanted to go when we had a choice - we wanted to go to places that were still actively a part of the nuclear complex. Hanford is basically a cleanup site. And so, instead of Hanford, we decided to go to Y-12 in Tennessee, where basically it's, you know, the center of uranium. It's where they're doing a lot of dismantlement for nuclear weapons. If we produce new nuclear weapons...


Ms. WEINBERGER: It will be involved there. So, we chose that over Hanford, but I would highly recommend Hanford as well.


Ms. WEINBERGER: Apparently, it's just - it is a very popular tour as the gentleman pointed out.

FLATOW: Now, some of the places that you saw were basically relics of the Cold War, and others were actively in use to date. If you go there, can you tell the difference between the two?

Ms. WEINBERGER: Well, that is one of the strange things. You know, one of the more interesting trips for us was, we went to visit misseleers, basically the Air Force officers that are about 65-feet underground, and waiting to turn the key at the notice, you know...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. WEINBERGER: If they get the president's orders. And you know, we - you go and you see where these two people are sitting underground in their shifts, and you go to the silos and what's amazing is, it's that the National Park Service once stayed over, runs tours of decommissioned missile alert facilities and decommissioned areas.

And it looks exactly the same as the one we're visiting that's still active today, which tells you something that, you know, in 20 years, not a lot has changed, but the world has changed a lot. And so you begin to ask yourself, why hasn't it changed? Why do we still have these missileers underground?

FLATOW: So, we're still on very high alert that we don't talk about very much.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yeah. I think one of the more disturbing things for us was, I mean we're still on hair-trigger alert, and I think that if you ask your average American, I don't even know that we at the very, very beginning, quite realized that we're still on a hair-trigger alert, that basically with orders in 30 minutes or less, there could be a missile from Russia to the United States or vice versa.

And there was talk in the mid-1990s of bringing down that hair-trigger alert, and it just didn't go anywhere. And I think that's one of the more unfortunate aspects, and one of the things that was really - that really brought home to us that something about our nuclear posture really isn't quite right.

FLATOW: But we're not making any new nuclear weapons anymore, are we?

Ms. WEINBERGER: No, in fact, it's been well over a decade since we have. One of the political debates that went on over the past number of years was over something called a reliable replacement warhead. And they tried very hard to say this is not a new warhead. It's a replacement warhead.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. WEINBERGER: But in - this would be the first time since the end of the Cold War that we would be in the business of producing new nuclear weapons, and I think it's a bit disturbing that there wasn't a whole lot of public debate about it.

As of right now, it's - I don't want to say it's dead, but Congress took away the funding for it. But it's one of these things that comes back up every year, and I expect you'll see another proposal, you know, next year to sort of, you know, use some funding for this new nuclear weapon or replacement, whatever one wants to call it.

FLATOW: Is there a place you want to get to still that you couldn't get to, besides that place in Iran?

Ms. WEINBERGER: I think we were very disappointed and disturbed by Russia where we went, where we were not allowed. They still operate their nuclear cities as closed cities, just like Los Alamos was once a closed city.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. WEINBERGER: I believe it opened up in the 1950s. They still - you know, the Russia- Russia still has these gates around their nuclear cities, and we were able to interview nuclear weapon scientists outside of the cities, and to the best of my knowledge, American journalists haven't been let in for a number of years.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. WEINBERGER: And I think that spoke to me. It would have been nice to see them...


Ms. WEINBERGER: What it's like - these closed cities.


Ms. WEINBERGER: But also - it's disturbing from our transparency point.

FLATOW: We're talking with Sharon Weinberger, author of "A Nuclear Family Vacation." We're going to take a break and come back with your questions. We'll be right back.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday, from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We are talking this hour about atomic tourism. If you want to take a nuclear family vacation? Then you can buy a book of the same name, written by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger. And Sharon Weinberger is here. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a phone call or two in. Let's go to Roger in Salt Lake City. Hi, Roger.

ROGER (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

ROGER: I'm just great. I have a question for the author which was, I live in Utah and we have a history of - we live downwind of the Nevada test site and basically there is a lot of after effects we felt from those tests in the 1950s, and I was wondering if they count - it they touched on that at all in there, in their research.

FLATOW: Sharon.

Ms. WEINBERGER: We don't focus on what are called the down winders per se, but one of the issues that we tried to bring up, is how is - there was really kind of a shameful record during the Cold War of the U.S. in nuclear testing, both within the United States and also particularly in the Marshall Islands, one of the places we visited.

What we focused on in the book is - I think, one of the disturbing aspects of the museums - the nuclear weapons and atomic museums you - we have around the United States. And they're very, very good museums. They're focused on children, on science education, nuclear education.

I would say the one criticism I have of them, is that they downplay some of the effects of radiation and particularly Cold War nuclear testing. And with some of the other people I spoke with in the nuclear world said was, oh, well, a lot of these effects were overplayed. You know, questions about illness and they were...


Ms. WEINBERGER: And there is a lot of debate. There is a very active debate and one can argue about it, but I still feel the museums need to play a role in both educating people about radiation, but also acknowledging some of the ill effects that it had during the era of nuclear testing. And I think without that balance, you really lose something.

FLATOW: Let's talk about a couple of those sites. Let's stick to Nevada. There's - the Nevada test site is open to tourism, right?

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes. Last time I checked, the Department of Energy offers - I believe it's once-a-month tours. You know, my aunt, she was retired in Las Vegas, has gone on it. It's very popular with tourists. You have to reserve ahead of time, but it's interesting. It's free.

We recommend it. And you get a sense of the history of the test site. I mean, you can kind of follow - you can see these - you know, the civil defense test, you know, blown out houses, houses with no glass that they built to test the effects on. It's a fascinating tour.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. And also Trinity is open, the White Sands missile range.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes. They opened - it's still an active site run by the Army. And so they opened it up. They have two public days a year that are, I hear, are quite popular. They're also very accommodating to, you know, documentary-film maker, news people, but definitely two public days a year. They had a big 50th anniversary. And it's also interesting purely from a historical perspective to visit.

FLATOW: Phil in Tempe, Arizona. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

PHIL (Caller): Oh, thank you for taking my call. I wanted to just mention a fabulous site just south of Tucson. It's called the Titan Missile Museum. It's a decommissioned missile museum. The tour takes about 45 minutes. As a child of the '60s, I remember Duck and Cover. So, I have a pretty good memory of these.

But my daughter who is 15, after sitting through the tour where they take one of the members of the tour, they sit them in the chair, the incoming message comes in and you launch it, no drama whatsoever, but just that working through it and seeing it, and they describe how the silo was supposed to do its job and then they would wait for 30 days, and they could decide to come up or not. I mean it's a wonderful tour.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yeah. I've heard just wonderful things about that museum. We visited an active site, so we skipped the museum, but again, the National Park Service also offers a tour of a decommissioned - I believe it's a Minuteman II. There's the Titan Museum.

One of the things that we want to emphasize in the book, is that these historical tours are wonderful, but it's important for people to realize that we no longer have Titans in the inventory, but we still have the Minutemen III and so, 30 minutes or less, you know, it's still this sort of - still looms over us, and I think it's important for people to remember that.

FLATOW: Brian in Elizabethtown, PA. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi, yeah you guys. I'm from Elizabethtown, being a (unintelligible) of our next door neighbor, Middletown and Three Mile Island. I live actually right near the plant, and I was wondering if they actually around 9/11 shut down the - they had a little visitors center and the museum, and it used to be great to take our friends there when they were visiting from out of town, but now that's kind of shut down. Did you encounter that much around any of the other places? And I guess I'll take my answer off the air.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes, we did. In some cases, for instance, I believe, Albuquerque, the Atomic Museum there, I believe it used to be on Kirtland Air Force Base, and they had to move it off base after 9/11, because there were too many problems with people.

People basically couldn't get into the base. And so you see examples of that at a number of sites. In most places, they've made an earnest attempt to accommodate it and - you know, but you're exactly right. That is a problem after 9/11.

FLATOW: You devote a whole chapter to bunkers.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes, yes.

FLATOW: You must love bunkers. They must be fascinating.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Well, we wanted to make sure - I mean, this is not just about nuclear weapons. It's how it affects the geography of the country. It's how it affects decision making. And so an integral part of nuclear weapons' history are the shelters, the bunkers we built to protect our leaders, and sometimes our money, and other things from...


Ms. WEINBERGER: Nuclear weapons from the other side. So, there's some that you can visit. There's the decommissioned Congressional bunker at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, which is just, you know, it lives up to every sort of Hollywood image of - you know, secret doors and passage ways and all that.


Ms. WEINBERGER: And we also focused on them, because one thing that 9/11 has also done, it's give a sort of a new life to what are called continuity of government operations. These sort of Cold War-era plans, what will we do with our leadership if we're attacked? And so, some of the places that were about to be closed down, for instance, Site R, which is sometimes called the Underground Pentagon in Pennsylvania, were suddenly finding themselves with this new lease on life, which was interesting for a bunker chapter. But in a way I think, it should be disturbing for the public that you have this continuation of secret activities.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, one of the great hallmarks of the '50s, as I remember, were fallout shelters. I remember actually getting a government-issued pamphlet that showed me how to build three different kinds of fallout shelters, with blueprints and diagrams of things like that, if I wanted to. Did you find any fallout shelters? You know, this is what people did in the '50s, sort of thing..

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yeah - I mean, I remembered - you can still see them driving across the United States. We - you know, we focused on the big bunkers, but what's interesting about that is these things always find a new life. You know people who did civil-defense planning during one point in the Cold War, you know, it turned into tornado drills for those of us from the Midwest.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Bunkers that had a life during the Cold War are now sort of, you know, anti-terrorism, counter-terrorism.

FLATOW: Right...

Ms. WEINBERGER: There's one proposal out of Huntsville to turn a cave into sort of a civil-defense shelter.

FLATOW: Jim in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi.

JIM (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. The author answered my question already about the Greenbrier. And I was going to ask if there was a tour or that facility up there that they had built for the Congress, in case of a nuclear event.

FALTOW: Is there a tour?

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes, the hotel - the resort, they have the bunker open for tours. It's on their website. And it's really wonderful. I mean, the hotel cherishes the history there. And, you know, it's one of those places - you know, there's some places you got to, it's like, oh, it's so and so. The Greenbrier is really well worth the visit for the bunker tour.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. 1-800-989-8255. We have room for just a couple of more calls. Moshe in Tucson.

MOSHE (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. I am from Natans, Iran. And I would like to respectfully take issue with your author's assertion that there hasn't been visits to Natans. There actually have been many visits to Natans, even by reporters and by some selected tourists. Sorry, that she was not part of it.

FLATOW: Have you been there yourself?

MOSHE: I've been near it.

FLATOW: So, how do you know that there have been visits?

MOSHE: There have been reports...

FLATOW: Oh, reports of it

MOSHE: International reports. The IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency has been in - they have people 24-hours, seven day week in Natans, along with their cameras, along with their soil samples, along with their aerial samples.

FLATOW: Hang on a minute, wait, but we're talking about tourism here. How many tourists get to visit?

MOSHE: The place is under Israeli and American nuclear weapons threat. And you want it to be open for tourists?

Ms. WEINBERGER: But actually...

MOSHE: Please have some perspective. Right now, the U.S. and Israel are threatening Natans, is specifically, my hometown, with their nuclear weapons.

FLATOW: Wait, wait, hang on Moshe. We're talking about tourism here.

Mr. MOSHE: I know, but you are asking for tourism in a place that is super, super, super sensitive.

FLATOW: But Moshe, we could argue the whole world is targeted by - in some way by everybody.

Mr. MOSHE: No, it's not.

FLATOW: Sharon, do you want to answer that?

Ms. WEINBERGER: I think the gentleman brings up two good points. The first about the IAEA inspectors, but again, what we were talking about - and I can only speak from my own experience, what I've seen. There have been - they released a number of photos. New York Times did a wonderful spread on the photos of Natans about an official visit.

I can speak to the journalist when we were there requesting again and again. And again, it wasn't our request. The basis of our visit was President Ahmadinejad promising people that all the nuclear sites, that there would be transparency and openness. So, I'm not saying that every single place should be open. I'm saying what was promised versus what we got.

As for the nuclear threat issue, one of the things that was driven home to us in Esfahan, we were taken for a tour of the city. It's a beautiful city, a cultural, historical tour, and said well, you know, look at the city that will be destroyed if there are air strikes here.

So, they were - in terms of the air strike, they wanted us to see a city, because they wanted Western journalists to see the devastation that would come if there were air strikes. You know, whether a country should or should not open up all its nuclear sites, yes, there's going to be debates about that. I can only speak about what was promised versus what we saw. I understand the gentleman's concerns.

FLATOW: Yeah, you know - let's not get into - we could get into a whole load of discussion, which I don't want to get into, but I want to thank you for taking time to be with us. This is a very interesting read if you're looking for a different kind of vacation or just want to learn about the nuclear weapons industry and what's going on today? It's a nuclear family vacation travels in the world of atomic weaponry. Written by Nathan Hodge and our guest who's with us here in the studio, Sharon Weinberger. Thank you for taking time on this holiday to come and visit us, Sharon.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Thanks for having me. Happy Fourth.

FLATOW: And good luck. Good luck to you. Happy Fourth to you.

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