April 25, 2014 11:36 am

Radiation is for ever

Douglas Coupland traces his own ‘jaw-clenching’ fear of all things nuclear to his birth on an air-force base during the cold war. But we should all be on the alert for the next radioactive incident. Tick, tick, tick …
Mushroom cloud illustration by Angus Greig©Angus Greig

Between 1951 and 1962, the US detonated 100 above-ground (aka “atmospheric”) nuclear blasts at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Local casinos and hotels used these blasts, which typically occurred around dawn, as draws for customers, who could witness mushroom clouds from a casino’s front door. I try to imagine what people must have been thinking when they saw them … scientific wonder? Jingoist satisfaction? Good luck on the slots?

Back in a faraway land called Before Nine Eleven, Americans or Canadians in Las Vegas could phone the US Department of Energy and be taken on a personal tour of the Nevada Test Site the following day. I did this once, by myself, in 1993. On an October morning, I was met in the DoE’s downtown parking lot by a middle-aged man who looked like a 1950s magazine ad for shirts. He gave me a radiation-measuring badge and ushered me into an ageing blue SUV. Had I not known he was from the DoE, it would have felt like I was being driven off into the desert to dig my own grave. The weather was sunny but cold, and from downtown Las Vegas we drove north along Route 95 with few man-made highlights along the way, save for a gas station that sold rattlesnake eggs.

We came to an exit on the right flanked by a pair of tennis court-sized pens, each surrounded by 30ft of mesh fencing and razor wire. My guide nodded to me: “One of those pen’s for men and the other’s for women. Protesters. You know: protesters.” The pavement at the entrance to Mercury, the mini-town at the site’s gateway, was covered by splats from emptied cans of red paint.

It was a mile into Mercury – which resembled a cluster of 1950s clerestory-windowed Los Angeles County elementary schools, surrounded by thousands of wire cable spools stacked like junkyard cars – when I began to realise that everybody was over 50. At 31, I felt as though I’d entered The Children of Men. Shirt man quickly explained this to me: “There was a hiring freeze back in the 1970s. Haven’t been any newcomers since then.” We grabbed a quick lunch in a canteen where the prices were as if from a children’s playset: corn, six cents; mashed potato, eight cents; Salisbury steak, 25 cents.

Back in the SUV we crested a rocky ridge and were now aimed down into Frenchman Flat, 14 miles away, the site of most of the Nevada Test Site’s above-ground nuclear explosions.

(The final one was on July 17 1962 and was called “Little Feller”.) We stopped for a look and in the roadside’s ditch I saw a perfect rabbit’s skeleton and tens of thousands of broken and unbroken empty soda bottles from the 1950s to the 1990s – a flea-marketeer’s dream, eBay heaven.

Down on the salty blankness of Frenchman Flat sat the remains of the commercial and civilian structures built solely to test their nuclear readiness. Many of these buildings had withstood dozens of nuclear blasts. Thirty-one years later, the above-ground radioactivity was essentially no different from that in a 1993 downtown Las Vegas parking lot. That came as a surprise.

After Frenchman Flat, we drove a few miles up valley to one of four generic wooden Middle American houses exposed to nuclear detonations – houses not unlike the one lived in by the Clutter family of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Of the four, only one survived, knocked off its foundations by a few inches but otherwise mostly intact. Its basement, viewed from stairs descending from the kitchen, was filled waist-deep with water as black as ink. “Animals won’t drink here,” my guide told me. Then, suddenly, the sun was setting and it was time to drive back to Las Vegas, and so we did.

To the post-9/11 world, my autumn weekday in 1993 seems like an implausible tale of yore. The Nevada Test Site is now called the Nevada National Security Site and visitors are admitted just once a month, and only after passing history screenings and then surrendering all recording devices and binoculars upon entry. Those men I saw ordering six-cent portions of corn, then in their sixties, are by now either old or dead, as are many of the 1962 gamblers who walked out on to Fremont Street after a night of craps to see glamorous, commie-killing clouds.

Twenty years later, what mostly sticks with me is how unradioactive Frenchman Flat was. Yet if a single, generic, 1950s above-ground test were to happen on Frenchman Flat tomorrow, Las Vegas would be evacuated, CNN would kick into an overdrive unseen since 9/11 and the world would be turned upside down. Oddly, it would probably be, in all truth, an overreaction.

. . .

My father was a fighter-jet pilot and I was born on a cold war air-force base in 1961. I’ve spent my life in jaw-clenched fear of nuclear weapons in a way that people born after, say, 1981, may never understand. I do think (and I suspect most politicians think) something radioactive is going to happen soon enough, and when it does happen (and it will), a spell of fear will be cast over younger people unlike anything they’ve felt since 9/11. A suitcase bomb in a Missouri shopping mall? Plutonium dust in a baseball stadium’s ventilation grill? A dirty bomb in a tunnel? Tick, tick, tick.

Almost two decades after my Nevada reverie, in that ghostly month following 9/11, my aunt was driving from Montreal to Maine on a visit to an American friend. She crossed into the US at the Highgate Springs-St Armand/Philipsburg Border Crossing, where Quebec’s Route 133 meets Interstate 89 north of Montpelier. It’s a large crossing-point, yet my aunt’s, in those weird post-9/11 weeks, was the sole vehicle present. She drove up to a kiosk and was met by a friendly US border official: “Hello ma’am, what brings you to the United States today?”

©Angus Greig

“I’m going to Kennebunkport to meet my friend, Bill.”

“I see.” He paused, glancing over her vehicle. “So, ma’am, I’d like to ask you a question if I could.”

“Please do.”

“Can I ask how your health has been lately?”

What? I …”

But, being a child of the 1950s, she promptly replied to the authority figure, “Why, thank you for asking. As a matter of fact, I’ve been having problems with arthritis lately. Just yesterday I had an experimental injection at McGill. I’m not sure if it’s working yet.”

“I’m glad to hear what you just told me, ma’am.”

“Why is that?”

“Because, right now, your car’s lit up like a Christmas tree. Was the injection radioactive?”

“Yes it was.”

“Welcome to the United States ma’am.”

In the early 1980s, when driving home from art school late at night, I’d take a minor shortcut on the route that cut through Vancouver’s port area. I wasn’t very worldly then (and it’s not like I’m James Bond now) but still, I could tell there was a lot of shady stuff going on: party girls puking outside idling limos; a trio of Polish sailors carrying a big, black trash bag, whose faces went dead slack the moment they saw my headlights; a guy on a ship’s deck holding a rifle. And life goes on. You can’t drive through Vancouver’s port any more – not without passes or accreditation – and in 2014 everywhere in the port area they have radiation detectors that would make 1984 blush with envy.

Lately, I’ve been looking at videos of Fukushima’s exclusion zone two years on – at the bewildered cats and dogs abandoned one March 2012 afternoon, soon to die of starvation or to be eaten by other abandoned cats and dogs. I think of the senior citizens now volunteering to go home, radioactive as home may be, placing familiarity ahead of longevity.

I think of the diminished LEDs and neon of post-Fukushima Ginza and Shibuya – lights gone dim or blank, touting nothing but absence. In 1986, I worked in pre-bubble-collapse Tokyo and I remember the lights and the $4,000 lunches featuring platters of whale sushi and 28-year-old single malt.

April 26 1986 was when Chernobyl melted down and I got home after midnight. The building’s concierge was pointing to the world weather map on the TV behind him where, above Sweden, where there ought to have been clouds or sun, were skulls and crossbones, and it felt, for lack of a better word, futuristic. (Years later, in Toronto, Sars would feel the same way.) After saying good night to the concierge, I took the elevator upstairs, only to experience a weird X-ray sensation within the car’s metal frame. Chances were the electricity powering my rise was nuclear and there was a link – perhaps not even a poetic one – between riding a Tokyo elevator and skulls over Sweden.

A decade later I was working on my laptop in a business lounge at San Francisco International Airport. Every 15 seconds or so, my screen fuzzed out. It was annoying but it didn’t worry me for long as I needed to head to the gate.

I walked out of the lounge, rounded a corner and saw that, on the opposite side of the desk I’d been working at, was a luggage X-ray machine.

In 2005, in Australia, I visited the main library in Melbourne to see a small exhibition of film memorabilia from the making of On the Beach (Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, 1959 and possibly the most depressing movie ever made – yes, even more depressing than Dancer in the Dark). The artefacts were on an upper floor and I was told I was the first person who’d come to the library and asked specifically to see the exhibit. That spooked me.

. . .

Let’s go back. When I was a child, my mother was desperate for some time to herself, so she made my father, who was also a doctor, take my brothers and me to the hospital while he did his rounds. To babysit us my father simply locked us in the X-ray room where, on a vertical rack, rested a real human skeleton called “George”.

My brothers would turn off the light, become George’s puppet masters and then attack me with George’s bones. Some people have asked why my novels set in Vancouver somehow always manage to incorporate Lions Gate Hospital and death. Now they know.

Many decades later I broke my leg quite badly and wound up in Lions Gate being X-rayed maybe a few hundred feet from George. I asked the technician what he could tell me from the X-ray. He said, “I can’t tell you anything that might be construed as medical.”

“Well, what can you tell me then?”

“You might be here for quite a while.”

At the last office job I ever had, in 1988 in Toronto, we’d have these endless, boring staff meetings, after which we subjectively calibrated their life-shortening effect in chest X-rays. A generically boring meeting was usually assigned a two-chest-X-ray rating. A full-on, life-sucking meeting was easily assigned a 10-chest-X-ray rating.

I love and hate that I have nuclear memories that are both funny and depressing. Homer Simpson works at the Springfield nuclear plant and that’s cute and funny, and so are the three-eyed fish that live downstream. But decades later, I wonder how many millisieverts or megacuries or roentgens or becquerels I was exposed to in Nevada or San Francisco or, say, on any transpolar jet flight I’ve ever taken. Two years ago my Korean Air pilot neighbour died of pancreatic cancer and I don’t think that was a coincidence. Radiation is for ever and I think, as a species, we’re barely into our dialogue with it.

If we’re waiting for the next 9/11, I suspect it probably won’t be as visually dramatic as the first one but it will leave one, if not two, generations as confused and frightened as those abandoned cats and dogs in Fukushima.

Is there a cute and funny way of wrapping this all up? No. Instead, I wish I could let off a fire alarm right here and now and let everyone know what’s probably about to happen. Remember, not even Mr Burns would eat the three-eyed fish from downriver.

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Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel is ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, published by William Heinemann

Twitter: @dougcoupland

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Letter in response to this article:

Fear of radiation and related accidents is excessive / From Prof Philip Lloyd

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