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Season 15 | Episode 7

Nukes: The Broadcast

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(Photo Credit: Associated Press/Associated Press)

In this broadcast version of our Nukes episode, we tell the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi who, in early August of 1945,  had a run of the worst luck imaginable. A double blast of radiation left his future, and the future of his descendants, in doubt. 

On the morning of August 6th, 1945, Tsutomu Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a work trip. He was walking to the office when the first atomic bomb was dropped about a mile away. He survived, and eventually managed to get himself onto a train back to his hometown ... Nagasaki. The very next morning, as he tried to convince his boss that a single bomb could destroy a whole city, the second bomb dropped. Sam Kean, whose latest book The Violinist's Thumb scrutinizes the mysteries of our genetic code, tells Jad and Robert the incredible story of what happened to Tsutomu, explains how gamma rays shred DNA, and helps us understand how Tsutomu sidestepped a thousand year curse.

Then, we sit on the other side of the table and look at the protocol behind the country the dropped the bombs: 

President Richard Nixon once boasted that at any moment he could pick up a telephone and - in 20 minutes - kill 60 million people.  Such is the power of the US President over the nation’s nuclear arsenal.  But what if you were the military officer on the receiving end of that phone call? Could you refuse the order?

In this segment, we profile one Air Force Major who asked that question back in the 1970s and learn how the very act of asking it was so dangerous it derailed his career. We also pick up the question ourselves and pose it to veterans both high and low on the nuclear chain of command. Their responses reveal once and for all whether there are any legal checks and balances between us and a phone call for Armageddon.

Comments [11]

Jay Moskovitz from Portland, Oregon

I enjoy your show - including the irreverence. But your somewhat flippant description of Harry Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan was an historical and factual travesty. Thousands of American soldiers had already died fighting island to island through the Pacific toward Japan. The desperate fighting already demonstrated by the Japanese soldiers was assumed to be only a small sample of the resistance - military and civilian - expected with an invasion of Japan to end the war. An estimate of 100,000 additional dead American soldiers was typical. This was the context in which Truman made his unimaginably difficult decision.

Oct. 10 2017 07:41 PM
Bonnie Sears from Sharon, Connecticut

Did I hear Robert say (out of context) 'end of the world' was a good thing?
No, but perhaps we should be asking ourselves are all we doing dickering
between a fast nuclear and a slower climate change end.
Same outcome, different timelines.
As a species we've got too much power for our capacities.

Oct. 09 2017 07:06 PM
Margaret Kitchell from Seattle, WA

I am concerned that this broadcast did not say anything about the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which has just won a Nobel Peace Prize. Even if the broadcast was made before the prize was awarded I feel it is a serious omission to not mention these efforts, including the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons passed in July of this year. The treaty has been signed by 53 countries, though it has been opposed by the US and Russia. The broadcast brings up very serious concerns, but omits major international efforts to find solutions. Other than the bill in Congress to limit the president's power, it worsens our anxiety without offering much hope or ideas for action.

Oct. 08 2017 07:40 PM
Robert Thomas from Santa Clara, CA

I don't know how many other things were said during this broadcast that were just wrong but I did note a few, myself.

For example... ionizing radiation is not the same thing as a _source_ of ionizing radiation. There several different modes of radiation injury. The radiation that affected the victims of the 1945 fission bombs "got into" their bodies - plenty. At Chernobyl, some victims were differently affected because they ingested and metabolized bits of materials that are _sources_ of radiation. These sources, persisting in tissue, make the effect of their emitted radiation different and potentially more likely to irreversibly affect people than will the blast of x-rays, gamma rays and particles (chiefly neutrons) from a nuclear detonation suffered at an otherwise survivable distance. Certainly, the human body may shed some ingested radioactive sources rapidly enough to avoid such damage, while a person far enough away from a nuclear weapon detonation to escape serious injury may yet pass injury to future offspring. These latter eventualities are just a lot less likely.

The point is that casually mixing up "radiation" with "source of radiation" makes for serious misinformation and confusion.

And then-

ABUMRAD: Now here's the amazing thing...
KEAN: In Japan generally, though, there's really no evidence that the next generation of people really suffered. The children of atomic bomb survivors in Japan really didn't have a higher incidence of birth defects or cancer or anything like that ... it somehow didn't get passed on to the next generation, it seems.
ABUMRAD: Seriously? I find that so surprising.
KEAN: Yeah. I just assumed that the next generation of children ah, would have reported a lot of health damage; a lot of birth defects; a much higher rate of cancer ...
KRULWICH: But that didn't happen.
ABUMRAD: Why not? I mean, like, how could it not affect the next generation? I mean, given the way that the gamma rays attack the DNA it just seems like it would have to.


A human victim close enough to the detonation of a nuclear weapon to be severely burned but far enough away to survive will likely sustain bad heat radiation burns and so forth, not to mention the opportunistic illness that may follow in the devastated vicinity - also, he or she will have increased susceptibility to subsequent dangerous radiation poisoning from fallout material and countless other insults.

[continued in pt. 2 of 2]

Oct. 08 2017 01:41 AM
Robert Thomas from Santa Clara, CA

[continued from a previous comment]

But there are forty TRILLION cells in the human body. The people who are exposed in this way - badly enough to only barely survive - are only about five times more likely to develop solid cancers than will an unexposed person; in contrast, an adult smoker is fifteen to twenty-five times more likely to develop a solid cancer than a non-smoker. It's not unreasonable to roughly analogize the mechanisms that result in cancer due to ionizing radiation, on the one hand, to the mechanism that might disrupt a sperm-generating stem cell, on the other hand. Since radiation from such a blast need only irreparably damage a HANDFUL of these TRILLIONS of cells in order for the individual to become a bomb-blast cancer statistic, on balance, one's progeny seem pretty safe. For boys or men, the likelihood that any spermatogenic cell of the survivor would be affected at all is low; the chance that even one of these millions of cells would be disrupted in such a way that it would survive to produce viable but mutated gametes is vanishingly small. Then, any particular affected son or daughter would have to have been the result of one of a small number of ruinously disturbed yet oddly robust spermatogonium among millions of undisturbed sperm generating cells.

One doesn't have to be a genius to figure this out, right? It doesn't require a freaking PhD. It requires that one be able to count on one's fingers, is all. I'm just a lay person - I could be off in this estimate by 10,000%, or whatever and STILL, the chances that the two devastating events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would result in a detectable increase in horrible mutations is not distinguishable from zero. Considering the number of us on the planet and the number of ionizing events our bodies sustain from natural terrestrial radiation and from the bits of smashed atmospheric atomic detritus that plough into us every day resulting from cosmic rays impacting our atmosphere throughout our youth and young adulthood, if our species was so vulnerable, freaking every other one of us would have both eyes on one side of our head.

Why, then, do Mr Abumrad and Mr Kean express surprise that little evidence exists for mass mutagenesis due to the undeniably horrifying 1945 bomb explosions? Simple. It's because the world of journalism - and consequently, the majority of the rest of the lay world as well - is VASTLY more informed about the natural physical world by ideological polemic and by SCIENCE FICTION than it is by the actual conclusions of actual scientific inquiry. It's a state of affairs that's catastrophic for our species and for our planet.

Oct. 08 2017 01:35 AM
Gail Fletcher from New York

It's unknown what the age of the prior commenters is, but I remember "duck and cover under your desk" drills, the evasiveness of the adults as to why, and the terror it ingrained. In the present day, the electorate has willfully elected officials whose swaggering summons that helpless terror again. God help us all.

Oct. 07 2017 08:15 AM
Brian Miller from Seattle, WA

Marcus, good point about about Man needing the Earth, and not vice versa.

What a "limited" exchange would do, at the very least, is to knock out the electrical infrastructure. Say North Korea launches two missiles, not to blow up a city, but to detonate high in the atmosphere on either side of the Rockies and cause an electromagnetic pulse throughout the United State's electrical grid. Pause and think about how much electricity is part of the fabric of any first-world nation.

Our fuel is pumped and refined using electricity and electrical control. Our water and waste treatment also relies on electricity. Our banking and commerce rely on electricity. Basically, the "magic" of electricity enables everything we produce and consume. Without electricity, everything halts. We can't rebuild the electrical grid fast enough to prevent everyone starving. The Pentagon estimates 90% of the population would be dead in a year if the nation's electrical grid went down.

To kill a nation, it only has to bleed to death.

Oct. 06 2017 05:40 PM
Horqua from Denver

After listening to this episode, i was chilled by the response to the question posed by the Air Force misselier. How do we know the President is making a rational, informed, calculated decision rather than a childish, drunken, or deranged tantrum to launch thermonuclear weapons? To allow a madman such as the current president absolute authority to launch US nuclear weapons without any final checks and balances is a truly terrifying thought. There has to be a better way to control this system. Plenty food for thought in this episode.

Oct. 06 2017 09:31 AM
Mark Gardner from Cleveland, Ohio

I have to disagree with you Marcus. The atomic nukes dropped on Japan in WWII are quaint little toys compared with the size and power of today's hydrogen warheads. Here's a video to view discussing the differences in power of the different forms of nukes out there:

In the mid-80's, I was in the Air Force and stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, aka, Strategic Air Command HQ (SAC). Of course, that was the command that was in charge of plotting our available nuclear attacks across the world given countless possible threat scenarios. My particular unit selected "Economic" targets. At my desk, I entered the targeting criteria for three subsets of the economic targets: Petroleum, Oil & Lubricants sites (aka, POL), non-ferrous metal production (e.g., aluminum, copper, nickel, tin, etc.) & power generation (hydro-electric dams, power plants, etc.). Of course, there were lots of other "economic" targets that others in my unit were charged with selecting. And beside "economic" targets, other classification of targets included "Leadership," "Military," "Lines of Communications," and so on. And each of those classifications had subset targets too.

If only my list of targets were hit in a nuclear war, the receiving country -- those few humans that survived the attack -- would be using candlelight to read for at least the next quarter of a century, no motor vehicles would be operating and industrial production would be nothing more then bedtime stories & dreams of the past.

And that scenario doesn't take into account the radiation clouds that would blot out the sun's light for whatever uncertain amount of time and the radioactive poison falling on people and their now polluted fields (think of the now unusable farming/living lands around Chernobyl, Ukraine & Fukushima, Japan.

What I'm getting at, is that even a "limited" thermonuclear war (it's ridiculous to even write that phrase), is in reality, a whole lot worse that you're imagining.

Oct. 06 2017 07:44 AM
Bronchae Brown from Omaha, Nebraska

Interesting story about how decisions are made to employ Nuclear Weapons. All of your experts are leaving out key details of how the Nuclear Command and Control system works and what occurs in the United States Strategic Command Global Operations Center or Alternate Command Post. (Some of your Experts did not have the Need to Know, some may have left out details, or you redacted info to make your story more ominous. ) Without the appropriate clearance and access to The Global Operations Center or Alternate Command Post you will not be privy to all the specifics. The greater detail that is made public about the steps in the process the more opportunity an adversary has to disrupt, corrupt, usurp, or influence the process.

Harold was a missilier in a silo and at the execution point of the process. Rest assured the United States Nuclear Force is resilient, reliable, and ready to Deter, Defend, and Defeat any Strategic Military threat.

Oct. 05 2017 06:48 PM
Marcus Kobrin from California

Hi. Good show this week. I listen to your show on KUOP and KQED. I need to disagree with an idea that was repeated often on this weeks episode: The idea that a nuclear bomb drop or blast would 'bring about the end of the world', Host Robert Crauwish among them. I don't think that's true. We have already dropped nuclear bombs on our planet since WWII. The Earth is still here, alive. What did not survive after those bombs dropped or exploded were the members of mankind who went through those blasts. What a nuclear bomb drop or blast would bring about, would be 'the end of the Mankind'. Nuclear bomb blasts would NOT bring about 'the end of the world' as was said on this weeks episode. What would be brought about would be the end of MANKIND, NOT THE WORLD. The Earth doesn't need man to live. Man needs Earth to provide things for Him to live. That was my point.

Oct. 04 2017 04:23 PM

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