Pretty Little Boxes

From the 1964 Presidential race, I remember the anti-Goldwater commercial of the cute, little blonde girl singing sweetly and plucking petals from a flower, then the blossoming nuclear mushroom cloud obliterated her–or so we were supposed to think. For the 1960’s it was pretty graphic and controversial, but it got the point across about the differences between Goldwater and LBJ.

You could say I’m a child of the nuclear age. Born seven years after my country used nukes on Japan, I grew up with talk of bomb shelters, mutually assured destruction, and the nuclear arms race. Those of us born in the 1950’s just assumed we’d all eventually die in a nuclear holocaust because everywhere we turned people in authority were telling us just that. (Probably why some of my favorite science fiction is post-apocalyptic.) In first or second grade we had to bring a shoe box to school. The teacher let us decorate it however we wanted (mine had horses, of course) and put our names on it. Then, a list went home to our parents–things we had to bring in to put in the box. I can remember a bar of soap, a washcloth and small towel, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a deck of cards. I’m sure there were other items that have faded from memory. After we put our items in our pretty little boxes, we lined up to place them on a shelf in the storage cabinet in our classroom.

Then came the drills. The school bell would ring in a way different from recess or end of the day. We would practice getting up from our desks then crouching under them, our arms over our heads–duck and cover. After a few minutes of that, we lined up to take our boxes from the cabinet, then we filed, with the rest of the classes, down the hallway to the door that led to the school’s basement. I remember a dark, cramped place, but, damn, the teachers made it out to be lots of fun. They’d even continue with classes to a degree, then an hour or so later, another bell would sound, and we’d march back up to our classes, tuck our boxes away, and proceed as normal until the next drill. The teacher taught us about fallout and how practicing going to the basement would help us not be “affected” by fallout and how we’d have so much fun spending all our time in the basement–like a camping trip! Woo hoo! I’d never been camping at that point, so it all seemed so exciting.

In a way only a six or seven year old can, I told my Dad all about it the next time he came home on a pass. I suppose because he so often got sent to West Berlin where he had to sit in his tank in gear supposedly to keep radiation from affecting him, he wasn’t terribly impressed. Even though we were nearly 60 miles away from Washington, DC, “a probable target,” he explained, there would be no time to get to shelter. Fallout, he explained, was the least of our worries since the heat blast would flash-burn us before we could get out of our chairs to duck and cover.

Scared the crap out of me, but my Dad never sugar-coated anything.

As the years passed and we began to rely on the concept of a “nuclear standoff”–meaning neither side wanted to destroy the earth–those Civil Defense drills grew fewer and fewer in number. School basement fallout shelters went over to storage space, and a whole generation of children grew up wondering what a fallout shelter was. Eventually, after I became a science geek, I fell for the idea that we could put nukes to “peaceful uses,” like power plants that produced electricity without polluting the air. And what about “spent fuel rods” and “nuclear waste?” Well, we’re a brilliant country; we’ll figure something out, like making the moon a nuclear garbage dump or some such. No need to worry.

Except that I wasn’t yet a government employee and had no idea about the concept of “lowest bidder” in government (local or federal) contracting. When the “partial meltdown” at Three Mile Island occurred a month before my 27th birthday, the nuclear fear returned. If Three Mile Island didn’t turn me completely away from the nuclear alternative for energy, Chernobyl did. Where TMI was human error overcoming a safe design, Chernobyl was poor design to cut corners and save money in a failing Soviet economy. TMI was the “what if.” Chernobyl was the reality of an out of control nuclear pile meltdown, the effects of which Ukraine will experience for generations to come.

One of my increasing number of disappointments with President Obama was his focus on nuclear as a “clean” energy option. How something whose “waste” has a half-life of 500,000 years is clean is beyond me. Now, I’m no Luddite. I don’t want the ones in use to be shut down immediately; we’ve become dependent on that electricity production. I would like to see no new nuclear power plants built and increased inspections of those near fault lines. (Amazing how Repubs like to cut funds for all sorts of safety inspections.) I would like to see them phased out as we find alternatives we know won’t cause a different kind of nuclear apocalypse, the kind facing Japan right now. And frankly, as long as we dabble with nuclear plant generated electricity, we have no incentive to either acknowledge we’re past the peak of oil availability or to explore safer alternative energy sources.

A before picture of the reactors at Fukushima shows us pretty little, high tech boxes lined up on a shelf near a seashore. The after picture is from one of my post-apocalyptic nightmares. Find that picture, print it, pin it on your wall. And remember.

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