"A Nuclear Family Vacation – Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry" by Nathan Hodge & Sharon Weinberger (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), 326 pages.
As with Dom Joly's The Dark Tourist
, the people that the publishers had design the cover of this book clearly lacked a proper idea of what dark tourism is, or nuclear tourism, in this specialist sub-branch: It shows the drastic juxtaposition of a beach tourist, lying in the sand, basking in the sun, but wearing a gas mask, and an atom bomb's mushroom cloud is montaged in on the horizon. They probably found it "funny". But even if this does hit your sense of humour (it failed dismally in my case) it is still completely out of line with the book's content.
Unlike Dom Joly's, though, this is quite a serious, journalistic investigation. As such, even the title of the book is as inappropriate as its cover illustration. In essence, this is not about genuine "vacations" at all. The authors did not travel as tourists, but as journalists – and enjoyed the special privileges journalists enjoy over "ordinary" tourists. This becomes especially apparent in the chapter about Kazakhstan
(in particular Semipalatinsk
and the Polygon
), where they had competing official entourages fighting over providing those privileges. Don't expect any of this as a normal mortal, especially not in Kazakhstan! But even in the USA
, which is by far the main focus of the book (8 out of the 12 chapters are about places in the US), not all sites visited are actually open to the casual, non-journalistic visitor.
Those that are, include some of the prime nuclear tourism sites on US soil, such as Trinity
, the NTS
, Los Alamos
, the Atomic Testing Museum
in Las Vegas, the National Nuclear Museum
in Albuquerque, the Lawrence Livermore Lab in California and many more. However, it is those more obscure sites outside the US that have more of an exotic allure. And fortunately, the authors supplemented their solely US-focused first "vacation" with another trip, this time to non-US sites. However, they weren't particularly lucky in Iran or Russia
, and those chapters are more of journalistic interest. In the Marshall Islands, they visited the ICBM-associated military sites on Kwajalein rather than Bikini
. So the single most interesting non-US nuclear tourism chapter is that on Kazakhstan
. It is entitled "Take me to your one-eyed baby" – in reference to the infamous "monster of Semipalatinsk" at the medical university
. They did indeed go to see it in the end, but it is hardly granted any space in the book. Instead the authors fall back into the "moral panic" routine familiar from many journalistic accounts of instances of dark tourism: they brush it aside as plain voyeurism. Pity, as there is so much more to it … (see my own account of the Anatomical exhibition of the Semey Medical University
and also Williams' (2007
, p142) explanation of what dark tourism is about, quoted above). Their account of visiting Kurchatov and the Polygon, however, pretty much mirrors my own experiences (though I did not enjoy the privilege of an official from the Nuclear Institute as my guide, but I suspect that may actually have been an advantage …).
The only part of the book that is actually aimed at tourists specifically is is the two-and-a-half page appendix with practical information, a kind of short nuclear tourism digest guide. The rest of the book is more journalistic – but as such it is a treasure trove of information on the topic of nuclear weaponry. Indispensable for all who, like me, feel somehow drawn to such sites and want to know more about the historical and current political background.