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Slate's Well-Traveled: A Nuclear Family Vacation


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, Disneyland turns 50 years old on Sunday. They have a party there everyday, anyway.

First, this. Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of an event that changed the world. In the desert of New Mexico, scientists from the supersecret Manhattan Project detonated the world's first atomic bomb. Our colleagues at the online magazine Slate have been marking the anniversary this week with an unusual travelogue. Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger are both defense journalists. They're also married. For their holiday this year, they decided to go on what they call `a nuclear family vacation'--that is, they visited some of the sites most closely associated with this country's nuclear history. They join us now from NPR studios in Washington.

And how did you get the idea for this?


Well, it came out partly as a joke and partly as something serious, in that we didn't have a lot of time for--the 60th anniversary of Trinity, the first man-made atomic explosion, was coming. And we have a lot of family out in the West, some of them coincidentally located with the major nuclear sites.

CHADWICK: Nathan, you go to all three of the nation's major nuke labs--Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia--and you describe them as having three distinct personalities. What are they?

NATHAN HODGE reporting:

Well, the funny thing is I've done dispatches for Slate from other countries--from Russia, from Afghanistan--but these locales are in a lot of ways even more exotic. For instance, Los Alamos has this almost uniquely academic microculture, you could call it. They're sort of out in isolation in northern New Mexico. Sandia, by contrast, has got a very corporate feel. And then if you contrast that with Livermore, which is in sort of, you know, warm, wonderful Northern California--very friendly, you can go out for lunch and have some wine. They've all got a very different feel.

CHADWICK: You know, the Cold War is over--it has been over--and the new war doesn't seem to require massive nuclear arsenals. What are these labs doing?

WEINBERGER: The laboratories are not relics of the Cold War. They have been moving into homeland security. They do tremendous work in this area, everything from sensor and technology development to work for the intelligence community. So the threat changes, but it's fair to say that the laboratories have changed, too, and they are adapting to that new world--although there is still, I think, a little bit of nostalgia for the Cold War.

HODGE: Basically, their task was pretty straightforward. Build this, see if it goes off; you take it to the Nevada Test Site, which we also visited, and see how big of a crater you can make in the ground.

CHADWICK: Is the Nevada Test Site really a place that anyone would want to visit?

WEINBERGER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, first of all, it's absolutely beautiful being out in the desert. And the landscape of the Nevada Test Site tells the history of our nuclear weapons testing program. And then it's still an important testing site for some critical tests that are part of our Nuclear Stockpiles Stewardship Program. And also the Department of Defense and Department of Energy and Homeland Security use the site.

HODGE: Now we didn't, of course, sweep our shoes with a Geiger counter or anything after we finished our visit, but you know, back in the day, people used to actually come out in the era of atmospheric weapons tests with, well, picnic baskets and they would watch. So Las Vegans used to come out for entertainment.

CHADWICK: I've never heard of this idea before, going around to a bunch of nuke sites as a tourist destination. Is this something that any ordinary person actually could do?

WEINBERGER: Each place does have ways that visitors, regular tourists, can visit. Nevada Test Site does, I believe, one tour a month. The laboratories all either have some form of public tours of their facilities or a museum on or off site that visitors can visit. So, yes, you can actually go out and do this.

HODGE: And we should also note that on Saturday Trinity is going to be observing the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test, and they're expecting a lot of people to visit.

CHADWICK: You two know a lot about these nuclear weapons and these labs, but did you learn anything new on your nuclear family vacation that surprised you?

WEINBERGER: I think one of the things that was surprising, though it shouldn't have been, was simply that the people who work in these laboratories really are there because they believe in national security. They are patriotic people. They don't always agree with the administration, but they believe in their work. I don't know if that was surprising or if it should have been, but in one sense it was.

HODGE: I think the surprise to me was that we could work on a challenging series of articles on an interesting topic in an entertaining way and not bicker too much.

WEINBERGER: That we could work together.

CHADWICK: Sharon Weinberger and Nathan Hodge. You can read their dispatches and see a slide show of their nuclear family vacation at

Sharon and Nathan, thank you.

WEINBERGER: Thank you.

HODGE: Thank you.

CHADWICK: This weekend in Nevada, the SIM nuke project(ph) is going to simulate a nuclear blast and mushroom cloud--part art project, part tribute to the Trinity explosion. DAY TO DAY technology contributor Xeni Jardin is there to watch, and she'll be back here Monday with a report.

I'm Alex Chadwick. We'll have one more nuke note, just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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