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Two Journalists Take an Atomic Holiday

Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger are nontraditional tourists who explore missile silos, test sites, and bomb shelters. The two just published A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry, a chronicle of their travels to nuclear landmarks across ten states and fives countries.


Other segments from the episode on June 12, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 12, 2008: Interview with Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger; Review of the "Family tradition" exhibit; Obituary for Wayne Conner.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Defense journalists Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger
on their new book, "A Nuclear Family Vacation," on touring nuclear
sites in America and other countries

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the
Cold War ended and the threat of nuclear war faded. But when weapons industry
reporters Sharon Weinberger and Nathan Hodge toured nuclear sites across the
United States, they found the nuclear industry still operating with new
weapons being planned and bombs standing ready on hair-trigger alert.
Weinberger and Hodge and married. They took a series of trips navigating
through the little-known world of nuclear tourism and, using their press
credentials when necessary, visiting former nuclear bomb test sites,
decommissioned bunkers, missile silos, labs and museums devoted to the history
of nuclear weapons. Their new book is called "A Nuclear Family Vacation:
Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry." They visited sites in 10 states and
five countries, including Iran. Sharon Weinberger previously joined us to
discuss her book "Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's
Scientific Underworld." Nathan Hodge writes for Jane's Defense Weekly.

Sharon Weinberger, Nathan Hodge, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with your
trip to Nevada. What is Nevada's special place in the history of nuclear
weapons testing?

Ms. SHARON WEINBERGER: Well, the Nevada test site, which is reasonably close
to Las Vegas, is where, during the Cold War, we conducted nuclear tests for
awhile above ground, and then later underground as there were treaty
limitations. And, you know, these went on up through, basically, the end of
the Cold War. And it kind of had this weird parallel existence to Las Vegas,
you know, the city of sin and casinos and gambling. And the test site,
although this was, you know, secretive work in a way, in the days of above
ground testing when you had these sort of magnificent mushroom clouds, it was,
you know, as we've described it, it was a picnicker's delight. People would
watch. It had sort of an entertainment value. It became part of this kitschy
culture of Las Vegas. You can now go on bus tours. They organize
once-a-month bus tours, I'm told is, you know, very popular with retirees,
visitors to Las Vegas, and you can visit, you can see the remains of the above
ground tests, you know, sort of twisted metal. You can see these huge craters
left by the underground tests. And so it still fits into this sort of weird
Las Vegas existence.

GROSS: So there really is nuclear tourism now?

Ms. WEINBERGER: There really is nuclear tourism that is in fact encouraged.
It's organized by the National Nuclear Security Administration. This is sort
of the agency that oversees our nuclear complex. And they do, they organize
monthly bus tours of Nevada, as well of the nuclear laboratories. And this
serves a goal. It is to increase public support for the nuclear
infrastructure for the labs. You know, they say it has educational value, and
that's certainly true. But nuclear weapons are no longer regarded as once
needed as they once were, so the desire to have public support for this
infrastructure, you know, is for these agencies very needed.

GROSS: When you toured Nevada test sites, you not only saw, you know, craters
and such from bombs that were exploded, you saw some evidence of other kinds
of testing that was done during the bomb explosions. For example, there was
testing on pigs. What kind of testing was done on pigs, and what are the
remains of those tests?

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes, well, pigskin, it turns out, is reasonably close, for
testing purposes, to human skin; and so pigs were, for better or worse, sort
of a popular sort of stand-in for humans. And so you get this sense of both
the bizarreness of nuclear testing and also the types of things that they were
looking after or they were concerned about, you know, that they--testing on
everything. `OK, how would human skin do? How would, you know, a suburban
house do? How would cars do? What would happen to radio stations?' A sort of
recreating of American life in this sort of miniature models. They really did
rebuild sort of little mini towns, survival cities, to test the effects on the

GROSS: Is there any like post-nuclear survival town remains, like, do you see
the effects that the bomb had upon these little fake towns?

Mr. NATHAN HODGE: Well, what's, I think, most visually impressive,
definitely, the Nevada test site, is they had put a Mosler bank vault right on
the desert floor, and it had just been part of the concrete, and rebar had
been stripped clean by the atomic blast. It's pretty impressive.

GROSS: Is there any testing being done in Nevada now?

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes. They do a number of different tests, ranging from sort
of homeland security, some things that they don't talk about, you know,
chem-bio testing for Department of Homeland Security, for Department of
Defense. In terms of nuclear weapons, what they do are what are called
subcritical tests on plutonium. How does plutonium, the trigger for a
thermonuclear weapon, respond to sort of being blasted or pounded upon?
Because we need to know how these triggers age, how the different component
parts of nuclear weapons age. These are done underground, they're announced
ahead of time.

And one of the ongoing political issues under the current administration is,
they want to be ready if need be to resume nuclear testing. And this is, of
course, one of the most controversial issues at the Nevada test site, because
the Bush administration wanted to speed up. Basically, you know, how long
does it take--if the president decided today that we need to test nuclear
weapons again, how long does it take us to get to that point? Does it take 36
months, 12 months? I mean, a lot of arguments about this. But the whole idea
of being able to speed up that process triggered a political debate in
Congress. There was a compromise. And so we've speeded up a little, is a way
to put it.

GROSS: You also went to New Mexico to look at test sites there. You went to
the White Sands missile range. What was tested there, and what are the
remains of the tests?

Mr. HODGE: White Sands missile range is where the Trinity atomic test site
is located. It was where the first atomic device was tested in 1945. And
it's one of the more fascinating places to visit. And interestingly enough,
it's open, I think, twice a year still for public tours. The thing that's
most impressive, perhaps, is the crater, which is still visible, which was
burned into the desert floor. And you can still wander around the original
ground zero, and still hunt for pieces of trinitite, which is this sort of
very ghostly bluish-green glass that was created by the heat of the blast.

GROSS: It created glass out of the sand?

Mr. HODGE: Yes, right, created this eerie-looking glass out of the sand, and
for years and years pieces of trinitite just sort of disappeared into the
pockets of tourists until a few years ago, when they decided they needed to
preserve some larger chunk of trinitite still on the desert floor. And
they've kind of fenced it off a little bit. But you can still wander around
and find these sort of little pebble-sized pieces of trinitite. And of course
our guide said, `Oh, well, you know, you'd have to really eat your weight in
trinitite. It's still slightly radioactive but, you know, no big deal.'

GROSS: How concerned were you on this nuclear tour that you would come in
contact with radiation?

Ms. WEINBERGER: You know, you don't think about it at the time, and I think
this is maybe a product of our age and the time we grew up in, the concerns
about radiation from nuclear testing were really sort of before our time. And
so, you know, what was told to us at the Trinity site was, literally someone
said, `We're the government. We wouldn't let you in, you know, if this were
dangerous.' Which is sort of a bad joke, if you think about it, considering
how cavalier over the years of testing the US government was, both with its
own citizens and citizens of other countries about safety and health related
to radiation.

You know, I do--I mean, speaking to scientists who are familiar with this
work, I do take it at face value that the Trinity site, where you just had
that one nuclear explosion, they say it's at background levels, I'm willing to
take that that at face value. There are parts of the Nevada test site that
apparently they will not take people to for radiation reasons.

It was really in Kazakhstan at the old Soviet test site where we actually had
a guide with us who was measuring radiation and was, you know, warning us, you
know, `Wash your hands, wash your clothing.' And, you know, he was measuring
the radiation as we went through. And we got to ground zero, that thing
spiked up. And it was really the first time that you sort of took it
seriously, because they were telling, you know, `Don't touch things, don't lay
down on the ground, don't sit down.' And part of this may be phobia, that so
little was told the citizens in Kazakhstan at the time about what was going on
that a good, healthy and deserved paranoia extends to today. And there's a
second issue, which is they did their testing differently. They would
explode, you know, bomb after bomb after bomb in one place at the test site,
at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan. But we got back and, you know,
I don't know that we thoroughly doused everything, but we really did think
about it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Nathan Hodge and Sharon
Weinberger, the authors of the new book "A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels
in the World of Atomic Energy," and they went to five countries and 10 US
states touring nuclear labs, nuclear weapons facilities, old nuclear test
sites. They're both journalists who write about defense.

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Sharon Weinberger and Nathan
Hodge. They're the authors of the new book "A Nuclear Family Vacation:
Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry," and they toured five countries and
10 states in the United States looking at nuclear test sites and other nuclear
facilities. Nathan Hodge is a writer for Jane's Defense Weekly; Sharon
Weinberger is a contributing writer for Wired's national security blog Danger

On your visits, you went to a few nuclear research labs, and you learned
about, you know, weapons in the works, weapons that had been in the works and
were taken out of development. One of the weapons that you learned about was
known by the acronym SADM, S-A-D-M, which stood for Special Atomic Demolition
Munition. It would've been one of the smallest nuclear weapons in the
arsenal, so small it would be strapped to a commando. Would that have made
the commando who used this weapon a nuclear suicide bomber?

Mr. HODGE: In short, yes. I think, in fact, we have a quote in the book
from one of the former SADM mission-trained members who said, `It was suicide
and we all knew it.' The idea was that you would, you know, a commando would
strap this thing to his back, parachute into enemy territory, presumably,
evade capture, detection, get to the destination, let's say, you know, a dam,
some other strategic site--a bridge--and then stand maybe 100 meters, couple
hundred meters away and detonate this thing. And if you think about it, what
really made these kinds of weapons obsolete was the advent of precision in
weaponry. We don't need this kind of device anymore. If we want to blow up a
bridge, we can drop a couple of satellite-guided bombs on the supports and
very mutely destroy it. But these things were invented in the days before the
advent of, you know, what we call sort of modern precision weaponry. So it
does raise, you know, questions for us, what were all of these things for, and
would they even have any kind of application today?

Ms. WEINBERGER: There's just one thing I wanted to add, which is the
realization that we got out of our trips of how many jobs in the nuclear world
were suicide missions. I mean, if you look at it, even sort of the B-2
bomber, the bombers that were going to go drop their weapons on the Soviet
Union, were never really expected to come back. The missiliers who sit
underground waiting to turn the key to launch intercontinental ballistic
missiles, they were targets. And it was expected that was a suicide mission.

I mean, just as there were for the commandoes with the nuke on their back,
there were sort of instructions on what to do afterwards. You know, for the
guys underground, they were going to walk 200 miles through radioactive ruins
and report to their recruiting stations. But it was twisted, and yet some of
these missions still exist today.

GROSS: Well, what about that weapon we were talking about, that special
atomic demolition munition, which a commando would strap to his back, how far
did that get?

Mr. HODGE: How far did it get in terms of its...

GROSS: In terms of officially entering the arsenal?

Mr. HODGE: Oh, no, it was in the arsenal. It was in service for a couple of
decades, actually. And the warhead that was designed for was packaged in
different ways. You could put it in this canister, the SADM canister, which
looks kind of like a garbage can and a commando could deliver it. It could
also be packaged, I think, on a recoilless rifle, or one version of it, a
similar sort of warhead. Again, you know, a device with a not-very-long
range. And if you think about it, it was a very large part of the nuclear
mission. It's been taken out of the arsenal now, but this was the tactical
nuke. And it was part of atomic plans, plans for nuclear war fighting.

GROSS: So now that that little bomb that would've been strapped to the back
of commandoes is no longer part of the arsenal, what happened to the SADM
bombs that existed? Have they been decommissioned? Are they still around?

Mr. HODGE: Well, one of the places that we went to was Y12 in Oak Ridge,
Tennessee, which is in the business of--and a lot of the, what had been part
of the nuclear weapons production complex, turned to the task of
dismantlement. And as these weapons were taken out of the inventory, they
basically sent them back to the factory and they told the people who had been
working on building the bombs for years and years, `Well, your job now is to
unscrew these things, take them apart, and then we're going to dispose of the
fissile material.'

And, you know, it's very interesting, talking to people who had spent, you
know, the better part of their careers during the Cold War, sort of in, you
know, the equivalent of, you know, it's like a car factory. But at the end,
these cars were obsolete, now they're being told, `Your main job here, not to
build new cars, is to dismantle the ones you built for all those decades.'

GROSS: In your visits to nuclear labs, did you learn about new nuclear
weapons in development?

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes. One of the main things that was going on that we spoke
to people about was, there have been a couple proposals over the past number
of years to revive designing nuclear weapons, producing nuclear weapons. The
one with the most currency right now is the reliable replacement warhead.
And, you know, they always say, `Don't call it a new warhead, don't call a new
warhead.' But then you run out of adjectives to describe it. It's the new
warhead. And the idea is not, as you have an aging nuclear arsenal--you know,
we haven't produced a new nuclear weapon, designed a new nuclear weapon in,
you know, well over a decade, and so the idea is is that you would build a new
nuclear weapon that is more reliable, that is safer, you know, can't be
tampered with if it was taken by terrorists. And that is one controversial
proposal, very controversial because a lot of people don't want to see nuclear
weapons productions again. A lot of scientists are questioning whether, you
know, the aging arsenal's fine, why start again.

The other one that was proposed was what's called the robust nuclear earth
penetrator, RNEP, also sort of called a nuclear bunker buster. This will be a
nuclear weapon specifically designed to penetrate underground, to take out
bunkers, you know, bunkers, you know, that have, you know, leaders in them,
you know, the head of North Korea or Iraq or Iran or wherever, or to take out
stores of WMD that may be stored underground. And so these are the two
proposals we talked about with people at the labs.

GROSS: So are the two nuclear weapons that you talked about in the works, or
are they on hold now because of the controversy surrounding them?

Mr. HODGE: Well, it looks like, at present, something like the reliable
replacement warhead, it kind of was stalled. Congress stepped in essentially
to block funding. The same thing goes for the RNEP, the robust nuclear earth
penetrator. But one thing that we noticed is that these weapons projects
never really die. They get revived in some form or another. Even though we
could look at some of the spending bills and we could say with some confidence
that, well, it looks like the funding line for that has been zeroed out for
the next year, these are projects that, in many ways, have emanated from the
labs. They're a way to, number one, kind of maintain and attract scientific
talent, because you want to bring people into the lab, and they're attracted
to the idea of designing something new. Again, you know, they always try to
avoid using the word new when they're describing the reliable replacement
warhead. They say, `Oh, we're just repackaging, you know, a weapons design
that was proven out in the, I think, in the late 1980s.' But that being said,
there's some attraction, I think, to the scientists we spoke to of, `Well,
we're not going to be in maintenance work. We'll be designing something new.
This is, you know, quite exciting.' I think this is what really brought people
to the labs in the era of the Cold War.

GROSS: You write in your book that visiting intercontinental ballistic
missile sites is a great way to tour the great northern Plains. Are these
ICBM sites still active? Do they still have ICBMs there? Are they on alert?

Mr. HODGE: Well, this is the interesting thing. This kind of shows how much
nuclear issues had receded to the background in debates about national
security. We've both been covering the Defense Department and the military
for, you know, better part of a decade. But I think that before we started,
if you had asked us, you know, `Are nukes still on alert? Are they still
active?' You know, I probably would've had to go look it up. What we
discovered, of course, on our trip is that these weapons still are on
hair-trigger alert. There still are missilier crews underground in the Great
Plains, you know, pulling missile alert duty.

And we went to an active missile alert facility based out of Warren Air Force
Base in Wyoming, actually went underground into the capsule, talked to an
active crew, and one of the things that we really wanted to ask them about,
`Well, you know, with the Cold War over and our traditional idea of deterrents
gone, what exactly is it that you're doing down here?' And it was pretty
interesting to watch them kind of grope a little bit for answers on that.

GROSS: What did they have to say?

Mr. HODGE: Well, interestingly enough, they said, kind of fell back on an
answer that we heard a lot when we were traveling through the nuclear complex,
that kind of, `The world is still a dangerous place. You know, look at 9/11.'
But without taking it any further and saying, `Well, how does a nuclear
deterrent prevent a 9/11? Do you use nuclear weapons as a reprisal tool in
the event of another 9/11? You know, how do you use nuclear weapons to deter,
for instance, a suicide bomber who's committed to die?' You know, it's very
interesting talking to people who work on sort of the operational end of the
nuclear mission.

And what we've seen in recent weeks is a tremendous shake-up in the top
leadership of the Air Force precisely over this kind of--we'd call it like a
lack of focus or a lack of real attention to the nuclear mission. There were
a couple of really, really serious incidents in handling and accounting for
nuclear weapons. One was some nuclear-armed cruise missiles that were
mistakenly loaded on a B-52 bomber and flown across the country. They went
unaccounted for several hours until someone discovered the error. There've
been other sorts of lapses of discipline, because the missilier's job is a
very tedious one. It's one of procedures and checklists. And it was always
that way. I think it was, in the Cold War it was considered a very important,
vital and prestigious career track. Once you find that your mission has
become less relevant, how do you attract the most motivated, the most
talented, how do you maintain those kinds of high standards? And this is
something that, you know, the Air Force is still wrestling with today.

GROSS: Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger are the authors of the new book "A
Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry." They'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with defense reporters
Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, authors of the new book "A Nuclear Family
Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry." They went to 10 American
states and five countries touring nuclear test sites, research labs, missile
silos, decommissioned bunkers and museums devoted to atomic weapons. One of
the book's conclusions is that the US does not have a coherent nuclear
strategy for dealing with the threats that face the country today.

Ms. WEINBERGER: I think we started off believing that, you know, nuclear
weapons were a legitimate part of our defense strategy. There's a legitimate
role for nuclear deterrents and that, you know, we need this things on
hair-trigger alert. And I think with each visit we made, we became a bit sort
of chipped away and became a bit more disillusioned. You know, of course the
nuclear labs want to build new nuclear weapons. That's what they're trained
to do, and it's hard to blame them for that. But it is the job of the
government, of senior civilian leaders, to define that strategy and say, `No,
we don't need new nuclear weapons.' Or, `We do.' It just seems like
everything's reactive.

And at the end of the day, the ultimate absurdity is, you know, you have all
these weapons on hair-trigger alert, which is for one purpose. It's not
against terrorism, it's not for China or North Korea or Iran, because those
countries don't have a hair-trigger alert. It's for Russia, which has a
hair-trigger alert, and we don't have the adversarial--we may have problems
with Russia, but certainly not to the extent that we had with the Soviet
Union. And so all of this infrastructure is supporting a threat that
shouldn't really exist. And that to me just, I think it struck us as absurd,
and it really chipped away at our belief in the legitimacy of nuclear
deterrents, sort of our nuclear strategy.

GROSS: In your tour of nuclear facilities in the United States, you went to
what you assume is the underground bunker that Vice President Cheney and other
people went to after 9/11. It's called Site R. It's in Pennsylvania just
across the Maryland border. What is Site R?

Mr. HODGE: Site R is otherwise known as the underground Pentagon. It's a
bunker not very far, so it's driving distance from Washington, and it's part
of this larger continuity of government scheme. Now, we did get the chance to
go to some of the actual active bunkers, like Cheyenne Mountain, which is
moving in the direction of going on standby; and we went to a decommissioned
bunker, which is underneath the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Site R?
Well, the closest we got to it was we got to hang around the outside gate. Of
all the places that we tried to visit, that was where we were sort of
stonewalled the most. Site R is still used, I think, as a facility where, you
know, Pentagon bureaucrats will occasionally go, and they'll pull a shift
inside of this underground bunker, you know, just in the event that, you know,
Armageddon happens.

GROSS: One of the places you went to is Iran. What were the authorities in
Iran willing to show you, and why did they show it to you?

Mr. HODGE: We went to Iran with eyes open, knowing that we would only be
shown exactly what the authorities wanted us to see. We had been trying for
some time to go, and I had tried twice unsuccessfully to get a visa to go to
Iran, but we got a call basically saying that they were going to be organizing
an excursion for the press to the Isfahan uranium conversion facility, which
is what creates we call yellowcake, milled...(unintelligible)...uranium oxide,
it's the feed stock for uranium enrichment.

And the purpose of this trip, in the eyes of the Iranian authorities, was to
prove to the outside world the country's peaceful nuclear intentions, that
this is, you know, strictly for atomic energy, that this is a matter of
national pride, and if you--as you enter, one of the sort of conference halls
of the uranium conversion facility, there's a giant photograph, which was
taken on the outside of the facility, with the staff standing in their sort of
white lab coats, and the slogan underneath the photo, I think both in Farsi
and English, was "nuclear energy is our obvious right." So they had invited
the international press, as well as some nonaligned diplomats, to go. In
journalism terms, it's called the "dog and pony show." It was sort of a photo
opportunity inside of this uranium conversion facility. And they wanted to
show things like the International Atomic Energy Agency's surveillance cameras
inside of the facility, show `everything here is open, everything here is, you
know, our doors are open, we have absolutely nothing to hide.'

But in the course of this press visit, reporters were able to ask the
question, `Well, if everything here is so open, why don't you take us to
Natanz?' And Natanz is really kind of the center of questions about Iran's
nuclear aspirations. It's the enrichment facility that's north of Isfahan.
And of course the answer we got was, `Well, your request will be passed to the
proper authorities.' And it was left at that. And there was no invitation to
go to Natanz.

GROSS: One of the things you write about is, looking at the facilities that
you were shown in Iran made you think about the difficulty of airstrikes
against any of them. And what would the difficulty be?

Mr. HODGE: You know, first of all, Iran's nuclear facilities, as was pointed
out to us with no small measure of pride, are widely distributed throughout
the country; and, you know, it's not just the uranium conversion facility or
Natanz or any of these other places, but it was hinted to us that, `Well, you
know, we've widely dispersed both our know-how and our capabilities.' But we
were also taken on this tour of Isfahan. After our tour of this sort of
industrial facility, they took us for a lovely excursion through historic
Isfahan, which is a gorgeous city, marvelous tourist destination. And the
subtext of this tour around Isfahan is, you know, if there are airstrikes it's
going to be dangerously close to a UNESCO world heritage site.

GROSS: And is it that way around several of the nuclear facilities, that
they're close to important like civilian or international facilities or
buildings, and there would be, you know, like really bad collateral damage if
you tried to take out one of the nuclear facilities?

Ms. WEINBERGER: That's the argument they make. One of the think tankers we
spoke with, an Iranian think tanker basically said that. You know, `Look
at--you'll be bombing cities, you'll be bombing civilian areas, heritage
sites.' You know, a more cynical argument might say, well, some of these
places were put in proximity of these sites exactly for that purpose, but, you
know, welcome to the world of current nuclear strategy. You know, you
disburse your facilities, you put them near civilian sites, you do anything
you can to make them less vulnerable to airstrikes because, you know, this is
certainly a big threat for them.

And I think you'll find people in the US who'll say the same thing. If you
bomb them, yeah, of course, you're going to set them back a few more years,
but ultimately they can rebuild and they can retain the know-how. And the
other argument is, `Well,' if you do bomb us, `Well, then, any sort of
pretension to adhering to the nonproliferation treaty, you know, all that
might have to be looked at again. You know, why would we let inspectors in?'
So it is, you know, it's a delicate balance, and they have their arguments,
and I guess the question is, are you willing to bomb any country and bomb it
every few years to keep nuclear know-how out of their hands? Is this a good
long-term strategy? I'm not so sure.

GROSS: Well, recently, Israel's transportation minister, Shaul Mofaz, warned
that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites would be, quote, "unavoidable"
if they proceed with their nuclear weapons program. Do you have any sense of
what the Israeli strategy might be if it did decide to launch airstrikes
against Iran's nuclear program?

Mr. HODGE: We can look to some historical precedents. I mean, there was the
strike against the Osiraq reactor in Iraq in the early 1980s. More recently,
there have been questions about a very interesting Israeli-led airstrike last
summer against the site in Syria. But again, it has been in intelligence
released to the public tagged as also a nuclear weapons site, or as a nuclear
weapons site under construction. And again, there's sort of a lot of mystery
surrounding what exactly happened and how this all exactly occurred. But it
definitely does seem to be an option.

GROSS: What reactions were you getting in Iran to the possibility of either
an American or an Israeli airstrike against nuclear facilities? Was that a
fear that you sensed government officials or citizens have?

Mr. HODGE: At the time, I think that it was definitely a subject of public
discussion. Many of the people we spoke to, you know, Iranian legislators,
members of Iranian think thanks, responded to our questions about, `Well, what
do you think about the possibility of some kind of airstrike?' with their own
question: `Well, what do you think would happen in the region were there to
be a strike by Israel or the United States?' In other words, some kind of
implied retaliation.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Nathan Hodge and Sharon
Weinberger, the authors of the new book "A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels
in the World of Atomic Energy," and they went to five countries and 10 US
states touring nuclear labs, nuclear weapons facilities, old nuclear test
sites. They're both journalists who write about defense.

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH


GROSS: My guests are defense industry reporters Sharon Weinberger and Nathan
Hodge, authors of the new book "A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the
World of Atomic Weaponry." They toured nuclear weapons sites in 10 American
states and five countries.

One of the places you went to was Kazakhstan. Why did you choose Kazakhstan?

Mr. HODGE: Kazakhstan is really kind of the parallel of Nevada in a lot of
ways. It was one of the two main test sites for the Soviet Union. And it was
also--this is an interesting part of the narrative--it was one of the
countries that is a model for nuclear disarmament. When Kazakhstan sort of
reluctantly came into existence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet
Union, this brand-new country was in possession of a not insignificant nuclear
arsenal. And it's a very interesting story of how a country has basically
made the decision to part with nuclear weaponry. Now, there are some
questions about, well, who's control are they really under, and was there ever
really that kind of breakdown? Did they have the potential to actually take
operational control of those nukes? But they've had a very fraught
relationship with the bomb. They were the main test site for the Soviets, and
the Soviets didn't really do a very good job of keeping citizenry informed
about what was going on.

GROSS: So in that sense, people of Kazakhstan see themselves as victims of
Soviet nuclear testing?

Mr. HODGE: And this is the big conflict. I mean, they want to attract
tourists to Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan's nuclear heritage is part of that. So
how do you play up your victimhood? It's not a very attractive thing that
they've done, trying to get people to visit some of the more grotesque things,
like they have in one of their museums, which is kind of this medical museum
of horrors, deformed fetuses in jars and things like that. And they showed it
to us, and I just thought, this is the most gruesome kind of tourism ever.
But what they're trying to do is simultaneously play up their role of nuclear
victim and also as the nation that peacefully disarmed.

GROSS: Your tour of Kazakhstan coincided with the opening publicity for the
movie "Borat." Could you see the impact of that in Kazakhstan when you were

Ms. WEINBERGER: Yeah. I mean, there was a lot of frustration because, you
know, with revenues, you know, sort of oil/gas revenues coming in, you know,
Kazakhstan is developing. It wants to show itself as a modernized country
between East and West. The president has put a lot sort of a lot of, you
know, he put in advertising into this; and they, you know, wanted to have this
sort of grand entrance in the United States and to be recognized and known in
the Western world, particularly the United States. And suddenly everything
that every American associates with Kazakhstan is "Borat." And, you know, for
Sacha Baron Cohen, it was a good joke, it was a convenient joke because most
people hadn't heard of Kazakhstan, but that was precisely the problem.
Suddenly everyone had heard of it as, you know, the backwards
horse-urine-drinking country that sold daughters into prostitution. And so
they were desperate to, you know, combat this image, to show themselves as
developed. And in some ways they do it well, but in some ways they almost
play into the skit because there are elements of this old sort of Soviet Union
left in some of their regional bureaucracies and municipalities, and in this
contradiction between sort of nuclear victimhood and nuclear disarmament.
This is not, you know, a modern developed democratic country. It has elements
of authoritarianism, and sort of, you know, the worship of the president. So
as much as they try to combat it, in some ways they were playing into it.

GROSS: Let's get back to the United States and what you learned on your tour
of nuclear facilities in the United States. This is just a kind of general
question. How many nuclear weapons do we have here now? Like, what's the
extent of our nuclear arsenal?

Ms. WEINBERGER: Over the last few years--I forget precisely when--that's
actually a lot harder to answer. It used to be a very precise number, and
nuclear watchers would track this and the government would confirm it. A
couple of years ago, the precise number of deployed weapons is classified, so
you have to rely on estimates that I believe are around the five, 6,000 level.
And part of the problem is it is changing every day because we are in the
process of getting down to what is the current negotiated limit with Russia,
which is between 1700 and 2200 weapons. This is both what Russia and the
United States have committed to. We're certainly a few thousand above that,
getting down. The precise number is unknown. The second element of that is
that we're not always destroying those older weapons. There are nondeployed
weapons being kept in storage, and that is another problem that some people
are objecting to.

GROSS: I want to thank you both for talking with us. Thank you very much.

Ms. WEINBERGER: Thanks. Thanks for having us.

Mr. HODGE: Thank you.

GROSS: Sharon Weinberger and Nathan Hodge are the authors of the new book "A
Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Milo Miles on the "Family Tradition" exhibit about Hank
Williams and his descendents

While in Nashville recently, music critic Milo Miles went to an exhibit about
Hank Williams at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Called "Family
Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy" and culled mostly from the family's
own collection, the exhibit features photos, documents, stage costumes,
musical instruments, and new interviews with two generations of the Williams

Mr. MILO MILES: One fine achievement of the "Family Tradition" show at the
Country Music Hall of Fame is that the exhibit escapes its rather pat official
narrative. Co-curator and museum director Kyle Young's description of the
exhibit presents the Williamses as more or less the Kennedys of country music.
Young writes, "These are ordinary lives made extraordinary by an alignment of
talent and bedrock values, and by the quest for personal and professional
identity that continue to move each generation to the earthy joy and sorrow of
the times they live in."

In fact, it tells a stranger story: how a musical genius came out of nowhere
and gave his family an enduring identity, even as he haunts them. The "Family
Tradition" exhibit powerfully underscores how in six short years Hank Williams
Sr. went from promising newcomer to superstar to corpse, and how he became
bigger after death than he ever was in life. By now Hank Sr. has become the
incarnation of pure country music.

(Soundbite of "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive")

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS: (Singing)
Now, you're looking at a man that's gettin' kind of mad
I had a lots of luck, but it's all been bad
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive

My fishin' pole's broke, the creek is full of sand
My woman run away with another man
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive

(End of soundbite)

Mr. MILES: After Williams' death, his widow Audrey became an ambitious
caretaker of his legacy. Hank Williams Jr. took the key step to make music
the family tradition. He started performing onstage at age eight, and by 14
he was making records. After all, he was wearing sparkly stage cowboy suits
when he was a tiny tyke. Although it took two decades, Hank Williams Jr.
also went through striking changes of image, from a kind of impersonator of
his father to an innovative embracer of rock to a kind of professional
redneck. Unlike his dad, he's also become a darling of the music industry,
with a fat case full of awards and trophies.

Since Junior's own celebration of his father's legacy has often been rote and
self-serving, it was a welcome surprise to see how different he was from his
"Yee-Haw Bocephus" persona in his video interviews. Here was an articulate,
introspective fellow talking about his complex family currents. It's really a
best of Hank Jr.

(Soundbite of "Family Tradition")

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS Jr.: (Singing) Country music singers
Have always been a real close family
But lately some of my kinfolks
Have disowned a few others and me

I guess it's because
I kind of changed my direction
Lord, I guess I'm winning
Broke their family tradition

They get on me, wanna know, Hank,
Why do you drink?
Hank, why do you roll smoke?
Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?
Over and over, everybody met my prediction
So if I get stoned, I'm just carrying on
An old family tradition


(End of soundbite)

Mr. MILES: One highlight of the exhibit is the savvy frankness of the video
interviews. Whether it's Junior's sister Lycretia or his son Shelton, who
performs as Hank III. They don't sensationalize the emotional train wrecks
they've seen and experienced; but if you listen, they don't sugarcoat them,
either, and you're struck by Hank III's strong potential as a performer,
particularly since he looks and sings more like his grandfather than his

(Soundbite of "Whiskey, Weed and Women")

Mr. SHELTON "HANK III" WILLIAMS: Well, I've raised hell
All night long
And I've seen a good
Man go wrong

And I can't help
The way that I am
'Cause the whiskey, weed and women
Have the upper hand

(End of soundbite)

Mr. MILES: Another surprise is outside the museum, a rally by a small group
of cultural activists who call themselves Reinstate Hank, and who want to
reverse the injustice of 1952, when Williams was kicked out of the Grand Ole
Opry for being a bag of demons. Their quest is a bit quixotic, since the Opry
doesn't offer membership to dead people, but their argument is sound. If the
Williams image is good enough to exploit, he's good enough to belong to the
establishment. Because finally, what the "Family Tradition" show establishes
is that Hank Williams has become the most famous brand name for hard living
and hard country music.

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. The "Family Tradition" exhibit runs at
the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum through December 2009.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Remembering Wayne Conner

We've saved the end of today's show to remember our former colleague here at
WHYY, Wayne Conner. He died of liver cancer last month at the age of 79.
When I came to WHYY in 1975, Wayne was already a veteran here. The station
devoted many hours to classical music programming then, and Wayne hosted
"Singer's World" and "Collector's Corner." He shared his rare recordings and
his encyclopedic knowledge on our station for three decades. You may remember
him. His programs were aired on many NPR stations.

Although he was outstanding on the radio, broadcasting wasn't really his
profession. He taught vocal literature and history at the Peabody
Conservatory, the Curtis Institute of Music and the Academy of Vocal Arts. He
was revered as a voice teacher and mentored many singers. Wayne was a great
singer, but many of us who knew him at WHYY never heard him sing. In fact,
some of his colleagues here didn't know he'd had a career as a singer.
Knowing that I wanted to play something on FRESH AIR, Wayne's friend and
colleague from Peabody, Ernie Ligon, burned a CD of a couple of Wayne's
commercially released tracks, as well as songs from some of his recitals. The
fact that Wayne never played for us what you're about to hear is an example of
how modest he was. What a beautiful voice he had. It reflected the kind of
person he was. This was recorded in 1960 at the Marlboro Music Festival and
was released by Columbia, now Sony Records. The song is from Brahms'
"Liebeslieder." Accompanying Wayne at the piano are Rudolf Serkin and Leon

(Soundbite of Wayne Conner singing "Liebeslieder" in German)

GROSS: That was Wayne Conner. He died last month. He will be greatly
missed. Our thanks to Ernie Ligon for the recording.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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