The house I grew up in, and where my parents live still, is on the Aldermaston Road, a mile or so north of Basingstoke Hospital, where I was born, and five miles south of the Atomic Weapons Establishment. From its founding in 1950 until 1987 (when I was ten), AWE was known as the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE). The joke that they’d finished the research and could now get on with building the weapons was almost, but not quite, too obvious to be made. The renaming actually had to do with the privatisation of most of the Royal Ordnance Factories, not including the two that made nuclear weapons, ROF Cardiff (closed in 1997) and ROF Burghfield (just down the road from Aldermaston), which were combined with AWRE to form AWE. To say that I grew up in the shadow of AWRE seems melodramatic. But it was a pervasive presence. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about it; most of the patients at my father’s NHS dental practice seemed to work there, as electricians or MOD police officers if not as nuclear research scientists – and it was an obvious target if ‘the Russians’ ever decided to go ahead and bomb ‘us’.
If you went north-west out of Basingstoke towards Newbury, before too long you’d pass the Greenham Common RAF base, with its 96 American cruise missiles inside the fence and the women’s peace camp outside. I somehow imagined the missiles had been there for ever, but in fact the United States first put them there in 1983, and started taking them away again after Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. The USAF gave the base back to the RAF in 1992. It’s now a business park. The bomb shelters at Greenham Common, under several metres of clay, concrete, sand and titanium, were designed to resist pretty much anything the Russians could throw at them. A nuclear explosion in the air above the RAF base wouldn’t have hurt the US airmen or damaged the cruise missiles underground, but it would have been the end for the women outside the fence, and for us ten miles away, sleeping or eating or waiting for the school bus.
Was I afraid, as a child, of nuclear war? Only when I thought about it, or read about it – the drawings in When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs, depicting the slow deaths of Jim and Hilda Bloggs from radiation poisoning, were seriously disturbing – or saw anything about it on TV.I loved WarGames (1983), the strangely reassuring movie in which Matthew Broderick prevents a rogue computer from starting World War Three by playing noughts and crosses with it enough times for it to realise that stalemate is inevitable and so give up. There was an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a housewife finds a necklace that gives her the power to stop time; the story ends with a nuclear missile hanging frozen in the night sky over her town. And I have a vivid memory of a Spitting Image sketch in which Reagan and Chernenko’s heads turn out to be miniature bomb silos, opening up to reveal cruise missiles ready for launch. I can’t find any trace of the skit now, however, so perhaps I dreamed it – not because they had bombs in their heads, but because I had one in mine.
The nuclear stand-off of the 1980s is sometimes referred to as the ‘second Cold War’, following the ‘high Cold War’ of the 1950s and early 1960s, and the temporary ‘thaw’ when the zone of confrontation shifted from Europe to Vietnam, southern Africa and other sites of postcolonial conflict. In 1976, the year after the Helsinki Accords were signed by the US, the USSR and thirty or so European countries (as if their signatures made any difference), the Soviet Union deployed hundreds of PSD-10 Pioneer intermediate-range nuclear missiles (known to Nato as SS-20s) across Eastern Europe. Nato responded with its ‘double-track’ decision of December 1979: the first track involved negotiating with the Warsaw Pact for the removal of the SS-20s; the second track involved promising to deploy its own intermediate-range nukes if the negotiations didn’t get anywhere within four years. The talks duly stalled, and in late 1983 the first cruise missiles were flown into Greenham Common.
Protesters were waiting to meet them. ‘Women gathered under a cloudless blue sky outside the perimeter fence of the base,’ the New York Times reported on 15 November 1983, ‘as American personnel unloaded cargo from an Air Force Starlifter transport plane that landed this morning.’ The peace camp had been there since September 1981. On 12 December 1982, thirty thousand women had formed a human chain around the site to ‘embrace the base’. On 1 April 1983, eighty thousand people (according to CND; the police halved the number) had linked hands in a 14-mile chain from Greenham Common, around Aldermaston to ROF Burghfield. As Eckart Conze, Martin Klimke and Jeremy Varon write in Nuclear Threats, Nuclear Fear and the Cold War of the 1980s, in the autumn of 1983 five million people across Western Europe demonstrated against the deployment of Nato’s cruise missiles.On 12 June 1982, more than a million people assembled in Central Park in New York to call for a nuclear weapons freeze: ‘The gathering remains perhaps the largest political demonstration in a single locale in US history.’
Ronald Reagan was unpersuaded. On 8 March 1983, he delivered a speech to the 41st Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals at the Sheraton Twin Towers Hotel in Orlando, Florida. He spent a long time talking about ‘abortion on demand’, schoolchildren’s right to pray and the ‘great spiritual awakening’ and ‘moral renewal’ taking place in America. When he came to foreign and defence policy, ‘a freeze now would be a very dangerous fraud,’ the president said, ‘for that is merely the illusion of peace. The reality is that we must find peace through strength.’ ‘Peace through strength’ was a favourite refrain of Reagan’s and a guiding principle of Cold War thinking, which Trump took up in relation to North Korea in mid-January this year. But Reagan’s speech – in its way as chilling as anything Trump has said – is best remembered now for his description of the leaders of the USSR as ‘the focus of evil in the modern world’ and for his warnings against ‘the aggressive impulses of an evil empire’. He introduced those final thoughts with the story of ‘a young father, a very prominent young man in the entertainment world, addressing a tremendous gathering in California’: ‘I love my little girls more than anything,’ Reagan said he said, but ‘I would rather see my little girls die now still believing in God than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God.’ How the evangelicals cheered!
Two years and three days later, Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Reagan met him for the first time in Geneva in November 1985; on returning to Washington he told Congress that he had ‘gained a better perspective’. The leaders met again in Reykjavik the following year, and a year after that signed the INF Treaty which led to the decommissioning of intermediate range missiles, including the ones at Greenham Common. In the meantime, Chernobyl’s number four reactor went into meltdown. I remember, in late April or early May 1986, looking out of our back door at the rain falling on the garden and wondering if it had blown in from the east, laced with strontium-90, and if it was safe to go out in it. At school we read Norman Nicholson’s poem about the Windscale fire of 1957: ‘The toadstool towers infest the shore:/Stink-horns that propagate and spore/Wherever the wind blows.’ By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, though, the fear had moved on, to the greenhouse effect and CFCs: if anything was going to fry us now, it would be the hole in the ozone layer.
But just because the world didn’t end in nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War doesn’t mean that the threat wasn’t real, or that the fear wasn’t justified. Just as, if the catastrophe of climate change is somehow averted, that won’t prove the deniers right. And nuclear weapons may yet do for us before global warming does: Reagan and Chernenko’s successors have gigaton bombs in their heads, even if the threat of their unleashing them heaves in and out of focus with each lurch of the news cycle. It was said at the end of last year that Kim Jong-un would have developed the capability to hit Washington DC with a nuclear missile by March 2018. There was pressure for a pre-emptive US strike on North Korea before then. In January, Trump was congratulating himself for driving Kim to the negotiating table with South Korea. Everyone was relieved that a delegation from the North went to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. And Trump says he’s going to see Kim before the end of May, though that’s a meeting that could go either way. Meanwhile, there have been reports of Israel bombing Iranian bases in Syria, and of the US sharing nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia. For the first time in nearly thirty years, nuclear-armed B-52 bombers are constantly in flight. On 13 January, a false alarm warned people in Hawaii that they were about to be obliterated by a North Korean bomb; Trump, who was playing golf at the time, had nothing to say. On 25 January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock forward to two minutes to midnight, the closest it’s been since 1953.
Why aren’t people more worried? Or if they are worried, why aren’t they saying so more loudly? Where are the mass protests? When the House of Commons voted in July 2016 to renew Trident for another fifty years, a few hundred demonstrators gathered in Parliament Square: nothing compared to the tens of thousands who joined hands against the bomb in the 1980s, or the hundred thousand who assembled in Trafalgar Square at the end of the 1963 CND march from Aldermaston. Perhaps people think the anti-nuclear protests during the Cold War didn’t make any difference, that they were as fruitless as the civil defence advice to ‘duck and cover’. Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, in his new book, Armageddon and Paranoia, follows the establishment line that the protests, though ‘impressive’, ‘did not change policy’.But as Mary Kaldor told Zoe Williams last year, one of Reagan’s advisers later revealed to her that ‘they copied their so-called “zero option” (winding down nuclear capacity on both sides) straight off the women’s banners.’
So why the apathy now? Are people simply in denial? Or is it because there’s so much else to be frightened of? Climate change, antibiotic resistance, intelligent machines, chronic unemployment, dying of hypothermia because you can’t afford the heating bills, earthquakes, fires, floods? In season four of the retro/historical TV spy drama The Americans, set in 1983 as imagined in 2016, biological weapons are presented as a lot scarier and more sinister than nukes. In real life, the US Department of Defence is now funding research into ‘genetic extinction technologies’, which they say means eradicating malaria-spreading mosquitoes, but it’s hard to think of a form of words more likely to give people the heebie-jeebies. There is a Panglossian worldview that sees apocalyptic fears as preceding the sources of terror they latch onto: people who are irrationally inclined to suspect that the end of the world is nigh will point to whatever cause of imminent Armageddon seems most likely at the time. There may be some truth in that, but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. And it isn’t straightforwardly the case that, as in my hazy memory, fear of nuclear war gave way to fear of global warming at the turn of the 1990s. As Wilfried Mausbach makes clear in his essay in Nuclear Threats, Nuclear Fear, the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s fed into the anti-nuclear sentiment of the 1980s, not least in the notion of nuclear winter, which Carl Sagan introduced to the world on Halloween 1983. Later modelling showed that a nuclear winter wouldn’t be as severe as Sagan and his colleagues first thought, more like a nuclear autumn, and the fear of it began to fade, though a folk memory of it lives on in the TV show Stranger Things, 1983-84 as imagined in 2016-17, in which the alternate reality known as the ‘Upside Down’ is like the world during a nuclear winter.
If people are less anxious now than they used to be, one reason may be that there are ever fewer who can remember either a world without nuclear weapons, or the war in which they were used. Jeremy Bernstein has argued that one of the unfortunate unforeseen consequences of the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 is that there are a decreasing number of people alive who have seen a nuclear explosion, which makes the threat of nuclear war increasingly abstract. If the men with their fingers on the button had witnessed, as Bernstein did in 1957, the full terrifying force of an above ground nuclear explosion, they’d be a lot less likely to press it. For most people, I’m sure that’s true. But Kim doesn’t seem especially put off by the below ground tests conducted in North Korea that have come close to destroying Mount Mantap. And it’s possible that Trump would find the sight of a mushroom cloud ballooning over the Nevada desert not alarming, or sobering, but stimulating. ‘Now we’re all sons of bitches,’ Kenneth Bainbridge said after observing the Manhattan Project’s first nuclear detonation. But Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita: ‘I am become death, destroyer of worlds.’ It’s easy to imagine Trump liking the sound of that.
Or are we insufficiently worried because we now find it harder to envisage the precise form that a nuclear confrontation would take? We are no longer facing the Mutually Assured Destruction of Nato and the Warsaw Pact, arrays of missiles bristling at each other across the Iron Curtain. Perhaps the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea seems far enough away as a battle line that we in the West expect to escape the fallout – a morally bankrupt but humanly understandable position. After all, ‘we’ survived the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the meltdown at Fukushima. But what about non-state actors? A few years ago, the biggest nuclear fear was of Islamist terrorists getting hold of enough radioactive material to put together a dirty bomb. In Superman II (1980), the Russians and Americans are friends, carrying out joint missions in space, and three ‘terrorists’ from nowhere with no stated agenda have lugged an H-bomb in an oil barrel into a lift at the Eiffel Tower. ‘Today, it’s possible for anyone to make one who has the proper equipment, no?’ a French government spokesman says to Lois Lane.
Happily enough, the ‘proper equipment’ is hard to come by, though the conceit was plausible enough to linger on through the 1980s (it’s a subplot in Back to the Future, for example) and to be recycled, after 9/11, for the second season of 24 in 2002-3. But now, as in 1980, we’re being told that the really serious enemy may yet again turn out to be the Russians: the head of the British army, General Sir Nicholas Carter, said in January that Russia presents ‘the most complex and capable security challenge we have faced since the Cold War’. At the end of February, Vladimir Putin, campaigning for his fourth term as president, unveiled the next generation of Russian nuclear weapons, including a cruise missile that not only carries nuclear warheads but is powered by a nuclear reactor, giving it a functionally unlimited range: Putin showed a computer simulation of this missile flying down the Atlantic Ocean, rounding Cape Horn and heading for California. And all that before Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia and Detective Nick Bailey were poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury, giving the British and Russian governments cause to apply a few licks of anti-rust paint to the Iron Curtain and rattle their sabres at each other across it (as well as at Jeremy Corbyn across the floor of the House of Commons).
A majority of British voters want a prime minister who won’t hesitate to push the button. Rationally, I’m opposed to renewing Trident. It’s a colossal waste of money on a system that is both a monstrous death machine and a trivial irrelevance when set next to the annihilatory might of the US nuclear arsenal: the UK is thought to have 215 warheads, all proudly designed and built by AWE; the US has about 6800. And yet there is a shameful part of me that feels relieved at the thought that Trident will be renewed despite my avowed opposition to it, that feels Britain would be vulnerable without its nuclear security blanket, that finds the thought of a leviathan submarine prowling the ocean depths, unseen and unheard, loaded with the power to obliterate cities and slaughter millions, not horrifying but – horribly – comforting. And that, too, is a malign outgrowth of the bomb in my head.
Early in the new year, back in Basingstoke for the holidays, I went for a drive with my father around the perimeter of AWE. (The site is still owned by the state, but the day-to-day bombwork is conducted by AWE plc, a consortium of private firms both American and British – Lockheed Martin, Jacobs Engineering and Serco – in which the government maintains a golden share.) It was the morning after Storm Eleanor, a day of high winds and clear blue skies. We retraced the route he used to take to work, up the A340 to Tadley (a town of nearly 12,000 inhabitants, six times as many as before AWE was built), passed his old dental surgery (in a street of houses built for Aldermaston workers in the 1950s), and less than one densely populated mile later reached the nuclear facility. Nuzzling hard up against the fence, on the site of the old demolished Falcon pub, there’s a new Shell garage with a Budgens shop and a car wash; I wondered how many of the workers scrub their cars down on the way home every day. My father said he’d been told by a patient that there were people at AWE who didn’t bother with the full decontamination procedures after finishing work. That would have been years ago, of course; and in any case, the story is third-hand hearsay; and the health and safety protocols must surely go far beyond what’s actually necessary, mustn’t they? And yet …
He drove anticlockwise – ‘Not too slowly Dad; they might arrest us’ – and I peered out of the passenger window, through the trees and the two, sometimes three chainlink fences, past the signs warning that this was MOD property, subject to MOD bye-laws, patrolled by police dogs (danger), protected by razor wire (danger), surveilled by CCTV, a silhouette of a man in a red circle with a red line slashed across him (no public access), at the mysteries inside, the pipes and the towers and the huge, windowless buildings, which trace a strand of the history of utilitarian architecture from the 1950s to the present day.
None of the signs on the fence warns of radioactivity, which you might think would be the surest way to keep people out, except that AWE would always deny that there’s any danger from radiation. ‘Like the rest of the nuclear industry and certain hospitals,’ its website says, ‘we produce some radioactive waste from our operations … We are permitted to discharge very low levels of treated radioactive waste … We have successfully kept discharges to a fraction of permitted limits and have continued to reduce them to the point where they are now barely detectable.’ It also points out that its sites are home to a population of great crested newts and other protected species. Rus in urbe! There’s a pond in the south-east corner, which got me wondering where the water flows out to, and who or what drinks it, apart from the newts.
As we made our way around the fence (doubling back at the roundabout at the easternmost point to take the narrow lane that follows the northern edge of the site more closely; was anyone inside tracking us on CCTV?) my father told me stories about some of the many cancer cases he knew of: an MOD policeman whose daughter got a brain tumour; a senior manager with myeloma. My mother was a paediatrician at Basingstoke Hospital in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She remembers half a dozen children being treated for leukaemia at the same time, when one case a year would have been usual. That’s all anecdotal, I know, though research published in Medicine, Conflict and Survival in 2001 found that between 1972 and 1996, the risk of a child under the age of five getting leukaemia within 10 km of the nuclear establishments at Aldermaston and Burghfield was double the rate for the UK as a whole. ‘There is also an increased incidence of all cancers in this age group and geographical area. Theories as to why this should be abound, but until the cause of cancer is fully understood, and what the part of radiation in the process could be, no firm measures can be taken to redress the balance.’ No need to worry; just think of the newts.
Before we set out, my seven-year-old daughter had asked me where her grandfather and I were going. ‘We’re going for a drive around a bomb factory,’ I said. ‘A bomb factory?’ she replied, in disbelief. And it does, or it should, beggar belief that there’s a 750-acre restricted site – or ‘centre of excellence’, as AWE’s website calls it – dedicated to the development and manufacture of the most destructive weapons ever devised, squatting in plain sight on the densely populated border of Hampshire and Berkshire. But most people round about, most of the time, whether they work there or not, go about their business as if AWE were a perfectly normal – or invisible, though that may be another way of saying the same thing – part of everyday life. Because of the bombs in their heads.