Memories of a Half-Lifetime: Top Four Atomic Tourist Destinations

Tourism is an odd business. At worst it’s pure exploitation of nature, at best it’s pure exploitation of human naivety. Yet, even though the industry still vacuums up billions of dollars from the same, worn-out old rug, there are –  thankfully – abundant touristic delights for those of us whose travel taste-buds crave more than just a trip to Disneyland and a photo of a red telephone booth. Perhaps instead of crumbling castles and giant boulders, sir may wish to see radioactive wastelands and the desolate remnants of atomic destruction? Well, sir will be delighted to know sir’s wishes may be granted. Two tickets please!

Las Vegas, USA (circa 1950s)

The winner of the 1947 Miss A-Bomb pageant said she “had a blast”. PHOTO:

The golden age of the isotope (or should that be the pulsating, glowy green age?) was undoubtedly lived out in the barren expanse of the Nevada Desert during the 1950s. A vast and dreadfully unlucky strip of Nevada land was selected by US President Harry Truman in 1950 to commence testing of newer, more powerful versions of the atomic weapons unleashed upon Japan half a decade earlier.

As the military went about their business, some 100 kilometres up the road in the fledging town of Las Vegas, home to a couple of casinos and a bank run my Mormons, people began to gaze in awe at the gigantic mushroom clouds climbing into the atmosphere from the distance. It didn’t take long for the entrepreneurial Las Vegans see dollar signs amongst the fallout from these atomic tests and immediately cashed in. You could even say it was a atom split-second decision, if you are lame. Which I am. Anyhow, soon people streamed into Las Vegas from all over for the best view of a real atomic explosion this side of a top secret military bunker. Between 1951 and 1962, a new bomb was detonated every three weeks and each occasion was heavily advertised and wildly popular. Hotels offered special package deals, bars mixed up atomic-themed cocktails and there was even a regular Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contest. The mushroom cloud was the unofficial coat of arms forLas Vegas, known during the period as ‘Atomic City’. Thankfully, there is a museum today dedicated to this fascninating peculiar period. Definitely worth a visit when you’re done gambling your life’s savings and wedding a stranger.

A particularly intriguing twist in this most unlikely of spectator sports, was that the US government actively encouraged the mass gawking at their military testing project, rather than react with a level of paranoia typical of the early Cold War period. The tests were scheduled for when the weather would allow a good view and not (hopefully) rain caustic acid upon the paying audience. Part of the government’s motivation was to allow the enterprising Vegas hype machine to whip up such excitement amongst the crowd so they would overlook the fact that atomic bombs were heinous creations of civilisation-threatening annihilation. But hey, with a rooftop panorama of the Nevada sky illuminated by the majestic burst of gamma radiation and two-for-one ‘megaton’ cocktails, who’s complaining?

Chenobyl, Ukraine

The best thing about Pripyat Fun Park is the lack of queues! PHOTO: Rare Delights

No trip to the Ukraine is complete without a Hazmat suit, Geiger counter and a hefty stick to protect yourself from possible mutant assailants. Since 2011, the Ukranian government has allowed tours to operate through the ghastly remains of the infamous 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Incidently, the Ukranians’ decision to turn a dollar from the tragic and still radioactive site was made barely two months before the Fukushimi disaster in Japan rocked a world that had almost forgotten the spectre of nuclear catastrophe.

Chernobyl was a colossal disaster, in terms of both immediate human suffering, and mismanaged crisis recovery efforts. Two massive explosions ripped Chernobyl’s number four reactor inside-out and spewed clouds of radiation roughly equivalent to about 400 Hiroshima bombs into the vicinity. Most of the 176 workers in the facility died instantly, the rest died shortly after in hospitals and tens of thousands (some estimate even hundreds of thousands) more died over time from radiation-induced illnesses and cancer. As far as disasters go, Chernobyl is certainly one of the big’uns.

The tragedy and Soviet-era secrecy intrigue absolutely steeps the place in spooky folklore and mystery. The small town of Pripyat which sat almost atop the power plant is now as creepy a ghost town as you could possibly imagine. Its 50,000 residents were immediately evacuated, leaving behind the irradiated city frozen in time. It is now officially located in the B-grade sci-fi sounding ‘zone of alienation’. Tour groups have just begun to take visitors in and out of both Pripyat and the reactor site itself. After waivers are signed, guides whisk visitors around the site, issuing strict instructions not to touch anything or to stay in one spot for too long. At all times the Geiger counters are closely inspected and when the needle starts to jump, its time to leg it out of there. After the reactor site, tourists are then able to stroll the abandoned streets, schools and apartments of Pripyat and see why it is an apt setting for urban legends about citizens who refused to evacuate and now live as twisted, bloodthirsty mutants. If its disaster-zone-nuclear-cold-war-soviet-creepy-as-shit tourism you’re after, look no further than not-quite-cheery Chernobyl.

Hiroshima, Japan

If walls could talk… the A-Bomb Dome’s would probably be still screaming.  PHOTO: Me.

“My God, what have we done?’ uttered Captain Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay after he saw the vile plume of decimation from the atomic bomb that his Commander, Paul Tibbets, had just dropped onto the Japanese city of Hiroshima at exactly 8.15am, August 6, 1945. Lewis, Tibbets and the other flight crew from that world-changing mission weren’t the only ones to witness the frightening power of the world’s first atomic weapon attack, because also in the skies that morning was another aircraft whose sole objective was to photograph the carnage. Unlike the affable, margarine brand-sounding Enola Gay – that plane was ominously christened Necessary Evil.

The infamous mushroom cloud photographs taken from aboard Necessary Evil only told half the story. The blast instantly levelled everything within a one mile radius, and ignited a wicked blaze that engulfed the entire city. It’s estimated around 70 per cent of Hiroshima’s buildings were destroyed and around 66,000 people died within the first few minutes, meanwhile another 70,000 succumbed to horrible burns and injuries. The suffering dragged on as thousands and thousands more slowly capitulated to the effects of radiation. Some estimate that by 1950, around 200,000 people had died as a result of the bombing. Most of them civilians. Three days after Hiroshima was hit, Nagasaki tasted the same dreadful fate.

America’s A-bomb did successfully end the war, but surprisingly it didn’t end Hiroshima. Somehow the city persevered, even when a massive typhoon swept through merely one month later brining more destruction and misery. The rebuilding effort was valiantly swift – but great care was taken to preserve the poignant reminders of that fateful day. Today, Hiroshimais a thriving, youthful and invigorated city. If it weren’t for the Hiroshima Peace Park memorial, you’d never have expected it to be the place where an atomic bomb had once been detonated. The Peace Park allows visitors to witness firsthand the surviving remnants of the blast, beginning with the ‘A-Bomb Dome’, the twisted manglement of concrete and streel of a former convention hall, which stood almost directly beneath the hypocentre of the explosion. Further on are dozens of monuments lined by trees that miraculously survived and continue to grow with huge scars on one side. Other notable sights include the eternally-burning flame that will only be extinguished when all nuclear weapons on earth are disarmed; the Children’s Peace Monument, a statue that is dedicated to the child victims of the bombing and is festooned with colourful paper cranes in tribute to Sadako Sadaki; and the cenotaph, upon which the names the victims and the words: ‘Rest In Peace, for the error shall not be repeated’ are inscribed.

The general mood, however, is not of blame or lamentation, but hope and peace. The Memorial Museum also carries this sentiment. Amongst the chilling artefacts left behind (such as the watches found stopped at 8.15, and the eerie shadows on walls left by bodies incinerated by the massive pulse of heat and light) are copies of letters sent each year by the mayor of Hiroshima to world leaders, urging them to think twice about nuclear weapons. There is also a very frank and informative account of the Manhattan Project, and the rueful experience it had left on its leading scientists, including Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer.

The  incredible thing about Hiroshima isthat in spite of the sadness and turmoil defining its past, you’ll struggle to find a more welcoming and enjoyable place in all of Japan. The Peace Park and Museum is certainly a poignant, tear-inducing memorial to the atomic disaster, but the pervading attitude of positivity and hope inspires this energetic appreciation for humanity inside you that simply cannot be experienced anywhere else. Beyond the Memorial Park, Hiroshima doesn’t wallow, but bursts with life. The city centre bustles with activity day and night; the beloved Hiroshima Carp baseball team are worshipped by loyal (and patient) fans; and you frankly haven’t lived until you’ve tasted the city’s famous okinomiyaki fresh off the hotplate in a busy little bar. In any case, Hiroshima is an excellent destination but it just so happens to be one of the most important historical sites off all time. At this point I’ll stop myself short of saying ‘it’s the bomb, because that would just be tasteless, which is certainly not a word used to describe okinomiyaki. with its special batter, and tasty sauces…  (Well I managed to be serious and on-topic for a while, but now I’m just hungry.)

Bikini Atoll

Nothing says: ‘tropical paradise’ like a huge gaping crater of radiation.

Ladies, the next time you toss in the old two-piece bikini to your suitcase, be it itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie, yellow and/or polka-dotted, reflect for a moment that the name of your swimsuit exists because of an enormous nuclear explosion on a remote Pacific paradise. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 23 different nuclear weapons in Bikini Atoll, a small sandy islet amongst the Marshall Islands, in middle of the Pacific Ocean. The tests coincided with the introduction a saucy new swimsuit, which split the existing onepiece in two, creating a reaction amongst the conservative public comparable to when an atom is split in two. And so the name stuck. Like radiation particles to an unfortunate Pacific native.

The Bikini population were relocated to other islands for the tests, though some still suffered radiation poisoning from fallout. The tests were more controversial than other nuclear tests because they were not only conducted off the United States’ mainland shores, but on a tiny, innocent, tropical paradise of all places. It was absurd to imagine an idyllic island escape with crystalline blue waters skirting white sands, palm trees, coconuts, and a big dirty mushroom cloud looming up the distance. But it happened. Twenty-three times. It was such a fictional concept that the Bikini Atoll tests even spawned the inspiration for the legendary Godzilla films .

In 201o, Bikini Atoll attained UNESCO World Heritage Site status, however it’s still deemed uninhabitable because of dangerous radiation levels. The native citizens remain displaced on nearby islands, compensated by the US Government. But even though you can’t live there, you can still pay a quick visit. Boat tours from Hawaii operate diving trips for keen scuba enthusiasts throughout the Marshall Islands. One particular tour allows you to explore the waters of Bikini Aroll. The biggest draw for divers is the vast number of sunken American and Japanese WWII ships that were used as targets (including the only submeged aircraft carrier in the world). Many also enjoy seeing the abundant species of three-eyed fish , and the enormous mutated-lizardlike abomination lying dormant in wait for the day it besieges Tokyo. Divers are kindly asked not to poke the beast.


Of Pirates and Whales

The Sea Sheppard activists are fighting the good fight, but is it the right fight? 

Summer in Australia means four things. Beach, cricket, beach cricket and the ongoing crusade of activists against Japanese whalers. Every year a fleet of Japanese whaling vessels voyage south deep into icy Antarctic waters to harpoon a quota of Minke, Humpback and Fin whales. Given the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling and Japan’s tenuous excuse of ‘scientific research’, it’s no surprise that continued Japanese whaling is one of the most thoroughly-opposed issues for conservationists around the world, let alone in Australia, whose shores are nearest to the harvest.

It plays out like a periodic naval epic. Animal Planet even filmed it and called it Whale Wars. The Japanese flotilla, replete with security vessels and whaling ships venture far into the Southern Ocean, stalked by the Sea Sheppard Conservationist Society’s fleet. Confrontation is inevitable; ships are damaged and then both sides accuse each-other of reckless life-endangerment. And while it’s Master and Commander all the way, we get no closer to putting a definitive end to harmful whaling.

The Sea Sheppard Society crew, led by a tenacious and very direct man in Captain Paul Watson, are the self-appointed saviours of the marine mammals. They argue that the IWC is too weak (despite the ban on commercial whaling, more whales are being killed each year by Japan, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Russia and the United States), governments are too slow and that other conversationalist groups such as Greenpeace, are too futile. According to the mission statement, Sea Sheppard “uses innovative direct-action tactics to investigate, document, and take action when necessary to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas.” They fly a Jolly Roger, coat their ships in camouflage livery and imagine themselves as fierce ocean crusaders. It’s clear Sea Sheppard activists embrace the pirate image they’ve fashioned for themselves.

But pirates they are not, even though the media tosses that term around a little too loosely. They are obstructionists and saboteurs. They’ll use near any means available to them short of direct violence to grind whatever operation they oppose to a halt. Some of the gambits ordered by Captain Watson against the Japanese whaling fleet, in a campaign they call (with just the most subtle cheek) Operation Divine Wind, include disabling propellers with cable; tossing butyric acid bombs (fart bombs, essentially) and blasting water cannons (a defence also used by the whalers). In the past, Watson has gone as far as intentionally scuttling target boats with ram raids and limpet mines as they sat in harbours. Watson was even accused in 2010 by a former skipper of ordering the sinking his own ship – the $2 million Ady Gil no less, to “garner sympathy with the public and to create better TV” after it sustained damage from a dramatic collision with a Japanese ship. It’s an extreme and more often than not, completely illegal path treaded by Watson and his followers. Some claim it borders on terrorism. Watson doesn’t even try to shrink away from such accusations, “There’s nothing wrong with being a terrorist, as long as you win. Then you write the history,” he said back in 2002.

Watson’s attitude is that of a vigilante apostle of mother earth. To him, the protection of the whales and other besieged creatures around the world is a duty more urgent than the law usually allows. He’s a divisive character; labelled a hero by some and an arrogant egomaniac by others. He’s cocksure, intelligent and savvy, putting as much effort into leveraging the media as he does captaining his ships. He’s a man who instructs wannabe eco-warriors to lie and exaggerate if necessary to capture a headline. He learned that from Ronald Reagan. His cause is noble, however, even if he isn’t; and he is succeeding in reducing the number of whales being killed. What he is not succeeding at, though, is bringing this issue any closer to ultimate resolution. In fact, if anything, it only drives the root of the problem deeper and firmer into the ground.

Here, we nearly all agree whales should not be hunted. But is it really any different in Japan? It’s true that Japan is a nationalistic country prided on tradition and whaling is deeply woven in its cultural fabric. But it’s gross oversimplification to say Japan are out to preserve historical cultural delicacies. Several reports indicate there is actually very little demand for whale meat in Japan. A traditional dish maybe, but certainly not a staple in Japanese households. An opinion poll obtained by Greenpeace in 2008 suggests the Japanese public are far from overwhelming supporters of whaling in general. Specifically, 71 per cent of those surveyed opposed whaling beyond Japanese waters. It’s extremely difficult to find definitive information on public perceptions of whaling, which seems to point to one thing. Japan is a modern superpower, remember, and tradition doesn’t oil the cogs of a superpower – but the dirty grease of money, power and politics does.

In December 2010, the world caught a glimpse of corruption within the Japanese whaling industry, and resultant exposure of the Tokyo Two case intensified scrutiny from both outside and within the country. It’s alleged that the entire operation is rife with embezzlement, political favours and other such corrupt nonsense commonplace in bureaucratic industries (remember the Australian Wheat Board?). There is simply too much money and political deals invested in Japan’s whaling industry that it’s impossible to drop the anchors and call it a day. What’s rarely pointed out is that part of the reason Japan survived and flourished after its post-war decimation was its modernisation of commercial whaling. Equipped with Western technology and permission, commercial whaling provided desperately-needed cash, food and jobs. It was solid bedrock that permitted other industries such as electronics and automobiles to boom. Japan’s fisheries ministry is one of the most important, home to many a powerbroker, so protecting its economic interests in continued whaling is a smart move for career-minded Japanese politicians. What coal mining is to Australia, whaling is to Japan, Public opinion of ethics or conservation is of secondary value to jobs and the economy. And of course, there are filling cabinets in parliamentary offices stuffed with contracts, deals and promises. Any rhetoric about tradition and history is used to stir the Japanese public on side, or at least distract it from conversationalist sympathy. Commenting on activists, Japanese officials declare them to aggressors; foreigners meddling in Japanese affairs – attacking loyal Japanese workers. All of a sudden, the whales are forgotten and it’s war again. East and West at loggerheads again – the West reprimands the East and the East defiantly resists foreign will imposed upon it.

Which brings us back to our so-called pirates. What we have are a rough and tumble group of militant partisans for whom action and idealism come before rationalism and conciliation. They’ve appointed themselves the vanguard against an issue that is a mind-scatteringly complicated mess of money and politics and law. And both sides paint a picture of war on the high seas – where whales are no longer the gentle leviathans of the ocean, but moral territory, a principle to be quarrelled over. As Paul Sheehan from the Sydney Morning Herald stated, “The great flaw in the environmental movement is the sanctimonious belligerence of so many of its protagonists, the lies and exaggerations, and the assumption that they are above the law and can disrupt and destroy the businesses of other people who are operating lawfully.” He’s dead right; the Japanese are operating lawfully, albeit on preposterously thin ice. Back in March 2010, the Australian Government announced (under pressure from the public) that it will take Japan to the International Court of Justice over the lawfulness of its whaling operation. It will test how thin that ice really is. This is a glacially-slow process however, far too slow for the zealous Sea Sheppard crew. They say the longer they wait, the more whales are killed. This is also true. But the longer they continue to up the drama in their audacious crusade, the more the tide of opinion will turn against them. The more laws they flout in the name of the whales, the more distance they place between the general public who want to the do the right thing – but want to do it the right way.