"The Island of Death," the Radioactive Sea, and the Legacy of U235

Well, I wasn’t aware of it when I moved here. Not that such knowledge would have prevented me from moving; but it might have made me more doubtful about my seemingly pristine environs—or about picking the catch of the day from the menu of a local restaurant. The Irish Sea, I mean, and the nuclear waste it contains. Research suggests that the Irish Sea, which separates Ireland from my present home of Wales, is the most radioactive body of salt water on this planet.

Growing up in cold-war Germany, I could conceive of nothing more terrifying than atomic power. My earliest nightmare, which continued to plague me in my pre-pubescence, was of a gigantic bomb. An enormous cannon ball of mass destruction, it was surrounded by a shadowy group of scientists whose proximity to this ominous orb had, to my childish mind, already proven them to be beyond trust and reason. It was a tableau right out of Dr. Mabuse, or some such German spy-fi horror, reconstructed in the feverish imagination of a troubled child. I have never learned to love the bomb—and never doubted that splitting the atom was nothing short of abject, indefensible madness.

There is no need to conceive of scientists as fiendish or sinister to realize the destructive force of nuclear energy. Whatever the nature of their tamperings with nature, the madmen of melodrama, figures like H. G. Wells’s Doctor Moreau help us cope with our anxieties about scientific experimentation by rendering the unfathomable so grotesque as to classify it as something entirely unrealistic and thus safely distant in the realm of futuristic or fantastic fiction.

On this day, 28 April, in 1947, for instance, one of Moreau’s lesser cousins appeared on US radio’s long-running series of Sherlock Holmes adventures, luring a group of sideshow “freaks” on his remote “Island of Terror” to serve as the guinea pigs for his secret experiments, a study designed to show that the “glandular defects” of his subjects “produce psychological alterations.” As Holmes endeavored to prove in this decidedly unexceptional piece of run-of-the-mill hokum, truth is “stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” Truth is, however, that fanciful ideas may become physical fact, as the inquisitive minds of the few force man-made realities upon the suffering bodies of the many.

In the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, little was known as yet about the long-term effects of radiation, of the cancers and mutations to threaten future generations. Radio dramatist Norman Corwin was among the first to address the tremendous legacy of the Enola Gay and its deadly mission. “Do not smile, do not smile as though knowing better,” he admonished the nonchalant in “Set Your Clock at U235,” a monologue read on 29 October 1945 by Paul Robeson (pictured above, on the cover for a recording of another radio performance).

Corwin asked Americans the uncomfortable question of what was to become of their “dear-bought, blood-begotten, towering, and grave victory”:

The secrets of the earth have been peeled back, one by one, until the core is bare: 

The latest recipe is private, in a guarded book, but the stink of death is public on the wind from Nagasaki: 

The nations have heard of the fission of the atom and have seen the photographs: skies aboil with interlocking fury, mushrooms of uranium smoke ascending to where angels patrol uneasily.

Perhaps, Corwin had rather too much trust in mythological figures, in those “angels” on “patrol.” He believed—or at least suggested—that the “chemicking that could destroy us, together with our pots and pans and allies, can also do as bidden by us: outperform whole teams of genii: be servile to the meek: reform our wayward systems peacefully.”

The nuclear disasters of the 1970s and ‘80s should have convinced us that the genii do not feel in any way obliged to “do as bidden by us.” Here, science must be content for once to play itself out on paper. To keep those determined to doctor with or deal in that most lethal of Promethean sparks enchained on the rocks of common sense is our debt to future generations. It’s “elementary.”

2 Replies to “"The Island of Death," the Radioactive Sea, and the Legacy of U235”

  1. After moving to Britain, I was surprised to discover how strong Robeson\’s connections to Wales were. He once wrote: \”There is no place in the world I like more than Wales.\” Thanks for stopping by.


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