The book has four characters: the three anti-nuclear activists, and the curious city of Oak Ridge. Located 30 minutes west of Knoxville, it had been erected virtually overnight in 1943, as the government raced to develop an atomic bomb. Tens of thousands of workers were brought in and given badges, which they needed to enter and exit the fenced off city. They put in 70-hour weeks, often only vaguely aware that their work was tied to national defense. (One group of Tennessee high school students was told they were making ice cream.)
In the spring of 1944, the Y-12 plant sent the first sample of enriched uranium to the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. By Aug. 9, 1945, the uranium produced at Oak Ridge had made its way into a bomb dropped from the sky over Hiroshima. What came next is well known, but remains hard to comprehend:
The light from the explosion reached the Japanese first. Its blinding heat energy carbonized anyone within a half mile of ground zero. Thousands of pedestrians crumpled into crisp black husks. Birds in flight burst like fireworks. … If a Japanese citizen survived all that, he became his own ticking time bomb. His cells stopped dividing because of the intense dose of radiation, which meant organ decay, hemorrhage, and death in the hours and days afterward.
The atomic bomb had to be used, as I learned in high school, because it prevented the need for a ground invasion that would have cost up to a million American lives. But as Zak reminds the reader, that’s not at all certain. Even the U.S. War Department concluded that without the use of the atomic bomb, Japan would have likely surrendered before the date set for an invasion.
Three days after Hiroshima, the harbor city of Nagasaki was hit. Afterward, one of the Marines sent to occupy Nagasaki was Walter Hooke, who spent five months bearing witness to uncensored carnage. Rice, the nun who broke into Y-12, was 16 when uncle Walter returned home. He had, as she later put it, “the terrible weight of knowing.”
It was a weight that Rice, who listened to his stories, would come to shoulder as well. She grew up in New York City, steeped in the progressive Catholic tradition. Her parents were friends with Dorothy Day, the radical founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which practiced voluntary poverty and service to the poor. Rice went to a high school run by an order of sisters whose motto was “action not words.” Before returning to the U.S. in 2003, she spent 40 years in Africa, where she taught children in rural villages without electricity, slept on the floor, and regularly contracted malaria and typhoid fever. In a broken world, privation was a form of comfort.
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