As the world waits eagerly for Japan’s quake-ravaged, tsunami-swamped nuclear-power plant to come back under control, it’s worthwhile to take a step back in time to an age when Cold War apprehensions about radioactive fallout intertwined with everyday aggravations about Southern California’s air pollution epidemic.
We detail and highlight some of the many facets about the intersection of cell-mutating isotopes and lung-scarring aerosols in our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.
Among other interesting morsels from the chronicle:
* In the paranoid 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration buffaloed officials at the forerunner of today’s South Coast Air Quality Management District, Los Angeles County’s Air Pollution Control District (APCD), to perform airborne monitoring not just of tailpipe emissions but of radioactive particles drifting from above-ground nuclear weapon tests in the Nevada desert. Ike’s White House was so serious about this new role for West Coast smog police that APCD staffers were required to undergo mandatory training at the U.S. Navy’s “Radiological Defense School” in San Fransisco. Few enjoyed it.
* The sampling ignited a provocative question: how more dangerous would the air be in the event of an ICBM attack on Los Angeles during a particularly smoggy day? Some Navy scientists hypothesized that our hydrocarbon-drenched air might, counterintuitively, be a blessing in atomic war, suggesting that the smog-component ozone might block up to 86 percent of the radiat heat that would otherwise blast the area.
* APCD suits were dragged again into America’s fledgling nuclear debate when Los Angeles City Hall, eying power demand spikes as the city population bulged, proposed construction of a 500,000-kilowatt nuclear power plant near Los Angeles County’s northern boundary. Asked for an analysis of possible dangers, air quality officials said the site was too dangerous. A substantial release of radioactive materials, they concluded, would, as we paraphrase in Smogtown, “burp a stagnant atomic thunderhead lashing Saugus, Newhall and surrounding population centers as far as forty-five miles away from ground zero. No matter the elaborate safety precautions against a runaway reactor or coolant leak, it was just too much of a chance.” Los Angeles, in the end, opted to search for other power sources.
There’s much more in the book about how the Cold War/national security culture and the dawning of ”peaceful” nuclear power coexisted, separated and then reconnected with ever-changing smog in our understanding of aerborne toxics.