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The Nuclear Memo

Christened with an atomic explosion nicknamed Able on Jan. 27, 1951, the Nevada Test Site was  Uncle Sam’s garage for the nation’s nuclear testing program for more than 40 years. Over that period, it hosted more than 900 of the country’s 1,054 above- and below-ground nuclear tests before the U.S. agreed to an international testing moratorium in 1992. 


The site also hosted  hundreds of anti-nuclear protests in which protesters would engage in acts of civil disobedience, trespassing on federal land — and being arrested — to draw attention to the U.S. government’s nuclear obsession. Famous figures who protested at the test site over the years include Carl Sagan, Martin Sheen, Robert Blake and Kris Kristofferson.

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But it’s safe to say that  none of these guys has anything on Mike Kirby. I don’t even know if you can call him a protester or a conscientious objector; he’s something else altogether. Starting in 1958, Kirby worked at an atomic weapons depot attached to the Nevada Test Site. He  writes an account of his tenure in the July  London Review of Books, a bleak, funny and frightening story of a nuclear weapons mechanic who develops a conscience —  but doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

To be sure, at first, the job is typical, rife with workplace pranks with a Dr. Strangelove twist:


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Kohler, who liked to have his fun with people, sneaked a couple of dummy detonators into a case of live ones, and one day in the middle of the arming sequence, took what he knew was a dummy and tossed it to poor Horpstead, who bobbled it, dropped it and dived for cover, thinking this was it. Kohler just laughed, hah hah. Big joke.

But Kirby’s first glimmers of concern emerge, ironically, from a strong think over the specific engineering of a new bomb they’re working with:


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Some time in the spring, a new warhead for the Polaris arrived, the first of many that were to be shipped to the submarine fleet. I went through the warhead manual and found a number of things that disturbed me. This particular warhead was designed for use against cities. It was very compact, a weapon with a small bang and a small cross-section, but its ablative shield was an alloy of uranium, and it produced very heavy alpha fallout downwind. I thought about the world laid waste by these warheads. I wondered if you could be a good soldier and have an imagination.

Kirby’s crisis of conscience is mordant — what’s a military-trained and -bred steward of the nation’s nuclear program to do when he begins to have grave moral qualms about what he’s doing? 


He writes a couple memos. But in these memos are volumes of anguish, worry, obsession and confusion — perhaps twisted reflections of the horrific potentialities humming inside the nuclear warheads in the depot with their unlocked weapons connectors. 


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As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.