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A Nuclear Family Vacation: 10 States, 4 Nations


Nathan Hodge and his wife Sharon Weinberger are journalists who write about defense policy for a living. Two years ago, for a vacation, they decided to tour the world of atomic weaponry. Their adventure took them to 10 U.S. states and four foreign countries, and their itinerary included a uranium conversion facility in Iran and the bunker thought to be the vice president's undisclosed location on 9/11. Naturally, they wrote a book about the trip. "A Nuclear Family Vacation" was recently published. And one half of the writing team joins us. Nathan Hodge, welcome to the program.

Mr. NATHAN HODGE (Journalist; Author, "A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry"): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: First of all, how did you arrange the trip? I mean, this kind of trip is not something a travel agent or a travel Web site can do easily.

Mr. HODGE: Right. There's not a lot of top-secret tourism out there. But you know, interestingly enough, as we traveled through the nuclear complex, we discovered that this is sort of a source of natural pride for all the countries that do possess nuclear technology or nuclear know-how. And interestingly, we found that a lot of them have, for instance, open tours.

You can go, for instance, to the public tours that all of the U.S. Department of Energy labs hold. They have them. I mean, you've got to sign up for them in advance. And I think there is some security screening involved. But you can go see them in places - destinations like the Trinity atomic test site, the site of the first nuclear detonation down at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. It's also a place that you can visit. They have a couple of public days a year.

HANSEN: What about in foreign countries, though, where you have places where, you know, nuclear activity goes on, and they're pretty much closed cities?

Mr. HODGE: And Russia is the best example of that. Russia does, still to this day, they have closed nuclear cities which are basically cities behind a gate. It's nearly impossible for a foreigner to get in. Although, you know, there are sort of government-to-government negotiations for access to, you know, very high-level delegations to visit. But surprisingly, we found - like in the case of Iran - they said that they wanted to open, as a gesture of transparency, their nuclear sites to tourism. So we took them up on it.

HANSEN: What did you see?

Mr. HODGE: Well, we went to a place called the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility. And we went there shortly after, basically, the Iranians had announced in late 2006 that, yes, they wanted to open their nuclear sites to show their peaceful intentions. So we were called on a Monday and said, can you be in Tehran by Saturday? It took a little bit of scrambling, but we did get visas. And we did get to see this facility. But the interesting thing was the real controversy at that time surrounded a site called Natans where the work on enrichment is being done and where they were installing centrifuges.

And when we asked to see that. Well, the answer was, we'll get back to you, basically. But, you know, what they did want to show us in Iran was that there is a level of monitoring that is going on in these facilities by the IAEA, The International Atomic Energy Agency. And they were very keen, for instance, to show us, you know, here's where the cameras are, that kind of thing. And that was, sort of, the big, sort of, the culmination of the tour where they take you into the room, and everyone is scrambling for their photo opportunity.

HANSEN: Explain how it was that you visited the underground Pentagon, which is believed to be Vice President Cheney's undisclosed location during 9/11.

Mr. HODGE: Well, the underground Pentagon, or Site R, as it's known, just across the border in Pennsylvania, is one of the places where the closest we got was just outside the gate. Now we visit a couple of bunkers, active bunkers, like the Cheyenne Mountain facility on Colorado Springs. And we also went to a retired bunker. A fascinating place, I'd definitely recommend visiting it. And that's under the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.

You can just drive up there. So it's kind of an open secret where Site R is located. But what we found that - that was one of those cases where really, you know, we got usually a lot of help, and a lot of doors were open. When we basically talked to people in Washington, none of our phone calls were returned about that. But we did manage to get a hold of some documents which were very interesting, basically describing a bunker manager's conference that was going on in Site R. So we did learn a little bit about what are some of the issues that are involved with managing these sites.

HANSEN: When you were touring, did you tell people you were reporters?

Mr. HODGE: Absolutely.

HANSEN: You did.

Mr. HODGE: Yeah, we were totally upfront with that. And, you know, it was funny, especially when we were trying to get our visas to Iran, when, you know, we had published some series of articles about this for Slate magazine already. So our work was already online. People knew that we were nuclear vacationers. In fact at one point when we were touring the Isfahan facility, one of the members of, sort of, the Iranian official delegation who was there sidled up to Sharon and said, are you enjoying your nuclear family vacation? And he was clearly adept at Google and knew what we are up to and sort of saw this - the humor in it that we saw as well.

HANSEN: What inspired this atomic road trip in the first place?

Mr. HODGE: We write about defense for a living. But we found that we didn't know a whole lot about the nuclear arsenal, how many warheads are out there, are they still on full alert like they were during the days of confrontation with the Soviet Union? And we were sort of surprised at the beginning, at least, to find out, well, yes, they were.

Part of our tour was actually to Warren Air Force Base, and we went down to an active missile capsule. And we talked with one of the crews that's still there pulling alert and ready to do the key-turning operation if they are ordered to do so by the president. So that was really kind of sobering to think about the fact that we really haven't stood down this posture of hair-trigger alerts.

HANSEN: Is there a sequel?

Mr. HODGE: Yeah, We talked a little bit about where would we go? What would be our next set of destinations? You know, obviously North Korea would be really high on the list. And we talked about doing that. And it seems like that would be highly unlikely. But, you know, for instance, if you were hypothetically to come up with a new nuclear itinerary, obviously India and Pakistan would be on the list as well. Another place that we didn't get to go, and you would probably have a hard time getting to see, is, you know, Israel which is understood to be a nuclear power but is not a declared one. So, you know, this is a very urgent issue. And that's why there's, sort of, all of this, you know, massive tension surrounding Iran and its nuclear ambitions, because they have been less than forthcoming about what they are actually up to.

HANSEN: Nathan Hodge and his wife Sharon Weinberger are coauthors of the new book "A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry" published by Bloomsbury. Nathan, thanks for coming in.

Mr. HODGE: Thanks.

(Soundbite of song "Atomic Cocktail")

Mr. SLIM GAILLARD: (Singing) You push a button, turn a dial. Your work is done for miles and miles. When it hits, it's bound to shake, Because it feels like an earthquake. That's the drink that you don't pour. Now when you take one sip you won't need any more, If you're small as a beetle or big as a whale. Atomic Cocktail.

HANSEN: And remember to check out our blog, npr.org/soapbox. We're still taking submissions for our series on race and politics built around the views of you, our listeners. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen, and we leave you with an excerpt from a video featured on our blog from JibJab, a political animation parody that is sure to elicit giggles from constituents of all political persuasions. Go to npr.org/soapbox, see the video.

(Soundbite of song "Time For Some Campaignin'")

Unidentified Singer: Citizens gather from both far and near. For a ritual we practice every four years. When we promise you anything you wanna hear. To win the crown we're chasin'! We spend billions of dollars to make our points clear, To get you to step up and cast your vote here. Then we spin you around and poke you in the rear. Oh, it's time for some campaignin'! Yes, it's time for some campaignin'! Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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