Invisible Threats, Visible Memorials

I’ve already written once or twice about the turn to abstraction in representing nuclear weaponry. The inconceivable scale of destruction and the invisibility of the radiation threat made it tough to put in realist terms. The only tangible image of nuclear war – the mushroom cloud – wasn’t even a very authentic one. The first moments of an atomic blast were more spherical than mushroom-shaped, and after about a minute the cloud was spread-out and looming: Alex Wellerstein calls it dark and smokey (he has pictures here and here).

The invisibility of the threat is even troublesome for a modern environmental historian, since the physical evidence just doesn’t match the traumas involved. Chernobyl, after all, is a flourishing nature reserve as well as a high radiation area.

Kate Brown’s new book Plutopia is all about that invisibility, comparing the evolution of the first plutonium-processing cities – Hanford in the United States and Maiak in the Soviet Union. In both places, slipshod and secrecy-driven safety practices did untold damage to the surrounding environment and to the people who worked there. But both cities were also well-compensated, with high standards of living that made the families who lived there wary of complaining. Between that silence and a governmental instinct not to investigate the radiation effects too closely, the effects of forty-plus years of plutonium-processing remain hard to quantify with precision.

When, after all her research, Brown visits Hanford, she finds it mostly underwhelming:

I waited for the moment when I would feel the historic significance of the place. I waited in vain. The nuclear reservation is just not that impressive. We could have been in any industrial park, albeit a very big one. Inside the highly guarded zone was more desert land, partitioned by flawless asphalt roads and contained by miles of cyclone fencing that wrap massive buildings of raw concrete.

But not entirely:

The place was alienating, sterilized, lunar, an open-air factory, curiously silent despite its great, latent volatility.

Interpreting that silent mix can push the observer to grasp for meaning. Here’s literary scholar Jonathan Veitch on visiting the Nevada Test Site (NTS):

The NTS wasn’t at all what I expected, when I visited the site in the summer of 2000. Indeed, to visit it now is to experience a counfounding of expectations. … One of the most curious things about the test site is the landscape itself. I don’t know what I was expecting—probably something close to the postapocalyptic desert of Mad Max and The Road Warrior—but the first thing one notices about the NTS is how green it is. … [Standing at Frenchman’s Flat with his DOE PR escort, Derek Scammel] I never could decide whether opening the site to the public in this way was the beginning of a broader understanding of America’s nuclear history or yet another example of what Arendt memorably described as ‘the banality of evil.’

The failure of NTS to conform to Veitch’s mental landscape – apocalyptic things must create an apocalyptic landscape – forces him back onto a comfortable metaphor that needs no further explanation. I’m more inclined towards Veitch’s other proposal, that seeing the NTS really is being exposed to America’s nuclear history in its broadest sense. Many years ago I read Richard Misrach’s Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West. I’ve always thought that his proposal to turn the range into a historic site was a brilliant idea. Not because, as Misrach suggests, it would be a permanent indictment of the US military, but because it would be an incomparable chance to see national defense land use up close and try to judge the landscape itself.


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