An Uncannily Good Read: Nuclear Borderlands

Review of
The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, by Joseph Masco, Princeton University Press, 2006.

(This post is a follow up article on the previous post about the nuclear uncanny in the cable TV drama Breaking Bad.)

A superficial understanding of the nuclear era is that it is a series of famous atrocities and disasters that have occurred since 1945. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first events, followed by the Cold War showdown that peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Afterwards, there were the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. For the majority of people who have no interest in learning what lies behind the headlines, these famous milestones are likely to represent the common knowledge about the nuclear age. Nuclear technology is something that is occasionally terrifying, but it disappears out of everyday consciousness when the news cycle moves on.
Historians and anthropologists who have studied the nuclear era find that this collective amnesia is in itself an interesting aspect of the age because the advent of nuclear weapons was perhaps the most significant and socially disruptive change in human history. In The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, anthropologist Joseph Masco wrote about the American nuclear program, in particular how it unfolded in the birthplace of the atomic era. In this study, he illustrated quite effectively that the nuclear weapons program has had, and will have far into the future, deep economic, ecological, cultural and psychological impacts which, ironically, appear to be inversely proportional to the collective awareness of them.
The US nuclear complex covers a total of 36,000 square miles, the size of the state of Indiana. $6 trillion was spent on it over 50 years, and the US government conducted 1,149 test detonations between 1945 and 1992, 942 within the continental United States. The cost of remediating and containing the damage caused by the nuclear age will cost far more because of the duration of nuclear wastes into the distant future. The psychological and social impacts of these facts become apparent when we gain awareness of how they force us to change the way we understand citizenship, national identity, and relationships to the land. What does it mean for politicians to talk about enduring American values, or the lasting integrity of the nation, when the government must also plan for a time one thousand or fifty thousand years into the future when a country called the USA will no longer exist? What does it mean for individuals to realize that their pursuit of security and comfort makes the present and the distant future less secure and less comfortable? Humanity never before had to consider much besides the near past and near future. In terms of our genetic evolution, we are hard-wired to be altruistic toward our immediate social group and the few generations of genetic kin we know during our lifetime.
Masco contends that our confrontation with the dangers of radiation creates a strange rupture in the collective and the individual psyche. Adapting a Freudian concept, he labels this phenomenon the “nuclear uncanny.” Freud himself struggled to find a definition of unheimlich (translated as uncanny) which satisfied the theoretical concept he had in mind. In the essay The Uncanny, he wrote:

Many people experience the feeling [of uncanny] in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts... some languages in use today can only render the German expression ‘an unheimlich house’ by ‘a haunted house.’ [1]

Masco stressed this sense of haunting when he wrote that the uncanny refers to sensory experience becoming haunted and untrustworthy, and to the return of the repressed. There seems to be a further uncanny irony here in the fact that the scientific age did much to dispel irrational beliefs but then revealed a fearsome secret of the universe that would be dreaded like a malevolent ghost. The hidden energy from the birth of the solar system was revealed to be—one might say “repressed”—below the earth’s surface in uranium ore. Because radiation is intangible and dangerous, doing its harm imperceptibly over time and distance, people react to it just as they would to a perceived supernatural force. Thus radiation evokes what can be called the nuclear uncanny.
Nuclear Borderlands describes the many ways by which the nuclear age has made our times uncannily out of joint. I would add that the uncanny should include the instances of irony, paradox and Kafkaesque absurdity one encounters in the nuclear era. The summary below covers some memorable aspects of the Nuclear Borderlands; however, I advise readers that this is only a cursory overview of a book that deserves to be read in its entirety.

Uncanny #1.       
Rule 1: Spend $trillions on nuclear weapons
Rule 2: Hope you never have to use them

The description of absurd paradoxes begins with the Los Alamos scientists who have to manage the aging nuclear arsenal without ever being able to test a nuclear weapon. The generation that experienced the visceral effects of above-ground tests is no longer working, and many of the scientists employed today are too young to remember even underground testing, which ended in 1992. All they can do now is manage the existing weapons, maintaining all their parts but never testing a weapon to see if it actually works. They say it is like having to maintain an old car in perfect condition but never being allowed to turn the key. The goal is to make the weapons functional, but if they ever needed to really find out if they functioned, that would be horrible because it would mean nuclear apocalypse had begun.
If children constantly receive contradictory messages from their parents, they will grow up to be neurotic, and so one might expect that the contradictions of the nuclear weapons program would create neuroses in the people who live with its trappings. Maintaining the weapons stockpile and providing long-term stewardship of the nuclear waste legacy have become a techno-scientific fetish. When Los Alamos scientists talk about nuclear weapons they adopt human and animal metaphors to humanize the maintenance of weapons of mass destruction. For example, the old weapons receive “geriatric care.” Like a human face, nuclear core implosions are better when they are symmetrical.
Masco notes that many people consider the $6 trillion as money well spent because of what is called the “Tang© effect,” the term which describes the famous freeze-dried orange juice that was invented, as is widely believed, because astronauts had to take orange juice to the moon. From the arms race came other benefits such as rocket and satellite technology, computers, the Internet, interstate highways, and nuclear medicine. However, this retroactive reasoning is illogical because it dismisses alternative courses history could have followed, and it is an arbitrary judgment to say that it was essential for the human race to have Internet access. Tang© was, in fact, first made by General Foods in 1957. It was later adopted by NASA but it was never made for NASA. With this myth out of the way, it seems reasonable to believe that computers and the Internet might have appeared sooner or later regardless of the impetus given by the budget for nuclear weapons. And if they hadn’t been invented, so what? Would life not be worth living? The absurdity of retroactive justification is easier to see if we note that Hitler restored the German economy and made the trains to Auschwitz run on time, but no one would justify Nazi atrocities today by celebrating the technical achievements of WWII Germany. In fact, if Americans and Russians want to celebrate how they produced ballistic missiles, they really have to thank the German scientists who developed the technology during the Nazi period.

Uncanny #2        
Claims on the Land, Claims on Upward Mobility

Los Alamos and northern New Mexico were occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years before the Spanish colonized the area in the late 16th century. It was later part of Mexico after the War of Independence ended in 1821, then it recently became American territory in 1848. The Spanish settlers lived apart from industrial development in a barter economy until the American takeover, so they had worked out how to co-exist relatively well with the Pueblo Indians. That stability began to unravel as America expanded westward and Spanish landholders were cheated out of their titles, even though some of them still possess deeds granted by Spain that go back “only to 1714” (original Spanish settlement occurred in 1598). The upper Rio Grande area is so isolated that linguists from Spain came in the 20th century to observe the last remnants of the language as it sounded in the time of Cervantes (1547-1616), a fact which makes my choice of blog mascot a little uncanny also. Local historian Larry Torres stresses that the arrivals from Spain were so early that settlers never experienced the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. They came straight out of medieval Spain, and in 1942 this culture met the nuclear age on its own land.
By the time the US military came to expropriate land for the Manhattan Project, both the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish/Mexican inhabitants were impoverished. To this day, many of them have positive, but also ambivalent, feelings about the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The lab provided jobs in the wage economy, and the Indians and the Spanish inhabitants served in WWII. Because they accepted the narrative that said “the bombs ended the war,” they were proud of the American achievement.
This is why there is nothing straightforward about how the history of Los Alamos is contested. Within each group there are proponents and opponents, and sometimes the same person who is grateful for economic opportunity is also the person who resents the fact that his ethnic group has always done the menial work at Los Alamos, or that too many of his relatives have died too early of cancer. Sometimes the disadvantaged groups make alliances with the environmental and anti-nuclear groups, which tend to be made up of recent arrivals in New Mexico. At other times they resent the way environmentalists persisted with legal challenges to land use that took no account of what traditional inhabitants wanted. Some Indian groups threatened to accept above-ground storage of nuclear waste, but they did so as a bargaining tactic against elements that would disallow them from operating casinos. The bottom line for everyone is that there is no going back to living off the land. Everyone needs to be part of the cash economy.
One of Masco’s more interesting findings was a video made by some of the Hispanic workers who did cleanup work in Area G of Los Alamos. The video shows a ruptured canister in a dump, and the panicked reaction of the staff to the leak. The class distinctions of the workplace are on display when the white Anglo scientists come to the scene in full protective gear to take measurements of the radioactivity while the Hispanic workers stand in the same spot in regular attire. Later in the video, one of the workers recounts his memory of what happened to the remains of Karen Silkwood, the famous whistleblower who was contaminated with plutonium on the job and later died in a mysterious car crash. Some of her remains came to the lab to be put in a tissue registry, but a refrigerator failed and the stored tissues were dumped unceremoniously with other waste, according to the witness in the video.
Racism and disregard for human rights were evident in other aspects of operations at Los Alamos. Implosion experiments required a stand-in for plutonium, and for this lanthanum 140 (half-life 1.6 days) was used. The experiments were conducted only when the winds blew in the right direction, away from the town of Los Alamos but over “uninhabited” land where there were Pueblo Indians. In another case, for research done on the absorption of radionuclides in the body, tissue samples were collected without consent from deceased members of the Los Alamos community.

Uncanny #3        
Contested Narratives

At the end of the Cold War, a great deal of information was de-classified, and this gave rise to a strong anti-nuclear movement which was now armed with information about environmental contamination, unethical experiments on human subjects, and the health effects suffered by thousands of nuclear workers, downwidners and veterans of weapons tests. However, this gave rise to anti-anti-nuclear groups who fought over the way the nuclear legacy would be defined in Los Alamos. For them, the nuclear era had been a positive force because it was the peacemaker that ended WWII and kept the peace during the Cold War.
In 1989, students at an elementary school in Albuquerque planned to build a peace statue which they hoped would be placed in Los Alamos in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings. As news of the plan spread and financial contributions poured in, the city council of Los Alamos was forced to vote on whether to allow a space for the statue. By a narrow vote it was rejected. Although the statue displayed no overt ideology other than a wish for peace, the opposing city council members resented that it was an outsiders’ project. It smelled of backing from anti-nuclear groups they suspected of wanting to teach that Americans should feel guilty for the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This conflict played out the same way on a national scale when the Smithsonian in Washington tried to create a full-context exhibit about the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. After much political interference and lobbying, the plan was rejected in favor of a display of the aircraft devoid of serious historical analysis. The children’s peace statue was eventually given a space in a museum in Albuquerque.
In another battle over access to public space, anti-nuclear activists demanded space in the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos in order to teach about the environmental and human costs of nuclear weapons. There had been a previous legal challenge that won similar space at a museum at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, so the Bradbury museum relented and permitted a contrary view to be displayed on a wall that measured all of fifteen by eight feet (4.5m x 2.4m). The comment book became a popular place for visitors to exchange heated views, and by 1995 veterans and former LANL workers had, predictably, demanded and won their own counter-counter-exhibit. Managers of the museum were taken aback by the passions displayed by both sides of the controversy. They seem to have thought that their sterile and apolitical exhibits extolling the virtues of the technical achievement would satisfy the public.

Uncanny #4        
Forest Fire = Hiroshima

While Los Alamos citizens and veterans groups insisted that the history of Los Alamos should be presented either as ideologically neutral or as nothing to feel guilty about, the great Cerro Grande forest fire of May 2000 evoked some reactions in them that Sigmund Freud would have found very intriguing. Nothing besides a guilty conscience could have made so many local residents relate the fire to Hiroshima. They readily conflated the two conflagrations, taking the event as a way of making an empathetic connection with the city they were historically linked to. One scientist even did calculations to compare the heat of both events. Another LANL employee said, “We are all thinking of Hiroshima. We know what that was like.” Yet aside from being very hot, the two events had nothing in common. The forest fire, horrible though it was, was not an act of human aggression designed to kill thousands of people, and no one died because of it. The forest fire came with no shock wave or radiation, except for the relatively small suspected amounts caused by the release of radionuclides that had accumulated in the forest after years of operations at LANL.
Immense forest fires came close to Los Alamos again in 2011.
Uncanny #5        
Are secrets still secrets when millions of citizens have security clearance?

In the closing chapters, Nuclear Borderlands posits that the post 9/11 obsession with security was an expansion of what had been established during the Cold War arms race. The national security fetish that arose in the Cold War had a profound influence on all aspects of life while it presented citizens with numerous contradictions, ambiguities and absurdities. Masco wrote, “Secrecy… creates not only hierarchies of power and repression, but also unpredictable social effects, including new kinds of desire, fantasy, paranoia, and, above all, gossip.”
As an example, he describes how the rules sought to define in granular detail the permitted number of times a nuclear scientist could have sexual encounters with a foreign national. Security clearances involved investigations of family and friends, and required employees to report on each other. As such regulations piled up, the enemy had become the citizens who were supposedly being protected. National security became national sacrifice. The security state turned nuclear workers and all citizens into the enemy because public understanding of the weapons, or knowledge of ecological damage and health effects, would threaten the mission.
The definition of an act of espionage was also highly contextual. For example, one could not bring an orange or other round objects into the secure work area at LANL because the shape might be a hidden message that a plutonium core was spherical rather than ovoid. Yet it was alright to leave the orange in the non-secure area.
The obsession with secrecy led to forgetting that in many cases a government with access to enough resources often overcomes technical obstacles without having to steal secrets. The LANL scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused in the 1990s of giving to the Chinese the secret of how to make an ovoid plutonium core, a significant step allowing for lighter high-yield weapons. China succeeded in testing a bomb with such a core, but American investigators had to admit later that the information Lee allegedly gave was not enough to teach the Chinese how to succeed. Either they got the information by other means, put the pieces of the puzzle together from information that was openly available, or (surprise surprise) figured it out from scratch just as the Americans had.
Lee was eventually exonerated, but the lengthy investigation reignited Cold War paranoia and demotivated many of the scientists working in the nuclear program, especially those who were foreign-born American citizens now aware of the racial profiling that was in effect. In the end, many wondered if the Americans had been played by China. The whole affair served to discourage foreign-born Americans from working in the nuclear program, which might have been China’s objective. It is plausible that the Chinese deliberately provoked the Americans into believing a foreign-born national had betrayed them.
The Lee case underscored the essential racism of building nuclear weapons in the first place. They are, after all, deployed in order to kill foreigners. In the process of developing them, anyone who is racially or ideologically different is suspect. Moreover, marginalized minorities are dispossessed when land is taken over to build weapons facilities or they are abused when weapons are tested on their homelands. Just as the Lee case erupted into the news, LANL was hit with lawsuits from Hispanic and indigenous groups over the confiscation of their land in 1942 (note how uncanny it is that the four digits are a rearrangement of the year Columbus landed in America). Once the Cold War was over in the early 1990s and documents were declassified, these long-suppressed grievances came to the surface.

Uncanny #6        
Long-Term Stewardship

Perhaps nothing produces the sense of uncanny more than a full understanding of the contamination that has been created by the nuclear era. Various regulatory agencies like to soothe the public and their staff with assurances that the waste problem can be dealt with, so they write memos like this recent one by a high official of Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission:

The recent tailings dam breach that occurred at the Mt. Polley mine in British Columbia on August 4, 2014 has raised awareness of issues associated with tailings impoundments. This is a reminder that vigilance must be maintained by ensuring that tailings dams continue to be properly designed, constructed, operated, maintained and monitored to prevent such occurrences.[2]

Such language avoids mentioning what is actually at stake, for the last sentence should really continue by stating “… prevent such occurrences for the next 100,000 years.” However, most often the unpleasant reality is repressed in both internal and public communication.

Scientists have been tasked with guaranteeing something that is utterly unprecedented and probably impossible. They must plan for the perpetual management of a dangerous waste product, and doing so presumes that the task can be handed off in perpetuity to a society that has the required competence and resources.
   Alternatively, it is hoped that the wastes can be left in passive storage, requiring no action by future generations, but this cannot be guaranteed either. In February 2014, waste canisters at New Mexico’s WIPP storage facility exploded underground after only fifteen years of operation, long before the site was to be sealed for eternity.
Masco found that a bizarre product of the long-term stewardship program was the science fiction that nuclear waste scientists were tasked with writing. They were told to imagine the political and technological changes that might occur over the next few hundred years and plan nuclear waste storage accordingly. The sample that Masco found imagined a 26th century in which the United States no longer existed. It described an American southwest that had become a failed state where people lived in a pre-industrial state of chaos and poverty. Characters in the story find maps and diagrams in the ruins of a laboratory and head out to look for the buried treasure, which is actually the contaminated clothing and equipment that had been buried at WIPP in the 21st century. With this creative writing assignment, the United States government had, perhaps for the first time, officially commissioned government workers to envision the demise of the United States government.
Thus it is that the government, nuclear workers, and eventually all citizens will realize the awesome legacy that has been created. There are contaminated sites being promoted as wildlife refuges simply because this is a convenient way of keeping people from living on them while not admitting the impossibility of restoring them. Another 109 sacrifice zones in the US are so badly contaminated that they can’t even be passed off as wildlife habitat. Because the burden stretches out to a practical eternity, the future environmental and health costs, and the costs of maintenance and cleanup are sure to be more than the damage inflicted on enemies and more than the cost of building the nuclear arsenal. The legacy tells us that there will never be a “nuclear-free” world, but there could be a time when we at least stop adding to the problem. Yet among the five nuclear powers, the same nations that also make up the UN Security Council, none has shown the slightest interest in stopping proliferation by disarming itself and leading the world out of the era of nuclear weapons production.

Uncanny #7        
Hiding in Plain Sight

Masco concludes his book by recounting the strangeness of his own interactions with people when he talked to them about his project. It was difficult to make publishers interested, and members of the general public were puzzled that there would be anything at all to write about nuclear weapons. In the popular consciousness, the era was over in 1991 when the USSR collapsed, or perhaps earlier when atmospheric testing ended in 1963. The public seemed to equate nuclear dread with ephemeral cultural fads like hippies and Beatlemania. They have their time then they are gone forever.
Writing in 2006, Masco wondered how a $6 trillion-dollar project, which was still very much a going concern, could so easily fade from public awareness. It was clear that it wasn't necessary to have a nuclear war in order for the nuclear arms race to have devastating impacts on society. The effects of “radioactive nation building” were plain to see everywhere. Masco defined them as “the long-term effects of participating in national-cultural logics that mobilize resources in the name of security and community, but that do so in ways that are unsustainable and that create both social and material toxicity.” The final uncanny absurdity is that these effects have become the new normal that no one thinks twice about.
It’s worth mentioning here that not everyone is convinced that the nuclear program played such a significant role in shaping the modern world. The counter-narrative says that the “nuclear uncanny” is just another fanciful construct of the social sciences. There are those who say that nukes are just another kind of weapon and that the Cold War would have played out in the same way without nuclear weapons.[3] Such critiques tend to be welcomed by the nuclear energy industry which is always eager to make the public think of nuclear technology as something mundane.
Certainly, the war machinery in use in the years just before 1945 was doing a fine job of turning the world upside-down, creating its own “mechanized war uncanny.” The byproducts of conventional industries left their own nightmarish legacy of PCBs, dioxin, ozone holes and of course fossil fuel by-products. The Alberta Oil Sands will leave their own giant sacrifice zone. Nonetheless, I don’t know how one could see the opening of the nuclear era as anything less than a quantum leap that goes beyond any comparison with conventional threats. Within ten years there was enough weaponry to send mankind back to the Stone Age in the space of an afternoon, as Einstein famously said. The creation of plutonium and other radioactive elements was pure alchemy, and through weapon testing, mining and nuclear accidents they found their way into the tissues of every living thing on the planet.
Those who would like to make nuclear mundane may just like staking out a contrarian position for the sake of being contrarian. The unfortunate thing about working in counter-factual history is that there are no facts and real events to contend with. I prefer to base my views on the testimony of people who actually witnessed nuclear explosions and lived in the time when they first appeared. Everyone who witnessed a nuclear blast, even people who were proponents of nuclear weapons, was utterly transformed and traumatized by the experience. Robert R. Wilson, a physicist who witnessed the Trinity test, said, “I was a different person from then on.”[4] I would bet that the same is true of the societies that have had to live with nuclear weapons since the day after Trinity.

A final New Mexican uncanny:
Why did it always take so long for gravity to work?

Another review of Nuclear Borderlands:

David Kaiser, “In the Shadow of Los Alamos,” American Scientist, January-February 2007, review of Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006) http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/in-the-shadow-of-los-alamos

New book in press:

Joseph Masco, The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Duke University Press, 2014).

Audio: Léopold Lambert interviews Joseph Masco:


1. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (1919). 

3. John Mueller, Atomic obsession: Nuclear alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). In a brief review of this book in Foreign Affairs, the reviewer wrote, “In a world of bad people and dangerous weapons, there is no room for complacency, but Mueller has found it anyway.” The reviewer in the Wall Street Journal noted Mueller was alarmingly dismissive about the blast effects of bombs and the biological effects of nuclear fallout: “Mr. Mueller also offers a thinly sourced disquisition on the health effects of radioactive fallout. Exposure to low doses of radiation, he says, might actually be ‘beneficial by activating natural coping mechanisms in the body.’”

4. John H. Else, The Day After Trinity, Directed by John H. Else (1981; Pyramid Films) 00:49:45~00:50:05.

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