We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Lindsey A. Freeman, author of Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia. Tucked into the folds of Appalachia and kept off all commercial maps, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was created for the Manhattan Project by the U.S. government in the 1940s. The city has experienced the entire lifespan of the Atomic Age, from the fevered wartime enrichment of the uranium that fueled Little Boy, through a brief period of atomic utopianism after World War II when it began to brand itself as “The Atomic City,” to the anxieties of the Cold War, to the contradictory contemporary period of nuclear unease and atomic nostalgia. Freeman shows how a once-secret city is visibly caught in an uncertain present, no longer what it was historically yet still clinging to the hope of a nuclear future. It is a place where history, memory, and myth compete and conspire to tell the story of America’s atomic past and to explain the nuclear present.
Today marks the fourth anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. In today’s post, Freeman shares her experience watching news of that event from another nuclear town half-way across the globe.
Saturday March 12, 2011
(The day after)
CNN is on. Reports of the tri-tiered Japanese disaster spill into the room: earthquake, tsunami, and a possible nuclear power plant meltdown. I sip coffee from styrofoam, pour a package of Quaker apple-cinnamon oatmeal and hot water into a bowl. As the withered apples become partially rehydrated, I try to catch up on the perilous situation across the world.
Other travelers in the room chatter about their positions on nuclear energy and an entirely different form of destruction—the Monster Truck Rally in Pasco that many of them will be attending later this evening. A loud voice booms from a graying man in fading jeans: “They will be talking about this down at and around Hanford on Monday!” A woman in a periwinkle blue cable-knit sweater roars in response, “I don’t care what they say—nuclear power is just NOT safe.” She goes for another doughnut, her arm and its target making an exclamation point.
I am in one of the uncanniest locations to learn of this tragedy on the other side of the globe. Richland was the bedroom community for scientists, engineers, and managers working at the Hanford Site, a top-secret complex created for the Manhattan Project. After the war, Hanford was a key location for nuclear bomb production during the Cold War. Now the site is mostly dedicated to cleaning up after those nuclear adventures.
I am not here for monster trucks, but rather as a researcher of nuclear sites and spaces, so I decide to get going. After a stop at one of the ubiquitous drive-through espresso stands that dot the Pacific Northwest, I drive the eleven-mile stretch to the Hanford Site, past screaming yellow warning signs that alert my attention to “nuclear materials” and remind me that some roads are for “authorized personnel only.” As a long distance runner, I have a moment when I consider what it would be like to run there, and then I remember that the Wall Street Journal recently reported findings of radioactive rabbit droppings in Hanford, and I reconsider. Visions of a nuclear Bunnicula on a rampage fill my head. Nuclear sites lend themselves to these kinds of wild imaginings.
I am here to see the western atomic cousin of the Manhattan Project site that is the primary focus of my research—Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I came to the area to study the atomic history of Richland and Hanford, to think about collective memory of the atomic bombs. Usually, I focus on past nuclear issues and the failed dreams of a once imagined atomic utopia, when cars and even entire cities would run on abundant, clean nuclear energy. The situation in Japan has slapped me into the present.
The road to Hanford is completely empty as I steer towards and then through one of the most toxic landscapes in the world. It is still dark in Washington state, as I listen to NPR’s Morning Reports from Sendai. The radio describes a new nuclear toxic landscape in the making. News of destruction and fears of radiation crackle through the stereo. The reverse simultaneity is surreal. The radio says: “This doesn’t look like a natural disaster. This looks like war.” It is impossible not to think of the weapons-grade plutonium that was made here in the scablands of Washington—the plutonium that supplied the fuel for the Trinity Test, bringing us officially into the Atomic Age, and the plutonium that fueled the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki. My rental car turns on the gravel of the nuclear past as the dangers of the nuclear present take up oxygen in the passenger seat.
A few hours later, back at the Richland Day’s Inn, I try to put the past, present, and future of nuclear weapons and nuclear power into context. I type up my field notes and upload digital camera images. In the background, Manchester United plays Arsenal in the beautiful game. Red and yellow zig and zag across the emerald green pitch. The green of Manchester’s field stands in stark contrast to the dry grass and sagebrush of the Hanford Site. Then it registers—the eeriness of Hanford is that it does not look too spectacular, it does not glow with a greenish aura; it looks simply like dry, arid land. After the inevitable cleanup and the rebuilding of the devastated cities of Japan around the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in the years to come, those spaces too will appear normal, but they won’t be.
After all, radiation is invisible.
Lindsey A. Freeman is assistant professor of sociology at SUNY–Buffalo State. Her book, Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia, is now available. You can follow her on Twitter @sociologybomb.