Previously: Breaking Bad And The New Mexican Nuclear Uncanny
Review of “The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico,” by Joseph Masco, Princeton University Press, 2006.
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. 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.’ 
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). 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.
In Part 2, More Uncanny Ways of the Nuclear Age
1. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” (1919). http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~amtower/uncanny.html
Content posted to MyMPN open blogs is the opinion of the author alone, and should not be attributed to MintPress News.