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Nuclear landscapes: exploring New Mexico’s atomic legacy

View out over a desert landscapes
Looking out towards Trinity Ground Zero (20 miles away), New Mexico

My first trip to the States, in 1997, was to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, 560 square miles of beautiful, polluted desert landscape in the Columbian Basin, Washington State. This is where the first reactors were built for the Manhattan project to produce plutonium: fuel for the atomic bomb. During the Cold War, Hanford was home to nine nuclear reactors and five massive plutonium-processing complexes, a vast complex technological landscape. I travelled there to meet with the artist James Acord, the “nuclear sculptor”, who took us around and told us numerous tales about the history and contested landscape of Hanford.

The nuclear landscape of Hanford – contested, isolated, resonant with history, paradoxically visually beautiful and highly polluted, dense with security – fascinated me. Visiting New Mexico for ISEA 2012 (International Symposium of Electronic Arts): Machine Wilderness, I was keen therefore to explore this other significant landscape of nuclear history. The world’s first atomic bomb Trinity exploded in the deserts of southern New Mexico, using plutonium made in Hanford, while to the north of the state, the volcano-perching small town of Los Alamos was the heart and brain of the wartime atomic bomb programme. Both Hanford and Los Alamos remain home to significant scientific laboratories, closely associated with the military’s nuclear programme.

At ISEA, I met Matt Coolidge, the director of CLUI(Centre for Land Use Interpretation), an expert on the constructed landscapes of the States. Coolidge gave a brief presentation on the technological landscape of New Mexico, particularly Los Alamos, as part of the ISEA ‘Radical Cosmologies’ panel, but almost more interesting was when, afterwards, he showed us the large amount of Los Alamos laboratory surplus equipment in the back of his transit van, that he had bought from a place called the Black Hole in Los Alamos. Two artists on the same panel were Tom Jennings and Eve-André Laramee, who had a collaborative installation ‘Invisible Landscapes’ in the ISEA exhibition, referencing the Cold War atomic legacy of uranium mining and radioactive waste. Their installation included video projections and sculptures, digital photos and light box and sound sculptures (click here for iPhone video clip of the piece).

Installation with equipment and photographs

Tom Jennings & Eve-André Laramee, Invisible Landscapes, 2012

I visited the Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, a fascinating place, made more interesting by chatting with a guide and educator there, John Anderson, who worked for over 50 years in the nuclear world. I commented on his English/Russian name badge, and he explained that he had been part of a programme in which the US provided technical advice to the Russians on safety and decommissioning. He pointed out some of the most interesting exhibits, including a neutron bomb, mythologized as being able to leave infrastructure intact, destroying only living things, in fact their detonation, Anderson told me, would cause considerable destruction through blast and heat effects. He also talked about some ‘Broken Arrow’ incidents – US military terminology for accidental event that involves nuclear weapons, including accidental nuclear detonation or, astonishingly, the loss in transit of a nuclear weapon or material, primarily due to aircraft accidents. The Museum houses many fascinating exhibits and a magnificent large-scale outdoor display in development, which includes a B52 bomber plane, an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, and a nuclear cannon.

Snark missile, Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Albuquerque

Titan Inter Continental Ballistic Missile, Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Watch from Hiroshima (photograph), Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Albuquerque

My road trip to Los Alamos started out from Albuquerque, heading northbound along the Interstate 25, but I soon turned off to take the looping, scenic back route, which took me through ancient sacred grounds of Native Americans, winding along one of the steep canyons of the mesa, and around the crater of the Valles Caldera. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific head of the Manhattan Project, chose the site. He knew Los Alamos, the site of a small private school, from his youth, when he rode in the New Mexico landscape. Los Alamos suited the brief for the site: remote, far from the sea, and sparsely populated. By autumn 1943, a few thousand people were living in Los Alamos, working in the lab in the hills. They worked six days a week for two years, their work culminating in the atomic bomb explosions in 1945: the Trinity test, and the bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, the work at Los Alamos continued as the Cold War darkened, making bigger and “better” nuclear weapons.

View from Los Alamos mesa

Main entrance to the Los Alamos National Laboratory

I drove around the fenced lands of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The area is divided into seventy-four Technical Areas. The lab is now engaged in a range of programs related to security, environmental technology, renewable energy, health sciences, and son on. But nuclear weapons are still the main activity and responsibility of the lab. I passed the main gates of the lab, and rejoined the main road into town from the other side. Entering town, the former gates of the lab are recognizable by an unused guard tower on one side, and a guardhouse on the other, now a restaurant. Beyond the gate, Technical Area 21 on the left, is one of the most contaminated sites. Facilities here were used for early research with plutonium and uranium. It’s the site where chemical operator Cecil Kelley died in a plutonium criticality accident in 1958.

Technical Area 21, Los Alamos

Los Alamos has the clean, planned look of an affluent middle class suburb. I stopped off at the Bradbury Museum, predominantly a science museum, with a specific emphasis on nuclear science. It has an excellent large-scale annotated map of the area, some interesting exhibits, including replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man – the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs – and a cinema, which showed a very interesting film on the history of Los Alamos and the Manhattan project.I visited the tiny Los Alamos Historical Museum, which – unlike the Bradbury Museum – includes panoramic photographs of destroyed city of Hiroshima. Behind this small interesting museum is Bathtub Row, the remaining teachers’ cottages from the former school, which became the housing for the main lab scientists. These bungalows were considered luxurious for having bathtubs. Oppenheimer’s house is at the far end of the row.

Oppenheimer’s House, Los Alamos

I drove up the valley, along “Acid Canyon”, where untreated waste was dumped between 1943 and 1953. It is next to the town’s high school. I was heading for the “Black Hole” of Los Alamos, a vast collection of surplus Los Alamos laboratory equipment, bought at auctions and acquired by other means, over decades, by the late owner of the Hole, Ed Grothus. Grothus once worked at the lab, but resigned due to his ethical concerns, staying in Los Alamos as an outspoken critic. The Black Hole has been selling off the collection for years, and the weekend I was there, Grothus’ adult children were having a big sale at the Hole. Several artists – to whom Matt, I or my colleague Rob had mentioned this – also turned up, overjoyed at the opportunity to buy extraordinary items of fascinating old nuclear lab equipment.

Black Hole, Los Alamos

Black Hole, Los Alamos, interior

On the way back to Albuquerque, I took the Turquoise Trail, Highway 14, called after the several turquoise mines that were once here. The road passes through former mining towns, some now deserted. Gold, silver, lead, zinc and coal were all mined around here. I stop for a beer before sunset in the town of Madrid, now a community of artists and creative types, with a main street lined with cafes, bars and craft shops catering for tourists.

White Sands National Memorial, in the heart of White Sands Missile Range

A few days later, I set off South, taking Interstate 25 in the other direction. An hour’s drive, and I turned left onto Highway 380, and headed out along the Northern perimeter of the White Sands Missile Range. White Sands is the largest military installation in the United States, covering is almost 3,200 square miles. This was the site of the first atomic explosion. Ground Zero at Trinity is now only open to the public on two days a year, but I pulled over on the stretch of road that I calculated was closest to the site.

I stepped out of the car into the heavy heat of the desert, and looked south across the dry lands towards the mountains. From where I stood, about 20 miles from Ground Zero, I would have felt the heat and shock wave of the explosion, and the mushroom cloud would have been clear to see, reaching 7.5 miles in height.

“The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range …” – General Farrell

Trinity Ground Zero, White Sands Missile Range, on GoogleMaps

Ground Zero, Trinity, 48 hours after the explosion, 1945

If you’re interested in this topic, here are a couple of great books:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes – an astonishing epic book interweaving science, politics and human psyches to tell the story of the first atomic bomb

Atomic Culture: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Scott C Zeman – interesting collection of essays covering a range of cultural expressions of atomic energy

A history of forgetting

Pavel Medvedev, On the Third Planet from the Sun (still)

Harvard scholar Sheila Jasanoff is regarded as a leading light in the field of science and technology studies. Her calls for ‘technologies of humility’ in policy-making in science and her careful analyses of the role of political culture in policy-making in the field of biotechnology are hugely important, yet have not had the impact they should. Yesterday, in her keynote lecture at Transmediale, she gently challenged the festival’s rhetoric of the need for a paradigm shift of thinking in relation to climate change and more general talk of discontinuities in this respect, and outlined her skepticism of claims that the world has been changed forever. In an eloquent, clear and engaging talk, structured around a number of stories and images to highlight the role of social and cultural imagination in how our present understanding has been shaped, Jasanoff made a powerful plea for history. How we deal with our current situation depends on our ability to learn, not from disaster, but by building on what is to what is to come. We must not forget all we have learned before. She suggested that the resources that can help us to learn are the scientific spirit itself, common law and human history. All provide incremental approaches to learning, rather than radical paradigm shifts or discontinuities. The heart of science, Jasanoff reminded us – if left to its own devices – is incremental, provisional and skeptical.

Media artist Atteqa Malik from the Karachi collective Mauj had, the day before, pointed out that most people in Pakistan will not respond to calls for action for a notion of ‘climate change’ when what they are experiencing are more immediate problems of water shortages. Whether these are partly linked or not  – and in many parts of the world water shortages are as much to do with political and commercial structures and misguided decisions around technological systems – the point she was making is that we have to look at what people’s life concerns are. The way to engage people, as Jasanoff said, is not by talk about survival but by talking about life and living.

Other highlights of my visit to Transmediale were Petko Dourmana‘s Post Global Warming Survival Kit, which entailed entering a pitch-black room with a handheld night vision device, at first thinking the room is occupied only by an old caravan and then gradually discovering the landscape around, in fact a rather optimistic take on a post-apocalyptic vision, because clearly we are still living; and the film On the Third Planet from the Sun by Russian film-maker Pavel Medvedev, which followed people living in the Arkhangelsk region of Northern Russia 45 years after the test of the hydrogen bomb there, who live hard but cheerful lives, recycling the remains of fallen space rockets that were launched from a nearby base. Middle-aged men scavenge for space junk in the swamps, and teenagers gather debris and turn it into disco balls and strobe lights for their parties. Third Planet is a striking visual exploration of environmental destruction and the rebirth of a community.

Handy tips for the new nuclear age (3)

James Acord, Tattoo

Make your own plutonium

Our Nuclear Forum at the RSA, part of our final weekend for the Nuclear: art & radioactivity exhibition, saw the return of the inimitable James Acord, the “nuclear sculptor”, to the UK after 10 years and, as always, winning everyone over with his extraordinary storytelling – and his astonishing story. Acord is the world’s only known individual to possess a radioactive materials license. And among his peer corporate license holders, he is probably the only Radiation Safety Officer to have the license number tattooed on the back of his neck (Washington State Radioactive Materials License # WN-10407-1). For 15 years, Acord lived on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, where he tried to persuade the authorities to allow him access to the Fast Flux Test Facility to transmute radioactive technesium into shiny non-radioactive ruthenium, and pursued his ambition to build a vast warning marker sculpture on the most contaminated part of Hanford. Acord left Hanford in 1998, after his residency at Imperial College London, which was organised by The Arts Catalyst, and his part in the Atomic exhibition.  Since then he has been living in Seattle.  We were all fascinated to hear that far from shelving his his alchemist’s dreams, he is making plutonium in his studio.We are planning to podcast recordings of the forum, at which artists, writers and experts discuss their work and engagement with the issues around nuclear energy. The day ended with a moving talk by Gustav Metzger, who called for an end to our pursuit of extremes.

James Acord, Home Plutonium Progenitor

Handy tips for the new nuclear age (2)

Hyperion backyard nuclear reactor

“Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes”, The Guardian

Crisis over. Our energy problems are solved. Now we can have a mini-nuclear reactor in our neighbourhood, powering our homes come oil crisis, cloudy days or lack of wind. According to Hyperion Power Generation, their reactors are clean, safe, affordable and reliable – and the solution to global warming, dependence on foreign oil, undrinkable water, poverty, disease and social unrest. Let’s just assume no waste, security, supply, radioactivity risk or design problems then? Good-oh. Here’s the order

The opening of our Nuclear: art & radioactivity exhibition was great fun, and the Nuclear Talkaoke, hosted by The People Speak, kicked off a month of active discussion around the themes of the exhibition.  Online forum kicks off this week and the Nuclear Forum at the RSA takes place on the 28th.  Exhibition on until the end of the month.

Handy tips for the new nuclear age (1)

Chris Oakley, Half Life (still), 2008. Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst

With the UK government’s new commitment to nuclear energy, let’s re-visit some of those old recurring debates around clean energy, safety, costs, proliferation and waste in today’s world of climate change … Then again, do we really want to involve ourselves in polarised shouting matches, where facts seem as elusive as consensus? Perhaps there are ways of approaching this from fresh perspectives. Or we could just go to an East London art opening instead and have a nice glass of wine.

Ten years after our Atomic exhibition, The Arts Catalyst returns to the theme of nuclear power with an exhibition of new commissions by Simon Hollington & Kypros Kyprianou, and Chris Oakley. Chris Oakley’s new film ‘Half-life’ looks at the histories of Harwell, birthplace of the UK nuclear industry, and the new development of fusion energy technology. The film examines nuclear science research through a historical and cultural filter. Simon Hollington & Kypros Kyprianou’s installation, ‘The Nightwatchman’, is the outcome of their residency with the British Atomic Nuclear Group (BANG). It merges changing perceptions of the nuclear power industry over its 50 year history into a single immersive narrative environment.

The exhibition is commissioned and produced by The Arts Catalyst with SCAN, and will be at the Nicholls and Clarke Building in Shoreditch High Street, East London (opening Thu 13 November and then open 14 – 16, 20 – 23, 27 – 30 November 2008.

Two discussion events will accompany the exhibition – a ‘Nuclear Talkaoke’ with The People Speak on Friday 14 November and a Nuclear Forum with the RSA Art & Ecology on Friday 28 November. A

So, in the spirit of Nuclear, here is the first of our ‘Handy Tips for the New Nuclear Age': How to Survive a Terrorist Nuclear Attack:

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