Books: Dangerous Landscapes | Essay | Chicago Reader

Books: Dangerous Landscapes 

Peter Goin's photographs give light and color to unseen places--places that irrevocably changed, and were changed by, the course of human history.

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Last October I took a tour of the Hanford Site with a busload of graduate students. Our guide was Steve Buckingham, a retiree who had worked for about 40 years at Hanford--where the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Department of Energy, produced plutonium for use in nuclear weapons until 1988. He'd read War and Peace on the long company bus rides to and from work. Now he worked as a part-time tour guide, supplementing his income and, as he saw it, spreading the gospel that nuclear energy is a good thing. "I am very definitely pronukey," he said, and off we went.

The Hanford Site, located at a huge bend in the Columbia River, sprawls over 560 square miles of arid central Washington. During the heady Manhattan Project days of World War II, when the U.S. government needed a place to process plutonium for the world's first nuclear warheads, it chose Hanford because of the area's remoteness, abundant river water, and cheap hydroelectricity. Buckingham recalled with pride how the site's first reactor was brought on-line only 18 months after construction began--an impossibility today, due to strict environmental and safety guidelines. The plutonium created there went into the weapons detonated at the Trinity Site in New Mexico and at Nagasaki. After the war ended, the continuing flow of Hanford plutonium went into our stock of cold-war nuclear weapons.

Plutonium processing is a messy business, requiring caustic and toxic chemicals that become radioactive during the refining process. At Hanford the wastes, many of them in liquid form, were for the most part buried underground in large storage tanks. Many of those tanks have since leaked, and some, news reports have claimed, have the potential to explode and spew radioactivity into the atmosphere. Buckingham told us that one tank once had so much hot radioactive material in it that it almost reached critical mass. "We were very upset," he said, laughing.

Our tour passed a "burial garden," where low-level radioactive waste--clothing, tools, and so on--was buried in a shallow trench, and a large open pit dotted with the huge black reactor cores of decommissioned nuclear submarines, which are shipped to Hanford by barge. We drove by a half dozen mothballed reactors on the banks of the river. Buckingham told us he would like to lead tours of the historic first reactor. "Unfortunately," he said, "there's some radioactivity left."

Indeed, signs here and there warned of radioactivity, and at a number of places we were not allowed to get off the bus. Nothing about the place itself, though, warned how contaminated it was. Without reading about it, we would not have known that the soil at Hanford has been estimated to contain 192 kilograms of plutonium and 142,000 kilograms of uranium. We would not have known of the releases of enormous quantities of radioactive iodine gas in the 1940s and '50s. We would not have known that hundreds of waste-disposal sites at Hanford still probably violate government safety guidelines. The landscape told us of aridity but not of the sort of danger we were interested in: Only the human presence there--the signs, fences, armed guards--warned us away.

At the end of our nine-hour tour we'd seen only a fraction of the site. Buckingham said he wished he could show us more. "There's a lot more to Hanford than what you've seen today," he said.

Only recently has considerable public attention fallen on places like Hanford. For years so much emphasis was placed on what the effects of a potential nuclear exchange might be that the actual effects of constructing and testing weapons--more than 930 nuclear detonations by the U.S. alone, and several thousand worldwide--were largely ignored. The military and the Department of Energy did their best to encourage secrecy by strictly limiting access to construction and testing sites--which had of course been chosen for their remoteness. But in the last few years stories about exposure of U.S. military personnel, Pacific islanders, and Utah ranchers to radiation from bomb tests decades ago have hit the headlines, as have tales of appalling environmental degradation at DOE facilities, including Rocky Flats in Colorado, the Savannah River plant in South Carolina, and Hanford.

What has been missing is a knowledge of what these places look like, for our nuclear sites have been hidden behind barbed-wire fences, armed guards, and warning signs. Peter Goin's new book, Nuclear Landscapes, helps lift the shroud.

Goin is a landscape photographer who was inspired to explore places like Hanford and the Nevada test site by their very secrecy. He moved to Nevada in 1984 and fell in love with the state's basin-and-range landscapes. Yet he had to wonder what the Nevada Test Site looked like. More than twice the size of Hanford, that large chunk of the state had been closed to most outside eyes since testing began there.

After much finagling, Goin was able to talk his way onto not only the test site, but also Hanford, the Trinity Site on New Mexico's White Sands missile range, and the Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the South Pacific (where much of the early U.S. bomb-testing program was carried out). They are among the places that changed the course of history, that helped assure the rise of the U.S. to superpower status, that nurtured the cold war. Goin's album brings light and color to the public images of these places.

Goin introduces his photographs with a long historical essay on the building and testing of U.S. nuclear weapons, covering the transformation of initial public enthusiasm into concern. Other authors have given a more complete picture of the early atomic era (Goin cites Paul Boyer's excellent By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age as a prime reference), but this is a good overview of the testing program and of the current state of contamination at testing sites. The text is also complemented by an extensive collection of archival government photos.

Goin's own travels and photos trace the course of nuclear history. The book's first picture shows the black obelisk marking ground zero at the Trinity Site. From there the viewer travels to the Nevada Test Site, where the lion's share of the U.S. testing program has been carried out. The popular image of the site (and the rest of Nevada) has been that of a featureless wasteland. The only impression most people had of the place came from official test photographs, and who could pay attention to the landscape when it lay behind a mushroom cloud? Some of Goin's photos show that part of the site does look like a featureless wasteland. Frenchman Flat, where many of the aboveground tests took place, consists largely of a dry lake bed whose burning alkali surface appears still to reflect the intensity of those blasts.

Yet around the lake bed recolonizing Joshua trees crowd the remaining roads and fences. In another photo they grow around a house that was part of a "doom town" built to measure the impact of a blast on typical buildings. It's cheering to see plants reclaiming the land around structures blown apart by nuclear wind and around test equipment that is still highly radioactive. They have had time to grow since 1963, when the treaty banning atmospheric and underwater testing went into effect.

In the 1960s the Atomic Energy Commission created the ingeniously named Division of Peaceful Nuclear Explosions, whose Plowshares program explored the potential for using nuclear devices as giant instant earth movers. One of Goin's photos depicts an enormous 635-feet-deep hole that resulted when the "Sedan" explosion lifted 12 million tons of earth. Desert shrubs now dot the steep sides of the crater. The viewer can imagine the hole filling in through the slow processes of erosion and regrowth, but the time scale has to be almost geological. (The Plowshares program was abandoned when it was discovered that--surprise!--such blasts left too much residual radiation.)

Nowadays all nuclear testing takes place underground in deep shafts. The explosions require stripping large areas of vegetation, as Goin's photos show; remarkably, much of the Nevada Test Site is still not wasteland, but carpeted with desert plants or juniper forest. Yet the blasts may create craters by causing the ground to sink; they may open fissures that vent radiation into the atmosphere; and they may cause tremors that shake boulders from canyon walls miles away. While other countries with nuclear programs have expressed their willingness to abide by a ban on underground testing, the U.S. has consistently refused to go along.

Nuclear Landscapes also reminds us that the U.S. testing program has affected more than the people and landscape of our country. The first postwar bombs were dropped not on Nevada, but on the Marshall Islands, whose residents lacked the political power to successfully oppose U.S. plans. Though islanders on Enewetak and Bikini were relocated, many people were still inadvertently exposed to radioactive fallout. By the time the Limited Test Ban Treaty sent all testing underground in 1963, more than 100 warheads had been detonated in the South Pacific. Intensive cleanup efforts have since taken place, but resettlement plans for the islanders have been put off indefinitely.

Plants grow much more quickly in the lush environment of the South Pacific than in Nevada, and nowhere has the vegetation grown more luxuriantly since atmospheric testing was halted. Goin's photos depict crumbling buildings, bunkers, and scattered equipment being engulfed by ocean waves and tropical vegetation. An open-air Greek amphitheater built for the entertainment of U.S. personnel, overgrown with vines and shrubs, seems to belong more to the classical era than to our own. One of Goin's few interior shots shows a tern's nest atop a snarl of electrical cables in a bunker ruin.

Yet despite this regrowth, these places remain off-limits. The coconuts covering an atoll beach are too radioactive for human consumption; the emptiness of islands that once thrived with human life is poignant. And when Goin photographed demolished buildings at Frenchman Flat, his guide told him to spend no more than two minutes outside the car. These places are still dangerous. Of course nothing in the places themselves tells us that. A pile of coconuts is a pile of coconuts--only Goin's telling us that they are radioactive gives the photo "Coconut Graveyard" a menacing air. The yellow warning signs and posts that mark where radioactive waste is buried at Hanford are as explicit, and as artificial.

How does one photograph the invisible? Goin has attempted to illustrate the threat of radioactivity partly by showing us sites in unlovely conditions. Where a photographer seeking sublime vistas might work in the soft light of dawn or evening, Goin often chooses the glaring midday sun. Colors are washed out, the light is flat, the horizon typically a third of the way down the page. It's ironic that the colorful archival photographs of nuclear blasts taken by military photographers and included here in Goin's introduction are more dramatic and often more beautiful than his own.

The scenes Goin shows us are also appropriately devoid of people, as these places almost always are. Nothing moves except the waves lapping the atoll beaches. The ruins intimate mortality. And the craters of Nevada, ever so slowly filling with windblown sand, intimate a particularly quick and nightmarish mortality. We can see the effect our nuclear experiments have had on the landscape, but the element most interesting to us--because it is the most dangerous--remains hidden. We scan these photos looking for symbols to tell us what's what.

The question hinted at, but not answered, in Goin's work is: What do we do with these places? Even ambitious cleanup efforts will leave a dangerous legacy of radiation for future generations. (At Hanford officials are working on cleanup technologies that should, ironically, keep the facility going economically for decades. It is almost a dream example of how to ensure a continuing subsidy from the federal government.)

I don't know whether Goin can answer that question with photographs that show no people. I would love to see photographers document the human side of the story--the tragedies of Enewetak and of the atomic veterans, the intricate subcultures of the atomic workers who labored in isolation at Hanford and the Nevada Test Site. And I would someday love to see photographers document the transformation of these dangerous places into pilgrimage sites, to which we Americans may journey (briefly) to recognize the powers we have given ourselves as a nation and as a species.

Nuclear Landscapes by Peter Goin, Johns Hopkins University Press, $59.95 (hardcover), $29.95 (paper).

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