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The Atomic West 1942-2002

In the United States the Northeast, South, and Midwest are not commonly associated with atomic weapons. The same cannot be said of the American West. Although every part of the country has participated in the invention, manufacture, assembly, testing, and deployment of nuclear bombs, none has become so closely identified with the federal atomic weapons programs as the West.

The West acquired its nuclear infrastructure in three phases. It first became the locus of federal weapons programs during World War II when the Manhattan Project created the Los Alamos, New Mexico laboratory and the Hanford, Washington plutonium plant. These programs operated in secrecy until August 6, 1945, when President Harry Truman announced that Americans had used an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The rise of the Cold War brought the next layer of weapons programs on the region, adding such facilities as the Nevada Test Site, the Livermore, California weapons lab, and the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, to name just a few. The federal government also spurred a uranium rush to the Colorado Plateau during this era. A third stage of regional development began during the 1960s and 1970s as attitudes toward nuclear weapons programs changed. A more skeptical population increasingly challenged nuclear activities, including efforts to encourage development of power plants. The federal government decommissioned some weapons facilities while changing the mission of others from production to clean-up. Yet the Atomic West was hardly on the verge of disappearing. By situating major waste repositories in New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Washington, the U.S. government ensured that the West would remain "nuclear" for a very, very long time.

What about the West proved so compelling to nuclear weapons programs? Geographical considerations help explain the close association. When federal agencies considered where to put weapons facilities, they were frequently drawn to western states because of their wide-open spaces, smaller populations, uranium deposits, and abundant electricity. Political considerations also account for the regional pattern. The federal government usually imposed weapons programs on Westerners without much consultation. At times the region lacked the political clout it needed in Congress to resist the imposition of nuclear projects. For example, despite the fact that the eastern states have the lion's share of nuclear power plants in the U.S., the federal government has helped make the West the eventual destination of most atomic waste, even though the region already possesses an inordinate share of the residue from nuclear weapons programs.

Today the West's identification with the atom strikes it as a problem. For much of the period between 1945 and 1970 or so, by contrast, Westerners generally welcomed the atom because it promised to improve the region. In explaining the origins of the Atomic West, then, we need to consider culture as much as geography and politics. Western leaders of the mid-20th century believed that their region was underdeveloped, relative to the rest of the country. For years they had been campaigning to overcome their supposedly backward status by attracting more economic activity, more residents, and more sophistication. By the 1930s they had begun to have some success in this effort, in large part because of such federally funded public works projects as dams, irrigation works, and highways. Nuclear weapons programs were perceived as a similar kind of boost. Once they became public knowledge in 1945, Westerners seized upon them as a stimulus sure to propel the region to new economic heights. Those communities nearest to new nuclear facilities saw them as a source of investment and employment.

Across the region, Westerners lobbied to secure more than their share of "nuclear pork" as a means of overcoming their perceived underdevelopment. For example, in the region around the Tri-Cities of Washington State during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, farmers, workers, and business interests steadily worked to integrate Hanford into local economic networks. They cited the plutonium plant as justification for building more dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and they created a nuclear-oriented chamber of commerce that successfully lobbied Congress and the Atomic Energy Commission for more generous investment in their communities. The University of California similarly used the Los Alamos and Livermore laboratories, which it managed for the federal government. The institution not only received income from its weapons contracts but also gained an advantage in competing against other universities for academic leadership in the competitive field of physics. Clearly, federal spending in the West on atomic programs brought expansion to the regional economy.

At the same time, many became convinced that the atom represented a form of cultural maturity as well. Accustomed to seeing their states as relatively backward, many western leaders embraced nuclear weapons programs as a means of generating greater respect and sophistication. They associated the atom with higher levels of education, scientific progress, and the noble mission of national defense. Thus the editor of the newspaper in Moab, Utah, a center of uranium milling, proclaimed, "The sky is the limit, as we enter the atomic age. Moab is in the very middle of the activity, with its importance increasing from day to day...We are pilgrims on an uncharted sea of the future, [helping to] lead the world into a tomorrow of possibilities unlimited." A newspaper editor in Las Vegas responded in like fashion in 1951 to the news that the Nevada Test Site would be located nearby: "We have glorified gambling, divorces, and doubtful pleasures to get our name before the rest of the country. Now we can become a part of the most important work carried on by our country today. We have found a reason for our existence as a community." It may be accurate to claim that the rest of the country foisted nuclear weapons programs on the West. Yet it is also accurate to say that, for many years, Westerners welcomed those very programs, and in many instances lobbied hard to get even more.

Historians tend to see the year 1945 as the beginning of a new era in national and world history-the Atomic Age. They are certainly correct to understand the first use of nuclear weapons as a sharp break from what had come before. Looking at the experience of the American West suggests another chronology, however. Nuclear weapons programs were welcomed in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s not so much because they were new, but rather because they helped the region to achieve goals of economic growth and cultural maturity that it had been trying to realize for years. Moreover, it is not clear that, in Westerners' minds, these programs marked much of a break from other such large-scale, government funded efforts as the Northwest's Columbia Basin Project and California's Central Valley Project, both of which built numerous dams, irrigation canals, and hydroelectric grids in a massive effort to "unlock" the resources, transform the landscape, and expand the populations and economies of the West. Keep in mind that some nuclear weapons advocates even proposed using atomic bombs to re-engineer parts of the West, just as the irrigators and dam builders and highway departments were doing. When touring Alaska to promote the idea of using nuclear bombs to create new harbors and accomplish other earth-moving projects during the late 1950s, Edward Teller told the locals, "If your mountain is not in the right place, just drop us a card."

While the dawn of the Atomic Age was surely important, we should not underestimate the significance of the other profound change that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s when people in the West and beyond began questioning the effects of not only the atom but also other human efforts to control and transform nature so radically. Is it possible that we have wised up, if only just a little? Yes or no, at the dawn of the 21st century the West remains America's most "patomic" region, and the presence of so much nuclear waste ensures that it will continue to hold that distinction for a long time to come.


John Findlay is a professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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"Contrary to federal officials' vision of a largely vacant area, the West was never nearly empty enough. It contained too many residents who would, inevitably, be exposed to the pollution released by nuclear weapons programs. It also contained intricate ecosystems which, far from making for an "empty" place, ensured that radioactive and chemical waste would be absorbed into, distributed about, and concentrated within the landscape in quite complicated ways."
From The Atomic West

Edited by Bruce Hevly and John M. Findlay
University of Washington Press, 1998



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