MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

The Nuclear West: Which Road to the Future?

The Western United States is known for many things - big skies and wide open spaces; high mountains and the Pacific Coast line; long borders with Canada and Mexico; gold, oil, natural gas, coal, and other natural resources; Native Americans, Chicanos, and rugged individualists.

But the West also has been essential to designing, building, and testing the nation's nuclear weapons for 60 years. That nuclear legacy was created largely by decision makers in the East.

The Bush administration policy is to make major changes in our nuclear weapons programs by creating smaller, "more usable" nuclear weapons that can be used preemptively while maintaining superiority over the rest of the world with our arsenal of land-based, submarine, and airborne nuclear bombs. Such a policy has major implications for international peace and security, and would require major new facilities, including a new plutonium pit manufacturing facility.

Nuclear power plants have never played a significant role in electricity generation in the West, but the Bush administration policy to promote nuclear energy includes two major new facilities - a research reactor in Idaho and a uranium enrichment plant in New Mexico.

And the West is the only area targeted for long-term storage and disposal for the long-lived and highly radioactive wastes from nuclear weapons and power plants.

Present and future generations must address the existing legacy of:

  • large amounts of existing water and soil contamination at the nuclear weapons sites and uranium mines and mills and ongoing "cleanup" that will leave large amounts of radioactive and chemical wastes in the soil and water;
  • thousands of major victims of the Nuclear West - workers at nuclear weapons plants and uranium facilities and their families and people downwind of atmospheric testing;
  • Nuclear weapons sites that have on-going missions of designing, building, and testing nuclear weapons

"The Nuclear West: Legacy and Future" was the focus of the annual symposium at the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah on April 18, 2003. This issue of Voices from the Earth brings together some of the speakers from that symposium to briefly discuss some of the history and pending decisions about new nuclear weapons facilities, and two very differing viewpoints about the future of nuclear power.

Understanding the past and the present, people in the West can be actively involved in shaping the nuclear future for this region and beyond.

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Table of Contents

"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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