Illustration recadrée d'après Doc Searls (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Nuclear Mountains : Mountain Beauty and Radioactive Anguish in the American West

Ce texte est une note d’intention en vue d’une communication à la Deuxième Université Internationale d’Hiver, rédigée par Lucie Genay, Université Grenoble-Alpes, EA ILCEA4. Retravaillée, la communication finale sera diffusée à la suite de l’événement, complétée et affinée.

The American national complex spread over the entire country in the wake of World War Two and the Manhattan Project but had a particular impact on the American West, as the region owes its post-war economic boom to the development of its nuclear installations.

One of its very first facilities was located high in the Jemez Mountains, atop a mesa in New Mexico. That was the world’s rst atomic laboratory, which later became the Los Alamos National Laboratories and utterly colonized the area known as the Pajarito Plateau. The production of a phenomenal nuclear weapons stockpile during the Cold War required sites where to store these warheads. After the Z division was transferred from Los Alamos to the Sandia Base on the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque in 1947, the production, testing, and assembly of weapons components became the business of the Sandia Corporation.

The Manzano Mountains to the south-east of the city were used to store the weapons of mass destruction produced there. In addition, New Mexican Mountains also contain the resource that became the most precious mineral in the second half of the twentieth century: uranium. Mount Taylor, a sacred site to Navajo and Pueblo Native Americans sits on the richest deposit in the country and still bears the scars of years of mining at the Jackpile-Paguate open mine on Laguna Pueblo land. Further north, in Colorado, the Cheyenne Mountains conceal another icon of the Cold War: the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Combat Operations Center that became operational in 1967. This bunker at the heart of the granite range is still in use as a training site but also continues to be a symbol of Cold War anxieties of nuclear annihilation.

Finally, the latest most controversial nuclear issue of the nuclear age, i.e. nuclear waste, is epitomized by the Yucca Mountain site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. The site has been designated as a possible high-level nuclear waste repository since 1987 and the debate is still ongoing as to whether it would be a safe facility. One can point out the proximity of the location to another paramount military site in the state, the Nevada Test Site, where man-made mountains have shaped the landscape after the thousands of tests that were conducted there. In all these cases, one can observe a stark contrast between the mountains’ scenic and beautiful imagery and the awe-inspiring danger they conceal. The Cold War and the nuclear age have produced a completely new use of mountain space as a hiding-place for humanity’s most terrorizing technology. This paper addresses the paradoxes that these sites create when the spiritual meets technology, when artistic beauty clashes with dangers which defy time and space, and when tourists are confronted with radioactive fears while hiking on canyon trails.

Psychologically, these paradoxes are even more fascinating since the inodorous, invisible radioactivity seeps through the soil and travels through the air, transforming these spaces into a unique type of threatening landscape. Through specific examples at these various sites, I will endeavor to present new research on the creation and contradictions of nuclear mountains.

Illustration recadrée d’après 2010_08_06_rno-phx-bos_058 Doc Searls (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr