Nuclear weapons are a backbone of American military strategy, but they have also shaped people’s lives, local economies, regional identities, and the global environment. Throughout the Cold War, hundreds of communities across the United States and the world were involved in or impacted by some aspect of nuclear weapons production. Broad, often hidden, and powerful legacies of the U.S. nuclear complex reach into the land, institutions, bodies, laboratories, civic practices, and imaginations. How might we better understand the consequences of our nuclear past, the condition of the nuclear present, and the shape of the nuclear future?
A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado invites users to explore nuclear geographies, policy issues, artistic responses, and personal and scholarly reflections on the U.S. nuclear complex. Colorado is a microcosm of the U.S. nuclear apparatus. The state has seen uranium mining, plutonium processing, underground defense posts and labs, active air force bases, nuclear testing and training, and waste monitoring and dumping/forgetting. The Atlas uses the nuclear fuel cycle as its conceptual framework and organizing principle. It documents the sites and elaborates the issues raised by mining and processing ore, refining and making nuclear components, assembling and deploying weapons, and storing, remediating, and monitoring waste.
Diagrams of the nuclear fuel cycle usually present a tidy and controlled “cradle to cradle” loop. This optimistic take serves as the Atlas’s primary pathway to the nuclear sites and communities of Colorado. However, the Atlas also allows users to explore the shadow side of these activities: sick workers, polluted rivers, boom and bust economies, and the irresolvable problem of nuclear waste. These two pathways initially appear to be parallel ways of exploring the material. However, just as drifting radiation remains an ever-present risk, the intrinsic danger of the nuclear cycle casts a long shadow over optimistic promises of boundless energy. Where there is mining and milling, there is overburden and exposure; where there is production, there is friction; where there are celebrated accomplishments, there is undeniable waste with vast environmental health impacts.
This Atlas seeks to bring together diverse ways of perceiving, understanding, and responding to nuclear legacies. It contextualizes geographic sites with archival images, illustrations, and other types of content, and is designed as much for browsing as searching, offering both ready retrieval of information and opportunities for serendipitous insight. Issue briefs address nuclear history, policy, governance, and geological and environmental factors. Essays offer scholarly insights into these legacies, drawing out complexity and illuminating continuing controversies. Pushing back against the tendency of policy and academic research toward abstraction, the Atlas includes personal narratives and artistic responses that locate the nuclear in lived, material, and sensory experience. Finally, almost every piece of content appears in more than one path, offering the user multiple points of entry into the web of complexity, controversy, and connection that is a defining feature of the nuclear condition.
A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado is a living digital document. The Atlas will partner with educators, museums, and grassroots organizations to expand the sites and perspectives it contains. As a living document, it can infuse the often abstract discussion on nuclear policy and its environmental legacies with humanistic forms of inquiry and public engagement. Ultimately the Atlas aspires to be an engaging and inclusive platform for community members, scholars, veterans, workers, artists, and activists to shape the nuclear weapons legacy in Colorado through ongoing and active interpretation.