In the Shadow of Los Alamos
The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War
New Mexico. Joseph Masco. xvi + 425 pp. Princeton
University Press, 2006. Cloth, $65; paper, $24.95.
Nuclear weapons have long invited paradox, being seen by some as
instruments of genocide and by others as a foundation for
enlightened peacemaking. Joseph Masco, a cultural anthropologist,
entreats us to consider additional paradoxes in his fascinating new
book, The Nuclear Borderlands. He asks how the massive
American nuclear weapons industry could be so invisible today, even
though it occupies more than 36,000 square miles (an area about the
size of Indiana) and nearly $6 trillion was spent on it over its
first 50 years. He likewise notes that the United States, while
doggedly pursuing nuclear weapons in the name of national security,
has had more nukes exploded on its territory than any other nation:
The country conducted 1,149 test detonations between 1945 and 1992,
942 of them within the continental United States. The release of
radioactive fallout during the era of above-ground testing alone
(1945–1963), subsequent government studies have concluded,
will result in at least 11,000 excess deaths from cancer in the
The book analyzes four distinct subcultures within the orbit of Los
Alamos National Laboratory. First Masco describes the weapons
scientists. Over time, he argues, the art and science of designing
nuclear weapons have become separated from any visceral appreciation
of their true destructive force. The scientists and engineers who
built the earliest nuclear weapons and witnessed the original tests
routinely talked about the frightening bodily reactions induced by
the bomb: blinding flashes, searing heat, the force of the shock
wave. Once testing went underground (following the Limited Test Ban
Treaty of 1963), effects of the bombs were mediated through remote
sensors. Weapons designers sat in permanent control rooms, eyes
fixed on computer monitors. Since the cessation of testing in 1992,
scientists and engineers have "experienced" the bomb only
through computer simulations or small-scale, non-nuclear
experiments. At the same time, Masco writes, the emphasis has turned
more and more to perfecting "safe and reliable" bombs,
deflecting attention from the fact that the devices are
hyperdestructive military weapons.
Los Alamos sprang up during World War II in the midst of several
Pueblo reservations, the second subculture Masco discusses. The end
of the Cold War released simmering tensions between the various
sovereign nations and the U.S. government. For nearly two decades
the laboratory conducted implosion tests with radioactive lanthanum
140, secretly spewing dangerous fallout throughout Pueblo
communities, contaminating water supplies and grazing lands.
Laboratory protocol actually required that the tests be
conducted only when prevailing winds would carry fallout over Indian
lands, euphemistically referring to these regions as
"uninhabited." Not surprisingly, since the mid-1990s many
Indians in the region have vocally blamed the laboratory for
elevated cancer rates among their populace.
Yet on the flip side, several Pueblo communities have accepted Los
Alamos's invitation to store nuclear waste on their lands in
exchange for large payments. As Masco explains, the recent
waste-storage-for-profit initiatives emerged just as other groups
renewed legal challenges in an attempt to curtail Indian casinos.
Several Indian communities now see participation in the
"plutonium economy" as a necessary step for economic survival.
Masco also analyzes the effect of Los Alamos on local Hispanic
communities, pointing out that the areas around the laboratory are
hugely diverse, both economically and racially. New Mexico is one of
the poorest states in the nation, even as Los Alamos County boasts
one of the country's highest median incomes. Many of the low-level
employees at the laboratory—which is the biggest employer in
the region—come from neighboring Hispanic communities, several
of which pre-date American independence by more than a century. Some
Nuevomexicanos see the lab as a necessary economic lifeline,
providing the steady jobs with which to sustain their tiny-village
way of life and its 400-year history. They worry that the end of the
Cold War might lead to downsizing at the laboratory, upsetting their
delicate economic balance. Others see the lab as a foreign
colonizing force and accuse it of being out of touch with local
traditions, usurping land that they say had been loaned to the
federal government only for the duration of World War II, and
leaving behind damage to public health and the environment that most
likely can never be fully remediated.
Laboratory scientists, Indians and Nuevomexicanos live in uneasy
tension with the fourth set of players Masco studied: the
antinuclear and environmental activists based in nearby Santa Fe.
Since the end of the Cold War, the predominantly white, middle-class
protestors have hammered at the laboratory, often waging successful
court battles over its medical and environmental responsibilities.
Locals now rely on many of the Santa Fe groups for health and
environmental information, which has proved difficult to glean from
the laboratory directly. But they remain wary of anything that might
destabilize the laboratory, because it remains so central to the
local economy. Many Indians and Hispanics also bristle at some of
the activists' patronizing lectures on "responsible"
stewardship of their own land.
As Masco demonstrates, several events brought these tensions into
the open. The allegations of espionage against Los Alamos scientist
Wen Ho Lee, first aired publicly in 1999, fixed national attention
on the lab, which appeared to be floundering, rudderless, now that
the Cold War had ended. The affair also exacerbated concerns about
racial profiling within the sprawling establishment. The Cerro
Grande forest fire of 2000, meanwhile, which threatened several
sensitive laboratory facilities, highlighted the fears of local
residents about lingering environmental effects of a half-century of
weapons development and the reservoirs of waste still stored at the
laboratory. Plutonium 239, for example, which is highly poisonous to
plants and animals even when not configured into a critical mass,
has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. Other deadly by-products
survive for centuries or millennia, far beyond the time-horizon of
any realistic government storage program, or indeed of any
particular government. The U.S. Department of Energy has already
declared 109 distinct sites to be national "sacrifice
zones," too contaminated by nuclear waste ever to be reclaimed.
Masco's important and impressive study ably demonstrates that nuclear
weapons need not be detonated to have profound effects—effects
that extend far beyond the well-studied realms of politics and
international relations. The quest to build the bomb has reshaped the
nation's infrastructure, economy and environment. It also continues to
mold the daily lives and nightly fears of several communities still
learning to live with each other in the shadow of Los Alamos.
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