Operation Plumbbob: Detonation Fizeau. Image Source: Nuclear Weapon Archive.
Following advances in nuclear science in the 20th century, mutants have become a popular way of understanding the impact of radioactivity. In 2004, an academic from the University of Chicago argued that that perception was changed to reconcile certain ironies about nuclear science. Those ironies concern the fact that both nuclear weapons and nuclear power were devised to protect advanced nations' security and energy interests. But the great powers' superpowers came at a price: nuclear weapons and power have grim cultural and environmental impacts.
Worse, those impacts have already been felt. The greatest irony arises when one considers that bomb detonations and radioactive fallout have already occurred. In North America, it happened during atomic testing that began in 1951. In other words, the apocalypse has already happened; it was self-inflicted. We have been living in the slow burn aftermath ever since.
Were atomic bombs detonated on American soil? And (at the time) Soviet soil? And on extended territories of these and other nuclear powers? Yes. No nuclear enemy was even needed for our greatest fears of nuclear war to be realized. All we needed was ourselves. And the deed is already done. According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Cancer Institute: "Any person living in the contiguous United States since 1951 has been exposed to radioactive fallout, and all organs and tissues of the body have received some radiation exposure." According to Rebecca Solnit in Savage Dreams: "Radiation can make cells lose their memory, and loss of memory seems to be one of the cultural effects of the bombs too, for Americans forgot that bomb after bomb was being exploded here." Of course, American tests affected the health of their neighbours as well, as fallout polluted Mexico and Canada. Similarly, other nations' nuclear bomb tests irradiated other countries.
In wartime, these impacts could be viewed through the same lens with which we view Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the mid-20th century introduced new mass media narratives to invert reality, so that we would see media realities before we would see real realities. Those media narratives paint neither atomic bomb and hydrogen bomb tests, nor industrial nuclear pollution, with the same brush as the bombs which ended World War II. With these precedents set, communication in the new Millennium need not concern itself with reality in order to be taken seriously.
After World War II, much was made of avoiding Nazi-styled propaganda and guarding the public's capacity, expressed through the free press, for criticizing the government and other authoritative actors in the economy and society. The only trouble is that there are layers of truths, some of which are so deeply internalized or confused that they are not openly acknowledged. What good does it do if the media may speak freely, but no one can see reality for what it is, including members of the media?
Nuclear tests give an example of internalized truths and how the media and public may not recognize them.
One of the blog's readers, JS, kindly sent me the link to this 2004 article, "Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post–Cold War New Mexico," by Joseph Masco, in which Masco argues that the short lifespan of insects makes them the first real reflectors of irradiated landscapes. In the 1950s, giant insect horror movies helped to purge fears of fallout. But after the Cold War, these landscapes became 'nature preserves,' which soothed those fears into a comforting message about remedies for the traumatized environment.
Why was there this change in perspective? Post-apocalyptic realities mean that when we use insects, mutants and similar to describe radiations' twisted biologies, we are actually talking about ourselves. Mutants evolved in the popular imagination to channel fear and horror (see my post on that idea here) and then became metaphorical transmitters of evolution and progress (see my related post). Masco confirms that the image of mutants changed:
This qualification reflects the uneasy recognition that those exposed to test fallout (i.e. the entire population of North America, and beyond) no longer perceives fallout impact as externalized. The pollution is internalized and is part of us:To understand these new formations I pursue an alternative engagement with nature/culture through a theoretization of “mutation.” The value of this term for an anthropology of science is its attentiveness to multigenerational reproduction and the quality of biosocial transformations over time—marked alternatively as injury, improvement, or noise. My argument proceeds in three parts: First, I examine nuclear injuries produced during the Cold War nuclear testing program, looking specifically at radiation experiments on living beings; second, I explore post–Cold War efforts to reinscript specific radioactive environments as ecological “improvements.”
Growing awareness that we are the very post-fallout mutants once feared in the 1950s creates a dividing line in time between past, present and future. Masco claims we are no longer biologically what we were before the era of nuclear tests (and nuclear power accidents). We are incontrovertibly different - genetically and culturally. A line was crossed, a permanent break with the past was made, and there is no going back. This realization may explain why there have been attempts to finesse our view of the post-fallout environment:While each U.S. citizen negotiates the traces of Los Alamos science in their bodies and biosphere—making each of us real or potential mutants—the nuclear future remains highly mobile. Consequently, [I investigate] debates and practices involving new “species” logics in the nuclear age, examining how the pursuit of security through military technoscience has raised questions about the structural integrity of plants, animals, and people.
Masco maintains that the new reality concerns a new temporal frame of reference after a mere 70 years' worth of decisions, namely, commonplace sickness and mutation extended across millennia. This is the time frame for our long-term, toxic evolution resulting from the arrogance of Cold War atomic science:A concept of mutation implies ... a complex coding of time (both past and future); it assumes change, but it does not from the outset judge either the temporal scale or the type of change that will take place. It also marks a transformation that is reproduced generationally, making the mutation a specific kind of break with the past that reinvents the future. Engaging the U.S. nuclear project through the lens of mutation ... privileges not only the institutional and technoscientific networks needed to construct the bomb but also the wide-ranging and long-term social and environmental effects of the production complex itself. The ecological effects of atmospheric nuclear testing, for example, may not be fully realized for decades, and an understanding of their cultural effects requires an investigation into the different conceptions of nature that inform local communities.
Here is one for generational myth-makers. Those who conducted these tests were members of the fabled 'Greatest Generation.' Before we even get to the irradiation of North America (see map here), it is hard to imagine a greater evil conceit than the one which devised radiation containers for trapped pigs in Operation Plumbbob, during which 29 nuclear bombs were detonated in Nevada in 1957. See the scene with radiation test pigs in metal containers starting at 19:50 in the video below, Operation Plumbbob: Military Effects Studies, which was declassified in 1997.The world produced by the bomb, however, is structured by its totalizing scale (the entire planet) and by more localized, multigenerational effects that are highly changeable, rooted in any given moment as much in ambiguity or latency as in material fact. The 24,000-year half-life of plutonium, for example, presents a multimillennial colonization of the future, requiring a different temporal analytic for investigating radioactive ecologies.
Operation Plumbbob: Military Effects Studies. Video Source: Youtube.
Former military personnel for this and other nuclear test projects have their own battles to fight, because they were directly irradiated too. Further afield, it is estimated that between 1,000 and 20,000 North American people have died from thyroid cancer caused by Plumbbob radiation fallout alone. It is no wonder that everything gives you cancer became the catch phrase of the late Cold War and post Cold War eras.Pigs, dogs, sheep, cows, monkeys, and mice were used to test the effects of radiation on different species, utilizing skin, lungs, eyes, blood, and genetic material as a test of how radiation exposure traumatizes a biological being in the millisecond of an atomic blast and over longer periods of time as the mutagenic effects of radiation exposure occur. The protected body of the Cold Warrior, increasingly rendered as cyborg in the cockpit of planes and other military machines, was thus prefigured by the vaporized, mutilated, and traumatized animal body.
Operation Plumbbob video with detonations and pig experiments. From: Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie (1995) by Peter Kuran. Video Source: Youtube.
-Masco's article was published in Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 19, Issue 4, pp. 517–550, ISSN 0886-7356, electronic ISSN 1548-1360.
I previously blogged about nuclear legacies here - and generally, here.