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argins and centers. The atomic and the cosmic. Horizontal expansive and vertical alignment. The particular and the general. Microcosms and situated study in the world. These are some of the metaphors of space and scale that run through the responses to A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado collected here. The Atlas tries all of these strategies at one point or another, clinging to the nondescript rectangular outlines of the state of Colorado like a conceptual “glove box,” but, like the safety gear, it’s destined to fail to stay within the designated bounds.
We’re thrilled by the disciplinarily diverse perspectives and engagements that have converged for this forum. It’s also difficult to formulate a cohesive response, given that we are not really authors or editors in a conventional academic sense. A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado was released with more than 40 contributors of written material, plus dozens more whose documentary and archival images and maps animate and punctuate the content. These materials are arranged to offer varied points of entry: entries can be found by search, located on the map, or sequenced along a narrative path. There are almost as many ways to enter the Atlas as there are ways to begin and structure commentary on it. In keeping with the polyvocal nature of the project, we start our forum response with reflections on un-mastering the map, and end with a call for a collaboratively seeded federation of people’s nuclear atlases.
Alexis Bhagat identifies a tension in the dual traditions of nuclear atlases and people’s atlases from which our project emerges. Most “people’s atlases” explore a particular geography as if it were an entire world, not as an illustration or case study of a set of more general principles. A “general view” is slowly articulated by, and emerges from, the accumulation of particularities. Yet the most famous spatial representations of the nuclear—not just those from a Department of Defense perspective, but also oppositional representations like William Bunge’s Nuclear Atlas, Richard Miller’s maps in Under the Cloud and Ishao Hashimoto’s YouTube-famous Time Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Detonation since 1945—also rely on a standardized, cartographic view (from above) of the world on which the nuclear is charted. The distinction retrospectively captures some of our earliest dilemmas in formulating the project: what would be the role of the map in our Atlas? While we appreciate the unique and visually impressive density of nuclear sites in Colorado, we did not want the map to be the dominant interface presented to users. The accumulation of “dots on a map” represents spatially differentiated intensities and proximities but reveals nothing about the policies, practices, and conditions that gave rise to those particularly situated dots.
As Hillary Mushkin points out in her response, the accumulation of spatial data presented in an atlas rhetorically performs its own completeness: it presents as “everything about the subject, right there in a neat volume.” Mindful of this rhetorical pretense to comprehensiveness, we embarked on the task of making an atlas that refutes its traditional associations with spatial and informational mastery. Our Atlas de-emphasizes the traditional overview map in favor of a series of curated, forking “paths” organized around the system of nuclear production itself, from the geophysical processes that give rise to radioactive ores to the management and regulation of nuclear technologies writ large. Each phase in the conventional, techno-utopian nuclear fuel cycle is paired with its “shadow,” including its environmental consequences and political contestations.
Rather than speaking with a disembodied, institutionally encyclopedic voice, each piece of writing is credited to its author and illustrated with hundreds of photographs, diagrams, and, yes, even maps that accumulate a picture (still not comprehensive) of Colorado’s nuclear geography through varied, partial, situated representations. The Atlas is anything but a “neat volume:” readers quickly get lost, encounter the same material in multiple sequences, and follow internal links between issues and sites that may not comport with our organizing principles. As is typically the case in contemporary art but rarely in social science research, form, structure, and content are mutually reinforcing and inextricable from our Atlas’ implicit argument about the nuclear as a web of geo-techno-social relationships in which we are all embedded, though with highly differentiated degrees of exposure.
While the conventional boundaries of the state of Colorado serve as an organizing device for the Atlas, atlas materials both move inward and open outward, shifting scales and colliding perspectives. All of the forum contributors draw on spatial metaphors—from vertical/horizontal or rock/universe to geography in terms of pedagogy—that conceptually embrace this scale shifting aspect of the Atlas to convey, in different ways, the materiality of nuclear politics. Toshi Higuchi treats Colorado as a microcosm that reveals verticality, vividly describing how the perpendicular reorganization of everything from airspace to geology, serves as the mechanism by which Colorado becomes a world unto itself, spinning on a nuclear axis. This vertical integration nonetheless entails vast spatial extensions, with distinct, intersecting geographies of nuclear colonialism. Shampa Biswas poetically and physically tracks the “shadows” of the nuclear fuel chain beyond Colorado borders to the Trinity test site, Nagasaki atomic bomb museum, and uranium mines in Shinkolobwe under the brutal colonial regime of Belgian Congo. Taken together, both responses enrich our understanding of the possibilities and limitations of whatever geographical unit might be selected for such a study, in that nuclear processes—and indeed most other military-industrial formations—are inevitably place-based but never place-bound.
Foregrounding the nuclear complex’s colonially expansive and vertically integrated geopolitics also furthers the implicit critique of the so-called “nuclear fuel cycle” embedded in the Atlas’ organization and interface. Responding to the “cradle to cradle” rhetoric of the nuclear fuel cycle and the graphical representation of mining, milling, enrichment, and reprocessing as a nearly inexhaustible circular process, we made two conceptually significant design decisions. First, the primary menu flattens each stage of the fuel “cycle” into points on a line. Then, it extends the process to include the earth as the source of all matter; the socio-technical systems surrounding the nuclear; and the material, cultural politics of atomic legacies. Shannon Cram’s introduction to this forum vividly depicts the persistent desire for (or delusion of) a fully circular process in the lenticular postcard presenting Before/After scenes of environmental remediation as a mobius strip: Past/Present and Contaminated/Clean. By contrast, the geometric metaphors employed by front-line activists tend to represent the nuclear as a rupture of cyclical time that runs, inexorably, in one direction. We recently learned from Susan Gordon of New Mexico’s Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE) that they have been using the term “nuclear fuel chain” to emphasize both: 1) the fiction of clean reprocessing, and 2) the ways that the extraction and processing of radioactive materials binds communities and, in their words, “brings us all down.”
Organizers like Gordon and MASE have their hands full. As the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster recedes from public memory and the climate crisis intensifies, nuclear energy is getting the latest in a long series of “new” looks. Nearly every time we present on the Atlas, an audience member will query our views on fusion or mobile reactors or the latest engineering feat, often pointing out that only nuclear power is capable of generating emissions-free electricity at scale and is therefore the best answer to global climate change. Focusing on the “cleanliness” only at the point of power generation is a thoroughly depoliticized and ageographical understanding of energy that intentionally brackets out the spatially uneven and still highly racialized processes of uranium extraction, milling, reprocessing, and waste management. Melanie Armstrong’s description of using the Atlas in an environmental policy master’s program underscores the pedagogical importance of political ecology as a frame for action around contamination and climate alike. Her insider’s view of the opportunity and challenge of mentoring students in developing content for the Atlas shows it to be more than a representation of something called “Cold War Colorado”. It is also an intervention in policy education that uses critical, site-based pedagogy to counteract technocentric, depoliticized, and consumer points of view that choose not to see or acknowledge the pervasive conditions of environmental injustice on which they are predicated.
We have always aspired for the Atlas to be a non-static and evolving civic infrastructure, both deepening and extending knowledge about how the nuclear complex shapes and is shaped by “place”—understood, following Doreen Massey, as unbounded, not necessarily contiguous, contested, and potentially global. It has therefore been interesting to receive resounding support during our talks to expand the Atlas to encompass the entire United States or even the world. The Atlas’ prioritizing of spatial narratives seems to resonate with people on a material everyday level: people often share with us geographically situated anecdotes and embodied perspectives. Forum respondents here, too, began with some kind of self-positioning—a trip, conversation, classroom interaction, holding a rock. Our talks and live demos of the Atlas encourage this. We embody and place our work, riffing on our shared background as children of the Cold War. Literally: we have family members who worked for the Department of Energy and the Rand Corporation—backgrounds that reveal the place-based and labor-made infrastructure of technoscientific mastery and the mangled intimacies of the nuclear, from regulatory body to the cellular. Our positionalities refute the so-called remoteness of the Cold War and the containment of knowledge that is one of its most powerful legacies. It’s one of the reasons we based the Atlas in Colorado, where we both have roots and return frequently. Those place attachments are ethically important, preventing us from treating it like a geographical abstraction. The personal, situated connections and our embodied standpoints serve as a countermeasure to the usually very abstract, data-driven discourse of nuclear policy.
Thus, even if we had the capacity to undertake a national or world-scale people’s atlas of the nuclear, we would not. The relationships that sustain our accountability to people and places within the territorial abstraction of “Colorado” simply don’t exist for us elsewhere. But they do exist for others. We can envision a steering committee to provide the conceptual and technological scaffolding used by a federation of local networks, all more-or-less autonomously generating geographically-specific materials at a range of scales not limited to national or state boundaries. What would a People’s Atlas of the Nuclear Chu-Talas River Basin in Central Asia look like? We don’t know, but we would love to encourage it.
Sarah Kanouse is an interdisciplinary artist and critical writer examining the politics of landscape and space. Her solo and collaborative work has been presented through the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Documenta 13, Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, The Cooper Union, The Smart Museum, and numerous academic institutions and artist-run spaces. She is Associate Professor of Media Arts in the Department of Art + Design at Northeastern University.
Shiloh Krupar is a geographer and collaborative interdisciplinary scholar. Her research investigates inequality, vulnerability, toxicity, and uneven life conditions as geographical and administrative problems involving political, environmental, and cultural embodied relationships. She is author of Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste (2013) and Health Colonialism: Urban Wastelands and Hospital Frontiers (2023); and co-author of Deadly Biocultures (2019).