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or years, I kept a framed postcard on my desk that featured a before-and-after image of nuclear cleanup. It was one of those rainbowy, shape-shifting, lenticular prints that changed depending on the viewer’s angle (the kind that used to come in Cracker Jack boxes). Tilted one way, a Cold War reactor towered above a sprawling 1970s industrial park and bustling plutonium production facilities. Tilted another, the buildings dissolved into an expanse of bare, newly-smoothed dirt and a solitary cocoon containing the reactor’s now-decommissioned core.
The Department of Energy (DOE) staffer who gave me the postcard was excited to demonstrate its visual effect. “It’s amazing how much has changed out there,” he said, moving the image back and forth. “The whole area is just…gone.” The cards were a useful storytelling device, he continued, tidy progress narratives that could be distributed at public meetings. Where there had once been weapons production, there was now environmental remediation. Before/After. Past/Present. Contaminated/Clean. But to me, the image’s unstable quality disrupted the very binaries it was supposed to represent. Instead, my eye was forever drawn to the mutant moment of transition when one scene bled into the other.
I thought of that postcard often while reading A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado, an interactive digital humanities project edited by Sarah Kanouse and Shiloh Krupar. With more than forty contributors to date, the Atlas features a dynamic collection of maps, essays, artwork, archival images, and issue briefs that surface the “broad, often hidden, and powerful legacies of the U.S. nuclear complex (Kanouse and Krupar, 2021). These documentary and interpretive pieces situate atomic impact in place, mapping material connections between bodies and landscapes, infrastructures and imaginations. Together, they weave a web of relations through Colorado’s nuclear geographies, trespassing the epistemic boundaries of military and industry discourse.
Indeed, the Atlas is at once a reference work and a meditation on the nature of nuclear storytelling. It begins with a simple diagram of weapons production: a clean vertical line segmented by round red nodes that mark six phases (chapters) of the nuclear fuel cycle. Clicking on a node opens up a pair of curated “paths” through a particular stage of the production process. The first path offers a positivist, technocratic frame, detailing radioactive transformation from ore to fuel to waste in a “cradle to cradle” loop. The second engages the “shadow side” of nuclear production, centering exposed bodies, eternal contamination, and regulatory fictions that resist narrative closure.
These paths serve as both the Atlas’ digital architecture and its analytical framework. At first glance, they seem to present divergent visions of nuclear life: dual renderings with distinct design aesthetics (the positivist storyline is set against a gauzy, black-and-white background, while the shadow side is a warm earthy brown). However, the further one wanders along these parallel trails, the easier it is to see their material entanglements. In fact, most artwork and essays appear in multiple locations—in both positivist and shadow pathways—their material made and remade in context. The Atlas thus recognizes the binary’s power in sculpting industry discourse, while denying its utility as an explanatory tool. It invites readers to inhabit the categories themselves—to enter the spaces and logics that give nuclear stories meaning.
In other words, the Atlas’ structure is its argument. Its parallel-yet-entangled paths document and unsettle abstract storylines (like the one in my DOE postcard), tilting the nuclear fuel cycle back and forth to emphasize its “categorial instability” (Kanouse, 2021). Its curated collections refuse narrative separation between past and present, contaminated and clean, to locate the “complexity, controversy, and connection that is a defining feature of the nuclear condition” (Kanouse and Krupar, 2021). Perhaps most importantly, the Atlas’ digital platform is iterative by design, a means for diverse publics to participate in telling the ongoing stories of the American nuclear project. “We want the Atlas in all its emergent, not-yet-completeness to serve as a civic infrastructure,” Krupar and Kanouse explain, “allowing contributors and readers to better position their sites, their concerns, their issues, and their research in a larger framework that is conditioned by nuclear governance but never fully reducible to it” (Kanouse and Krupar, 2022).
The essays that follow are part of this ongoing conversation. Melanie Armstrong describes the Atlas as a radical pedagogical tool for teaching methods and analysis in political ecology (several of her students even served as invited contributors to the collection). Shampa Biswas explores the global reach of these Colorado-based stories, noting how the Atlas’ deep attention to place helped her recognize and respond to nuclear impacts in her own state of Washington. Toshihiro Higuchi discusses the layers of power and empire that constitute the nuclear fuel cycle, extending the Atlas skyward to consider its “vertical geographies” in the “air-atomic age.” Alexis Bhagat situates the Atlas within a broader genealogy of participatory research and nuclear counter-mapping to analyze cartographic representation as a social project. Finally, Hillary Mushkin evokes the connection between bodies and rocks through a series of black-and-white watercolor paintings. Like the Atlas, she engages the profound and uneven relationalities of nuclear life from the cellular to the planetary.
Kanouse S (2021) Waste/Legacies. In: Kanouse S and Krupar S (eds) A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado. Available here (accessed May 23, 2023).
Kanouse S and Krupar S (2021) Introduction. In: Kanouse S and Krupar S (eds) A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado. Available here (accessed May 23, 2023).
Kanouse S and Krupar S (2022) Presentation for Hanford Challenge’s “Nuclear Waste Scholar Series,” November 4, 2022. Available here (accessed May 23, 2023).
Shannon Cram is an Associate Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and author of Unmaking the Bomb: Environmental Cleanup and the Politics of Impossibility.