When we were doing research at the end of last year on the nuclear testing program in the American West, we came across a new book of short stories about the that subject. Having read through newspapers of 1953 ourselves at the Atomic Testing Museum and Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, we were interested in Ann Ronald’s use of historical fact and details as she created fictional accounts for her book Friendly Fallout 1953. Ann Ronald is a professor emerita at the University of Nevada, Reno, so we looked her up there. She has published nine books and countless articles about sense of place in fiction and literary nonfiction. Beginning with The New West of Edward Abbey and continuing with Earthtones: A Nevada Album, GhostWest, Oh, Give Me a Home, and Reader of the Purple Sage, most of her work has focused on the American West. We’re happy to welcome her to Lofty Ambitions and see the ways she connects our nuclear testing past to our nuclear power present.
NUCLEAR FALLOUT, THEN AND NOW
A few months ago, I published a book about above-ground atomic testing in Nevada in the 1950s. Friendly Fallout 1953 gives a factual account of what happened but shows the events through the eyes of imagined characters, composites of the men, women, and children actually affected by the government’s tests and the fallout that followed. A reporter eyeballing a detonation in person, a radiation specialist, a secretary, a bartender, a Las Vegas showgirl, a young Paiute boy, a Mormon housewife whose family is caught downwind, a meteorologist, an animal custodian, a curious teenage girl, a soldier watching from a nearby trench, a physicist—altogether they reveal the complexities that accompanied the Cold War urgencies of the mid-twentieth century.
As I was writing Friendly Fallout 1953, I was struck by the cyclical nature of history. The 1950s seemed to be repeating themselves. For example, Americans then feared a vaguely defined enemy called the “red menace”; we now are afraid of terrorists, an enemy equally abstract. Then, somewhat unclear about their objectives, other than to defeat the red tide, people fought on foreign soil in Korea. Just as obliquely, we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Senator McCarthy turned the early 1950s’ political scene upside down, so that a patriotic American dared not question anything about the fight against Communism. So, too, questions about the rationale for invading Iraq were deemed inappropriate. To protect its citizens from harm, first under Truman’s lead and then Eisenhower’s, the American government developed a massive atomic testing program. Its intricacies and inefficiencies and occasional ineptitudes remind me of Homeland Security. No cost spared.
Another common characteristic: the focus on New York City. “Collateral damage” was a term not commonly used in the 1950s, but Civil Defense authorities then were far more concerned about the large East Coast population than about the inconsequential few who happened to live downwind from the Nevada Proving Ground. Several quotes in Friendly Fallout 1953, taken directly from government documents, express a cavalier attitude toward denizens of the American West. As one commissioner firmly states, “Gentlemen, we must not let anything interfere with this series of tests—nothing.” Even when cancer ran rampant and ruined countless lives, the government acknowledged little culpability. In the patriotic urgency to protect everyone else, innocent people were irrevocably harmed.
Physicists and mathematicians and engineers at the test site meant well. Most of them were honestly patriotic, took their jobs seriously, and participated eagerly. In Friendly Fallout 1953, I look at above-ground atomic testing from multiple points of view. The gung-ho types get almost as many pages as the victims. I took great care, in fact, not to overlay a twenty-first century political sensibility on characters of a generation ago. Those times were complicated, and any modern value judgments are up to the reader. We might, however, enlarge the discussion and talk about today’s nuclear power industry and all those who would store nuclear waste in Nevada. No different than their predecessors, today’s advocates believe in the efficacy of nuclear power. They trust its efficiency, its cost-effectiveness, its safety.
Shortly after my book was published, an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, with tragic consequences. Listening to the news, I saw even more parallels between my research and current events. At first, the government downplayed problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. So, too, did government officials downplay complications that followed 1953 detonations like Nancy, Simon, and Harry. Updates then and now admitted that potential problems were developing, but no one seemed to be divulging the whole story. Innocent bystanders were left to guess whether they were safe or not, if they should—or could—take precautions. On the one hand, they were told that radioactive plumes were nothing to worry about; on the other, the fallout seemed to be increasing in size and scope. Stay inside; evacuate now. Food was safe; food was contaminated. The details, predictions, and predications changed day by day.
We’re told that with proper precautions nuclear power is safe. Simultaneously we learn that nuclear plants are not always regularly inspected and that certain safeguards are just too costly to implement. 1953:2011. Not to worry, not at all. As Yogi Berra would say, déjà vu all over again.