Read my review of Michon Mackedon’s book on the nuclear West in Nevada that appeared recently in Montana: The Magazine of Western History 63:3 (2013): 84-5.
Bombast: Spinning Atoms in the Desert. By Michon Mackedon. (Reno: Black Rock Institute Press, 2010).
Michon Mackedon’s Bombast offers an Orwellian tale of the rhetoric employed by federal officials to justify the nuclearization of Nevada and the desert Southwest generally, from the 1945 Trinity test to the recent Yucca Mountain waste disposal controversy. As the subtitle suggests, Mackedon recounts a world of “spin,” where “official rhetoric [was] used to pull the wool over our eyes” (p, xiii). “Words,” Mackedon argues, “have been used to make the unsafe appear safe, and the unthinkable, well, thinkable” (ibid).
A work of synthesis, the book draws insight and analysis from other scholars familiar to readers well-versed in the sociological and historical literature of the Atomic West. I offer this not as a critique (although Mackedon frequently lets the analysis of others have the last word), but to acknowledge its general effectiveness: by culling together these often disparate strands of work, Mackedon admirably conveys a cohesive account of the discursive manufacturing of Nevada as a nuclear wasteland.
Organized roughly chronologically, the book contains fourteen diverse chapters, including one of images from artist Peter Goin’s personal collection of atomic kitsch. Initial chapters deal primarily with the the siting and establishment of the Trinity and Nevada test sites. Both sites, according to Mackedon, were selected not because they offered the best protection from atomic mishap, but because officials deemed these spaces worthless desert land and thus sacrificial to the interests of the nation. Of course, these landscapes were hardly deserted. Yet, as Mackedon argues, officials justified testing in the region by similarly marginalizing the peoples near these nuclear landscapes; through Atomic Energy Commission public information pamphlets or reports by “eastern” journalists, Southwesterners were represented as backwards, idiosyncratic “Wastelanders” (p, 39). The middle section of the book contains a couple of interesting chapters that explore the euphemistic codenaming of the tests, including analysis of the ways that nuclear engineers gendered the bombs. Final chapters deal with underground testing and the Yucca Mountain controversy. In the latter, Mackedon finds the culmination of years of nuclear colonialism; as with Trinity and the Nevada Test Site, the selection of Yucca Mountain as the nation’s waste repository was not based on “sound science” (after all, the mountain would have to be extensively engineered to be regarded as “suitable”). Rather, it was the language that portrayed Nevada as both “barren and expendable” that lent legitimacy to the notion that Nevada deserts were fitting landscapes to store the lethal byproducts of the atomic age (180).
Mackedon’s narrow focus on the discursive will leave some readers searching for a fuller account (and critique) of the construction and maintenance of the Atomic West. At times, the text too neatly separates the rhetorical and political from the scientific. In Mackedon’s analysis of nuclear site selection, for example, the reader is left with the impression that these discursive practices often trumped the ostensibly “good” science that pointed to more feasible alternatives. Neglecting the interplay of politics and science in the creation “safety” or “risk” overlooks the technoscientific hubris that imbued federal officials with the confidence that nuclear bomb tests rested squarely within their control. To be fair, the perceptive reader digging deep into the text can find some of that in here. However, such critical areas remain disproportionally unexamined compared to the theoretical sophistication Mackedon applies to atomic rhetoric.