June 09, 2006

Watching the Bombs Go Off

The Cold War, along with the arms race it spurred, was one of the largest environmental disasters in history—if not the largest. The Soviet side of things is well-known: There was the 1957 nuclear meltdown in the military city of Chelyabinsk-40 (where prisoners were sent to work on plutonium processing), the poisoning of Lake Baikal by military-industrial waste, and the endless fallout from the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan. All told, some 3.3 percent of the former Soviet Union has been deemed "irreparable," much of it in the military-industrial region.

But last night, I was looking at Richard Misrach's famous pictures of the Great Basin in parts of Utah and most of Nevada (which I first heard about in, I believe, Mike Davis' Ecology of Fear), trying to get a sense of the devastation left here in the U.S. by a half-century of nuclear testing and Pentagon bombing ranges. Here is one taken in 1987—perhaps his best-known—of the "Bravo 20" range in Nevada, which Misrach called "the most graphically ravaged environment I had ever seen":

Another well-known image is "Dead Animals," also taken in 1987:

The pictures are stunning by themselves, but obviously don't give the full extent of the damage done to the region. No one seems to know how many conventional bombs have been dropped—and have continued to be dropped—or how large an area was affected. (The Military Toxic Project estimates that up to 25 million acres of land and water around the U.S. have been contaminated with unexploded ordinance, but that doesn't answer the question.)

Information on "unconventional weapons" used in the West is easier to come by. In the 1950s and 1960s, the military conducted over 1,000 open air chemical weapons tests, over 200 open air biological weapons tests, and nearly two dozen open air radiological tests in Dugway, 75 miles west of Salt Lake City. But I haven't seen anyone assess the full ecological impact here. Perhaps no one's done it. Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough.

The extent and fallout from early nuclear testing is better known. The city of St. George, Utah—a small Mormon town east of the Nevada test site—has been bombarded with radiation since the early 1950s. Abnormally high cancer and birth defect rates continue to this day. The Atomic Energy Commission lied about exposure levels, covered up accidents, and suppressed studies on the effects of the radiation. It wasn't until a report under the Carter administration emerged that the full extent of exposure was even estimated—some 170,000 people in a 250-mile radius of the test site, most of them rural Utahans and Nevadans that were among the most loyal "cold warriors."

Again, though, that still doesn't cover the full scale of it. Sadly, most of Misrach's books seem to be out of print; maybe a used bookstore around these parts will have one...
-- Brad Plumer 4:47 PM || ||