Our Nukes, Ourselves

Nuclear heritage and nuclear stewardship in a quiet desert town

The Priscilla Event, Nevada Test Site, June 24, 1957

The decommissioned Redstone ballistic missile stood, at 69 feet in height, as the tallest object in Albuquerque's Old Town, a 300-year-old preserved Spanish settlement. And with it there, a giant among the quiet tourist hub of the desert city, Albuquerque had to publicly reckon with its atomic heritage. While the atom bomb was born farther north, in Los Alamos, it was Sandia Labs in Albuquerque that iterated much of nuclear-weapon design. In 1969, Sandia set up a museum dedicated to the nuclear enterprise, located inside Kirtland Air Force Base along the southern edge of town. It was easy to ignore and avoid. Security concerns after 9/11 moved the museum off-base, to an old REI store, and for the better part of a decade the museum, along with its prominent decommissioned missile, was located right in Old Town. Always outside of the museum, the towering Redstone missile stood like a giant question mark, asking onlookers what it meant to be a nation with a nuclear arsenal.

For many if not most Americans, there is no clear understanding of nuclear danger, and the way that danger is inextricably linked to our nuclear heritage. But we can start to tally the legacy at home: It means we are born the stewards of a great many terrible things. Roughly 6,800 specific warheads, divided between roughly 1,400 deployed, 2,800 retired, and the remainder stockpiled in some form. It also means ownership of the legacy of everything that came with nuclear testing, development, mining, and waste disposal. In New Mexico in particular, that means acknowledging how the same industry created the labs at Los Alamos, propped up the Albuquerque economy, and left the predominantly Navajo, rural, poor uranium miners with booms, busts, and lingering health struggles.

This is an uncomfortable truth of life in New Mexico. For modern Albuquerque, the National Museum of Nuclear Heritage and History is an opt-in experience, an option for tourists and locals if they so desire, but unless they work on the base or in the labs, it’s easy to avoid. So, too, is it for most Americans, now that the days of duck-and-cover drills are long since past (even if the warning systems are still in place). North Korean nuclear tests and ICBM flights dominated headlines in 2017, but the technology behind the weapons is at least as old as the 1960s, and whatever handful of North Korean missiles are capable of reaching the United States, there are hundreds of other missiles, already in place across the globe, that can reach the continental U.S. too. And there is the fact of the United States’ own nuclear arsenal, which still keeps several hundred weapons ready to launch and destroy vast swathes of the world within an hour of receiving the order.

A particular form of overcautious self-censorship of the atomic past accompanied the museum’s move to the heart of Albuquerque. When the museum reopened at its temporary location in Old Town in May 2002, it did so with a strange omission: Rather than immediately bringing replicas of both Fat Man and Little Boy to the new location, it would display only Fat Man. In the paranoia of the early aughts, the Department of Energy warned that the visible parts of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima were a matter of national security. The Department alleged that terrorists could visit the museum, copy the unaltered Little Boy body, and then outfit a crude nuclear explosive. This captures the fear of the day: not nuclear weapons in the hands of nations, but that al Qaeda might replicate the Manhattan Project. While the museum waited for a refitting of the replica Little Boy, the museum announced exhibits on X-rays and background radiation, to highlight the gentler side of the nuclear industry.

"We're not just an old, dusty warehouse full of bombs, and anyone who's been here in the last five years knows that," museum director Jim Walther told the Albuqueruque Journal. "Atomic technology is something we need to learn about because it is part of the world."

The museum erected the missile in October 2003, and met with objection almost immediately. "It's ugly. It doesn't fit with the neighborhood," resident Eric Rajala told the Albuquerque Journal, and by December it was the subject of protest, as out of place, as a celebration of war, as a weapon misguidedly identified as a rocket while overlooking its historical development as a weapon. By 2004, the public reaction to the museum and its Redstone missile was uncomfortable laughter.

“Isn't celebrating weaponry best done in the privacy of one's own armory rather than out on a public intersection?” wrote columnist (and now State Senator) Jerry Ortiz y Pino. When the Weekly Alibi’s annual Best of Burque poll included a category for “best public sculpture,” people wrote in the Redstone missile, and asked specifically to write in his picks, City Councilor Eric Griego joked that the worst place to hide a weapon of mass destruction is “in front of the museum in Old Town.” A much better place to hide a weapon of mass destruction is the Kirtland Munitions Storage Complex, where the Air Force stores somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 nuclear warheads underground. Keeping the nuclear enterprise out of sight and out of mind is a theme; in 2004 Albuquerque’s city council considered requiring outdoor sculptures be no higher than the building they are associated with, a move designed to zone the Redstone missile back into storage. With the museum opposed to the measure, the city council deferred the issue, leaving the missile in place.

In 2009, the missiles and the museum moved to its present location, near the southeastern edge of the city. Immediately south of the museum, the road leads directly to a checkpoint to get onto Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia Labs. Planes, missiles, and oddities from the nuclear past fill the “Heritage Park” behind the museum. These include a B-29 bomber, an SM-62 Snark nuclear-armed cruise missile, and even an Atomic Annie atomic cannon. Out in front, there’s still the Redstone missile.

In the same column from 2004, Ortiz y Pino admired the chutzpah of the museum. “They have, so to speak, let it all hang out,” he wrote. “Our imperial might is sticking straight up in the sky and they see nothing for which to apologize.”

The statue disappoints because museums are a chance to make the complex technology understandable, and to put a human dimension on an otherwise-sterile science. To leave the human victims out of the story of nuclear weapons is to pretend that the nuclear enterprise is largely without human consequence.

The National Museum of Nuclear Heritage and History’s name keeps it centered in the past, as though describing a bygone era whose artifacts are mere scientific curiosities. But nukes are an active question, and moving from a historical perspective about settled issues to a present one about consequences for still-living human beings means talking about stewardship. Atomic stewardship means, at a minimum, compensating the people harmed by atomic tests, by uranium, by the whole nuclear enterprise. Internally, Congress has acknowledged some of the burden by passing the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990 and expanding it in 2000 to provide monetary compensation for some uranium workers and people downwind of nuclear tests. Yet the downwinder compensation is limited to people in parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, ignoring thousands exposed to radioactive fallout outside those states. (A bill to include more downwind states is currently in the Senate, with no plans to advance.). A separate fund for the Marshallese displaced from their homes for atomic tests ran dry with tens of millions still owed to the victims.

Atomic stewardship means writing those people into the history of the tests, into the public knowledge and the public consciousness about the tests. Twice a year, White Sands Missile Range, located 130 miles southeast of Albuquerque, opens up to allow visitors to walk the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested, but nowhere in the materials provided or on display at the site is the presence of people downwind of the test acknowledged. It takes protesters outside the gate to bear witness to the history of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders, and that’s a story that should be written into the historical record.

It also means when museums tell the story of the nuclear technology, and nuclear weapons, that they not shy away from the human cost. Nuclear weapons exist in a sort of abstract place, where late-night hosts joke their way through apocalypse preparation and the public periodically relearns what a “megaton” looks like when applied to dense groupings of human bodies. Our museums have largely failed in this task in the past, perhaps no time more iconically than when the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC attempted to exhibit the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima, with a discussion of the human victims of the first atomic attack. The museum director resigned amid a backlash, which revealed that popular understanding of the war and the dead is stuck in a holding pattern, forever relitigating the decision to drop the bomb versus the hypothetical human toll of invading Japan.

World War II will always weigh heavily on any understanding of early atomic history, but the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have explosive yields orders of magnitude smaller than most nuclear weapons presently deployed by the United States and Russia. Specifically grappling with the sheer scale of the devastation wrought by Little Boy and Fat Man is vital to understanding what any future conflict may look like.

There are countless places in American life where our understanding of nuclear risk, and the accompanying demands of nuclear stewardship, fall short. Instead of addressing the threat posed by having so many nuclear weapons that a nation could lose track of a warhead, Hollywood depictions juxtapose a Cold War fear of the bomb with War on Terror stock villains. In so doing, stories like these ignore the massive, existing arsenals maintained and controlled by nation-states, ready to fire at all hours. It is those arsenals that present the greater risk to life on earth.

One of the more straightforward examinations of nuclear risk in mass media came on September 14th, 2017, when late-night host Jimmy Kimmel spent 10 minutes talking to an expert about what a single nuclear strike on Los Angeles might look like, and about the various effects of the blast. (Kimmel’s guest expert, Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University Dr. Irwin Redlener, used NUKEMAP to walk the comedian through the difference between fireball, radiation, and thermal blast.) It is perhaps overly optimistic to expect entertainment to get nukes right, which is why it is so devastating when museums get nukes wrong.

Above all else, atomic stewardship means reckoning with the fact that the presidency is, on top of everything else, a sort of thermonuclear monarchy, a process that comes with no check and no balances. When Congress held a hearing about presidential launch authority in 2017, the focus was on the finicky definition of a legal order, about who would follow a legal order and what would follow a legal order and how lawyers tasked with determining the legality of killing millions within hours might craft arguments to assure that the action fell within the bound of the law. There is nothing at present, despite wishes and feverish Twitter-streams, to inhibit the one person in the United States with the authority to exercise such terminal power.

Creating obstacles to unilateral presidential deployment of nuclear power, working within the constraints of an existing arsenal and agonizingly negotiating its future reduction, and understanding the full human cost of creating, maintaining, and using nuclear weapons, becomes the task of atomic stewardship. It is a problem that can be left on the outskirts of the mind and separated, for the most part, from daily life, but when that stewardship is abdicated by the people who so desperately do not want to see the weapons used, it remains in the hands of those who are happy to defend a missile as a rocket, to talk of Hiroshima without photos of the dead, to trust that the process is fine because it is in the hands of the right technocrats.