Author examines how Nevada became Ground Zero of nuclear testing

Review written by: Susan Skorupa РReno Gazette-Journal

Events in the 1950s and the 1980s concerning the nation’s nuclear future produced redundant journeys.

Both searches led seekers to Nevada (Nye County, specifically) first to what became the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas as a place to detonate nuclear weapons — from 1950 through 1992, more than 1,000 nuclear detonations were conducted above and under Nevada — and in 1987, to Yucca Mountain as a location on the test site to bury nuclear waste.

The journeys and their outcomes also created similar chains of rhetoric, press coverage, publicity and other responses that more than 60 years after the start of the nuclear age in Nevada has left the nation and the world with a stereotypical view of Nevadans and their world. That impression has propagated the notion of Nevada as wasteland and its people stereotypically as outsiders and loners, outlaws, gamblers and desert rats, oblivious to or uncaring about nuclear bombs and waste.

Other nuclear sites from New Mexico to remote Pacific islands have endured the same reputation.

For Michon Mackedon of Fallon, the history of what has been written and said about Nevada, its people, geography and culture over the years to make it the nation’s nuclear Ground Zero is the substance of her book, Bombast: Spinning Atoms in the Desert¬†(Black Rock Institute Press, $30 paperback, $60 hardback).

Mackedon grew up in Fallon. In 1963, the government detonated one bomb underground near Fallon. In 1985, then-Gov. Richard Bryan asked Mackedon, a writer and Western Nevada College English teacher now retired, to join his Nevada Committee on Nuclear Projects to study Yucca Mountain. She accepted and began researching Nevada’s nuclear past and present.

In her book, Mackedon follows a trail of words, finding many to consider: How did Nevada become the laboratory for America’s nuclear arsenal? What dangers to people, land and animals from the bomb tests were not disclosed to test participants and those living in the path of bomb fallout? Who were the “experts” quoted in press releases written to calm and assure people who were anxious, concerned and suspicious of the effects of fallout and other contamination? Why were individual tests branded with sanitized names such as Priscilla, Zucchini, Nutmeg and Marshmallow?

“That was part of the whole idea of ‘spinning atoms.’ Call a test Apple or Teacup — how that imagery enters people’s imagination and quells worry,” Mackedon said.

“Anybody with interest in language will agree there is something deep going on here,” she said.

Nevadans portrayed as bumpkins

News accounts all promulgated the idea that the tests were safe for humans and animals. Through it all, Nevada was touted as an excellent place to blow up bombs — what else was there to do with this desert? — and most Nevadans were depicted by “experts” as rather slow, but colorful, rural folk.

“Nevada, unfortunately, is imagined as a place suitable for more nefarious things, (with room for) the rubbish of the world,” Mackedon said.

One illustration Mackedon reproduces is a cartoon published in “Atomic Tests in Nevada,” an Atomic Energy Commission promotional book sent to public schools in Nevada and Utah. The cartoon shows a bowlegged Nevada cowpoke and his poofy-haired lady friend waving from a mountaintop with a nuclear mushroom cloud growing in the sky behind them.

Patriotism and necessity were the public relations key words that surrounded the testing, Mackedon said.

“It was national psyche,” she said of weapons testing and the country’s need to lead in the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. “It was hard to judge blowing up bombs in Nevada. It was part of the cultural context.”

But as situations changed — for example, as the dangers of radiation and fallout became better understood — government agencies began to release information with a spin, such as instructions for “duck and cover” drills supposed to protect humans from the effects of nuclear blasts and labeling as unpatriotic those who questioned testing.

In her research, Mackedon found that most of the nation saw the Silver State as a suitable place for nuclear waste and saw Nevadans in much the same way the government viewed inhabitants of Bikini atoll, an early testing site in the Pacific Ocean.

Their culture impoverished by immoral or at least unsound lifestyles, Nevadans often appear in the Eastern press and government literature in the 1940s and 1950s as indifferent to the bomb. The same ideas popped up decades later during consideration of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste dump site.

Mackedon said she tries to remain nonjudgmental about nuclear testing itself.

“It was the times,” she said. “I think most of America was living under a cloud of concern or terror. That was all part of the context of what was done on the test site.

But she hopes the book will be read as a sort of cautionary tale.

“We need to be awake all the time to what we’re being told, to what stakeholders have to gain and lose in any event being publicized as being for the good of the community, state or nation,” she said. “We have to be careful listeners, not just take things for granted. Ask good questions.”

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