Welcome to A People's Atlas of Nuclear Colorado

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Path Introduction

In 1939 Nobel physicist Niels Bohr remarked to top bomb scientist Edward Teller that the then-theoretical bomb could not be built unless the whole United States was turned into one giant factory. Later, Bohr is reported to have told Teller, “You have done just that.” This path explores the outset of the U.S.’s nation-spanning production line for making nuclear weapons: the experimental research and development that drew in scientists, academics, and myriad companies to what is known as the Manhattan Project, to work on a minute part or aspect of the handling and processing of materials needed to make the bomb. From earlier wartime government projects to the national push for materials science programs, engineers and skilled trades like advanced metallurgists investigated material complexity tied to the emergent nuclear age. Laboratories and experiment stations were keen to understand what impact nuclear materials and devices would have on human bodies, non-humans, structures, and ecologies. A number of minor subcontractors and academic research settings in Colorado worked on and refined nuclear materials processing, training engineers for the industrial-scale nuclear operations that escalated at the height of the arms race. The Grand Junction-based Manhattan Engineer District was at the forefront of uranium research and pilot projects, as part of a larger network of sites that became the burgeoning national defense complex under the Atomic Energy Commission. Vast numbers of civilians were enlisted to construct the building facilities and factories that made fissile materials for the bomb. Concomitant with technological and engineering processes, a regulatory apparatus arose to provide a legal framework surrounding the emergent mass production processes.

This path also examines another legacy to this expansionary atomic experimentation: targeted and pervasive hazardous exposure conditions and the corrosive effects of secrecy, misinformation, legal compartmentalization, and limiting the public’s interface with the U.S.’s atomic bomb project. Historically the Atomic Energy Commission claimed sovereign immunity, and contractors signed agreements that limited their liability. An “iron curtain” of information about sites and work processes was deemed necessary to protect national security and public confidence. Work took place secretly with criminal penalties for breaches, and workers were given minimal information about materials with which they worked and their potential impact on health. National security wedded to business decisions at sites pushed production goals over health and safety. A culture of “privileged knowledge” stymied critical and independent evaluations; government-backed research substantiated uncertainty and refined methods for determining evidence to be inconclusive about undesirable health outcomes. Models of radiation pathways, dosages, and exposures privileged able-bodied white male figures, even as the federal government funded secret testing of radiation on vulnerable subjects, including African Americans with terminal illness, pregnant women, and young children. Concepts such as "background radiation" and "acceptable background levels" normalized exposure as part of everyday life, while nuclear processing sites and testing made whole communities and Native Nations into de facto experimental subjects and downwind/downstream sacrifice zones.