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Traveling Nuclear

Communications scholar DeeDee Halleck, in her essay “Perpetual Shadows,” fondly recalls her childhood memory of growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She remembers the excitement vibrated in the small city at the announcement of a new museum of atomic energy. The museum, under the slogan of “Atoms for Peace!,” anticipated Halleck, DeeDee Halleck, “Perpetual Shadows: Representing the Atomic Age” Wide Angle 20, no. 2 (1998): 72.“would show school children and tourists alike the glorious possibilities of the atomic age.” The museum would provide an opportunity not only for tourists to learn about the Halleck, “Perpetual Shadows,” 72.“glorious possibilities of the atomic age,” but also for Oak Ridgers to display their sophisticated culture in a once secret city as well as reflect on who they are, in relation to the rest of America.

To understand this intersection of tourism and museums as educational venues, it may be helpful to briefly draw upon a historian of Japan, Kenneth Ruoff’s analysis of pre-1945 enthusiasm in Japan for sightseeing spots in the lands that it had colonized in Asia. Kenneth Ruoff, “Japanese Tourism to Mukden, Nanjing, and Qufu, 1938-1943,” Japan Review no. 27 (2014): 171-200.“Tourism as a pedagogical means,” writes Ruoff, “to help Japanese understand the nature as well as the costs and benefits of the imperial project is one theme here.” His insightful analysis illustrates that the tourist destinations were a manifestation of the Empire’s desire to ascertain its territory; the sites served as a political statement of the ownership of the land, and inculcated in its subjects the meaning of the landscape. Simultaneously, Ruoff’s analysis shows that tourism requires the binary concepts of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the ordinary and the extraordinary, and the mundane and the exceptional to appeal to the traveler. That is to say, tourism necessitates the crossing of physical and conceptual boundaries. Such boundaries enable the destination to offer a sight, a story, and an experience that are considered and conceptualized as different from one’s everyday life, not an extension of it.

Mindful of how differences and boundaries are constructed to attract tourists, this essay uses state-sponsored tourism in the atomic age to consider the pedagogies of travel that cross not just physical borders, but also conceptual ones. Inspired by Shiloh R. Krupar, “Transnatural Ethics: Revisiting the Nuclear Cleanup of Rocky Flats, CO, through the Queer Ecology of Nuclia Waste,” Cultural Geographies 19, no. 3 (2012): 303-327.Shiloh R. Krupar’s concept of “transnatural ethics,” which challenges the nature/waste bifurcation and thereby attempts to bring about a new perception of ourselves, our environment, and our interactions with one another, my examination will center on the notion of the prefix trans—meaning across, through, over, beyond, and on the other side. As travel presupposes an act that is physically and conceptually trans, tourism in the atomic age creates the physical and conceptual boundaries for visitors to cross. Further drawing upon political scientist Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).Jane Bennett’s conception of non-human agency, I argue that, while those boundaries are conceptually sustained by binary categories, it is not the human individual alone that travels and crosses the boundaries. Radioactive materials also travel and transgress the borders, yet the binary concepts often divert our attention from the reality of nuclear waste as an agency of trans.

One of the earliest efforts to turn American atomic sites into tourist destinations and simultaneously into popular education, as we have seen above, occurred at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Unlike the era spanning the laboratory’s inception to the end of World War II, when its existence was such a high-level secret that the facility was unmapped, Oak Ridge’s postwar identity shifted from a secret city to a proud landmark that “changed the world” by I acknowledge that this national narrative is somewhat mythic, as many historians have pointed out. For example, Barton J. Bernstein, “A Postwar Myth: 500,000 U.S. Lives Saved,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 42, no. 6 (1986): 48-50.saving American lives and On the 75th anniversary of Oak Ridge in 2018, the website states, “Oak Ridge is turning 75 and you are invited to join the celebration as we commemorate this small city that changed the world” (in the original text, “celebration” is in red; the site https://www.oakridge75th.com is no longer active). The occasion also celebrated the grand opening of the American Science and Energy Museum (AMSE).contributed to national security through science and technology. The The museum changed its name to the "American Museum of Science and Energy” in 1978.American Museum of Atomic Energy, affiliated with the laboratory, opened on March 19, 1949, with the slogan of “Atoms for Peace,” four years prior to President Eisenhower’s speech on the same theme at the United Nations General Assembly on December 8, 1953. The physical building of the museum functioned as a boundary: visitors could transgress the culture of secrecy by entering the museum to learn about peaceful applications of atomic science and technology. The museum targeted young children in particular by offering “educational” experiences of all things atomic, in a supposedly safe pedagogical space.

As a proud daughter of a scientist working for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Halleck, too, would visit The American Museum of Atomic Energy in her youth. She vividly recalls a machine installed at the museum that would irradiate a coin, which was quite popular among the young visitors. It worked as follows: a visitor put a quarter into a slot, and then the machine produced crinkling sounds. After a while, the coin came out of the machine with the inscription, “Neutron Irradiated / American Museum of Atomic Energy.” To see whether the coin was properly irradiated, a Geiger counter was placed next to the machine, so that visitors could hold the device over the coin to measure the radiation emitted by the coin. Most children, enamored and mesmerized, would place the coins into the pockets of their pants or skirts as a memorabilia. Halleck, much later, wondered whether the coins had affected their health when they were growing up, as the irradiated coins transmitted radiation, penetrating their clothes and potentially reaching their reproductive organs: “Halleck, "Perpetual Shadows," 74.I shudder to think of the damage this ‘fun house’ souvenir may have done to young ovaries and testicles in close proximity to children’s pockets.

While the facilities that have made contributions to the atomic age in the U.S., represented by the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (MPNHP), tend to exalt their scientific achievements and use them as a means of education, the former Rocky Flats Plant, near Denver, Colorado, chose a different path to remember its past. Rocky Flats opened in 1951 to produce plutonium pits for thermonuclear weapons. The more deeply the U.S.. became involved in the Cold War arms race, the more the facility expanded and the more accidents occurred, including the 1957 fire and subsequent leakage of radioactive waste and 1969’s major fire, to name only two. Because of the plant’s long-term operation and numerous accidents, its contamination of the land and water gradually became known to the public. With the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent shift of the Cold War paradigm, the facility changed its course in operation from weapons production to the cleanup and restoration of the environment. The passage of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act in Congress in 2001 led to the creation of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in 2007. According to the website of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “About Us,” https://www.fws.gov/refuge/rocky-flats/about-us.the site comprises 5,237 acres with 239 migratory and resident wildlife species. Once claiming to be the home of advanced technology, it now honors its wildlife habitat. 

In 2018, a part of the refuge was opened to the public, when a trail that goes around the refuge became available to bikers and hikers. People crossed the boundary that was once forbidden to enjoy what the refuge offered. The binary concept observed in this particular site is civilization and wildlife, which stands in juxtaposition to the dichotomy of nature and waste. The trail invites tourists to cross the boundary from civilization to wildlife, from waste site to nature preserve, and from dystopia to utopia. The gloomier that civilization/waste appears, the more comfort the wildlife/nature emanates.

However, as Krupar perceptively points out, citing anthropologist Joseph Masco, purity—pure wildlife, nature, utopia—does not exist in the irradiated land. Krupar, “Transnatural Ethics,” 311.“This ‘purity of nature,’” writes Krupar, “obscures toxicity and contamination and hides [the] militarization of waste/nature and human/waste relations in plain sight.” While the binary categories give the impression that the two concepts are mutually exclusive and thereby nurture a fantasy that nature and waste cannot merge, the reality is far from it. In reality, the nuclear is always hidden, buried, and mixed in/with nature in a form of natural and artificial radionuclides. At Rocky Flats, the concept of nature/waste is in fact not horizontally binary but rather situated vertically juxtaposed, both figuratively and literally: nature is staged on waste, yet always in transition.

Despite the official announcement of the safety of the trail, people were skeptical, and some took action. Several school districts decided that the refuge should be excluded as a field-trip destination, and five environmental groups—the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, Candelas Glows, Rocky Flats Right to Know, the Rocky Flats Neighborhood Association, and the Environmental Information Network—filed a lawsuit, pleading to make the trail unavailable to the public and to conduct more tests. Their concerns seem to be legitimate, as their resistance, calling the binary concepts into question, brings our attention back to the reality that the waste has not disappeared, but is only out of our sight. The production of plutonium is irreversible, so, once we create it, we will not nullify its radioactivity, at least, for a long time—as long as 100,000 years. That is to say, decontamination is merely trans-contamination, moving a hazardous material from one place to another, crossing the boundaries. 

Tourism is made possible by imagined physical and conceptual boundaries. The touristic thrill of transgression depends on believing that such boundaries are real and may be crossed. Atomic tourism invites humans to travel across the boundaries of safety/danger or ordinary/exceptional, based on the underlying assumption that humans will remain separate and unscathed from the transgression. However, the so-called post-nuclear nature refuge shows that such binaries are anthropocentric; the dichotomy of nature/waste—or the assumed border between educational display and embodied effects of the irradiated coin—dismisses the agency of radioactive materials. It is helpful to turn to the concept proposed by Jane Bennett: Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham; NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 6.“thing-power,” defined as “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle,” which she also calls a Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 13-19.“vital materialism.” As Bennett urges, the ethical task is Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham; NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 14.“to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it” instead of relying on the dualism of human/nature and civilization/wildlife.

It is, perhaps, time for us to consider the agency of non-organic beings in our ecological thoughts. As nature can never be tamed, nor can radiation. Radioactive materials do not seem to be contained as planned. Indifferent to the state’s advocacy of tourism, radioactive materials affect our lives, traveling in the form of a wave, a plume, and a particle. They penetrate the ground, seeping into the soil, and may reach the aquifer. As the agency of trans, they transgress any imagined borders.


Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham; NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Bernstein, Barton J. “A Postwar Myth: 500,000 U.S. Lives Saved.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 42, no. 6 (1986): 48-50.

Halleck, DeeDee. “Perpetual Shadows: Representing the Atomic Age.” Wide Angle 20, no. 2 (1998): 70-76.

Krupar, Shiloh R. “Transnatural Ethics: Revisiting the Nuclear Cleanup of Rocky Flats, CO, through the Queer Ecology of Nuclia Waste.” Cultural Geographies 19, no. 3 (2012): 303-327.

Madsen, Michael. dir. Into Eternity. International Film Circuit, 2011.

Ruoff, Kenneth. “Japanese Tourism to Mukden, Nanjing, and Qufu, 1938-1943.” Japan Review no. 27 (2014): 171-200.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “About Us." Accessed January 13, 2023.


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