Archaeology: Hands Off My Radioactive Detritus!

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News from the Field, December 1996

Archaeology: Hands Off My Radioactive Detritus!

One man’s lonely fight to preserve our nuclear legacy
By Christopher Weir

William Gray Johnson steps across the Nevada Test Site’s fractured hardpan, scanning a flotsam of bent and blistered Cold War artifacts. “A lot of people think it’s junk,” the archaeologist says, gesturing toward a disemboweled aluminum bunker. “But this is one of the most important sites in human history.”

Now that the world’s nuclear powers are scrambling to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Nevada Test Site’s bizarre constructions–railroad bridges, bank vaults, wood-frame homes, all built on the barren desert 80 miles north of Las Vegas to be bombarded and then studied–have forever lost their purpose. But they’ve gained resonance. According to Johnson,
they bespeak not only the power of nuclear weaponry, but also the sociological forces that powered the atomic age. And thus, like any other snapshot of our planet’s history, should be preserved.

Johnson’s quest began five years ago, when he was hired by a subcontractor of the Department of Energy to determine the eligibility of the site’s structures for the National Register of Historic Places. Since then, Johnson and his colleagues have plowed through thousands of files and conducted dozens of field studies, becoming increasingly convinced that the battered test
debris, much like Civil War battlefields, deserves to be officially recognized.

But this notion has antinuclear activists on edge, concerned that the DOE will use Historic Place status to further its brand of atomic spin. “You’d have to take it with a megaton of salt,” says American Ground Zero author Carole Gallagher, who spent a decade documenting the health impacts of the 100 above-ground blasts that shook the site from
1951 to 1962. “The DOE won’t shine light on the dark side.”

Ironically, it may be the department itself that allows the curious edifices to go unrecognized. Many DOE officials don’t understand Johnson’s desire to preserve the rickety, smashed relics–at least not at taxpayer expense. Says spokesman Derek Scammell, “Not everyone looks at things like Bill does.”

Johnson, meanwhile, claims scientific disinterestedness but can’t seem to completely divorce his feelings from his work. Shielding his eyes from a punishing desert sun, he observes the quiet horizons of Frenchman Flat, where motley artifacts bear frozen and phantasmal testimony to the atom bomb’s rage. “We’re lucky,” Johnson says quietly, “that we’re not doing this sort of
archaeology in cities.”

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