A review of A People's Atlas of Nuclear Colorado, a project on the Cold War's nuclear legacies, directed by Shiloh Krupar and Sarah Kanouse
A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado
Elli Mylonas, Brown University
Shiloh Krupar and Sarah Kanouse
A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado is a digital public humanities project that documents and interprets the nuclear geographies and legacies of the Cold War. The atlas draws together background information, archival materials, accessible scholarly essays, artist interventions, and narratives of individuals and communities on the front lines of the domestic Cold War. The stakes in assembling, presenting, and interpreting the ongoing legacies of the U.S. nuclear complex have never been higher. Amidst the fraying of international agreements and multibillion dollar investments in new weapons, the world is poised on the brink of a new arms race. During the Cold War, hundreds of communities across the U.S. and the world were involved in (or subjected to) some aspect of nuclear weapons production, whether mining and enrichment, weapons production, testing, and deployment, or decommissioning and remediation. These activities have deeply marked human lives and ecologies in these places, yet there is little public awareness to inform citizen- and policy-action around plans for revived nuclear production or respond to the complex multi-sited Cold War hazards that remain.
Grounded in the specific location of Colorado and its nuclear materials and ecologies, the atlas allows the public to explore the U.S. nuclear complex and its many scales of operation, relational geographies, and troubling future. The atlas can be navigated via a map view, a search function, and a more linear, curated collection of materials. This sequence loosely follows the nuclear fuel cycle and its “shadow side”: the arrangements, responses, and effects that are disavowed or bracketed out of conventional, technocratic accounts of the nuclear. Foregrounded in the user interface, this apparently linear navigation quickly breaks down. Users may encounter the same materials more than once in a different context and across a range of internal links connecting sites, issues, and policies that are typically considered in isolation. Essentially, the formal, navigational ways that the atlas refutes the tidy discrete phases of the fuel cycle is the argument.
A multi-year collaboration involving more than 40 scholars, artists, designers, activists, Colorado community members, and students, the atlas will be forever incomplete because the U.S. nuclear complex has a worldwide reach and cannot be separated from a racialized, global military-industrial order. Mining has declined in Colorado over the last 50 years even as it has increased in countries in Africa and central Asia, while colonial extraction on Indigenous lands is both a U.S. and global phenomenon. Contributions to the atlas remain open in order to unsettle settler understandings of territory, with special interest in developing materials that consider Colorado and its planetary entanglements. Even as the atlas serves as an interactive and inclusive digital resource for active interpretation of Cold War legacies, it also works in partnership with Colorado institutions so that students, scholars, and local communities can contribute to this growing civic infrastructure that articulates the local dimension of global political geographies.
A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado is a beautifully designed public humanities project on the political, geophysical, social, and human aspects of the Cold War nuclear weapons industry in Colorado. Colorado is a place where examples of the complete nuclear lifecycle can be found — from mining, to weapons manufacture and deployment, to the disposal of nuclear waste. It contains a wealth of information written by over forty contributors (as listed on the Collaborators page) in the form of 12 essays, 11 artworks, a map of nuclear sites and missile silos with descriptive glosses of 60 sites, and many issue briefs — short expository texts on concepts and events.
The innovative presentation of the atlas lies in its hypertextual organization and navigation. The collected resources are organized according to six main topics (“The Earth/Whose Earth,” “Extraction/Overburden,” “Refining/Exposure,” “Production/Friction,” “Deployment/Mobilization,” “Waste/Legacies”), each of which consists of a set of paired paths: the “technocratic version” whose positivistic narration focuses on events, places, and organizations, and the “shadow path,” which exposes the unacknowledged side of Colorado’s nuclear history and its effects on people and the land. Texts appear on more than one path, although the dual nature of the paths places the longer essays and art works more frequently on the interpretive, shadow path. Small icons next to each text on a path indicate other paths on which the text also appears, allowing the reader to diverge onto a different path.
The paired presentation provides a deeper understanding of the nuclear industry and the ways in which it was imposed on and affected people and the environment. The option of either navigating through the six topics in the order provided by the authors or following one’s own path adds an element of discovery and pleasure that holds the reader’s attention.
The atlas is well researched and documented, with citations and bibliography at the end of each textual component providing the opportunity for confirmation and further reading. The breadth and detail ranges from an architectural critique of the Air Force Academy in the late 1950s (“The U.S. Air Force Academy and the the Grounding of Atomic Modernity”) to information on the mining and uses of radioactive materials (“The Earth” path), all contributing to a multi-layered understanding of U.S. and Colorado nuclear history. What makes this especially effective is the blending of human, social, and historical events with their much more lasting impact on our ecosystem.
This work is primarily aimed at a general audience and could also be used as instructional material at a high school and college level. Because the paths collectively constitute a broader narrative arc (of the nuclear military-industrial life cycle) it can be experienced either as longform nonfiction or can be accessed as a reference work.
The project is built using the Scalar platform with a highly customized interface that hides Scalar’s familiar features. The design is attractive and foregrounds the path structures in an intuitive way, using visual backgrounds to enhance the content they accompany. This is an outstanding example of using the Scalar platform to create a polished publication with a unique look and feel.
The underlying bones of Scalar are apparent in the path navigation structure, but the site makes this navigable without using the standard Scalar interface. While the interface is straightforward, the site could provide more guidance by incorporating some of Scalar’s visualizations of site structure. The map, one of the main components of the project, contains a great deal of information but can be difficult to navigate and interpret because it is not possible to show many details while zoomed out. This may, however, be inherent in how mapping software optimizes zooming views.
One concern is sustainability — customization of platforms such as Scalar carries the risk that an upgrade to the underlying platform may break the interface. There is no information on the site about how the interface customization was done and what libraries and frameworks it may contain. As this project is informative and likely to be cited by students and scholars, it is important that the authors plan for its continued functionality, or at least arrange for it to be archived so it can be referenced in the future.
To conclude, A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado is a great example of a digital public humanities project, and an eye-opening (digital) publication on a significant topic that is ever more relevant.