The radioactive West:
Arid Lands
and genre conventions

Arid Lands concerns 586 square miles in southeastern Washington State contaminated by approximately 475 billion gallons of hazardous wastewater left after the area became the nation's largest plutonium producer for nuclear weapons ("Hanford"). The now-closed Hanford site stores two-thirds of the high-level radioactive waste in the United States. A government cleanup effort spends $4 billion annually with limited environmental results, except to attract new residents to a boomtown economy. While toxic waste seeps into the groundwater and rivers, new suburban housing covers the adjoining land and in the nearby Tri-Cities, cheerful references to atomic bombs are commonplace. Farms, fruit orchards, wineries, and a fishing industry vie for precious water, and members of the Yakama Nation whose ancestors were forced onto reservations watch their treaty provisions erode. Western and science fiction tropes haunt the film, from its soundtrack to its cinematography, making possible potent shadow films in our minds that dramatically convey the mess we have made.

The film belongs to a subgenre that acknowledges the American West's primacy in producing and testing nuclear weapons; philosopher John Shelton Lawrence calls them "nuclear ecofilms" (38). Examples include Them! (1954), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), The Atomic Cafe (1982), Desert Bloom (1983), Silkwood (1983), Thunderheart (1992), and The Plutonium Circus (1994) (Lawrence 38). The subgenre now includes nuclear eco-video games such as Fallout: New Vegas, in which something called radaway can diminish the effects of radiation poisoning in the post-apocalyptic year 2281.

When nuclear eco-films are documentaries, they cannot help but blur their distinction from fiction films by evoking science-fiction and westerns to follow the West's trajectory from wilderness to garden to radioactive dumping ground. In so doing, they spotlight the long history of disaster in the American West; to obtain fertile land settlers transformed existing conditions in cataclysmic ways, including the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and New Deal-era dams. With the birth of the nuclear weapons industry in 1941, a new transformation occurred. Hanford was one of two sites chosen to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project. Residents were evacuated from 670 square miles of land in 1943, including the Yakama who had signed treaties giving them permanent rights to their land. Fifty thousand workers arrived from across the country for top-secret work. Once production began, workers poured radioactive waste from the nine nuclear reactors into the Columbia River or ditches dug alongside its banks.

They built tanks for some of the waste, and a million gallons went directly into the ground. Hanford provided the plutonium for more than 50,000 nuclear weapons over forty years of frequent nuclear testing in Nevada and the South Pacific. Ultimately the plant constructed 177 giant tanks to hold a million gallons of waste per tank, and about 1/3 of those tanks have leaked. When Hanford closed in 1989, it became the largest and most expensive Superfund site in the country (Titus 65).

The West bore the brunt of nuclear production and testing in the U.S. and suffers from its lethal consequences, heaping irony onto frontier mythology. In the mythic version, hardworking pioneers transformed unspoiled wilderness into fertile farmland to sustain the nation in perpetuity, but in reality, industry irreversibly contaminated large regions of land and water. Bounty gave way to blight. Arid Lands represents this cataclysm by harnessing western and science fiction interest in human expansion into new territories. Both genres often acknowledge that new settlements can bring dreadful consequences as often as they bring opportunities.

Frontier mythology omits industrial pollution. Arid Lands Science fiction and Western iconography merge in Arid Lands.

Western film iconography appears in Arid Lands in long shots and slow pans of shrub-steppe terrain and big skies, recalling the genre's wide open vistas. The film evokes stock characters with talking heads, such as a thoughtful Yakama elder with gray braids, Russell Jim, who speaks about his people's loss of land and fishing rights, bringing to mind the noble savage beloved of revisionist westerns. A preacher describes his mission to create an enormous thundering waterfall next to his church to display the glory of God, a surreal variation on the church as a symbol of civilization. Old-timers pit themselves against newcomers: family farmers with orchards disparage the newly arrived vineyard owners whose grape fields gobble up the land, and both condemn the developers responsible for ticky-tacky suburban encroachment; two geographers, one wearing a bandana around his neck like an outlaw gunslinger, deride the new generation of residents who lack wilderness skills; a fisherman criticizes the dam operators and the policy of raising and lowering the river depending on Portland's water needs, which sends fish floating across the banks when the water is high and kills them when the water recedes; an elderly displaced couple is nostalgic for the farm they owned before the federal government seized it. Conflict defines every issue, including access to scarce water and its safety for drinking. And young people in the nearby town of Richland play the role of "savages" by getting pierced and tattooed at the Atomic Tattoo shop, where mushroom clouds are a favorite design. Twangy guitars and loping rhythms on the film's soundtrack use the western's musical conventions.

A rainwater tank near Hanford. Western history and the Western film genre feature conflicts over resources. Arid Lands Mushroom cloud tattoos are popular at Richland's Atomic Tattoo and Piercing shop. Arid Lands

Science-fiction features intermix with these western traditions: super-secret government work on catastrophic weapons; the careless and bungled discharge of billions of gallons of hazardous waste; a contaminated region half the size of Rhode Island; radioactive waste seeping into a deceptively idyllic river used for fishing, boating, and drinking water; pristine shrub-steppe terrain that owes its existence to the fact that it is unsafe for human habitation; cannibalistic insects that devour each other unless they are put in a stupor induced by cold storage; salmon loaded into giant tanker trucks and driven to their destination because dams block their upstream journey; and repetitive electronic notes on the soundtrack.

Hazardous waste flows in the river near Hanford in this deceptively idyllic scene. Arid Lands Hanford's radioactivity imperils human life and evokes science-fiction threats to bodily integrity. Arid Lands

These sci-fi aspects of the film resonate with the strange actual history of atomic testing in the West. To assess the consequences of nuclear attacks on humans, the government built "Doom Towns" in the Nevada desert with houses containing household products and dummies (Titus 14). The military repeatedly prioritized its desire for close-up inspection over the known risks of contamination (Titus 14). Observers in New Mexico at the first atomic test wore sunscreen and dark glasses and lay face down on the ground. Subsequent testing burned and killed cows and horses grazing nearby with radiation poisoning (Jacobsen 102). In fact, tests on dead animals after their exposure to dirty bombs (those that simulated the crash of an airplane carrying a nuclear weapon) revealed that the half-life of plutonium is 20,000 years (Jacobsen 113). Plutonium is so deadly that "one-millionth of a gram...will kill a person if it gets in his or her lungs" (Jacobsen 113). Even so, communities and pop culture embraced all things atomic. In Las Vegas, swanky people sipped atomic cocktails, women could get the atomic hairdo, the Sands Hotel held a Miss Atomic Bomb pageant, and the Detonators of Devastating Rhythms and Atom Bombers played songs like "Atomic Bomb Bounce" (Titus 93). Billboards for Atomic Motels and Atomic Cafes transformed the Western landscape (Titus 88). Nuclear blasts were all the rage!

A-bomb terms entered everyday life near Hanford, with or without irony. Arid Lands Science fiction prompts us to question the wisdom of living on a Nuclear Lane. Arid Lands

After this brief buoyant period came the reality of atomic residue. Sites that suffered the greatest destruction, like Hanford, are now called national sacrifice zones in federal documents (Titus 158).

The notion of sacrifice has a long history in Western frontier ideologies. It characterized early settlers who perished in harsh conditions and, as historian Richard Slotkin points out, it was also evoked for General George Armstrong Custer, whose 1876 death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was seen by some as "a kind of atoning sacrifice, almost Christ-like" (10). Sacrifice also echoes in revisionist western films that celebrate "noble" Indians who quietly mourn the slaughter of their people. According to frontier mythology, sacrifices had to be made for the Western garden to bloom.

An extreme long shot shows industry surrounded by desert in a setting eerily reminiscent of Mad Max 2. Arid Lands Radioactivity jeopardizes the promise of Western abundance. Arid Lands

Radioactivity, however, poses a substantial challenge to the myth's promise that sacrifice leads to abundance. Ironically, it also arose from the myth, for, in Slotkin's words, "behind the mystique of the 'virgin land' lay the principle of the 'resource Frontier'" which beheld the West as a mother lode of resources in addition to land: "precious metals, industrial ores, supplies of cheap labor" (531). Western resources included beaver pelt, gold, silver, and oil, along with waves of immigrant laborers. The promise of "virgin land" and resources drew the nuclear industry West and led to a domino effect of sacrifices that are still toppling over.

New residents of the area around Hanford do not have sacrifice on their minds. They see Hanford as a land of opportunity not unlike the wild-West or outer-space frontiers, in this case funded by federal cleanup dollars. As one of the film's commentators points out, some of the same people who rail against big government handouts themselves reap the benefits of Superfund money. Inconsistencies abound, and the film ends with the situation at an impasse. Environmentalists warn that radioactive damage is irrevocable, and economists predict a likely financial crash after the government ends its involvement, warnings that people living and working near Hanford do not want to believe. Meanwhile, the despoliation continues, with news reports of tanks discharging up to 300 gallons of "highly radioactive slurry" per year ("Six Storage Tanks"). In 2017, a tunnel storing radioactive material collapsed, causing an emergency for hundreds of workers at the site and renewing fears about widening contamination.

New suburbs house residents drawn to Hanford's Superfund site and potential prosperity. Arid Lands Some residents assail big government while benefiting from Superfund money. Arid Lands

How should an environmental disaster of Hanford's magnitude be addressed and competing interests satisfied? Answers do not exist in real life or the film. As a documentary, Arid Lands follows the conventions of reportage, and therefore it can only refer to the future as unknown. But the film's generic borrowings create shadow narratives in spectators' minds, and these address the question that Arid Lands cannot answer: "What does the future hold for Hanford?" Hypothetical answers occur in sci-fi films that represent social conflict in the aftermath of apocalyptic destruction, and westerns concerned with land use and abuse. These shadow film can conjure up frightening images of blighted land and creatures, widespread illness, birth defects, a breakdown of law and order, vigilante violence, and death.

The cheerful optimism of residents who are riding a wave of economic prosperity resembles oblivious characters ignoring the warning signs in the pre-catastrophe scenes from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and The Terminator. Sadly, the shadow films conjured up by Arid Lands do not offer a solution to the problem of Hanford. But they can guide us toward the conclusion that this kind of environmental disaster should never be allowed to happen again.