View from bus tour, 2020. Photograph by James Enos.
On this tour, I was given a small first aid kit and a bottle of hand sanitizer (which, granted, means something different now than when I first toured the site in February 2020). If it’s raining, the guide might remind you that the bus stairs are slippery. There is a lot of talk of safety here, where 40 percent of the world’s Cold War plutonium was produced, but mainly the type of safety that prevents slip and falls, or at least releases SRS from liability if you eat it on the steps. These public relations moves to rebrand the site stand in stark contrast to how former SRS employees remember safety. Across demographics, they recall the pressures to keep silent about their exposure, the difficulty in obtaining exposure records, and how company surveillance led them to understand their employer as deceitful. Plant officials insisted the facility was safe, attempting to dismiss concerns even as evidence of death and illness from hazardous materials grew. Contaminated waste was dumped into unmarked pits with no safeguards to prevent it from seeping into groundwater.17
Everyone was downwind, but not everyone was downwind equally. Studies show us that female workers were less likely than males to be monitored for occupational radiation exposure, and they were also more likely to have incomplete dose histories that would hinder compensation for illnesses related to these exposures. Black workers were more likely than non-Black workers to have a detectable radiation dose and to experience higher incidents of some cancers as well as early deaths.18
In the mid-1980s, when DuPont still operated SRS, critics questioned the adequacy of monitoring and safety standards. In response, DuPont promoted, rather than tested, the efficacy of their current practices. This comes as no surprise. Their focus on confirming workplace safety for the sake of public relations, not worker health and well-being, fits a pattern. Nuclear work demands secrecy and a closing of ranks as it tangles with discourses of duty and patriotism.
The US military met civilian protests of destruction at military sites across the country in the 1960s and 1970s with claims that their properties inadvertently created animal sanctuaries endangered by civilian land practices: conservation by serendipity. Abundant wildlife shows up again and again in militarized environments; war zones and buffer zones between warring states seem to suggest that sometimes human conflict is a blessing for nonhumans. Certain Cold War frontiers (such as the DMZ) surprisingly became nature reserves, but, by the early 1990s, 81 percent of US federal facilities on the National Priorities List for waste cleanup belonged to the military. Moreover, at the end of the Cold War, the US military faced a crisis of legitimacy: how could it justify continued occupation of millions of acres of national land? Here, military environmentalism serves as a way to legitimate control over the territory. These transformations are not so much a way of turning the US military “green” but, rather, a way to repackage the war arm of the US in eco-friendly wrapping. For example, functionally obsolete US military bases can be converted to reserves in accordance with the Base Realignment and Closure process, which began in 1988. This allows the DOD to spend less on decontaminating the most heavily polluted lands, ultimately undermining potential benefits to wildlife. NATO facilitated a transnational network of military environmentalism post–Cold War, including environmental policy statements that encouraged soldiers to “train green.” Though NATO signatories, including the US, have begun to introduce recycling, reduce carbon emissions, and develop “green weaponry,” the life-enhancing aspirations of sustainability initiatives and the deadly objectives that serve as the foundation for military purposes are fundamentally at odds.19
This being said, a reading of military environmentalism at SRS would be incomplete without understanding how nonhuman life exists at the site, perhaps in opposition to human and military territorial control. Upper Three Runs Creek, which originates near Aiken, South Carolina, runs nearly two thirds of its length through SRS before joining the Savannah River. It is the most species-rich stream in North America, and the second-most in the world. Studies from the 1970s and the 2010s have shown that thirty-plus years of continued use by the Department of Energy has not had a detrimental impact on the creek. There is no data to compare the state of Upper Three Runs Creek before it was seized by the Atomic Energy Commission, when it would have been surrounded by farmland. According to the National priorities List Site Narrative for SRS, which established SRS as an EPA Superfund site, a small quantity of depleted uranium was released in January 1984 into Upper Three Runs Creek.20
I wasn’t expecting the SRS bus tour to remind me of tours I’ve taken of plantations and historic houses in the South. In fact, the SRS tour fits neatly alongside other manifestations of heritage tourism in the region. These tours reveal how we negotiate past and present, and far too often, there is celebration of moonlight and magnolias and the containment (if not outright denial) of the site’s horrors. The South is continually deployed for profit, whether for haunting or reveling. But unlike the imaginary “Old South” presented on plantation tours, the primary narrative at SRS advances the “New South” of modernization and economic development. Noticeably, at SRS and these former plantations, the landscapes have been ideologically (if not also anthropomorphically) reconstructed from sites of labor, extracted by violence and coercion, to sites of leisure. They allow visitors to participate in a comforting narrative that makes sense of a cruel history, one that implicates them, without having to come to terms with the material reality that sustains it. History is resolved, buried and done with, but the relics are dusted and tidy and neatly arranged for our viewing pleasure.
Yet, a future nuclear apocalypse is not some wavering vision just beyond the horizon, deterred by weapons or deferred by politics. It is not a fear that haunted those in the past, relegated to the history books at the end of the Cold War. Rather, it is one we have inhabited since July 1945. After the first successful detonation of a plutonium bomb at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, we entered a postnuclear environment of our own making. The militarization and nuclearization of three hundred–plus square miles of swamps, Spanish moss, cicadas, and steel occupied by SRS not only triggered a process of re-wilding, but now must be maintained, for there is no fixing this nuclear problem. We will have to stay on nodding terms with it for more than twenty thousand years.
For me, living in the South means to often fall in and out of time, for our history here is not just deeply formative but impossibly present. Just as I reside within the region’s heavy history, it also resides within me—that whole thing about gazing into the abyss and it gazing back. If my own past is bound so inextricably to the history of this place, how do I reconcile that with how white people in the South so often recall and represent the past inaccurately? It is true, despite geography, in the words of theorist Andreas Huyssen, that remembering is always entangled with forgetting, and our memories are “always transitory, notoriously unreliable, and haunted by forgetting,” but there is something sinister in the way we white southerners fail to recollect what actually happened here, who planted all these fabled magnolias. Nostalgic white southerners invested in ahistorical visions of the region’s past seem to be longing for both return and absolution, but not a true reckoning, as BIPOC southerners have long advocated. The “New South” that trickled out of SRS brought modernization, but for whom, and why, and at what cost? Faulknerian visions where property rights and resource extraction undergird race and violence, the anachronistic architecture of our universities, plantations turned right into prisons or military bases—all reach back with a threatening nostalgia for an antebellum South that did not endure in reality as long as it has in corrupted imagination.21