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  • Narratives of Peace and Progress:Atomic Museums in Japan and New Mexico
  • Alison Fields (bio)

In June 2011, firefighters were struggling to contain the Las Conchas fire, the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, before it reached the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Known as the site of the Manhattan Project’s secret efforts to develop the atomic bomb during World War II, LANL continues to serve as a major research and development site of nuclear weapons. As the fire threatened the laboratory, attention was focused on Area G, an outdoor facility where thousands of barrels of radioactive waste materials are stored.1 While the government sent in planes equipped with radiation monitors and news outlets raised the concern of radioactive smoke, laboratory officials assured the public that this site and other radioactive waste storage was fireproofed and secure.

At the same time, thousands of miles from the high-desert town of Los Alamos, workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan were dealing with the aftermath of an enormous containment failure. A record-breaking 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit off the shore of eastern Japan in March 2011, causing a massive tsunami to crash over seawalls and knock out Fukushima Daiichi’s cooling system. The prime minister’s office and the Tokyo Electric Power Company worked furiously to prevent a nuclear meltdown but could not prevent a series of explosions at the plant. Reports of radiation unleashed into the environment dealt a major blow to Japan’s “safety myth”—a widespread insistence on the infallibility of the country’s nuclear power plants.2 As the only nation to have been attacked by atomic bombs, Japan’s post–World [End Page 53] War II command of nuclear power was essential in establishing energy independence. Since the recent disaster, Japanese citizens have become increasingly vocal in their anger at the nuclear establishment, drawing on social media to organize mass demonstrations. Mainstream media have largely ignored these protests, and the Japanese government is considering conducting stress tests at all nuclear facilities in the nation to help reassure the public of the safety of nuclear energy.3

The efforts for containment at Los Alamos and Fukushima have taken place on two levels: physically, to prevent harm to human bodies and environments, and as a narrative, to reinforce notions of safety, control, and technological progress. But as these unpredictable events of fire, earth, and water demonstrate, beliefs about containment can be instantly overturned, and longsilenced collective memories can resurface to frame new fears. In both New Mexico and Japan, this resurgence of memory occurred as a response to each site’s unique nuclear history. Since the development and deployment of the world’s first atomic bombs, New Mexico and Japan have served as potent sites of nuclear memories. New Mexico is home to both LANL and the Trinity Site on the White Sands Missile Range, the location of the world’s first nuclear test on July 16, 1945. Less than a month later, on August 6, 1945, American forces dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima and three days later dropped the second on Nagasaki. The bombs leveled the built environment and killed over 100,000 civilians in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki, many almost instantaneously. Radiation poisoning added to these death tolls, and many survivors, or hibakusha, were left with chronic illnesses and disfiguring keloid scars. The bombings were the denouement of World War II in the Pacific and thrust the world into the atomic age.

Trauma and Memory

The destruction inflicted by the bombing was unprecedented. While citizens of Hiroshima, which had been largely untouched by conventional bombing, had prepared for air raids, the magnitude of the nuclear attack left survivors without words to interpret their experiences. This totalizing event and unknowable experience fits literary critic Shoshana Felman’s description of trauma as “the event par excellence, the event as unintelligible, as the pure impact of sheer happening.”4 In other words, the experience of trauma is so overwhelming that it cannot be understood in the moment it happens. Meaning is assigned only after the event has passed, and even then, it is granted...


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pp. 53-66
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