Digital Project Proposal – Mapping US Nuclear Cities

Shortly before the end of World War II, the United States began secretive construction a project that would alter the landscape – both literally and figuratively – of the country to this day. The creation of Nuclear Cities were seen as a necessary product of the burgeoning Cold War, and simultaneous nuclear arms policy, between the United States and former Soviet Union. Towns across the country were suddenly thrust into a total-war-like situation, where lives were uprooted, infrastructure destroyed and drastically altered. Starting with the creation of Hanford in Richland, Washington, this trend of uprooting existing cities to make way for what was becoming a “hot” Cold War, continued well into the 1950s. Once the Cold War had thawed however, many of these nuclear plants that had so engulfed normal, rural regions of the United States for so long were shut down or changed to fit the new needs of a world not determined by the Cold War nuclear doctrine. However, the significance of these plants should not be lost along with thoughts of the nuclear age, “duck and cover” drills, and the incessant anxiety of nuclear obliteration. It is the spirit of this memory that provides the backbone of my Digital Project.

 For the purposes of our class, I would like to create a collection entitled “Cold War Nuclear Cities”, and within the collection, contribute photographs, past and present, of these cities – therefore allowing the surprising size of each plant to be shown, visualizing what the land and cities had looked like before the plant, what they looked like during the “Atomic Age”*, and what the area looks like today. Within the collection, a visitor can click on each of the plants that will open a page to a synopsis of the plant, including what it was most commonly used for, years of operation, and the plant’s most notable contributions in the context of Cold War nuclear policy at the time. To begin, I will focus on the Hanford Site in Richland, WA and surrounding areas, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, SC and surrounding areas. I will set up a “tour” that takes the student or visitor on a trip through each of the plants to emphasize just how expansive the Cold War was, and how many lives it touched throughout the country.

This project should be digital because many of these sites are difficult to physically visit. This is a result of their environmental concerns, the fact that many have been torn down, and those still in operation are rarely willing to allow the public free access to tour them**. While there is significant literature on the Cold War and these nuclear cities in general, a visual representation of each city and all in one place will significantly increase the education of Cold War nuclear cities. Since Historypin is relatively open and interactive, there could also be additions to these “pins” or expansions of the existing ones.

The audience can span a broad range of interested parties, but specifically, this would be a good teaching tool for students in either middle or high school to help them learn about the United States’ nuclear role in the Cold War. This would be an interesting way for the students to learn about not only the environmental aspects of US nuclear policy, but just how extensive these plants became, and how they absolutely uprooted and changed their surrounding areas.

 Since there is not much outreach for Cold War histories and specifically nuclear histories, outreach would be best served through school programs, teachers, and local history museums. Hopefully, interest is generated enough to help us understand the greater impact of these plants, how they were such a significant part of American life, many having been secret and hidden, and now, with the help of Historypin, their stories can be told.

*For the purposes of this class I am defining the “Atomic Age” as 1945 through 1970 when many of these reactors began altering their production or shutting down completely.

**For example, the Savannah River Plant (now Savannah River Site) offers only two public tours a month, with a total of 1,100 visitors per year to board buses and take heavily supervised tours through the facility. The waitlist is gigantic. I am still waiting patiently for my turn…

2 Replies to “Digital Project Proposal – Mapping US Nuclear Cities”

  1. Alison, this project sounds really cool. I love the past-to-present comparison, and I’d bet that your intended audience would get a real kick out of it. It’s a fantastic way to give younger students some metaphorical toe-hold into the recent past and into understanding the importance of the local and recent past. It’s an exciting topic and I think you thought that part through especially well. I can’t wait to see your Historypin. I wonder what the scope of your project will be, though–were there a great many Nuclear Cities? Or would you focus on one? And how are you going to do the interpretation? Are you planning to do each city individually? Or collectively?

  2. This sounds like a fascinating topic, and I think there is a lot that you can do with it. Focusing on K-12 history students and teachers makes a lot of sense. If you do focus on that audience, it would be good to take a look at some of the history standards to identify where and how this resource could be used by teachers.

    Given that this is relatively recent history, one of the questions that pops in my mind is about where you will get source images for this and the rights associated with those. The good news here is that government photos are generally non-copyrightable so if you have a bunch of images from the gov about these sites those could be quite useful.

    To Chloe’s point, I think an important part of this is going to be how you go about scoping it. So think a good bit about how much you think you can pull together during class over the course of the rest of the semester.

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