Category Archives: Atomic Bomb

gone to the printers

I think this might be like arriving at base camp at the foot of Everest

I know its an awful lot like being 37 weeks pregnant.

maybe you dreamed of it

surely you worked for it

but as the time nears

you realize, increasingly

that you have absolutely no idea

what you’ve gotten yourself into


and the dark clouds form and disperse

as you reckon the size of the leap

you have made

peering at the place you think you’re going to land

readying the things you think you’ll need

asking for mentors, safety nets

realizing that when you need financial security more than ever you are sloughing it off

to pit yourself against the challenge

of doing this thing

and doing it well

aprons and layers falling

revealing the dream vulnerable to the raw air:




terrified, quaking, tired and certain

there is no perfect draft, there is no truly ready time

the story is past due


and gone to the printers.

finally finished, and only just begun.

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West.  November 2014




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bigger than a blog post, smaller than a breadbox

I haven’t been doing much creative writing lately,

because this:



is coming out in the fall and contrary to what I’d somehow fooled myself into thinking,

my work is only just begun.

More to come lovelies, I promise. all sorts of things are moving and shaking.. a website, a video, events, travel. opportunities for folks to support getting the stories in my book out into the world. For now… disjointed waitress poetry will make an attempt to return, because learning how to market a book gives me a headache, and I need to write creatively again.


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I have lists of the dead in my file cabinet. Mothers, sisters, fathers, sons. Children and old women, veterans and sheep ranchers, baby boomers and gen-xers. Granddaughters and neighbors, teachers and tribal leaders.

Casualties of the Cold War, all of them. Radiological warfare is the gift that keeps on giving, implicating the rest of us in a conflict that ended before our children were born. We do not get a choice. We get rhetoric instead, about National Security. About terrorists, and staying vigilant. About the bombs that brought peace.

Its just been nonstop peace since 1945. Hasn’t it.

Nine years ago I went out hunting for these names, for people who remembered the dead, who had the energy left to tell these hard, ugly stories. Now they come to me unbidden, flowing into my inbox like disquieted ghosts.

Unbidden is the wrong word. I asked for their names, because I wanted to bear witness, because I’m not convinced that their stories ended with their deaths. Irma Thomas’s daughter believes her mother is still hanging around in the ether because she died with her work undone. She’s told me that I use phrases she only heard her mother use, like “damn it all to hell,”

I don’t know if I believe in ghosts,
but I do believe in Irma.

After the clouds passed over from the nuclear tests to the west she put on her husband’s coveralls and tied a dishcloth over her face and pulled her laundry off the line to rewash it. Her neighbors thought she was crazy. She asked them “do you want your kids sleeping on these sheets?” Despite her mother’s vigilance, her daughter lost the use of her legs as a teenager. She wanted to be a dancer. She’s survived cancer more times than I can count. She is the same age as my dad.

Sometimes I light candles on my writing desk, because we need ritual to face death. Sometimes I avoid working on my book and do laundry instead. How the hell could I possibly get it right?

I can get it right by letting them speak for themselves. From the grave, sometimes. I play back the tapes to myself when the house is quiet. I listen to the silences where they stopped to compose themselves when the tears came. I listen to the places we laughed together.

Whenever I visit a town to do an interview, I go to the cemetery. My mother taught me to go to the cemetery. Her dad died in a plane crash in 1962, and she spent my whole childhood looking for stories that would knit her past together. So in Hurricane, Utah, and Emmett, Idaho, and Mesquite, Nevada, I have gone to the cemetery. In Logan, in Cedar City, in St. George. In Red Valley, in Orem. In Salt Lake. I wander the headstones and I look at the dates.

There is no monument for the casualties of the uranium industry. Most local museums in the region do not mention the downwinders. The atomic museum in Vegas pretends they do not exist. We have been led to believe that American “supremacy” in the Cold War (and on the globe, by extension) was purchased without civilian casualties. Its a big, ugly lie. But while there are no placards about the uranium widows in the museums at Los Alamos and Las Vegas, there are cemeteries. And I stand alone in those cemeteries, the air thick with stories I cannot read, and I listen to the quiet. I visit the graves of the activists who fought until they could no longer draw breath and I let them remind me I do not have the privilege of growing weary of all this.



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Its a little late for potassium iodine…

With the news that radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Complex may eventually make landfall on the Pacific Coast of the United States, everyone’s scurrying to get their hands on potassium iodine, in the hopes of preventing their bodies from absorbing radiation.

I’ve got my name on the waiting list at the health food store along with everyone else. I have a baby, and staring at him playing with his toys on the floor was what finally made me call to get on the list. Chances are they won’t get any in before the radiation makes landfall. And even if they do: potassium iodine only protects against I-131, a radioactive isotope which causes thyroid cancer. Sure, no one wants thyroid cancer. But you’re probably not going to get it from Japan: I-131 has a half-life of 8 days, which will probably have expired by the time the wind carries it to our shores. There’s lots of other dangerous radioisotopes being released at Fukushima though, many with half-lives much longer than our memories. Potassium iodine won’t help us there.

Even if Super Supplements does call with my share of “radiation protection,” its a little late to start popping pills.   This chain of events was set in motion over fifty years ago, and we’ve all received plenty of exposure already in the course of our six-decade dance with atomic arrogance. I’m not saying what’s happening in Japan isn’t horrendous, and extremely serious, and deeply and profoundly sad and frightening. Its all of those things. But its also a little late to run for cover. We’ve made ourselves exceptionally comfortable with the devil that is nuclear, and now the rest of us are discovering what downwinders  have known for decades: its pretty hard to kick this particular lover out of bed.

Take Iodine 131, the isotope we’re hoping to protect ourselves against with Potassium Iodine. 40 years of domestic nuclear testing and nuclear testing around the world exposed everyone alive to plenty of I-131 between 1945 and 1992.  See that little mushroom cloud at the top of the page?  That’s Nuclear Test Grable, and those mountains in the background are Nevada, about 60 miles outside of Vegas. Grable went off at 15:30 hours on May 25, 1953, in Area 5 of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.  Grable was a 15 kiloton nuke we shot out of a cannon (mostly just to see if we could) which detonated 524 feet above ground.  (For purposes of comparison, the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima was somewhere between 13 and 18 kilotons.)  Grable’s just one of 1042 beasts we built and blew up for the purposes of “national security.”  I don’t know about you, but the prospect of a nuke going off in the heart of America doesn’t make me feel particularly secure.  Over the years, it made a lot of the folks who lived near the test site feel sort of insecure too.   They can tell you a thing or two about cancer.

After 1961 they tested most of those bombs below ground in Nevada, (lots of radiation still made its way into the water table and frequently vented into the atmosphere) but plenty of radiation had already made it into the food supply: specifically, milk. Radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests conducted in Nevada, the Pacific, and elsewhere around the world drifted down onto alfalfa crops, which were fed to cows, which produced radioactive milk loaded with I-131, which children were urged to drink wholesale throughout the 1950s, irradiating their developing thyroids. The National Cancer Institute estimates that as many as 230,000 extra thyroid cancers may have occurred as a result of this contamination of the milk supply in the United States alone, and a lot of epidemiologists think that’s a conservative estimate. Want to see what you or your parents were exposed to? Check out the NCI’s fallout exposure calculator. Tell it what year you were born, where you lived, and how much milk you drank, and it will tell you approximately how much I-131  you were likely exposed to.  Remember, this is just one of dozens of radioactive isotopes that get released when nuclear reactions occur.

What about all these claims that nuclear power is a safe, renewable, clean alternative to fossil fuels, the answer to our energy crisis?  If this was an academic paper, I’d use lots of scientific terminology to respond to that.  But this is a blog post.  So I’ll respond succinctly.  Bullshit.  To create nuclear reactions, and thus nuclear power, you need fissionable materials.  Uranium is the fissionable material of choice.  Its a mineral, and you have to dig it up out of the ground.  For several decades, we got most of our uranium from mines in the 4 Corners area of the American Southwest.  The Public Health Service knew uranium was pretty toxic, so they studied the guys who were digging it up.  A lot of them died of lung cancer.  After you dig up uranium, you have to mill it and process it to get yellowcake, the material used in nuclear reactions.  Milling’s pretty nasty too.  A lot of those workers got cancer also.  Their families were exposed to ample radiation on the work clothing they wore home, and lots of the leftover rubble was used to make roads, and build foundations for schools and homes.  Subsequent generations have experienced a spate of birth defects, just like the children of folks who grew up near the Nevada Test Site.

The radioactive sludge left over from the milling process is sitting all over the American Southwest in tailing ponds, several of which have failed and leaked thousands of gallons of radioactive waste into rivers, like the Rio Puerco Spill in 1979.  Most of this took place on Indian reservations.  Uranium caused so much suffering in Navajo country that in April of 2005, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley signed a ban outlawing all uranium mining and processing on the Navajo Reservation.  A similar resolution was passed by the Havasupai, and the All Indian Pueblo Council, representing 19 tribes in New Mexico, has banned mining that would affect sacred sites.  Incidentally, the Navajo and other indigenous nations are giving up substantial income by banning uranium development: Navajo country is known among mining companies as the “the Saudi Arabia of uranium,” in the words of Mark Pelizza, a vice president of Uranium Resources Inc.  Of course, uranium is found in other places too, like Eastern Washington, where the Midnight Mine, a uranium mine near Spokane, has been designated a Superfund site.

So, getting the uranium you need to create nuclear power is a pretty nasty process.  Of course, the mining companies say they’ve got new technology that makes it safer, and they feel real bad all those people got sick.  (The U.S. Government feels sorta bad too: it pays a few thousand dollars in compensation money to the families of uranium miners and millers who have died, as well as a select few of the people most heavily exposed to radiation by domestic nuclear testing.  Of course, it makes them jump through interminable bureaucratic hoops to get their money, which is a pittance compared to the cost of medical care and the loss of a family member.)    Are you willing to take a chance on a uranium mine or mill in your backyard?

That’s just the raw material for nuclear power plants.  Then we presume to “control” nuclear reactions to turn on our lights and power our refrigerators.   Ordinary day-to-day nuclear power plant operation is supposed to be pretty safe, right?  Wrong.  Dr. John Gofman, one of the nation’s leading experts on radiation and medicine, once estimated that a nuclear reactor in an urban area would create adverse health effects “equal in the opposite direction to all the medical advances put together in the last 25 years.”

And then there’s that slim chance of natural disaster impacting a nuclear power plant, say an earthquake, or a tsunami.  There’s also that tiny chance of  human error, someone falling asleep at the switch (just picture Homer Simpson).  Or… maybe that constantly talked about terror attack hits a nuclear power plant.  There are over a dozen nuclear reactors in the United States that are identical to the ones melting down in Japan right now.  Good old General Electric built them.

Nuclear power? Really?

Then, there’s the millions of pounds of nuclear waste the United States has already generated, waste we have no safe way of storing for the long term, much of it exceedingly dangerous and unstable.

What on earth makes us think we can harness a process that takes place inside the SUN?  What on earth made us believe it was a sane idea to fool around with the most fundamental unit of matter—the atom?  Arrogance, that’s what.  It takes some crazy hubris to believe that its possible to manage nuclear reactions for the purposes of national security and energy generation, and some profound gullibility to go along with that.  Meanwhile, cancer has gone up something like 30 percent in the last few decades.  And while there have been profound advances in treating cancer, the “War on Cancer” isn’t really about preventing it, if you look closely.  Its about treating it once you’ve got it, at a cost of millions of dollars.

Obama says that despite what’s happening in Japan, he’s still going to support nuclear power.


Tell him you want to get off this stupid carnival ride.

Potassium Iodine isn’t going to save us.  We are. By standing up and demanding the following:

global disarmament, starting here in the United States (after all, we threw the first punch, its only fair that we take the lead)

an end to nuclear power,

and a responsible and immediate containment, cleanup, and storage plan for the nuclear waste we’ve already generated.

In the meantime… I’m making miso soup for my family every day.  Its a folk preventative in case of radiation exposure.  May or may not help.  I’m not planning on taking any walks in the rain in the next couple weeks, and I’m going to hold off planting my veggie garden until I’ve got more information about what’s actually going on in Japan and what the wind is bringing.  None of this is particularly based on science… its based on my need to take some sort of real action aside from signing petitions.  I’m going to try and finish my book, Yellow Monsters and Mushroom Clouds: A Folk History of the Nuclear West.  And lastly, I’m going to light a candle every night for the people of Japan, who’ve already borne so much of the tragedy of this atomic age.


Filed under Americana, Atomic Bomb, Change, Food, History, Homeland, memory, Nevada Test Site, Peace

Nuclear Homeland (Or; My First Arrest)

The image that occupies the header of this blog is of particular significance. Snapped in the Spring of 2008, facing northwest in the Nevada desert, it captures a moment in which the sun was rising behind me, and the moon was setting in front of me. The lights on the highway in the bottom left are the cars of workers, heading for this gate:

Welcome to our Nuclear Homeland. Exhibit A: The Nevada Test Site, where nearly 1000 nuclear weapons have been detonated since 1951, many of them two, three, and four times as large as the nuclear bombs we dropped on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This photograph was snapped the day before the others, in roughly the same location. Its me, and friends Jon, Steve, and Jerry, moments before my first arrest, for what I’m proud to say was my first major act of Civil Disobedience: trespassing on the Nevada Test Site, which is technically the property of the Western Shoshone, not the United States military. (That’s me in the middle, holding my sandals and an envelope full of photographs. Going barefoot into the highly toxic Nevada Nuclear Test Site was kind of a dumb move. But I’d been walking for six days and sixty-five miles, and my feet hurt.)

There’s more to this story.

So much more that I wrote a book about the place. I finished it in October, and called it As it Turned Out, There Were People In All Those Little Communities: A Folk History of the Nuclear West. Still waiting to hear back from the first publisher I sent it to.

Stay tuned for more stories of our Nuclear Homeland and my first arrest. (Yes, I’m planning a second one).


Filed under As it Turns Out There Were People In All Those Little Communities, Atomic Bomb, Civil Disobedience, Desert, Nevada Test Site, Nuclear weapons, Peacewalk

Obama can’t save America. But maybe America can.

First: let me say this. I am not a complete cynic.
Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” was a beautiful song to begin with. When I hear it now, it brings to my mind, instantly, the sight of thousands on their feet, tears running down their cheeks and proud, exhilarated smiles on their faces, Americans surrounding a young mixed-race man from a “broken home” who made this country deliver on the Dream. He rose to what may have seemed an insurmountable challenge, he spoke words that inspired Ordinary People to believe they could take on the powers that be. And They Can.
Si Se Puede.
He ran a strong campaign. He showed my generation what it feels like to be inspired by a speechmaker. We haven’t had much of that. He respects knowledge, he thinks critically, he has courage and a sense of history. He understands that being a patriot runs deeper than flag pins.
But he can’t save us; neither can hope.
“Hope keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth… When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear. And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.”
-Derrick Jensen

It has been a week since America voted Barack Obama in as the next President of our United States. We watched the results come in with friends last tuesday night, eating vegan “Americana” potluck [Black Bean Burgers, Fried “Chicken” (cauliflower), cornbread and tater tots and chipoltle aioli… recipes to follow later]. For months, Ryan has predicted Obama would win in a landslide, even when the pundits and the nervous progressives got caught up in the electioneering. I often thought he was right, but put little faith in my country’s electoral system, which the past eight years (not to mention past three hundred) have revealed as something of a sham, blatantly rigged for the preservation of elite rule. A few weeks before the election, I watched an interview with Noam Chomsky. He agreed with George Will (something that I doubt happens too often) that American electoral politics is more about choosing which elite we want to rule us, than whether or not the elites shall rule.
If you live in a swing state, Chomsky said, vote Obama, but without illusions.

Even though pollsters claimed Washington wasn’t considered a swing state, pollsters were also suggesting conservative sleazebag Dino Rossi might actually triumph in the gubernatorial race. Staring at my absentee ballot, I thought about fear, idealism, and the American way. Who do I really want running my country right now? Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente. Some might say my vote for Obama was a vote cast in fear. I believe it was a vote cast without illusions.

I shed a few tears as Obama gave his acceptance speech. I was relieved, and moved.
I honor the significance of the United State of America choosing a former community organizer, a young man, a dark-skinned man, to lead us. I believe he’s a man of integrity and vision. And, while I respect Derrick Jensen’s take on hope, I haven’t given up on that sticky emotion yet. I am hopeful.

But I woke up the morning after the election feeling hollow, and weirdly, not proud. It made me uncomfortable, and I have been trying to sort out this feeling ever since. The election of Barack Obama is a milestone, yes. But it is only one kind of Change. And it is late in coming. And just because it has come does not absolve us for our collective sin. My America has shed the blood of hundreds of thousands since I turned 21. My America has spit on habeus corpus, tortured, lied, profited, desecrated holy books, cast our own people into the streets, starving and bereft of basic health care. My America has made its daughters in South Dakota criminals for demanding the right to control their own bodies. My America has deported legal citizens without so much as a by your leave. There is so much we must make right—and so many things we can never atone for.
The change we think we’ve created by electing Barack Obama is the kind of change this country should have demanded in November of 2000, when it was clear that George W. Bush had not actually won the presidency legitimately. It is the kind of change we should have demanded in November of 2001, when it was clear that George W. Bush’s administration was bent on exploiting the September 11 carnage to precipitate war-for-profit. It is the kind of change we should have demanded in November of 2002. And 2003.

And then we “re-elected” him.


it took us SEVEN years to rescind the Bush doctrine?
I woke up the day after the election feeling embarrassed.

I love my country. I love its stories, I love its landscapes, I love some of its ideals, I love so many of its people. We have potential! But we also have genocide, slavery, internment, the dubious legacy of being the only nation to use the atomic bomb against another country. We shut out Jews trying to flee the repression that would become the Holocaust. We have Vietnam, Iran-Contra, inaction during the Rwandan genocide. But that’s the past, people say. Get over it. We freed the slaves, didn’t we?

The past isn’t just some mythic territory, some two-dimensional timeline people’d by the Who’s who. Its the sum total of who we have become. America’s promise is just that: a promise. We have to hold ourselves accountable. We were never “the Greatest Country on Earth,” and electing Obama won’t restore us to that mythical condition. The only way forward, the only sustainable way, now, is True Change. Which means something different to everyone. Won’t be easy, but it won’t happen if all we do is complain and talk about H-O-P-E.
A few nights ago, Ryan and I walked with Assata through our quiet neighborhood. The air was warm with the promise of rain, and the lights across the Salish Sea [Puget Sound] reflected on still water. We passed a dozen Obama signs still displayed in the dark yards, plastered with wet maple leaves. I wondered what the owners of those signs thought about leaving them out. Are they victory decorations now? Seattle Lawn Hope Art? A few days ago, one of the Seattle papers noted that flag sales were skyrocketing, that people who’d never before displayed the stars and stripes were doing so now. It makes me uncomfortable. Those colors still fly over Guantanamo Bay. Just because Obama promised us change doesn’t mean we get it.
A few months ago, Naomi Klein noted: “The campaign’s most radical demand is the idea of electing Obama himself. It is Obama–and not his plans for the presidency–that is the ultimate expression of the “movement.” If the process ends there, the Obama campaign will become more like the “lifestyle” brands– the Nikes and Starbucks that captured the transcendent quality of past liberation movements, and our desire for meaning in our lives, to build their own brands.”
What happens in six months when no one has universal healthcare? When American soldiers and Iraqi children are still dying in the streets of Baghdad? When another million Americans are out of work and the polar ice cap has shrivelled that much further into itself? Will we retreat again into our cynicism and our televisions and our despair?

I voted for Obama without illusions. On his own, he will be able to change very little—except, hopefully, our standing in the eyes of other peoples around the world.

But the change? That won’t come from him.
We are the ones we have been waiting for.

If the American people stand up and Demand the kind of Change they have been claiming they want, Demand it instead of waiting for Obama to deliver it to them, Demand it,
Create it themselves,
we might just have a chance.

The time for a Great Mass Movement is Only Just Begun.

I am a student of American History.
Which means I am cynical.
And hopeful.


Filed under Americana, Atomic Bomb, Barack Obama, Change, Chomsky, Cynthia McKinney, Derrick Jensen, Election, History, Hope, Naomi Klein