The Tainted Desert

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Valerie Kuletz grew up at a military test center in the Mojave Desert, where her father worked as a weapons scientist. In THE TAINTED DESERT: ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL RUIN IN THE AMERICAN WEST she reveals her opposition to her father’s work as she explores the environmental and social repercussions of the “secret nuclear holocaust” caused by decades of nuclear testing in the American Southwest.

Kuletz’s book is divided into two parts. In the first, she shows how nuclear experimentation has been hidden from public view and how this “invisible nuclear landscape” has been superimposed upon a landscape already occupied by Native Americans. These desert regions, in which Indians have lived for thousands of years, have been viewed as wastelands by the United States government and therefore useless for anything other than large-scale weapons testing and nuclear waste disposal. Many indigenous people have been driven from land they see as sacred, while several reservations located downwind from test sites have suffered increased incidences of cancer, birth defects, and disease.

Part two focuses on Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada, which is under consideration as a disposal site for high-level nuclear waste. Kuletz claims that the U.S. government has ignored independent scientists who believe that earthquake faults under the mountain make it a poor choice for waste storage and has refused to heed protests by Native Americans who claim the region is sacred. For Kuletz, Yucca Mountain represents the tendency of scientists employed by the government to ignore alternatives that may be contrary to U.S. political objectives. It also illustrates the U.S. government’s policy of “nuclear colonialism,” in which indigenous people and their land are seen as expendable.