When nuclear energy was first hypothesized in 1933, the conversations surrounding its possibilities were favorably optimistic. Atomic power was seen as an ethical and useful invention—a shining beacon of progress and modernity for contemporary society. Nuclear chain reactions would produce electricity for homes and business across the United States, suppressing an impending energy crisis in the name of science.
As we now know, this prediction was a far cry from the eventual result. Photographer Brett Leigh Dicks reminds us of this tempestuous history with his series Nuclear Landscapes, a collection of black and white images of abandoned uranium mining towns. While the images were taken quite recently, their monochrome styling and aged subject matter make them feel like they were taken in another era—and that is exactly the point.
“The Atomic Age is the period in history that commenced following the detonation of the first atomic bomb—Trinity—on July 16, 1945,” Hicks explains. “The Trinity test and subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II represented the first large-scale use of nuclear technology, and ushered in profound changes in sociopolitical thinking and the course of technology development.” One of humankind’s greatest scientific discoveries was harnessed for catastrophic warfare, and there was no going back.
The majority of the development and testing of nuclear material in the United States took place in the West, so Hicks set out to locate a nuber of these sites, capturing their now-bleak and empty atmosphere with his camera. A strange, concrete dome is seen protruding from the Arizona desert, resembling an otherworldly set from an old episode of The Twilight Zone, while an atomic bomb loading pit looks out onto a vast, deserted landscape in Utah. The images remind us that as humans, we often abandon our own progress just as quickly as we construct it, leaving its debris behind to be forgotten completely.
“The reality is, nuclear technology produced a range of social problems, from the nuclear arms race to nuclear meltdowns, and the unresolved difficulties of bomb plant cleanup and civilian plant waste disposal and commissioning,” reflects Hicks. “Abandoned uranium mining towns, decaying atomic test sites, old nuclear reactors, and decommissioned nuclear bases are strewn across the Western landscape, and stand as an eerie testament to a period of time that was meant to revolutionize civilization for the better.”