Communicating the Nuclear: Narrative Analysis of ‘About a Mountain’

In his 2011 book, About A Mountain, John D’Agata takes on the complex history of Yucca Mountain and the United States’ unresolved solution to permanent nuclear waste storage. Yet, with D’Agata’s fixation on Las Vegas’s dark history of high suicide rates and elaborate ornate construction and his discussion of his mother’s new life in the city interspersed throughout his reporting, the sensation that one is reading a work of ecocriticism is not always present in the back of one’s mind. It is this very issue of communicating potential environmental danger that D’Agata takes up and picks apart against the backdrop of Las Vegas’s desert landscape. How does one talk about nuclear waste today? How does one share the knowledge of this highly dangerous byproduct of human creation with future generations? In his book, D’Agata confronts the issue of communicating the presence of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain across several narrative registers: The United States government’s present work in educating the public about the facility, concerns of Yucca Mountain markers surviving the lifespan of the waste itself, and questions of remembering nuclear waste both in everyday life and in the collective history of future generations.

Over the course of the book, D’Agata encounters many signs—the glittering neon of Las Vegas casinos, storefront signs, billboards promoting suburban communities, business advertisements in a phone book, and the many posters and infographics at the Yucca Mountain Information Center as he joins a group of school children. By the time we reach this point in the book, the atmosphere of misinformation surrounding Yucca has already spread. In the debate over the Environmental Impact Statement for the Yucca Mountain Project, policymakers can’t agree on the basics: the cost of the project, whether the document contained “unresolved scientific issues”, or how to transport the waste (36-38). At one point, Nevada Senator Harry Reid is asked by a confused Senator about the exact time it takes to cool the waste. After Reid states that it takes five years not five months, Senator Boxer replies, “I knew that this waste was so hot that it had to be cooled down for a very long time, but I really wasn’t aware that it was for five years!” (40). Even Reid’s supposed opposition to the project would later be revealed to be false in his acceptance of money from the Nuclear Energy Council and his pushout of the local Shoshone Indian tribe from Yucca land (45). This sense of deception grows at the Information Center, funded by the Department of Energy. The guide tells the children, “we’re going to talk about misinformation in the Las Vegas media”, already planting seeds of doubt for criticism of the project (52). The U.S. government controls the public narrative, but the information it provides about Yucca’s storage capabilities is opaque and at times blatantly inaccurate or overly positive. When D’Agata presses a button on an exhibit sign, a recording tells him that the mountain is perfectly stable and dry. Yet, when speaking to a physicist at CIT, D’Agata learns that the mountain is actually full of water, and the government’s anti-corrosive metal Alloy-22 (which is shown to the children) was found to be weak during testing. When trying to figure out the scientific origin of the 10,000-year long storage period, D’Agata embarks on a Kafkaesque navigation through government bureaucracy only to find out that this number was given mostly out of “theatrical security” (68). Even when visiting the actual site, D’Agata and the other journalists are forced to give up their notebooks. On the tour through the noisy site, he is unable to hear his guide and ends up learning very little (155-156). There is a serious problem of miseducation and miscommunication here, not only to the present public but the younger generations who will have to deal with the fate of the nuclear waste and the facility in the future, and D’Agata’s literary movement back-and-forth from ‘factual’ stories to their debunking underscores the very precarious nature of Yucca, both in its scientific failing of instability and its presence in the Las Vegas social consciousness.

These issues of communication in the present inevitably end up bleeding into the future. With its 10,000-year life span (or if one follows the calculation from Finland’s Onkalo site of 100,000 years), Peter Wyck writes that “the sign must outlive the waste” (2). Nuclear waste’s toxicity will endure beyond our current civilization and, as D’Agata shows us in the planning of Yucca warning markers, possibly beyond our languages as well. Accommodating this great timescale is a challenge as no one can guarantee that current languages will last, so instead researchers begin to consider emotion-based signage. D’Agata focuses on the DoE’s use of Edvard Munch’s The Scream on these carved, informational warning monuments. As one DoE spokesperson explains to him, “Human culture will probably change dramatically over the next ten thousand years, but human emotions won’t” (179). Like in the Onkalo documentary, Into Eternity, there are concerns of curious humans stumbling across the site. Yet, while Finnish workers wish for the site to be completely forgotten and isolated with minimal signage due to contamination risks, Yucca Mountain officials appear highly concerned with sending messages to the future. Nuclear waste’s lifespan transcends language and American culture. That it will be buried and unseen in the mountain, and that radiation is itself an invisible force makes the communication of this danger even more difficult. The screaming face is a loud warning but is it stable enough to last thousands of years beyond us? D’Agata and project researchers never quite answer this question, caught in the debate between the strength of emotional, intellectual, or aesthetic warnings to future civilizations. While the nuclear waste remains dangerous, signs are constantly changing, subject to new meanings or losses in significance.

In these conflicts over Yucca Mountain’s present state and its future, D’Agata brings forward the force of memory. By presenting us with these different marker ideas and examples of government misinformation, D’Agata shows how the memory of nuclear waste’s danger is being erased. Unlike other types of ‘passive’ waste that are whisked away from our doorsteps and into out-of-sight landfills, nuclear waste is quite active. It does not adhere to our sense of time. D’Agata also brings in other examples of nuclear disaster, from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl, to show how societies repeatedly ‘forget’ about nuclear power’s danger and continue to use it as a power source despite the lack of waste disposal. Yucca Mountain officials are concerned with communicating with the future yet appear not to have learned from past mistakes of deception and disaster. Parallel to the Yucca Mountain story is that of Levi Presley’s suicide. Through his research, D’Agata revives Presley’s memory and shares his final days with the reader. He repeatedly reminds us of Las Vegas’s high suicide rate—something that lost or denied in the elaborate skyscrapers and neon signs. When working as a suicide hotline operator, D’Agata is told to never ask why the person wishes to commit suicide. “Trust me,” his trainer says, “it gets messy” (163). This refusal to ask the question ‘why’, this lapse in communication —whether it be in Las Vegas suicides, government deception, or how we got to this problem of nuclear waste in the first place—shows these issues will continue to persist. As Wyck describes waste monument design, “what lies beneath must never be celebrated, yet in some fashion must always be remembered” and, indeed, D’Agata walks this delicate line in his own reporting (2). Whether it be scientific knowledge or sociocultural history, the dangerous precarity of Las Vegas and Yucca Mountain’s foundations must not be erased or forgotten in favor of more digestible nuclear narratives and simplified, unstable waste solutions.

In About A Mountain, John D’Agata ponders the many communication challenges facing Yucca Mountain and the nuclear waste it is supposed to hold. Mirroring the waste itself, he operates on unusual timescales, altering reality to fit his own narrative needs. “Although the narrative of this essay suggests that it takes place over a single summer, the span was…in fact, much longer. I have conflated time this way for narrative effect only”, he writes in the book’s Notes (203). D’Agata moves between Las Vegas’s social and ecological past and present, the various conflicting stories over both the city and Yucca Mountain’s existence, and the cultural instability of the waste itself. As with other types of large-scale environmental disasters, the magnitudes of global climate change and even suicide, there is something unspeakable about America’s nuclear waste problem, something toxic that has leaked out from the seemingly trustworthy confines of government studies and mountain rock, seeping into the very social structures of Las Vegas. Warning signs must be constructed, but whether their messages of warning are listened to, understood, or remembered is a complicated question D’Agata leaves unanswered.

Works Cited

D’Agata, John. About A Mountain. New York City: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

Into Eternity. Dir. Michael Madsen. Films Transit International, 2010. Youtube.

Wyck, P. C. V..Signs Of Danger: Waste, Trauma, and Nuclear Threat. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.