Atomic City, Idaho: located at the edge of an 890-square mile nuclear complex, Atomic City was once called Midway–until the world’s first electricity-generating nuclear power plant, Experimental Breeder Reactor-1, was built next door. The town boomed, wholeheartedly embracing the promise of the Atomic Age.
But it didn’t last. In 1955, the EBR-1 suffered the world’s first partial meltdown; six years later, another neighboring nuclear power plant, the SL-1, lost three employees in a nuclear accident so grisly that the victims needed to be buried in lead coffins sealed with concrete. The town declined; the population dropped.
By the time photographer David T. Hanson came to Atomic City in December, 1986, only 29 people still lived in town (this, coincidentally, is the same number of people who live in Atomic City today). But for all intents and purposes, Atomic City was totally deserted: a nuclear boomtown turned ghost town, surrounded by the crumbling towers of an Atomic Age that had failed to deliver upon its promise. 30 years later, for the first time, Hanson’s haunting photographs of Atomic City are finally being published in March as part of his upcoming book, Wilderness to Wasteland.
“It was a strange place, almost abandoned,” remembers Hanson. “It was clearly an impoverished community, with most people living below the poverty line.” Everyone who still lived in town seemed to live in a trailer, mobile home, or even old railroad cars, with the occasional dilapidated house to break things up. Yet although the town itself seemed to have no future, the evidence of its booming past were still plain to see, including a post office sign that proudly broadcast the town’s nuclear heritage, as well as the Atomic City Raceway, which used to host stock car races in the summer.
Despite walking around Atomic City all day, though, Hanson says he can’t remember seeing a single soul. “It was very much like being in a recently evacuated town or an abandoned movie set,” he remembers. “Not having people in the pictures seemed appropriate for this place and accentuated the look and feeling of a modern-day ghost town.”
Hanson says he came to Atomic City because he feels the boom-bust story is perhaps the most essential story of the American West. Though it was spurred by a different boom, what happened to Atomic City is the same thing that happened to Deadwood, Tombstone, and Dodge City. “Looking back at the Atomic City series now, I find that in addition to describing a small ghost town at the edge of a military complex, the pictures seem to be about some aspects of the taming of the West that are such an important part of our heritage–inhabiting the wilderness, carving out a home for oneself, living on the edge of civilization,” the photographer says.
Atomic City is also a kind of strange monument to the 20th century, at least according to Hanson: “It seems frightening yet somehow appropriate that the most enduring monuments America will leave for future generations will be the hazardous remains of our industry and technology.”