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Next Exit Armageddon

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo


Sprinkled throughout the back roads of American are the remains of Armageddon. Or what could have been Armageddon had the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union suddenly gone hot.


The ghosts of America's atomic arsenal, from development to deployment, are accessible if you know where to look: in Arizona and South Dakota, decommissioned nuclear missiles still aim skyward; in Nevada and New Mexico, the remains of nuclear testing still scar the desert; and in Tennessee and Washington state, the facilities that developed uranium and plutonium for America's nuclear bombs gather dust.


In the coming months, the National Park Service and the Department of Energy will establish the Manhattan Project National Historical Park—preserving once-secret sites at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford, where scientists raced to develop the world's first atomic bomb. Public tours at these sites are already intensely popular, selling out within days. The Park Service aims to better facilitate access to these sites to meet increasing public interest.


Yet elsewhere in the U.S., the ruins of the Manhattan Project, and the arms race that followed, remain overlooked. In North Dakota, a pyramid-like anti-missile radar, built to detect an incoming nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, pokes through the prairie grass behind an open fence. In Arizona, a satellite calibration target, used during the Cold War to help American satellites focus their lenses before spying on the Soviet Union, sits covered in weeds near a Motel 6 parking lot. And in a suburban Chicago park, where visitors jog and bird watch, nuclear waste from the world's first reactor—developed by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi for the Manhattan Project in 1942—sits buried beneath a sign that reads "Caution—Do Not Dig."