Linda Richards, doctoral candidate in the history of science at Oregon State University, is the first individual to have completed a term as an OSU Libraries Resident Scholar in 2012. Steeped in the tradition of the activist-scholar, Richards has been discussing nuclear history, environmental justice and non-violent conflict resolution for over twenty-five years. During her residency, Richards continued her investigations into these themes using the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, the History of Atomic Energy Collection and the Bart and Sally Hacker Papers.
Titled “Starfish, Fallout Suits, and Human Rights,” Richards’ Resident Scholar presentation started from the premise that “how nuclear history is told matters.” In exploring this idea, Richards introduced her audience to a number of events important to the history of nuclear energy that were likely unknown to most in attendance.
One such incident is the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mine contamination, the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, which occurred in New Mexico on the Navajo Reservation in July 1979. The disaster badly contaminated the reservation’s scarce water supply with radioactive pollutants flowing some seventy miles down the Puerco River. The event took place just a few months after the Three Mile Island accident, but is far less well known to the general public. As Richards noted
What I have found so far in my research confirms, as Gabrielle Hecht suggested, that radiation health safety is more a reflection of the value of what is being irradiated than how dangerous a substance is….I have [also] found nuclear history is most often told as a technocratic saga of nation states pursuing nuclear weapons superiority and energy independence. This narrative is incomplete because it not only separates the glitz of modern reactors from the rocks and dirt of uranium mines hiding what is polluting and harmful about nuclear technology, but it is missing the dimension of lived human experience, particularly of indigenous peoples’ physical and cultural interaction with nuclear technology.
In her discussion of Linus Pauling’s activism in opposition to atmospheric nuclear testing (including his involvement in the Fallout Suits) Richards likewise introduced a number of historical events that do not typically make their way into the shorthand version of nuclear history.
For example, in May 1958 James Van Allen announced his finding that the Earth is surrounded by belts of high-energy particles that are held in place by magnetic fields – the so-called “Van Allen Belts.” That very same day, Van Allen signed an agreement to work with the military to test nuclear weapons high in space for purposes of studying the disruption of the belts and of military communication during the event of a nuclear war. Historian James Fleming was later quoted, “this is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up.”
The most intensely disruptive and longest lasting of these tests was the 1.4-megaton Starfish Prime explosion, which occurred on July 9, 1962. The artificial extension of the Van Allen belts created by the test could be seen across the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand, lighting up the night sky. The test damaged six satellites that all failed within six months. The explosion also created an electromagnetic pulse that blew out transformers on Hawaii and disrupted the electricity grid.
Richards also recounted, in alarming detail, the extent to which nuclear testing in the 1960s became increasingly extreme. The largest nuclear device ever detonated was the Soviet’s Tzar Bomba, a 50-megaton bomb tested some eight months before Starfish Prime. A graphic presented by Richards illustrated the magnitude of this detonation in stark terms.
The impact of the release of radioactive toxins into the environment was a source of great concern to Linus Pauling and is still being studied today. By some estimates, radioactive fallout will cause around 430,000 fatal cancers by the end of this century.
And it is this human element that, Richards argues, must be included in contemporary historical writing on the nuclear age. “My dissertation,” she concluded “is premised on the belief that including a human rights dimension into the nuclear narrative destabilizes the disempowerment of an inaccessible technocratic narrative while raising the questions that need to be asked of history.”
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