Shannon Cram, a Ph. D. candidate in UC Berkeley’s Department of Geography, is the most recent individual to have completed a term as Resident Scholar in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center. She is also the latest of many long-term researchers to dig deeply into our wealth of collections related to the history of atomic energy.
Cram’s research focus is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, located on the Columbia River in Washington state, and the most contaminated landscape in the country. The cause of this contamination is an extensive legacy of weapons-grade plutonium manufacture that began there in 1943. Since then, an estimated 450 billion gallons of nuclear waste has entered Hanford’s soil and water table. Trace amounts have accumulated in plants and animals, humans included. Leakage also has spread to the Columbia River through direct dumping and groundwater seepage.
Hanford is home to over two-thirds of the United States’ high level nuclear waste. The ensuing cleanup has since comprised the most expensive environmental remediation project in human history. The cleaning project is also complex because planners must take into account the fact that the existing waste will still be harmful to humans for at least 10,000 years. Thus, long reaching and permanent containment solutions are required.
Under the Superfund Act, which governs hazardous waste cleanup, an area is considered fully remediated when the risk for contracting harmful cancer is, at maximum, 1 in 10,000. In her rich and entertaining Resident Scholar lecture, Cram argued that successful remediation of the Hanford site will require not just the disassembly of all of the site’s physical nuclear structures and containment of its nuclear materials, but also the erasure of Hanford’s impact on the local environment.
This context established, Cram suggested that nuclear waste is not socially inert, but distinctly productive. She argued that, just as above-ground nuclear testing affected the populous in Pauling’s era, the contemporary issue of nuclear remediation also affects the public. She contended that former nuclear sites like Hanford have helped to redefine nuclear threats to the future, with nuclear waste posing a long-lasting risk to future populations.
In her talk, Cram also discussed the history of nuclear radiation protection standards with a particular focus on the Human Health Risk Assessment for the Hanford site. Back when atomic warfare was still new to the American people, guidelines for radiation exposure had to be developed. A handbook created by the U.S. Department of Commerce, titled “Permissible Dose from External Sources of Ionizing Radiation,” based its data on a Cold War political structure which regarded the U.S. to be under threat and saw the sacrifice of some as necessary for the survival of many more. The handbook also described the strategic advantages of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield and estimates of how long soldiers could function before they were “rendered ineffective.”
Having cited this handbook, Cram then described the attitude of standard makers toward the protection of nuclear industrial workers. Specifically, she quoted a member of the National Council for Radiation Protection who said
I see no alternative but to assume that [an] operation is safe until it is proven to be unsafe. It is recognized that in order to demonstrate an unsafe condition you may have to sacrifice someone. This does not seem fair on the one hand, and yet I see no alternative. You certainly cannot penalize research and industry…by assuming that all installations are unsafe until proven safe. I think that the worker should expect to take his share of the risk involved in such a philosophy.
Radiation protection guidelines of this sort clearly relied upon contentious judgments about the relative value and meaning of life in the nuclear age. Questions over quality of life were mixed with concerns about national security and economic efficiency. Cram’s research asserts that, in deciding on official terms for radiation exposure, life and death became matters of political and strategic calculation. In this, the U.S. government used public radiation standards as both a benchmark for nuclear safety and as a distraction for the public from the negative impacts of nuclear testing.
The Resident Scholar Program, now in it sixth year, offers stipends of up to $2,500 in support of researchers wishing to make extensive use of materials held in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center. More information about the program, is available here. Applications for 2014 scholarships will be made available in January.