Radiation ecologies : bombs, bodies, and environment during the atmospheric nuclear weapons testing period, 1942-1965
Jessee, Emory Jerry
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From 1945 to 1963 the United States Atomic Energy Commission detonated over 200 nuclear weapons tests at its Nevada and Pacific test sites, irradiating every living thing on the planet. Much of the historical scholarship on the period has focused on the scientific debate over the health effects of low-level radiation exposure or on determining what and when the Atomic Energy Commission knew about the health effects fallout. This dissertation, however, argues that the growth of ecological thinking about the health effects of fallout exposure in environmental sciences such as ecology, oceanography, and meteorology dramatically reshaped what was known about radiological risk and provided the scientific foundation for the Limited Test Ban Treaty. By highlighting the ways that radiation traveled beyond the boundaries of the test sites and became incorporated into critical human food chains, this ecological way of perceiving fallout largely replaced previous approaches to fallout risks derived from the discipline of health physics that focused on external forms of radiation exposure and ideas of spatial containment. This dissertation, however, also argues that fallout radiation proved much more than a menacing pollutant. Because environmental scientists can utilize radiation as a tool to trace out structure and function of the ecosystem, as well as oceanic and atmospheric motions, it also emerged during this period as a critical scientific practice. In tracing radiation as it moved through the environment, environmental scientists not only made legible the connections between the health of human bodies and the irradiated environment, but also demonstrated empirically that the earth was a spatially integrated biosphere. Such realizations, this dissertation concludes, formed an important footing the nascent environmental movement and helped establish the authority of the environmental sciences in matters of environmental pollution and regulation.