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Rocks and Reactors: The Origins of Radiation Exposure Disparity, 1941-1979

Linda Marie Richards 

My dissertation examines various conceptions of safety at critical junctures during the Cold War to deepen knowledge of the social context of radiation health safety science. The expansion of nuclear science worldwide was aided by the availability of uranium and by American academics that built trust in the health physics field.

This dissertation asks how markedly different levels of contamination became acceptable norms at different settings and stages in the nuclear fuel chain (the mining, milling, production, testing, use and storage of nuclear materials). To simplify an often confusing science, a comparison is made between the conduct of radiation health safety at Atoms for Peace research reactors and indigenous uranium mining sites.

Radiation health safety history is contested, and is disconnected from the larger narratives of human rights and nuclear history. This dissertation intends to contribute new knowledge and make visible how environmental injustices became embedded in inconsistent protections regimes. In addition, the work will answer the call of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in 2007 for civil society to take action to integrate the “UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” into education and policy. The ongoing lack implementation for equal protection under the law concerning radiation health safety amplifies the need for research which can connect studies of environmental injustice with the history of science discipline.

In the present expansion of nuclear power, where non-democratic procedures have resulted in nuclear energy being promoted as a de facto energy solution to global warming, the public can only benefit from increased dialogue on nuclear history, environmental justice, and human rights. A 2012 NSF dissertation improvement grant supported research to create a more global view of radiation health safety. Photographs of 24,830 pages of documents were collected during 4 months of travel. The dissertation will be completed by September 2014. 


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