Jerry Jessee

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Graduate Program: 
History of Science, Environment, Technology and Society
Montana State University
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My dissertation examines examines the development of ecological ways of knowing the effects of radioactive fallout upon human health during the atmospheric nuclear weapons testing period in the United States. Although much of the literature exploring health and radiation during this period has focused on the controversy over the perceived effects of exposure to low-levels of radiation to human health, much less work has investigated how ecological conceptions of critical biological and ecological pathways of exposure reformulated notions of risk and safety during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Moreover, little research has been conducted that explores how this ecological reorientation helped to energize and contributed to some of the important ideological and scientific foundations of the modern environmental movement. At the inception of the weapons testing program in 1946, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was charged with the responsibility for both promoting nuclear weapons development and ensuring public safety from fallout, initially designed a fallout program based upon a model of industrial safety inherited from the Plutonium Project of the Manhattan Engineering District during World War II. “Health Physics,” as the specialized practice of radiation safety was dubbed during the war, was based in and upon practices suited to factory environments. Focusing on what they called “good housekeeping,” health physicists protected workers in the MED bomb-building factories by carefully monitoring worker exposure and “sanitizing” the factory. While this kind of environmental control seemed to provide adequate protection to the public during the first weapons tests in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the development of megaton-yielding thermonuclear weapons and a series of fallout disasters in the mid-1950s awakened both the AEC and the public to the potential hazard that lingering residual radiation from fallout in the environment posed to human health. Strontium-90, in particular, became a radionuclide of concern owing to its relatively long half-life and its easy assimilation into human food chains. Once in the environment, it was realized, radionuclides like Strontium-90 were subject less to the rules of “good housekeeping” and more to the whims of the environment. This turn toward environmental contamination reprioritized AEC research into the mechanisms of environmental bioaccumulation and ecological exposure pathways and structured the ensuing global fallout controversy by alerting the world to the fate of the unbounded movement of global fallout in the environment. As mothers in cities like St. Louis or London debated feeding their children milk contaminated with fallout produced from weapons tests hundreds and even thousands of miles from their homes, powerful proto-environmentalist groups like the St. Louis-based Committee for Nuclear Information and the nationwide Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy emerged determined to educate the public to the insidious implication that these far away tests held for their and their children’s health. By 1963 in the face of growing pressure to end the atmospheric tests, the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty which banned all atmospheric, underwater, and outer space tests. Despite the end of above-ground testing, the fallout controversy left a lasting impression upon many in the world, but especially in the United States; the health of human bodies were implicated in the health of the environment. Thus at the inauguration of the modern environmental movement in the late 1960s, many Americans no doubt could share in environmental activist Barry Commoner’s telling sentiment when he wrote in his environmentalist classic The Closing Circle, “I learned about the environment from the United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1953.”


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