Large Scale Technological Systems and Environmental Change

One concept concerns the meaning and function of technological systems (Hughes). Simply put, we cannot look at objects in isolation, but must consider the messy interaction of engineering, scientific, financial, governmental, and social institutions in giving impetus – or creating obstacles – to the dissemination of technology. Nuclear systems are extensive in space and time, and they have a number of levels and functions that, at many points, require consideration of environmental, risk and safety issues. They involve geological engineering, deployment and construction across vast regions, nuclear tests in laboratories and in various terrains, the atmosphere, and under water, and massive numbers of individuals working on land and at sea, in offices and research sites, also underground or in the air, employed in a variety of public and private organizations, and carrying out a variety of tasks. In a word, the machinery of nuclear production employed – and often housed – hundreds of thousands of scientists, laborers and soldiers engaged across a series of landscapes with complex technological systems concerned with nuclear fuel manufacture and use, pushing the environment and its inhabitants because of national security concerns, economic pursuits, and other reasons.

Nuclear systems have benefited in their development and diffusion because of their centrality to wartime and postwar military and foreign policy efforts of powerful states, and not only those connected with defense. They expanded because of connections with Atoms for Peace programs in the 1950s and beyond (Krige); by the late twentieth century because of their importance to burgeoning export industries; and always because of the efforts of non-nuclear states to acquire technology and know-how. Nuclear systems operate with vast human, capital, legal and other resources as manifested in prospecting, mining, fuel fabrication, weapons and nuclear power facilities, and they acquired great momentum. To take one example: by 2015 the US military-scientific enterprise consisted of eight national laboratories, tests sites, weapons facilities, affiliated production units. Two of the US facilities spread across hills, forest, and desert, pulling lakes and rivers into a system that planners seemed to believe could be made hermetic, all of which to facilitate fuel production. The Oak Ridge, TN, “reservation” is 150 square kilometers of which the lab takes up 18 square kilometers, while the Hanford, WA, reservation at 1,290 sq. km (500 sq. mi) used nine reactors and five plutonium processing complexes to produce more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. Military and public officials selected the sites precisely for their seeming distance from inhabited areas, ignoring Native Americans, and considered them empty, undervaluing flora and fauna, where they could locate a “hazardous manufacturing area,” laboratories, and housing.

Planners sought vast land holdings, to them devoid of human habitation, preferably far from borders, or in colonial possessions. Did they reproduce this choice and vision of the environment across the globe and for both civilian and military projects? Regarding the latter point, after all, all nuclear power plants require extensive takings of land and isolation of the facilities from intruders of all sorts (terrorists, protestors, fauna that might clog pumps and pumps or might carry away pollutants on their fur). Indeed, what kinds of conceptualization of the environment arose in the assembly of nuclear reservations, test sites and power stations in the US, Canada, France, the USSR and their colonial holdings?

The first organizations connected with nuclear systems may have contributed to the kinds of environmental decisions taken: site selection, reactor design, and attitudes toward affected populations, as we shall investigate. It seems likely that, in the early years, insufficient attention to safety and environmental concerns came about owing to the haste to complete projects, precisely because of the sense that national security and secrecy must predominate over other worries, and also because of incomplete understandings of the environmental risks involved. To be sure, the need for secrecy led to compartmentalization of facilities to prevent espionage. But compartmentalization also prevented talk of moral aspects of the bomb or its physical impacts including environmental ones. Indeed, many of the technologies needed to produce nuclear weapons were poorly designed and without environmental safety considerations, for example, once-through cooling on plutonium production reactors (engineers insisted on a clean and abundant water supply and copious amounts of electricity – provided by the Columbia River) and haphazard storage of legacy waste that has likely become a multi-trillion dollar cleanup issue worldwide. We shall consider how views of security, safety and environment co-evolved in large scale systems.