We shall be studying environmental change in the global nuclear enterprise. But which of these changes are “nuclear,” only those connected with the mining, manufacture, handling, application and storage of radioactive material? Another aspect of this project is to consider how nuclear systems acquire their nuclear characteristics and who designates them as such. Hecht (2012) names this phenomenon “nuclearity.” How and when do such things as uranium become nuclear things? Is nuclearity different for scientists, engineers, managers, workers, miners, managers, epidemiologists, protestors, downwinders and others? In her studies of mines in Africa, Hecht notes that the nuclearity of uranium has varied across African space and time, and reflected a variety of economic and political realities: struggle against colonialism and apartheid, an effort to measure without complete honesty the exposures of miners to radiation, and always how definitions, markets, standards, treaties, and scientific knowledge were used and for what purposes.
When nations produce and test nuclear weapons, or when they deploy nuclear power plants, they force people out and move other people in, and they commence with rebuilding the environment. They use ordinary construction and transport equipment. These movements of people – voluntary and involuntary – also involve the import of steel girders, the stringing of power lines, and the management of waterways and lakes. The way people have migrated to jobs, been forced off their lands, been ordered into tests zones, been unwitting downwinders, been exposed to accidents, consumed tainted food and so on, the storage of nuclear waste, the migration of radionuclides into the environment, and fallout – all these things are nuclear.
Questions about what is nuclear and who determines it is connected with the way that many of the impacts of the nuclear world have acquired “invisibility” (Kuchinskaya). When they become invisible, they become “de-nuclearized” – disconnected from nuclear accidents and installations. They are invisible because of ongoing disputes about the impact of ionizing radiation on living things, the reputed recovery of such accidents zones as those around Chernobyl, and the efforts of national governments and international organizations to evaluate, and in some cases to underplay this impact. Invisibility arises because of the powerlessness of individuals from Hiroshima, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, nuclear vets, Pacific island refugees and downwinders to show how their personal experiences and health problems reflect real circumstances, not psychological trauma as the authorities maintain. We anticipate that the consideration of nuclearity in these matters of environmental history may help make some of the history of ionizing radiation more visible.
One way to examine nuclearity in greater depth is to consider how environmental aspects of nuclear applications share features with other industrial activities and in what ways the nuclear world may be unique. Profligate water use, erosion, ground water pollution, the problem of discarding materials considered unimportant or worthless – all of these things occur in other spheres of human activity. To what extent are different elements of the nuclear world seen as artificially separate? Does the nature of radioactive substances make their utilization and management a different task with different impacts compared with those in, say, metallurgical or coal mining activities, both of which produce runoff and tailings with such dangerous pollutants as heavy metals?
In pursuit of energy and production, resource extraction and so on, all major industrial activities have environmental impacts – mining, forestry, water works projects, agriculture — to name a few. They involve terracing, excavating, mining, clearing of forest, draining of wetlands, modification of lakes and rivers, digging, construction, the use of explosives, and shipments of vast quantities of ore and other material (Dean; Hamblin, 2008; Josephson, 2002; LeCain, Melosi; Reisner; Shapiro). Yet analysts have tended to keep these elements of production in the nuclear sphere at least hypothetically separate: mining, tailings and high level radioactive waste; reactor cooling water and the lakes and rivers fed by reactor cooling effluent and seeded with fish; isotopes used for medical purposes and consequential exposures to isotopes that may lead to blood poisoning, serious illness and death. The idea of “nuclearity” will thus enable us to be cognizant of what is specific to the nuclear world and what is not in this global environmental history.