The Military-Civilian Interface

Following the work of Stirling and Johnstone (2018) and others, we shall analyze the highly complex nuclear enterprise, and its military and civilian components, as being of the same piece – with overlapping institutions, technologies, personnel, and impacts on society and environment that ultimately should not be treated separately – except precisely for rhetorical purposes. Are military nuclear programs significantly different from civilian ones by virtue of their vast scale in terms of (potential) explosive power, kinds of toxic wastes, and involvement of thousands of individuals? Do engineers employed by the military enterprise pay attention to different concerns and have different responsibilities toward their work, society and the environment than those in the civilian sector?

Many of these things are not understudied, but are rarely studied together. In considering peaceful and military technologies together, this study will move beyond the tendency to see them as coming from different separate spheres of activity and thus with largely different environmental concerns, ideas and concepts. Since the dawn of the age, nations have attempted to diffuse the nuclear bomb by treating military and civilian programs, applications, and future promises as different. If many nations embraced the peaceful atom with its promise of immediate modernity, then the coercive impact of the atom was far more telling of the essence of the military, scientific and environmental colonialism of the nuclear enterprise. When the Soviet Union chose the Nenets regions of Novaia Zemlia or Kazakh lands for the nuclear test sites; the French Algerian or Tahitian sites; the US – Bikinian atolls, they did so with implicit visions of a world that might be made peaceful if their weapons were mastered to prevent war. Similarly, we can ask if reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel for civilian programs is indeed peaceful since very little of that fuel energy will make its way into the production of electricity, but is often intended for military uses. The same holds for civilian breeder reactors: is the plutonium produced in them destined for the military? Is breeder waste civilian?

Another issue is how military spokespeople have argued that their efforts have indeed been peaceful. The selection of Hiroshima as a military target, “pristine” in the words of one officer to ensure rational study of the impact of nuclear bombs, is but one manifestation of the confusion that may arise here. It arises again when military officials used vast territories to test nuclear detonations toward the ends of peace. Yet, as Jacobs notes, “the first prototypes and operating nuclear power plants, all as part of the Manhattan Project,” were built “for the sole purpose of manufacturing plutonium for nuclear weapons.” He argues that “nuclear power was born violent” and with the purpose of its development “the mass and indiscriminate killing of human beings” (Jacobs).

How can we understand the boundaries between military nuclear facilities and civilian ones? Have they been intended to keep secrets, radioactivity, and other aspects of the nuclear world within their borders? Are the boundaries not artificial in many ways, and what does this tell us about the nuclear world? What is the role of the state in nuclear environmental history, after all, states are crucial in promotion and regulation of nuclear activities? We believe that it is a mistake to separate military from civilian programs, technologies, and environmental impacts. By considering civilian and military programs as part of the same piece of activities, attitudes and environmental impacts, we hope to build on the work of Russell (2001) and others to investigate how control of nature, military activities and environmental concerns are related.