A Call for Antiracist Action and Accountability in the US Nuclear Community

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tags: nuclear weapons, colonialism, racism, nuclear power

Epistemic racism in the nuclear field, from past to present. In the early-to-mid twentieth century, colonialism was thriving globally—and even widely regarded as beneficial to the people of the Global South. In the United States, the “separate but equal” doctrine was widely accepted on the left and right of the political spectrum, and Jim Crow cast a reign of terror and trauma over Black Americans. Ideas about a supposed biological hierarchy of different races and ethnicities were not seen as controversial. Additionally, assimilationism—the idea that a dominant set of cultural and behavioral norms (namely, the norms of the white, Western, and Christian colonial powers) were the “correct” ones to live by, that minorities should strive to assimilate to these norms in order to be granted full participation and citizenship in society, and that those intentionally deviating from those norms were a punishable threat to social order—was accepted, encouraged, and legal.

At the time of its inception, the nuclear field was not immune to these racist and colonial ideas; rather, such norms, politics, and attitudes were ingrained from the outset within its research practices, policies, legal frameworks, and culture. For example, the Manhattan Project—the largest united scientific undertaking of its time—created many of its production facilities by displacing vulnerable minority communities, often without compensation. Many such US nuclear facilities, particularly those for the weapons program, were built without consent on indigenous land, displacing or poisoning those who lived in the vicinity.

Racist policies and attitudes remained entrenched in the US nuclear weapons enterprise as it built, tested, and ultimately used nuclear weapons. The women who worked on uranium enrichment at what would become Oak Ridge National Lab were forced to keep the color line: Black women who were employed at the Y-12 National Security Complex lived in racially segregated facilities, and generally had lower paying jobs at the facility than whites. During the Trinity test, the United States detonated the world’s first weapon of mass destruction on land bordering the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. The language and rhetoric around the nuclear detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan were steeped in racist and dehumanizing ideas about Japanese people and culture. These racist ideas were difficult to disentangle from the military threat of Japan as an enemy of the United States and the West and became entrenched in the institutionalized but false narrative that nuclear weapons helped win World War II.

After World War II, as the United States and other nations moved to expand their nuclear weapons capabilities and started to use nuclear technology for electricity production, colonial and racist policies continued to frame the field. Nuclear weapons relied on uranium mined from countries such as Congo, Niger, South Africa, Gabon, Madagascar, and Namibia. Nations with a thriving nuclear energy industry and weapons program such as France continually contested the “nuclearity”—the degree to which a country’s activities count as being nuclear—of these countries to justify denying them economic benefits or occupational protections in exchange for mined uranium. As a result, the health and environmental costs of uranium mining were excluded from calculations on the cost of nuclear power, and workers did not receive protections against radiological hazards.

To date, although nuclear weapons have only been used once in a hot war, weapons were detonated with abandon in colonial (or former) territories of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China in the name of nuclear weapons testing. While these testing sites were considered “remote” by European and American standards, they were not at all so to the predominantly Indigenous and people of color living in the Pacific Islands, Algeria, and Australia. Even judging by the norms of the time, the actions of the nuclear-armed nations were dismissive of and dehumanizing to people of color around the world.

Read entire article at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

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