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Unmaking the Bomb: Waste, Health, and the Politics of Impossibility at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation


This dissertation explores the politics of waste, health, and remediation at Washington State's Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The most contaminated nuclear site in the nation, Hanford is engaged in the largest environmental cleanup in human history—legally required to implement protective measures that will remain effective for 10,000 years. Informed by eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork and more than 100 in-depth interviews with Hanford workers, managers, and area residents, this project explores how nuclear remediation is made possible despite its inherent uncertainties. Through four empirical chapters, I make the case that nuclear waste is not socially inert, but distinctly productive. Just as above-ground weapons testing produced the official script for American nuclear disaster with its televised detonations and duck-and-cover drills, I argue that the contemporary spectacle of remediation works to re-define the terms of nuclear citizenship and national security in the face of the nation’s enduring waste. Thus, cleanup projects at former weapons sites like Hanford articulate a new social contract for nuclear threat in the post-Cold War era—one that defines the conditions of “livable” exposure and “acceptable” contamination, highlighting particular hazards while rendering others invisible.

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