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The Burden of the Bomb: Work, Workers, and the Social Relations of National Defense at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory

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Abstract:

In the environmental disaster following Operation Crossroads, the U.S. military saw how radiation was not simply a waste product of the atomic bomb but a weapon itself, requiring new forms of national defense. The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL), which operated at the Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco from 1946-1969, grew out of attempts to decontaminate irradiated warships from the Marshall Islands – a thoroughly new problem of the age. From its initial set of ad hoc experimentation on warships-turned-floating labs, the NRDL was tasked with developing tactics and technologies for protecting the Cold War soldier in the event of a future atomic war. At the same time, it systematically exposed shipyard workers to radiation, blurring the distinction between warfare and scientific research. This paper considers the notion of a body burden in a double sense – as the amount of radiation an individual can safely absorb without appreciable bodily harm, and as the social geography of national sacrifice, the question of which bodies bear the burden of war, or who is (not) protected in the service of “national defense.” Based on the lab’s records at the National Archives in San Francisco, this paper shows how, at the very moment the lab was developing manuals for atomic defense, increasingly precise instrumentation and techniques for radiation detection, and protective gear for soldiers in the field, the work of operating a radiation lab on an active, windy shipyard was messy, laborious, and accident-prone. The burden of “radiological protection” of the future atomic soldier was thus absorbed by the actual bodies of manual laborers at the Hunters Point Shipyard.
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Association:
Name: ASEH Conference – San Francisco
URL:
http://aseh.net


Citation:
URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p679530_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Dillon, Lindsey. "The Burden of the Bomb: Work, Workers, and the Social Relations of National Defense at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ASEH Conference – San Francisco, Parc 55 Wyndham Hotel, San Francisco, California, <Not Available>. 2014-12-10 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p679530_index.html>

APA Citation:

Dillon, L. "The Burden of the Bomb: Work, Workers, and the Social Relations of National Defense at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ASEH Conference – San Francisco, Parc 55 Wyndham Hotel, San Francisco, California <Not Available>. 2014-12-10 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p679530_index.html

Publication Type: Panel Paper
Abstract: In the environmental disaster following Operation Crossroads, the U.S. military saw how radiation was not simply a waste product of the atomic bomb but a weapon itself, requiring new forms of national defense. The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL), which operated at the Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco from 1946-1969, grew out of attempts to decontaminate irradiated warships from the Marshall Islands – a thoroughly new problem of the age. From its initial set of ad hoc experimentation on warships-turned-floating labs, the NRDL was tasked with developing tactics and technologies for protecting the Cold War soldier in the event of a future atomic war. At the same time, it systematically exposed shipyard workers to radiation, blurring the distinction between warfare and scientific research. This paper considers the notion of a body burden in a double sense – as the amount of radiation an individual can safely absorb without appreciable bodily harm, and as the social geography of national sacrifice, the question of which bodies bear the burden of war, or who is (not) protected in the service of “national defense.” Based on the lab’s records at the National Archives in San Francisco, this paper shows how, at the very moment the lab was developing manuals for atomic defense, increasingly precise instrumentation and techniques for radiation detection, and protective gear for soldiers in the field, the work of operating a radiation lab on an active, windy shipyard was messy, laborious, and accident-prone. The burden of “radiological protection” of the future atomic soldier was thus absorbed by the actual bodies of manual laborers at the Hunters Point Shipyard.


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