Author:Shannon Cram (University of Washington Bothell)
Paper short abstract:
This paper explores the complex politics of “permissible exposure” for workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.
Paper long abstract:
This paper explores the sensory politics of nuclear work. Based on in-depth interviews with current and retired workers at Washington State's Hanford Nuclear Reservation, I consider how Hanford workers learn to protect themselves against the invisible hazard of radioactivity. This daily encounter with the insensible means cultivating what Joy Parr calls "a different mode of somatic attention"—developing an intimate relationship with both radiation detection devices and federal standards for "permissible exposure." Workers must learn to move through space according to these specific arbiters of safety, ensuring that they receive no more than the federally-approved level of nuclear dose. This means developing an aesthetic awareness of radioactive space, titrating subtle movements with invisible hazards to balance each day's acceptable exposure. It requires learning to live radiation protection—fine tuning oneself to the statistical reasoning of nuclear industrial risk. Of course, embodying radioactive safety does not mean avoiding exposure altogether, as nuclear processing is not possible without some level of bodily impact. Rather, Hanford workers absorb the amount of radiation that has been deemed "safe enough" in federal regulation, leaving them to deal with the chronic health effects of safe exposure on their own. As such, I argue that the art of atomic living necessarily extends beyond the Hanford site, where many workers must also learn to live with bodies that have been remade through nuclear encounter.
Infrastructures of nuclearity: Exploring entangled histories, spaces and futures