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The Aboveground Ecology of an Underground Mine: A Comparison of Uranium Tailings and their Treatment in the U.S. Desert, Soviet Steppe, and Canadian Shield

Thu, March 15, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Riverside Convention Center, MR 9


The U.S. atomic age regulatory system, according to the prevailing opinion of scholars, was a complete failure in the uranium mines. It let companies pollute land, water, and air indiscriminately in a drive to achieve Cold War goals. This failure, the argument holds, was exceptional and contained within the United States. Historians focus on the United States as if the situation in the country was an outlier. My presentation, however, will compare environmental regulations in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union to illustrate that this notion is misguided. In fact, the United States was often at the forefront of environmental legislation and monitoring, but it still faced intractable problems and a comparatively large public backlash.

Using three case studies—one from the Soviet steppe, one from the Canadian shield, and one from the U.S. desert—my presentation will examine the historical agency and power of uranium. I will argue that the ways in which uranium was deposited, its surrounding landscape, and its characteristics affected how its contamination of land, air, and water was or was not successfully controlled. But it was not just the ore that had agency. I will also look at how people affected the regulation of uranium tailings through national and international environmental and anti-nuclear movements and conversations. My presentation will show how these different movements impacted not only the ways in which the government controlled contamination, but also the public perceptions of this pollution. Moreover, I will argue that the only way one can understand the effectiveness or the negligence of the control of uranium mine tailings during the Cold War is to examine it through a transnational, comparative lens