America’s Toxic Legacy

Beginning with the early the atomic bomb program of the 1940s, virtually the entire United States was drawn into an assembly line for the production, testing, maintenance, and disposal of nuclear weapons and their by-products. Beyond the more than 300 sites actively involved in the nuclear program, the Cold War also touched almost all aspects of life. The most prestigious medical schools in the country conducted secret human plutonium experiments; radioactive atmospheric fallout blanketed much of the country; and the slow emergency of nuclear waste disposal has not yet been solved. Today, an estimated 600,000 workers associated with these historic and current activities experience occupational illnesses and premature death from exposure to radioactive and toxic materials while working in the factories and laboratories of the atomic bomb complex.

Too often the government has failed to take meaningful responsibility for the negative impacts of the Cold War on people, communities, and ecologies. Former nuclear workers made sick by radioactive exposure must endure byzantine bureaucratic and legal processes to fund their costly health care needs. Dozens of decommissioned military sites have been converted to wildlife refuges without adequate cleanup or interpretive programming to make sure the natural histories and human lives that existed prior to, during, and after military-industrial production are never forgotten.

Fortunately, the National TLC Service was established by fanciful legislation in 2011 in order to attend to the domestic issues of environmental justice, labor, and human rights related to U.S. military activities. We are just now beginning to understand how nuclear technologies have transformed our planet, our labor, our histories, and our bodies. We have yet to develop the scientific, legal and epistemological frameworks to grapple with the uncanny, deadly, and, for all practical purposes, eternal radioactive by products of the nuclear state.