Making nuclear space: Technoscientific networks and the geographies of Cold War nuclear experimentation.

Authors: James Rhatigan*, University of British Columbia
Topics: Historical Geography
Keywords: nuclear geographies, nuclearity, historical geographies of science and experimentation
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: 8224, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper tells the story of a failed nuclear experiment. It explores the historical geography of Project Oilsand, an ambitious plan developed in the late 1950s by the Richfield Oil Corporation and the United States Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) to use nuclear bombs to extract bitumen in northern Alberta. Pursued under the auspices of the USAEC’s Project Plowshare, Oilsand would see the detonation of a 9-kiloton nuclear bomb underneath Athabasca tar sands. An embodiment of mid-century scientific hubris and nuclear optimism, the project’s proponents touted it as a viable way of realising the utopian promises of nuclear technologies and reshaping Canadian resource economies. While Project Oilsand was abandoned in 1960, its demise was far from inevitable. Indeed, it was seriously considered by politicians, scientists, and engineers working at all levels of government in both Canada and the US. Charting Oilsands’ rise and fall, this paper examines the work of the transnational network of scientists, bureaucrats, and politicians that coalesced in support of the project. It traces their efforts to construct northern Alberta as a suitable site for nuclear experimentation and render the explosion at the heart of the project ‘banal’. Ultimately, I argue that Project Oilsand’s failure hinged around shifting understandings of what it meant to be “nuclear” and what type of “nuclear state” Canada should present itself to be.

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