The Contested Boundaries of the Nuclear North: Visualizing, Measuring, and Mapping Radiation Exposures in the North American Arctic, 1963-1969

Authors: Jonathan Luedee*, University of British Columbia
Topics: Environment, Polar Regions
Keywords: radiation, nuclear geography, arctic
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


In what ways has the measurement of radioactive exposures been shaped by historical and geographical processes? In 1963, officials with the Radiation Protection Division (RPD) in Canada’s Department of National Health and Welfare initiated a systematic investigation of human exposure to radioactive contamination in northern communities. Spurred by the recent documentation of the “lichen-caribou-man” pathway of exposure by Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) biologists working in Alaska, Canadian officials worried that the ecological mechanisms inherent to the Arctic food web had rendered northern Indigenous communities particularly vulnerable to the bioaccumulation of cesium-137. Far from being a politically-neutral project, I situate scientific efforts to monitor radiocesium body burdens within a longer historical geography of colonialism in the Arctic. Drawing on literature in the fields of STS and the history of science, I demonstrate that RPD scientists asserted their authority as legitimate producers of nuclear knowledge through the development and mobilization of a technopolitical monitoring program that was attuned to the complex geographies of northern Canada. Yet, in the Arctic, scientific efforts to monitor radiation exposures – including attendant debates over scientific authority and expertise – occurred within official channels of colonial administration. Through an examination of this historical geography, I argue that the RPD’s efforts to visualize, measure, and map the spatiotemporalities of radiation exposures not only proceeded along well-entrenched colonial geographies, but also reinscribed those power relations that served to maintain colonial logics of domination and dispossession in the North American Arctic.

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