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Reviewed by:
  • Nuclear Portraits: Communities, the Environment, and Public Policy ed. by Laurel Sefton MacDowell
  • Jason S. Ridler
Nuclear Portraits: Communities, the Environment, and Public Policy. Laurel Sefton MacDowell, ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017. Pp. xiii + 313, $30.66 paper

Canada has been intimately involved in nuclear affairs since New Zealand’s Ernest Rutherford won his 1908 Nobel Prize in physics for work done at McGill University. A defining characteristic of that role has been working with international partners; Canada was one of three nations closely involved in the creation of the atomic bomb. For example, National Research Council President C.J. Mackenzie and Minister of Munitions and Supply C.D. Howe served on the Combined Policy Committee with British and American leadership to decide on the use of the atomic bomb. In that spirit of nuclear internationalism, Nuclear Portraits braids a cadre of experts in nuclear affairs (ranging from anthropologists to engineers) to discuss the international challenges of nuclear power since 1945 in regard to public policy, economics, the environment, and more. [End Page 333]

As Laurel Sefton MacDowell notes in the introduction, the work is about the “impact of the nuclear industry on people and their communities, on public health, and on the environment” with a dose of history (9). (Parenthetically, the introduction gets one fact wrong; the American monopoly on atomic weapons was not broken by the Soviets in 1951 but, instead, in 1949.) The introduction lays out the purpose of each chapter but ignores the dark achievement of the Manhattan Project and the role of state power in turning the theories of applied physics into one of the most monumental state projects in human history. Still, MacDowell provides a solid road map of nuclear history since Hiroshima. The work’s core argument, based on a 2009 meeting of the Nuclear International Research Group, was that nuclear weapons have had transformative effects on national cultures, economies, and perceptions of risk and value. The chapters show “how” this transformative power has been manifested. Some are more successful than others.

The chapters can be grouped into two main themes: price and perception. The “price” chapters involve the cost of environmental damage and the challenge of waste management. These have been written by engineers and policy and management teachers who are concerned with modern nuclear challenges. The “perception” chapters challenge assumed truths and the influence of nuclear power and the structures it has created (ranging from waste management to American naval bases) and the historical and historiographical perception of their influence. Fred Waag studies how fear of nuclear fallout from above-ground weapon tests created the first interdisciplinary academic conference on the environment, providing a snapshot of the shifting view of the role and power of nuclear weapons. The role and nature of atomic weapons changed between 1945 and 1950, as did debates about their unique value and danger until the ascent of hydrogen bombs. Waag captures the shifts in perception on the impact of these weapons on environmental policy and how fear of nuclear weapons acted as a unifying force for the variety of fields that would become environmental science.

Davide Orsini’s chapter tracks how American secrecy impeded the Italian scientific community from accessing technical knowledge in the field of radiology. It is a compelling case study on how American patronage and influence can corrupt and challenge the actions of “smaller” powers (a truth Canada knew only too well in nuclear affairs after 1946 with the passing of the McMahon Act, which prevented the United States from sharing atomic secrets with foreign nations, including its wartime atomic partners). Similarly, Andrew Ramey’s revisionist [End Page 334] account of the origins of the landmark Calvert Cliffs Campaign alters our perception of the participants who won their landmark case against the Atomic Energy Commission; a citizen’s right to know the details of major projects and their impact on the environment, more than fears of nuclear power, drove that case. Bridging the gap between perceptions and risk is Susanne Baur, Karena Kalmback, and Tatiana Kasperski’s review of the politics of the Chernobyl fallout across localities, Western Europe, and international science as a whole. It is the heart...


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pp. 333-335
Launched on MUSE
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