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Rocks and reactors : an atomic interpretation of human rights, 1941-1979

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  • The atomic age was enacted by many scientists as a way to realize health and human rights. Human rights were conceived in this context as rights to economic development, science education, and nuclear medicine. The United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) acted hand in hand with UN agencies and educators to spread nuclear knowledge and technology as a tool to advance health and human rights for peace and prosperity. UN agencies such as UNESCO, IAEA, and WHO standardized AEC interpretations of radiation exposure. Academics served as the glue to promote nuclear and health physics, research reactors and uranium prospecting. Technical experts traveled the globe to build nuclear infrastructure and institute ideas of radiation exposure that originated from the AEC. Trust in the ability of scientific experts to provide radiation health safety was central to the expansion and acceptance of nuclear technology worldwide. Willard E. Libby of the US Atomic Energy Agency, while admitting uncertainty, believed that under a certain threshold, radiation would not be dangerous. The international field of health physics, dominated by the AEC trained scientists, interpreted radiation danger with one particular and lasting trope: artificial radiation below natural background radiation levels was safe and acceptable. The construction of background radiation as "safe" by American and international agencies was a speculative and exclusive process. Radioactive accidents were interpreted by agencies and nuclear scientists as experiments to improve technology. The AEC created unethical human radiation experiments and disregarded democracy and individual human rights. The expansion of nuclear technology created impingements on human rights, health and peace of mind. This history calls for a meta-analysis based on both heath and human rights aims and impingements. Contaminated communities access radioactive contamination as a permanent and irrevocable bodily and intergenerational taint that violates human rights. Claims were made after the first use of nuclear weapons that pre-existing international law and rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" should protect people worldwide from dangerous, intergenerational radiation exposure. This can be seen in the experiences of the Navajo Nation with uranium mining and in anguished letters sent to Noble Prize winning chemist Linus Pauling during the fallout controversy. This history when transposed with the utopian hopes of nuclear scientists, questions the relationship between rationality, human rights, scientific ideology, regulations, ethics, and knowledge production during the Cold War. The exclusion from nuclear regulatory regimes of those who live contaminated by the nuclear fuel chain and in fear of nuclear pollution and weapons is a result of the lack of recognition of the integrity and sovereignty of one's body as an inalienable human right.
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