12 December 2022
Towards a People’s History of the 'Permissible Dose'
Thomas Bishop is Senior Lecturer in American History and Programme Leader of the BA History degree at the University of Lincoln; he was a 2021 British Library Eccles Visiting Fellow.
In 1957 Walt Disney broadcast 'Our Friend the Atom'. Designed to both educate and reassure, the forty-minute special encouraged viewers to put aside their fears of destruction and instead embrace the limitless potential of the atom. Likening atomic power to that of a jinnī being unleashed from a magic lamp to grant wishes, the narrator tells audiences that with enough hard work 'the atomic genie might spread across the world granting the gifts of science to all mankind.'
'Our Friend the Atom' took centre stage during President Dwight Eisenhower’s 'Atoms for Peace' campaign. Through the 1950s, as the Soviet Union and United States increased atmospheric testing of weapons of even greater destructive potential, Eisenhower launched a public education campaign to sell the positive benefits of atomic energy. Seeking allies in this quest to neutralise anxieties over existing weapons technology, Eisenhower turned to the nation’s foremost animator to help create a new cultural imagination of the benign atom. The result is a striking vision of a nuclear future shaped by harmless radiation, accident proof industries, and smiling scientists. This sanitised, Hollywoodised vision of a nation rushing headlong into the promise of the atomic age, conceals the everyday realities and occupational risks associated with working life inside the most iconic industry of the Cold War.
At the British Library, I set out to investigate the hidden histories of nuclear technology in the United States. Specifically, over the last few years I have been keen to research and write a new history of radiation protection standards during the Cold War from the perspective of the thousands of blue-collar workers whose labour powered the nation’s reactors. Talking to archivists often leads to important, unexpected discoveries that can define a research project. I arrived at the Library hoping to make inroads into unearthing a complicated yet critical episode in American history.
The British Library is a treasure trove of material for those interested in nuclear history, with records reaching from the factory floor to the Oval Office. Initially, I looked over the Federal Government Collections in order to understand the changing political landscapes over occupational safety during a period of peak commercial growth in nuclear power during the late 1960s, often called the 'turn-key' era of reactor construction. What might appear to some as dry bureaucratic history is in fact brimming with human stories as civil servants, scientists, employees, and activists debated the health hazards of working with radiation. Out of these records, I started to hone my research around a concept all too familiar to those working within the sector, known as the 'permissible dose'.
Throughout the Cold War the 'permissible dose' governed both the lives and livelihoods of those working within the nuclear sector. To cut through the quite dense technical terminology, the permissible dose refers to the legal amount of ionized radiation a body can receive over the course of a year. This federally sanctioned level of radiation was the cornerstone of the occupational nuclear frontier. How radiation threshold levels were measured, what risk was deemed 'acceptable', and how regulation was understood and enforced across an entire industrial sector was the most significant question facing this rapidly changing industry. With questions of individual workers’ experiences still very much at the front of my mind, I searched for documentation that might shed light on how blue-collar workers experienced and understood this concept of acceptable risk.
Uncovering blue collar workers’ experiences with radiation is laden with difficulties. Often, in lieu of self-made sources, historians seek out instances of workers engaging with the industrial and political elite in the fight for workplace safety. Here, the British Library plays an essential role in magnifying the subtle archival presences of the working communities who helped regulate nuclear power. Through recent digitization efforts, readers can now access records ranging from blow by blow breakdowns of the decisions made around radiation exposure levels found in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), to industry trade publication Nucleonic reviewing safety challenges facing a rapidly commercialised industry. A rich collection of material waiting for anyone interested in these records, it contains interviews with workers, debates over compensation cases, and even whistle-blowers willing to go on the record about the substandard safety practices they encountered. Together these collections allowed me to track the controversies surrounding radiation protection standards and start putting together a picture of nuclear regulation that seems far more complex than studies have previously acknowledged.
In the records of the specific industrial accidents held in the files of the Environmental Project Agency (EPA), the health and science periodicals of the 1960s, I noticed the central role that workers’ testimonies played during fights for reform. Far from being passive actors in the fight for stricter regulation, blue collar workers were active and vocal in making their voices heard for better working conditions. With this material, I can prove that ordinary working Americans are the forgotten 'policymakers of the nuclear age': organisers who marched, blew the whistle, litigated, and turned to the press, unions, and White House for support. This time in the archives has allowed me to knit top-down perspectives of regulatory policy with local experiences of labour activism, pushing our understanding of the ability of ordinary working Americans to fight for and enact meaningful change for themselves and their communities.
While this project is still very much a work in progress, the records of the British Library provide a critical start for anyone interested in researching our often-complicated relationship with nuclear technologies. In an age where renewable energy and climate change are defining global concerns, and politicians talk about the promise of a 'Green New Deal' it is important that we seek out our nuclear past, to make sure it is not forgotten during a moment of renewed interest in our nuclear futures.