By Shannon Cram, author of Unmaking the Bomb: Environmental Cleanup and the Politics of Impossibility

“A powerfully researched and important look at the ravages of nuclear waste remediation.”—​One of the Best Indie Books of 2023, Kirkus Reviews

I stumbled into this project in 2004, while working as a campaign field manager for a Washington State ballot initiative about nuclear cleanup. I had recently finished college and I had never heard of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation before joining the campaign. I didn’t know that Washington had produced weapons-grade plutonium for more than four decades or that it now housed the majority of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste. I was surprised to learn that my grandfather had worked at Hanford during the Cold War and that my mother grew up less than forty miles from the site.

Canvassing door to door for the campaign, I also found that my experience was not unique. I talked with thousands of people across my home state that summer and most were unaware that Hanford existed. This was remarkable. How was it possible that the nation’s plutonium factory and its largest environmental cleanup had so thoroughly escaped public notice? I think it has something to do with popular imaginations of the bomb—how we have been trained to see nuclear weapons as mushroom clouds rather than industrial production facilities and waste streams. But it also speaks to the broader structural invisibilities of environmental contamination and the social politics of exposure. I wrote this book to examine how those structures came to be, and to ask how they could be otherwise. And really, after twenty years of research and advocacy around Hanford’s cleanup, I wrote it because I wanted to examine my connection with this place.

This passage is excerpted from the introduction of Unmaking the Bomb: Environmental Cleanup and the Politics of Impossibility

[T]his book represents an ongoing effort to understand my own relationship with risk and remediation. In writing this introduction, for example, I went in search of the old research notebooks that I had saved from my master’s thesis. The younger self I found in those pages posed eager and impatient questions, determined to identify the answer to Hanford’s nuclear waste problem. One set of notes from 2005 described a moment in a public meeting when I strode up to the microphone and demanded that Washington’s Department of Ecology director remediate Hanford immediately (my notes include the phrase, “I gave him hell.”).

Reading this description today makes me blush, but I am touched by it as well. One of the gifts that comes with long-term research in a particular place is that field notes and free-writes, old calendars and interview transcripts, represent more than a record of research practice and developing ideas. They also illustrate the complex processes and relations of becoming with that place through time. Unmaking the Bomb is informed by my efforts to grapple with Hanford’s power-laden logics, my struggle to negotiate the boundaries between research and activism, and my need to reckon with the conditions of living and dying in the nuclear era. In many ways, therefore, this book tells a personal story that weaves Hanford’s histories together with my own.

I have grown up with Hanford in ways that I could not have imagined when I started this project. Since that time, every member of my immediate family has gotten cancer, and both of my parents have died of it. My father was diagnosed at age fifty-five (and died the same year), soon after I began canvassing door to door about Hanford in 2004. My mother was diagnosed at sixty, while I was completing dissertation fieldwork about cleanup in 2012. I was diagnosed at thirty-three in 2014, just weeks after my mother passed away. I spent my final year of graduate school writing my dissertation and applying for professorships, in addition to completing five months of chemotherapy and two major surgeries that removed my breasts, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and a handful of lymph nodes. My sister was diagnosed at age thirty-one, a few weeks before I finished my PhD. We went to her first oncology appointment together, the morning after I graduated. She was diagnosed again four years later and successfully completed treatment for a second time, as I was finishing the first draft of this book.

I include this personal context because my family’s experience with cancer has informed how I think about Hanford, the nuclear industrial complex, and the daily politics of toxicity. It matters that the research and writing for this book took place between doctor’s appointments, surgeries, chemotherapy appointments, and funerals for two of the people that I loved most. It matters that I read studies about nuclear fallout while waiting for biopsy results and that I traced the history of U.S. toxics policy while leaden with grief. It matters that my research files contain declassified maps of contamination in the communities surrounding Hanford, and that those maps include my mother’s hometown. It matters that I want to know what caused my family’s cancer. And it matters that I will never be able to fully answer that question.

For although most environmental quality standards are based on statistical models of carcinogenic hazard, it is nearly impossible to identify when an individual instance of cancer results from daily life in a contaminated environment. Cancer remains the primary risk factor driving environmental legislation in the United States—it is used to establish baselines for acceptable toxicity concentrations in air, water, soil, vegetation, and bodies and to determine if those contaminants have exceeded permissible limits. More than any other, this disease has informed the categories we use to define and regulate environmental health, from air pollution in Los Angeles to nuclear waste at Hanford. However, when cancer shapeshifts from a risk metric into a living and dying body, its origin story becomes largely unrecognizable.

Instead, individuals living with cancer are left to wonder how they could possibly have gotten it. Causation is often framed as a personal failure: the unfortunate and even embarrassing result of poor diet, not enough exercise, too much stress, and so on. I remember feeling this acutely one day when a friend who had learned about my family’s history said to me, “Jeez, what have you guys been doing wrong?”

As anthropologist Lochlann Jain argues, even beribboned campaigns that raise awareness and celebrate survivors often narrate cancer through individual struggle and personal accomplishment instead of potential links with environmental exposure. “Cancer becomes a passively occurring hurdle to be surmounted by resolve,” they write, “rather than the direct result of a violent environment.” Ironically, efforts to mitigate such violence through regulation and remediation often reiterate this disconnect even as they seek to resolve it. This and other paradoxes integral to environmental cleanup are at the heart of this book.

As difficult as it is to admit to my younger self, I do not attempt to solve Hanford’s nuclear waste problems here (at least, not in the totalizing way I once imagined). In fact, much of my research explores the structural impossibilities of doing that very thing. Instead, I position ambiguity and contradiction as avenues for critical discussion, rather than as roadblocks to it. I suggest that uncertainty is more than an absence of knowledge, and I attend to the social relations of not knowing. Finally, I make the case that improving the terms of cleanup means taking impossibility seriously—asking seemingly basic questions like these: How can we regulate a waste form that will long outlast the United States and its regulatory structures? Whom does reasonable exposure protect, and whom does it harm? What does it mean to safeguard individual bodies with regulations that only envision disembodied statistical aggregates? And how have politically and economically tenable solutions come to define the problems of nuclear cleanup and safety?

When writing this book I had the opportunity to interview the former Department of Ecology director whom I “gave hell” in 2005. We had a nice conversation. He was generous and helpful, offering suggestions when I complained about the narrative challenges that Hanford presents. “Here’s what I think you should write about,” he told me. “This [nuclear cleanup] is not only a test of the United States, this is a test of our species. The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no putting the genie back in. Well,” he paused and pointed to an old picture of Hanford on the table between us, “this is the legacy of that genie. This is a test of our society. Are we really willing to do what it takes to remedy this situation?”

His question has stayed with me. In fact, since then I have noticed it being asked frequently, albeit in different forms. It emerges when Hanford managers describe political gridlock and budgetary constraints, and when community organizers advocate for better tank waste treatment protocols. Indeed, in many ways, “Are we willing to do what it takes?” is a very practical question. It invites iterations: How much money is required to make this project work? What kind of regulations would be necessary? Do “we” as individuals, nations, and communities have the resources to make cleanup happen?

However, such questions also imply that the bomb can, in fact, be unmade—that if only there were bigger budgets, better technologies, and greater public interest, this situation could be remedied. Yet these same people also recognize the regulatory impossibilities of nuclear waste. They acknowledge that the genie has already left the bottle and there is no putting it back.

To be clear, when I say impossible, I mean both the material challenges associated with Hanford’s cleanup as well as the normative stories we tell about it. I mean that multimillennial waste will inevitably exceed its physical and institutional containers, and that administering eternity has unthinkable, science-fiction-like qualities. But I also mean the powerful conditions and contexts that define unthinkability itself. I mean the social politics that designate some impacts as reasonable and others as inconceivable, allowing cleanup to distribute survival unevenly. By impossible, therefore, I mean both the concrete and constructed realities of contaminated life and the oft-blurred boundaries between the two.

Also, when I say we need to take impossibility seriously, I am not making a case for inaction. On the contrary, I see equitable, long-term waste management as essential to a socially and environmentally just future at Hanford. Instead, I argue that improving the terms of cleanup means asking better questions. Rather than “Are we willing to do what it takes?” we should be asking: What are the politics of our actions? What are the conditions in which remediation is designed, embodied, enacted, and understood? What infrastructures give these actions power, and what does this tell us about our capacity to create positive change? For that matter, what would positive change look like? Positive for whom? Unmaking the bomb requires much broader forms of critical engagement. It insists that we reckon with the very meaning of nuclear impact while acknowledging that its unmaking will never be complete.