Authors’ note: This piece was reviewed and edited by Professor Gabrielle Hecht (Stanford University), Professor Susan Silbey (MIT), and several contributors who prefer to remain anonymous, to whom the authors are deeply grateful.
The recent depraved killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks ignited widespread protests across the United States, representing a renewed outrage at centuries of white supremacy, colonialism, and state-sanctioned oppression of and brutality against Black people. While not new, this sweeping public outcry and swelling national movement has catapulted conversations about systemic racism into mainstream awareness with an exceptional sense of urgency.
As part of the ensuing national racial reckoning, institutions within the US nuclear community—academic departments, think tanks, advocacy groups, national laboratories, and others—have issued statements condemning systemic racism. (Several institutions within the nuclear community, at the time of writing this article, had still not produced a statement.) But the nuclear community must go beyond acknowledgement alone if it genuinely aims to dismantle long-standing structural inequalities. For these institutions, the true work of becoming antiracist still lies ahead: accepting and rectifying their own complicity in the problem.
Racist policies and attitudes remained entrenched in the US nuclear weapons enterprise as it built, tested, and ultimately used nuclear weapons. The women who worked on uranium enrichment at what would become Oak Ridge National Lab were forced to keep the color line: Black women who were employed at the Y-12 National Security Complex lived in racially segregated facilities, and generally had lower paying jobs at the facility than whites. During the Trinity test, the United States detonated the world’s first weapon of mass destruction on land bordering the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. The language and rhetoric around the nuclear detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan were steeped in racist and dehumanizing ideas about Japanese people and culture. These racist ideas were difficult to disentangle from the military threat of Japan as an enemy of the United States and the West and became entrenched in the institutionalized but false narrative that nuclear weapons helped win World War II.
After World War II, as the United States and other nations moved to expand their nuclear weapons capabilities and started to use nuclear technology for electricity production, colonial and racist policies continued to frame the field. Nuclear weapons relied on uranium mined from countries such as Congo, Niger, South Africa, Gabon, Madagascar, and Namibia. Nations with a thriving nuclear energy industry and weapons program such as France continually contested the “nuclearity”—the degree to which a country’s activities count as being nuclear—of these countries to justify denying them economic benefits or occupational protections in exchange for mined uranium. As a result, the health and environmental costs of uranium mining were excluded from calculations on the cost of nuclear power, and workers did not receive protections against radiological hazards.
To date, although nuclear weapons have only been used once in a hot war, weapons were detonated with abandon in colonial (or former) territories of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China in the name of nuclear weapons testing. While these testing sites were considered “remote” by European and American standards, they were not at all so to the predominantly Indigenous and people of color living in the Pacific Islands, Algeria, and Australia. Even judging by the norms of the time, the actions of the nuclear-armed nations were dismissive of and dehumanizing to people of color around the world.