Historian Neil Oatsvall discussed his book Atomic Environments: Nuclear Technologies, the Natural World, and Policymaking, 1945–1960 (University of Alabama Press, 2023) in the Greenhouse environmental book talk series on Monday, 27 March 2023 at 16:00 in Norway / 10:00 US Eastern.
In Atomic Environments: Nuclear Technologies, the Natural World, and Policymaking, 1945–1960, Neil S. Oatsvall examines how top officials in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations used environmental science to develop nuclear strategy at the beginning of the Cold War. While many people were involved in research and analysis during the period in question, it was at highest levels of executive decision-making where environmental science and nuclear science most clearly combined to shape the nation’s policies.
Oatsvall clearly demonstrates how the natural world and the scientific disciplines that study it became integral parts of nuclear science rather than adversarial fields of knowledge. But while nuclear technologies heavily depended on environmental science to develop, those same technologies frequently caused great harm to the natural world. Moreover, while some individuals expressed real anxieties about the damage wrought by nuclear technologies, policymakers as a class consistently made choices that privileged nuclear boosterism and secrecy, prioritizing institutional values over the lives and living systems that they were ostensibly charged to protect.
By scrutinizing institutional policymaking practices and agendas at the birth of the nuclear age, a constant set of values becomes clear. Oatsvall reveals an emerging technocratic class that routinely valued knowledge about the environment to help create and maintain a nuclear arsenal, despite its existential threat to life on earth and the negative effects many nuclear technologies had on ecosystems and the American people alike. Although policymakers took their charge to protect and advance the welfare of the United States and its people seriously, Atomic Environments demonstrates how they often failed to do so because their allegiance to the US nuclear hierarchy blinded them to the real risks and dangers of the nuclear age.