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Rational Mutants: On the Meaning and Making of Reasonable Harm


Imagine: sixteen preeminent scientists sitting around a conference table calculating the mutation of the human race.  They sip coffee and smoke cigarettes and page through government reports about nuclear fallout.  They make notations and scratch figures in the margins.  One complains that the Atomic Energy Commission hasn’t provided them with adequate data and wonders derisively what the agency is hiding.  Another sighs in exasperation at the comment.  Choice words are muttered under breaths.  It is February 1956, a cold, dry winter in Chicago.  The bomb is ten years old.

The scientists are frustrated: by the impossibility of their task, by the weighty importance of it nonetheless, by the fact that they are sharing a conference table with professional rivals.  The meeting has been contentious from the start, spiked with conflicts that have long half-lives.  Some of the scientists are vocal proponents of above-ground nuclear testing, while others are wary of the practice.  A few have publicly criticized the Atomic Energy Commission and its policies about nuclear safety.  A few have worked for the AEC and authored those policies.  There are suspicions, big egos, and bigger grudges.  There are disagreements about methodology, peer review, and professional conduct.

However, the scientists concur on one essential point: radiation, in any amount, is harmful to the gene pool and, therefore, the atomic age is changing humanity.  The scale and consequence of that change is up for debate, they argue, but the problem deserves careful scientific attention.  This shared conviction keeps them at the table with their cigarettes and coffee, tracing mutant futures.  It keeps them talking to one another, albeit sometimes through gritted teeth.

I have spent years thinking about this committee meeting—countless hours at my desk reading and re-reading the forty-page transcript, and still more studying the scientists’ recommendations for radiogenic exposure.  It would be fair to say that these two February days in 1956 have become a bit of an obsession for me.  No matter how many other fallout histories I read, I always end up back at this Chicago conference table, searching for something I may have missed.

It is a sentence on the second to last page of the committee’s final report that keeps me coming back.  Actually, it is a phrase within a sentence—a parenthetical hedge—that I just can’t seem to shake.  Here, in their conclusion, the committee recommends that individuals receive no more than 10 roentgens[i] of man-made radiation before the age of thirty.  This dose, they argue, is “reasonable (not harmless, mind you, but reasonable)”[ii] because, while hundreds of thousands will eventually die as a result of their exposures, the human race as a whole will survive.

The scientists discuss the 10 roentgens figure at length—it remains a point of contention throughout the meeting—but I am less interested in the number than I am in the caveat that accompanies it.  Instead, it is those six words (not harmless, mind you, but reasonable) that continue to hold my attention.  It is the notion of rational mutation itself, the explicit coupling of reason and harm, that brings me back to the table again and again.

What does it mean to live a reasonably exposed life?  And how does one die a rational death?    That is what I want to know.

I begin in Chicago with this quarrelsome committee because its recommendations will go on to inform U.S. nuclear policy for decades.  More importantly, however, I begin here because debates about fallout were critical to the meaning and making of reasonable exposure in the United States.  “Reasonableness” is a powerful epistemological frame used to recognize and regulate the nation’s industrial toxicants.  As both legal construct and social relation, it plays a constitutive role in both resisting and reproducing environmental disease.

[i] A roentgen is a unit of radioactivity.

[ii] National Academy of Sciences, 1956. “The Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation” Washington D.C. (p. 29)


Shannon Cram is an Assistant Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell. Her research examines complex relations between nature, science, and power. She is interested in what it means to reckon with an increasingly contaminated world and how particular ways of knowing and regulating toxic materials condition our very definitions for health, safety, and security in the United States. Her current book project, Unmaking the Bomb: Environmental Cleanup and the Politics of Impossibility, explores the entangled challenges of waste, illness, and remediation at Washington State’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Home to more than two-thirds of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste and its largest environmental cleanup, Hanford is tasked with managing toxic materials that will long outlast the United States and its regulatory policies. Unmaking the Bomb uses a critical ethnographic approach to examine the embodied uncertainties and structural impossibilities integral to that effort.

Her engagement with issues of science, health, and the environment also extends beyond the academy.  She currently represents the University of Washington on the Hanford Advisory Board—a multi-stakeholder body that develops policy advice and recommendations for the U.S. Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, and Washington Department of Ecology.