Faculty Feature

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Shannon Cram: Hanford, WA and the Social Dynamics of Nuclear Waste Cleanup

Shannon Cram joined the IAS faculty in Fall 2015. She holds an MA in Geography from the University of Oregon and a PhD in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley (2015), with a designated emphasis in Science and Technology Studies.  She has spent years working on environmental issues surrounding the Hanford Nuclear Site in south-central Washington, and sits on the Hanford Advisory Board.  Established in 1943 in the town of Hanford, the Hanford Nuclear Site was originally part of the Manhattan Project and it now a contested locus of environmental and nuclear policy.  In her first quarter here in IAS, Shannon sat down to speak with us about her study of the Hanford site and what it means for interdisciplinary and engaged work across the sciences and social sciences.

I understand that becoming a faculty member at UW Bothell is something of a homecoming for you?

Yes, I’m originally from Bothell.  Then when I was nine my family moved to a one-room cabin in a commune in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California.  The cabin had no electricity, TV, phone, or water when it was cold and the pipes froze. I grew up outside, which definitely influenced why I’m interested today in studying the environment.  But I kept coming back to Bothell, for short periods and between my undergraduate and graduate programs.  This is my happy place – I feel like I’m home.

Were you already working on environmental issues before grad school?

Map of HanfordYes, I started working for WashPIRG as a canvasser on the Hanford campaign they were launching in 2004. Within a week, I was a field manager for the campaign, and helping to run the campaign in different cities across the state. For three months, I was going door-to-door talking with people every day about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.  I’ve been studying it ever since.

What was the purpose of the campaign that got you started working on Hanford issues?

The campaign in 2004 was called Initiative 297.  It was basically trying to get Hanford off the list of potential sites for a long-term nuclear waste storage repository.  The argument was that the facility already had leaking tanks, that it wasn’t geologically stable, and that there were other better sites in the United States.  The initiative passed with 69% of the vote in the state of Washington, but then was overturned in the state supreme court.

So from then on, you were determined to work on the Hanford site and nuclear waste issues?

Actually, when I first entered graduate school at the University of Oregon, my plan was to study ecotourism in Costa Rica.  I already had my contacts there, had traveled there quite a bit, and was about to leave for another trip, when I decided to take the public tour of the Hanford site.  I’d never been on the actual site before – I’d only been a canvasser about it.  I found myself standing in the middle of the B Reactor at Hanford, and I just started crying.  It was an overwhelming experience.  The abstract words I’d been speaking door-to-door became concrete in an embodied way.  I said to myself, ‘I have to keep working on this.’  So I went back to Oregon and changed my thesis to focus on Hanford.  I have been working on it ever since.

What aspect of the Hanford site did your thesis address?

It was about how the culture of the Tri-Cities changed – and how it did not change – as the economy shifted from bomb production to nuclear cleanup. Richland, one of the Tri-Cities, was developed because of Hanford. It was a company town built around the production of nuclear weapons. People there tend to be conservative and very pro-nuclear. But the area is also changing, particularly as younger generations go to college and come back with different perspectives.

And your master’s thesis led directly into your dissertation?

Well, I took two years off from graduate work, but yes.  I knew I wanted to study Hanford – I could study it forever.  I really don’t know why more people don’t study Hanford from a social science perspective. There is so much going on there.  Lots of people study Los Alamos, but almost no one studies Hanford.

What’s so important, then, for the world to know about the Hanford Site?

First of all, that it’s there.  Every time I give a talk about Hanford, I ask people to raise their hands if they’ve heard about it.  Often, no one in the room raises their hand.  Yet the site has political, economic, and environmental implications for the entire United States.  Beyond that, I want people to reckon with what it means to manage nuclear waste. Nuclear waste exists forever from a human perspective. It resists time, it resists regulatory boundaries, it resists fences. How do we actually make a cleanup around that that will be effective?

One of the things I asked almost everyone I interviewed was, ‘Do you think Hanford will ever be cleaned up?’  Most of these people were actively involved in the cleanup, from workers to advisory board members like me.  The most common answer I got to that question was either 'no' or 'well, it depends on what you mean by clean.'  So I became really interested in the impossibilities and ambiguities that define the Hanford cleanup project--and other cleanup projects across the US nuclear weapons complex for that matter.  By the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons production in the United States had become a trillion-dollar industry.  Now we are struggling to reckon with the massive impact of that industry and the bombs that came out of it.   That reckoning process is at the heart of my research.  Official narratives about the Hanford cleanup depend upon notions of reclamation and remediation--of returning Hanford lands back to the citizens of Washington, good as new.  But nuclear cleanup can never recover a pre-bomb past.  The materials at Hanford will last long beyond any realistic expectation for the lifetime of the United States.  So the Hanford cleanup has to deal with some fundamental uncertainties, and how those uncertainties are managed has a lot to do with power and politics.

What does your academic study of Hanford add to the discussion?

I’m really interested in the politics of science and technology.  I see scientific knowledge production and technological development as critical avenues for investigating culture, politics, social relationships, and identity formations.  At Hanford, that’s really true.  Nuclear waste is not just inert material, it’s social and political material.  So in my work, I analyze how science and standards are used to negotiate the impossibilities of nuclear waste management in order to transform the Hanford cleanup into an orderly, controlled, feasible project.  As a scholar of human health and the environment, I'm also really interested in complex relationships between nature, power, and the body.  In particular, I'm asking questions about what it means to live in an increasingly contaminated world--one in which things like Maximum Contaminant Levels and Permissible Exposure Limits determine notions of safety and normalcy.  How can we understand everyday life in this context of normalized toxicity?  So in my study of Hanford, I'm thinking about the co-production of regulatory standards and contaminated bodies, and I'm contributing to interdisciplinary discussions about the social politics of waste and wasting. 

Will you continue your study of and your advocacy around Hanford issues while in IAS?

Yes.  I’m currently writing a book called Unmaking the Bomb: Waste, Health, and the Politics of Impossibility in which I explore a lot of these power dynamics.  I'm really interested in how the Hanford cleanup can move forward even in the face of the fundamental uncertainties and impossibilities that come with nuclear waste management.  Though the intent of my book is to take impossibility seriously, I am not making an argument for inaction.  I'm deeply committed to improving how we reckon with the multi-millennial challenge of nuclear contamination.  We need to be thinking much more critically about the politics of designing and carrying out a cleanup like Hanford's, and improving the terms of cleanup means asking better questions.  What are the conditions in which cleanup is designed, embodied, enacted, and understood?  What social relations give the cleanup process meaning 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?

Being on the Hanford Advisory Board helps me think through these questions in a really grounded way.  It’s all well and good for an academic to write about “impossibilities” and to produce these critiques, but it’s way harder to integrate critical social theory into actual policy discussions.  Part of my work as an activist-scholar is holding myself accountable in this way by putting myself in the uncomfortable position of having to make a decision when the conditions of that decision-making process are deeply problematic.

Shannon Cram on Hanford Advisory Board
Shannon Cram at a Hanford Advisory Board Meeting