Dissertation Defense: Robynne Mellor

Candidate Name: Robynne Mellor

Major: History

Advisor: John McNeill, Ph.D.

Title: The Cold War Underground: An Environmental History of Uranium Mining in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union, 1945-1991

Uranium contributed to the form its extraction took in three regions that were central for Cold War production: Grants, New Mexico in the United States; Elliot Lake, Ontario in Canada; and Krasnokamensk, Transbaikal krai in the Soviet Union. These areas were the largest domestic producers of uranium for each country, and bore a tremendous part of the physical burden of the arms race that accompanied the Cold War. The US desert southwest, Canadian Shield, and Soviet steppe, had different physical features, political structures, economic systems, and national and local cultures. These various factors influenced the way that each country mined uranium.
This dissertation comparatively examines how the material characteristics of uranium impacted the history of its extraction from procurement to back-end pollution between 1945 and 1991. I argue that in Grants, Elliot Lake, and Krasnokamensk, miners and the uranium they mined shaped one another in similar ways, but governments had distinct responses to these matching risks. The properties of uranium challenged the ability of researchers to draw clear conclusions and confounded many attempts at monitoring and controlling it. Purposeful obfuscation of risk, willful ignorance, and genuine misunderstanding abounded because humans could not sense the danger or track its impacts without necessary technology and stretches of time, allowing the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union to create divergent forms of understanding and control. Once mills expelled uranium tailings, each surrounding landscape had a different capacity for absorbing both pollution and perceptions of danger, changing the ways communities and countries reacted to the problem of uranium tailings contamination.
Even with the introduction of health and safety regulation and pollution control measures, governments, companies, and communities never asserted control over uranium or its decay products. Uranium continued to defy easy monitoring, understanding, and containment. Its extraction had consequences for the people who mined it, the people who lived near mines, the environments that surrounded mines, and the rest of the world.

Monday, November 19, 2018 at 10:00am to 12:00am

Edward B. Bunn, S.J. Intercultural Center, 662
37th and O St., N.W., Washington

Event Type

Academic Events, Dissertation Defense


Georgetown College, History, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences



Open to the public and the press?


Event Contact Name

Carolina Madinaveitia

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