The Afterlife of Atomic America


“Atomic America” is an undergraduate general education (“Gen Ed”) course that was originally designed and delivered by the historian Ferenc Morton Szasz at the University of New Mexico (UNM). The historian of science Luis Campos has since inherited and revitalized the course at UNM, which examines “the complex historical, political, environmental, cultural, and moral dimensions of the atomic age” (Campos, UNM Course Catalogue, 2018). Similarly, the tradition of teaching the course at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (New Mexico Tech; NMT) has taken an historical approach to nuclear technology by examining the “cultural, social, political, and economic dimensions of atomic energy” (Zeman, NMT Course Catalogue, 2009-2011). In fall 2020, Thomas De Pree—a collaborator with the Beyond Environmental Injustice (B-EiJ) Teaching Collective, and the Radiation Governance Project of the Disaster STS Network—inherited the Atomic America course at New Mexico Tech, which was offered in an online asynchronous format due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the institutional response of NMT [LINK TO SYL.].

This essay portrays an idiosyncratic approach to teaching Atomic America that adopts the regional tradition of historical studies of nuclear sciences and technology in the United States and the sociocultural, political-economic, and environmental health implications. It also accounts for how we nuanced the traditional curriculum through experimental collaborative ethnography, and how we necessarily adapted the course to the demands of our current circumstances, under duress of a pandemic that exacerbated environmental health vulnerabilities and environmental injustices born of the legacy of “radioactive nation building” (Masco 2006:213). In national news media, the pandemic illuminated the afterlife of abandoned uranium mines (AUMs), among other compounding vulnerabilities from toxic settler colonial infrastructures of dispossession in the Navajo Nation (Dinétah), and in other Native American Pueblos and Tribes that live in close proximity to abandoned mine lands (AMLs) (see Lewis et al. 2015).

Dr. De Pree’s delivery of the Atomic America course at NMT overlapped with his training in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Metal Exposure and Toxicity Assessment on Tribal Lands in the Southwest (METALS) Superfund Research Program (SRP) at UNM (Award Number: P42ES025589). “Superfund” is a US federal program authorized by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. One of De Pree’s collaborative contributions to the UNM METALS SRP, the B-EiJ Teaching Collective, and the Radiation Governance Project is the following virtual overview of a nuanced version of the Atomic America course, and an index of relevant pedagogical resources.

In the title of this essay, we use the term “afterlife” to refer to both the disastrous aftermath of the historical production of atomic America, as well as the afterlife of the asynchronous Atomic America course. The notion of the afterlife affords an analytical shift in attention to the life of the by-product and life after nuclear development. It also serves as a discursive technique that speaks to how an online asynchronous course can take on a second pedagogical life beyond its initial intended audience, broadening the social impact of emergent Superfund research. In this course, the heuristic concept of the life of the by-product shifts our attention from the “technoaesthetics” (Masco 2006) of nuclear weapons and energy, to the “technopolitics” (Hecht 2009) of cleaning up nuclear “sacrifice zones.”

The essay begins by (I) listing five nuances to the traditional curriculum of Atomic America; (II) associated with four learning outcomes; (III) followed by an overview of selected literature from the course; (IV) an explanation about product life cycle analysis and the undergirding concept of the course, the life of the by-product, which shifts our thinking toward the afterlife of abandoned uranium mines and the unfissioned plutonium fallout from the Trinity nuclear weapon test; (V) discussion about how we incorporated collaborative case study research methods of the B-EiJ Teaching Collective that aim to deepen our understanding of the environmental health vulnerabilities and environmental injustices on Indigenous lands that have been impacted by uranium mining and nuclear weapons testing; presentation of examples of students’ work in the two collaborative case studies that bookend the entire cradle-to-grave lifetime of nuclear development: (VI) the Grants Uranium Mining District, which supplied nearly half the total uranium ore accumulated by the U.S. federal government between 1948 and 1971; (VII) and Chupadera Mesa, downwind from the Trinity nuclear test site; (VIII) finally, instead of a conclusion, this essay ends by speculating on the possibilities for future Superfund research and education.


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Contributed date

January 12, 2021 - 3:59am


Critical Commentary


De Pree, Thomas. 2021. Afterlife of Atomic America. In Afterlife of Atomic America. Disaster STS Research Network.


New Mexico
United States