IV. The Life of the By-Product


The second part of the course was focused on two collaborative case studies that were selected in advance by the instructor because they mark the beginning and the end of the life cycle of nuclear development, from uranium mining to nuclear weapons testing in New Mexico. A life cycle analysis (LCA) approach to teaching STEM students is borrowed from previous experience co-teaching the Sustainability Education course (spring 2017) with Kim Fortun and Alli Morgan at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), which contributed to a broader interest in product life cycle analysis in science and technology studies (STS) and what has been referred to as “the implosion exercise” (Haraway and Dumit: http://dumit.net/writing-the-implosion-teaching-the-world-one-thing-at-a-time/; accessed January 9th 2021). Our LCA approach with undergrads and grade-school students also built upon global political-economic analyses of commodity chains in environmental anthropology (e.g., Tsing 2015; West 2012). Thinking of the entire cradle-to-grave lifetime of nuclear things, in the Atomic America course, each case study shifts our analysis from the product life cycle to the life of the by-product.

Between 1948 and 1970, uranium ore from the Grants district was extracted in order to manufacture one of the world’s largest single nuclear arsenals, which is now located underground at Kirtland Air Force Base on the border between the City of Albuquerque and Isleta Pueblo (Shiewhibak) in central New Mexico. A product life cycle analysis would focus on the nuclear weapons themselves (see Masco 2006); whereas an analysis of the life of the by-product would shift our attention to artifacts of uranium mine waste and mill tailings piles, and the by-products of nuclear weapons manufacturing and testing.

In the Grants uranium district of northwestern New Mexico, uranium was first recognized as a by-product of early twentieth-century radium and vanadium mining. In 1942, the Vanadium Corporation of America (VCA) found uranium in the vanadium ore, entered a lease, and secretly recovered 44,000 pounds of uranium oxide (U3O8) from the Navajo Reservation, which was recovered “via a uranium circuit at the Monticello mill (Utah) for the Manhattan Project 1943-1945” (McLemore 2010:24). It is this dense historical background that makes the concept of “the life of the by-product” significant to our approach to Atomic America.

In fact, uranium begins its social life as a by-product. At the end of the eighteenth century, near the mines of Joachimsthal (Jáchymov) in Old Saxony (today the Czech Republic), the German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth recognized uranium as a by-product from silver mining. In 1789, Klaproth found uranium discarded and piled up in dumps outside the silver mines in Johanngeorgenstadt. It was considered a “refuse by-product of silver mining.” The miners gave it the name pech-blende, which translates to “bad luck-mineral,” because it hampered the silver milling process. This is the etymological origin of the contemporary term “pitchblende.” By 1847, a method was developed to use uranium for the yellow coloring of glassware and porcelain. The silver mill in Joachimsthal was converted for this purpose and was renamed Urangelbfabrik (“uranium yellow factory”). After radioactivity was discovered by Antoine Henri Becquerel in 1896, Marie and Pierre Curie ordered 10 tons of the processed uranium by-product from Urangelbfabrik. In 1898, the Curies discovered radium and polonium from what was once the “discarded processed ore from which uranium had already been extracted, sitting behind the factory, a refuse pile mixed with dirt, leaves, and twigs” (Marshall and Marshall 2008). By the beginning of twentieth century, the factory began processing radium too. The Radium Palace was constructed in 1912 across from the factory and advertised as “the first radon spa in the world.” By 1941, Urangelbfabrik was demolished and the site became a memorial for the Curies. (This paragraph follows the chronological account of the chemists Marshall and Marshall 2008; the quotations are attributed to them).

Discarded and piled up in dumps—this refuse by-product. Discarded processed ore from which uranium had already been extracted, sitting behind the factory, a refuse pile mixed with dirt, leaves, and twigs. The figure of the pile makes a fitting image to illustrate the original moment when the life of the by-product takes place, left behind for waste only to be rediscovered, the by-product of the by-product as it were. This is an optimistic story that prompts us to ask: What political-economic prospect lies beyond the horizon for these discarded refuse piles and the mining district as a whole? In the following examples of collaborative case study research, consider how the concept of the life of the by-product changes the way we think about Atomic America, and the possibilities and limitations of cleaning up ecological “sacrifice zones.”


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Contributed date

January 12, 2021 - 4:09am


Critical Commentary


De Pree, Thomas. 2021. IV. The Life of the By-Product. In Afterlife of Atomic America. Disaster STS Research Network.


New Mexico
United States

Cite as

Thomas De Pree, "IV. The Life of the By-Product", contributed by Thomas De Pree, Disaster STS Network, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 20 January 2021, accessed 22 January 2022.