Theses Master's

Reclaiming the Fugitive Dust: Preserving and Interpreting America’s Forgotten History of Nuclear Contamination

Sargent, Sarah Caryl

Radiologically contaminated sites differ from other heritage places in that the inherent permanence of their materiality creates an imperative for their preservation on a massive timescale. This is cultural heritage at its most crucial, for if our society forgets about the dangers that radioactivity poses - if the message Do not dig here does not translate across centuries - then beings generations ahead of our own will be put at risk.

How can preservationists engage in the highly conflicted realm between remediation, destruction and the preservation of significant structures? How can radiologically contaminated places be interpreted in such a way that this history is not forgotten? This work explores a series of three case studies (Uravan, Colorado; West Orange, New Jersey; and Ottawa, Illinois) that illustrate how radiologically contaminated historic environments have been treated during the EPA Superfund cleanup process. The regulatory and policy processes (including Section 106 review) that have led to these preservation outcomes are reviewed and analyzed with an eye towards the lessons learned that could be applied to these unique preservation challenges.

In many cases historic buildings have been demolished to protect human health, but the case studies examined in this thesis show that the tension between remediation and preservation is not intractable. The risk from contamination should always be considered, but it appears that the demolition of radiologically contaminated historic structures is by and large a bureaucratic, legal, and social issue, not a strictly technical one. Because of this, as historic preservation professionals we may be able preserve more historic built fabric than we currently realize. The case studies discussed in this work also highlight the importance of community activism in ensuring positive preservation outcomes, and suggest that one of the crucial ways of better integrating preservation in the Superfund remediation process is through improved Section 106 compliance. Even when radiological contamination is so extensive as to require a building’s demolition, there are many ways to ensure that this crucial history becomes part of broader public memory.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Raynolds, William
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
August 10, 2020