Simpson on Zaretsky, 'Radiation Nation: Three Mile Island and the Political Transformation of the 1970s'

Natasha Zaretsky
Andrew Simpson

Natasha Zaretsky. Radiation Nation: Three Mile Island and the Political Transformation of the 1970s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 312 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-17981-2.

Reviewed by Andrew Simpson (Duquesne University) Published on H-Pennsylvania (January, 2020) Commissioned by Jeanine Mazak-Kahne (Indiana University of Pennsylvania)

Printable Version:

Natasha Zaretsky begins Radiation Nation: Three Mile Island and the Political Transformation of the 1970s with a bold claim: that the event represents “the birth of the ecological age—an era in which political questions are refracted through the fear of environmental disasters caused not by nature but rather by human action” (p. 1). Despite the heartburn that this statement might cause for some environmental and political historians, this approach is a particularly valuable one for understanding why the political and social changes of the mid-to-late 1970s and 1980s have seemed not only so abrupt but also so lasting. This approach allows Zaretsky to advance an interlocking set of claims about class, ecology, gender, and modern political economy that “complicates the view of the United States as a quintessentially liberal nation founded on the principle of individual rights that has become more inclusive over time.” In doing so, she reminds readers that “this version of history neglects an alternative vision that runs alongside the liberal one and often undercuts its promise: an ethnonationalism that mobilizes images of community endangerment, demarcates sharp lines between insiders and outsiders, and creates a climate of paranoia, fear, and distrust” (p. 13). By telling a story that engages with this “alternative vision” and by blending historical subfields, Radiation Nation fits within a more than two-decade-long push within American history to focus on the role of popular pressure and the importance of place in shaping the actions of the state and of private corporations to prioritize a conservative political and economic agenda.          

The first chapter lays out a framework that the rest of the book follows as it situates ecology and fear within the rise of the biotic nationalism that sits at the core of Zaretsky’s argument. It starts by showing the massive public relations and marketing campaign undertaken by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the nuclear power industry to sell nuclear technology as not just safe but also—perhaps just as important—the wave of the future. From children’s cartoons like Reddy Kilowatt to the mobilization of scientific authority to market nuclear power to adults, she argues that “at the heart of Met-Ed’s [utility company Metropolitan Edison] plans was the goal that had structured the AEC’s publicity from the beginning: to dissociate nuclear power plants from atomic bombs” (p. 25). This intentional disassociation, or what she calls a “the culture of disassociation,” was largely successful (at least in its early years) until scientific and popular concerns over atomic weapons testing raised questions about the long-term effects of radiation on civilian populations. In particular, new understandings of genetics created enough scientific evidence to challenge the information being put out by the government and industry groups. A new science, in turn, stoked deep fears about the effect of radiation on future generations, especially those in utero who had no ability to avoid this silent, invisible, and potentially deadly force being foisted upon them and their unsuspecting families. This is a particularly intriguing argument about the way that science, fear, and a growing rights culture intersected in the 1950s and 1960s and can help historians interested in the relationship between regulation and public opinion see how the popularization of science can not only shape public policy choices but also inform cultural movements like the rising anti-abortion movement, which Zaretsky argues was deeply influenced by biotic nationalism. 

The book’s second chapter focuses on Three Mile Island (TMI) and the accident itself. Here the author builds on the insights of the previous chapter concerning how the response to nuclear testing created new activists and applies them to the reaction to and aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident. She begins by laying out a chronology of TMI and its aftermath. She shows how equipment failure, confusion, and “institutional overconfidence” all contributed to a response that helped to widen the hairline cracks in the white, conservative postwar political world of southeastern Pennsylvania into deep fractures (p. 61). From initial reports by Met-Ed that seemed to minimize the damage to the reactor to the vacillation by Pennsylvania’s governor about whether to evacuate, many residents came to see the bumbling response as something more nefarious—and, as the author argues, feared a cover-up or conspiracy by the government, like Watergate, or mismanagement like the Vietnam conflict (p. 69). This distrust was amplified by the invisible nature of radiation, which meant that individuals had to place a great deal of trust in the same government and corporate actors they distrusted to provide accurate and up-to-date assessments of any danger. When these actors failed to live up to what citizens perceived as their obligations for transparency, it “shattered the trust that held the community together” (p. 89). Ultimately, she argues, this helped to create an antistatist, conservative politics in the region that was marked by concern over ecological and individual-rights issues and shaped by distrust of established authority. This type of new politics, born in the 1970s of a larger culture of disassociation but clarified by the accident at Three Mile Island, went on to have national ramifications.

Chapter 3 examines how a critical part of this new politics was increased grassroots activism, especially by mothers and housewives, whose concerns over the dangers of radiation had been dismissed in the era of atomic testing but whose voices were gaining new currency in the era of atomic accidents. To highlight this shift, Zaretsky cites the example of Senator George Malone accusing the mother of one leukemia victim, likely caused by exposure to Strontium 90, of “peddling Communist-inspired scare stories” (p. 33) during the 1950s as a reflection of this dismissiveness, while showing later in the book that activism couched in the language of motherhood and the family helped bring attention to the dangers of nuclear power as women activists became vocal opponents of the industry in the streets and in courtrooms. While the focus on grassroots women activists and their links to modern conservatism is not new, the discussion of women activists and their genetic/ecological concerns adds an important dimension to the relationship between electoral policies and gendered activism in the latter half of the twentieth century.[1] Using the term “communities of fate,” Zaretsky shows the powerful psychological role that fear played in creating this new brand of politics and in reshaping community priorities through the lens of this biotic nationalism.

Chapter 4, the book’s final chapter, returns to a more national focus. Here Zaretsky shows how the local protests of the previous chapter, seemingly grounded in the protection of individual and family health and the threat to individual communities, were actually part of a larger national backlash against the nuclear industry and Cold War nuclear weapons policy. By linking antinuclear protests with bipartisan activism, and showing how biotic nationalism contributed to a critique of the Cold War state, she highlights the "ambiguity" at the heart of this activism—noting that “from the beginning, this activism had woven together discrete and even contradictory elements. It appealed to centrism but was driven by a sense of urgency rather than moderation. It enlisted professionals to steel itself against charges of radicalism. It drew women into its orbit but often in their exclusive capacity as mothers. It identified itself as a spiritual, global movement and singled out the church as one of its epicenters” (p. 168). As she further argues, by the 1980s was deploying the rhetoric of patriotism and nationalism as a part of its appeal. The diffuse nature of its support opened the door for other social movements, like the anti-abortion movement, to draw from a shared pool of activists and to inform the other about ideas and protest tactics.

Radiation Nation is designed to provide a case study of a local event and show how its ramifications shaped national-level politics. With that said, those looking for a detailed history of the Susquehanna Valley after World War II won’t find it in this book. This is not to say that place doesn’t matter in her story—far from it; however, what she wants to show (and does so rather successfully) is the power of rural and small urban communities, especially northern ones, to shape the larger political and social climate. For Zaretsky, it was in these communities dealing with environmental health legacies like nuclear power (but one could also extrapolate to similar communities suffering from the health legacy of mining, chemical production, and other public health legacies of the industrial/Cold War order), and that were buffeted by the forces of deindustrialization and decline, where the biotic nationalism that shaped the politics of the 1970s onward took root and thrived.[2]

There is, however, much that historians of Pennsylvania can learn from Radiation Nation. For example, it provides helpful context for understanding the response of the Thornburgh administration to TMI and explains why state and local governments proved unable to deal with a conjoined ecological and political threat effectively. Drawing from not only the papers of Governor Thornburgh but also other government documents and contemporary news accounts, Zarestsky clearly shows that the political leadership of the Commonwealth was unprepared to handle this type of crisis and the political backlash that followed. In the moment of the incident, she tells the story of a governor whose response was deeply shaped by imperfect information released by Met-Ed. For example, he was not told until after the fact of a release of radioactive water into the Susquehanna River by utility officials to help cool the reactor’s core (p. 67). She also argues that the administration’s response was shaped by a fundamental lack of knowledge about the nuclear industry. From the governor down his line of advisors, none had the knowledge needed to navigate this type of crisis effectively. This, she argues, “exposed the dependency of elected officials on unelected technical experts,” forcing the governor to interpret what “he called ‘a kaleidoscope of signals’” (p. 71). Moreover, this expert advice was not always politically feasible to enact without causing widespread panic—such as the suggestion by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington to evacuate the area surrounding the plant. This story allows her to dig into the decision-making nexus at the state level and helps the reader to see the confluence of corporate and political self-interest. In short, she argues, “the accident thus created a crisis of visibility in which engineers, public officials, reporters, scientists, and the public were hungry for information about something they could not see” (p. 72). This set of relationships between public and private, between state and federal, and between elected officials and unelected experts is one that has generated significant interest within the history of science but could be further explored at the Commonwealth level, particularly from the 1970s onward. Radiation Nation’s approach to this story provides a model that other historians can build on to study public health and natural disasters in the state, as well as the growing relationship between large corporations, not-for-profit enterprises, and state and local governments.

This book is well sourced, drawing from a significant number of archival collections, government reports, and contemporary publications. Her illustrations also help to provide context for the story. A helpful bibliography is provided in addition to the notes, which, along with its manageable length, makes this an easy book to use in a graduate or advanced undergraduate classroom.

Radiation Nation is an engaging and thought-provoking story that helps readers to rethink the roots of the conservative political turn. The focus on biotic nationalism, health, and activism complements several decades of scholarship on the diverse and local roots of the American conservative movement. Moreover, it reminds us of the important role of small urban and rural areas of the country for advancing a particular vision of activism. Finally, for historians of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it helps us to rethink the story of state and local governments, and how they made decisions in the postindustrial era.


[1]. Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) helped to pioneer this fruitful examination of the linkage between gender and conservative activism. In the several decades since McGirr’s book was published this has become an important area of study. See examples including Michelle M. Nickerson, Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012); Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); and Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart (Cambridge, MA: Harvard 2009).

[2]. See also Kate Brown, Plutopia; Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); James Longhurst, Citizen Environmentalists (Medford, MA: Tufts University Press, 2010); and Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).



Citation: Andrew Simpson. Review of Zaretsky, Natasha, Radiation Nation: Three Mile Island and the Political Transformation of the 1970s. H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL:

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