From the Series: An Anthropogenic Table of Elements
During a lull in my visit to the former University of California, Davis Radiobiology Laboratory site in 2016, I was shown a quiet, empty alley. This small patch of rain-soaked land had been remediated years earlier by the American government, but they left behind a much larger landfill of radioactive materials, deemed the responsibility of a cash-strapped University of California system. In October 2018, $14 million was finally allocated to contain the landfill, the penultimate step in a decades-long effort to cleanse grounds once occupied by hundreds of strontium-fed beagles.
The canines themselves disappeared in the 1980s as funding and interest in this formerly grand Cold War project dried up: first the living dogs passed away, then their still-radioactive carcasses were transported by the Department of Energy to the grounds of the Hanford Site in eastern Washington for permanent storage. Once, these bodies were valuable specimens. But as Bern Shanks, former director of environmental health and safety at Davis, noted in 1990, “They’re no longer cute little dogs; they’re just a radioactive waste problem” (Associated Press 1990).
The problem transcended even their bodies: tons of radioactive canine fecal materials were also sent to Hanford in the final decades of the twentieth century. An initial research oversight—that dogs fed strontium and radium would only keep in about 2 percent of the irradiation—had driven engineer Edward Edgerley Jr. to develop an Imhoff tank system for “high-order decontamination using cation exchange resins” for his PhD in Sanitary Engineering at Berkeley. Former lab director Marvin Goldman gave Edgerley’s device a more candid moniker: the “Radioactive Poop Machine.” But even the RPA failed to completely eliminate byproducts of the beagle “waste stream.” As Zygmunt Bauman (1993) argues, one condition of modernity is the impossibility of complete disappearance. In our world, “no waste can be disposed of radically and completely” (Bauman 1993, 39)—not even dog shit. Instead, it can only be hidden or “recycled”: shit spun into gold (Laporte 2000).
Few remember the Beagle Club studies that littered the United States between 1950 and 1990.1 Their annual reports are scattered across university libraries and government archives, collecting the soft dust of inattention. One pile, the gift of health physicist Otto Raabe, sits in my apartment; it was otherwise destined for the trash. In many ways, researchers anticipated this fate: a retrospective symposium in 1983 included fears that the “data may not permit confident extrapolation to the human and may afford little in the way of basic understanding” (Thompson and Mahaffey 1986, xi). This data—including preserved samples and meticulous logs catalogued on purpose-built computers—appeared irrelevant, waste from wasted resources which might do little more than “point to the fact that an effort was made to study the problem” (Thompson and Mahaffey 1986, xi).
Yet the gallon drums holding carcasses still hot with strontium and radium, and the concrete blocks of shit snug underground in Washington, also serve as alternative media of memory. As below, so above: Hanford’s landscape, seen from buses that ferry visitors through this stygian so-called Manhattan Project National Historical Park, is studded with massive, enclosed reactor sarcophagi. In Containment, filmmakers Peter Galison and Rob Moss suggest that nuclear storage invites planners to think on uncomfortable scales of ten thousand years that relativize the historical time on which much science and governance is predicated. Though the beagles invited less potent imagination, the inhuman durability of their waste exemplifies one of the more pressing aspects of life within the period colloquially called the Anthropocene: the problem of perpetual containment and the impossibility of elimination (Simmonds 2018). This waste is an insistent, Chthonic memory likely to outlast its caretakers.
Between the seeming infinities of radioactive half-lives and the evanescence of experimental life, lies another medium of persistence: the database. The Beagle Dog Tissue Archive, hosted by Northwestern University’s Woloschak Lab, holds information from the Beagle Club studies for digital retrieval—potentially invaluable for contemporary researchers unlikely to receive permission for another study of such size and scale. The data, including uncatalogued HTML lists of scanned documents I have monitored for years, is itself a monument to the disappointments of twenty-first-century scientific internationalism. The American National Radiobiology Archives (NRA) and the European Radiobiological Archive (ERA), intended as caretakers for data that was “not only expensive but also of doubtful value because of the risk of deterioration of slides and tissue blocks,” have given up or cut back in the face of funding shortfalls and alternative priorities (Gerber et al. 1999, 76).
As a team of researchers for the ERA put it, preservation of the data remains critical if the thousands of tissues stored at Northwestern and in Germany are to become more than tombs in an “information graveyard” accompanying the radioactive pet cemetery at Hanford (Schofield, Tapio, and Grosche 2010, 634). A reversal is unlikely under America’s current administration, so the Beagle Dog Tissue Archive is apt to remain an optimistic relic.
Memory practices at Davis and elsewhere could not guarantee the utility of their data, nor ensure that the knowledge would survive. Scientific memory, like much of human life in capitalist ruins, appears more fragile or endangered than anticipated. With the production of ever more results, studies become waste; in turn, waste becomes studied, contained, and cleansed by risk-adverse administrative bodies. As Bauman (1993, 39) writes, “[R]ecycling of waste is itself a waste-producing process.” Equally concerning is that the so-called hard truths of scientific research are no longer so effortlessly confirmed when the results that might back them up cannot even be located. Databases—imagined to permanently stabilize scientific memory, an obscure object of desire—are ephemeral, liable to wash away in political and environmental tides.
The beagle tissues remain, for now, though the “contaminated ghost town of empty dog kennels” is gone, a persistence of more-than-human forces as human achievements lose their luster (Paddock 1994, A1). While other residues of “big” radiobiology are scoured away, and the Anthropocene supersedes Nuclear War as the unpredictable and apocalyptic sum of all fears, there is, at least, one certainty: the shit will stick around. Clearly!
I am grateful to Leah Aronowsky, Peter Galison, Michael Gordin, David Kaiser, Thao Phan, Sophia Roosth, and the attendees of Phunday 2016 for their comments.
1. Beyond UC-Davis, beagles were utilized in radiation research at the University of Utah, the Hanford Works (later Pacific Northwest National Laboratory), the Argonne National Laboratory, the Lovelace Institute, the University of Rochester, Colorado State University, and others. The Davis case is covered in more detail in Brad Bolman (2018).
Associated Press. 1990. “Hanford Dogged by New Problem of Waste Disposal.” The Register-Guard, October 16.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 1993. “The Sweet Scent of Decomposition.” In Forget Baudrillard? edited by Chris Rojek and Bryan S. Turner. New York: Routledge.
Bolman, Brad. 2018. “How Experiments Age: Gerontology, Beagles, and Species Projection at Davis.” Social Studies of Science 48, no. 2: 232–58.
Edgerley, Edward, Jr. 1968. “Decontamination Performance of Cation Exchange Columns in Regenerative Operation.” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley.
Gerber, G. B., R. R. Wick, C. R. Watson, W. Gössner, and A. M. Kellerer. 1999. “International Radiobiology Archives of Long-Term Animal Studies: Structure, Possible Uses and Potential Extension.” Radiation and Environmental Biophysics 38, no. 2: 75–79.
Laporte, Dominique. 2000. History of Shit. Translated by Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Paddock, Richard C. 1994. “Fallout From Beagle Experiments.” Los Angeles Times, February 8.
Schofield, Paul N., Soile Tapio, and Bernd Grosche. 2010. “Archiving Lessons from Radiobiology.” Nature 468, no. 7324: 634.
Simmonds, Emily with Max Liboiron. 2018. “Nuclear State, Nuclear Waste.” Discard Studies, November 5.
Thompson, Roy C., and Judy A. Mahaffey. 1986. “Preface.” In Life-Span Radiation Effects Studies in Animals: What Can They Tell Us? Proceedings of The Twenty-Second Hanford Life Sciences Symposium Held at Richland, Washington, September 27-29, 1983. Springfield, Virginia: Office of Scientific and Technical Information.