Skip to content

Storytelling and Unmaking the Nuclear Death-World   

In the age of nuclear necropolitics, storytelling is the crucial first step to dismantle the nuclear death machine. 

Words: Jasmine Owens
Pictures: Boston Public Library

American pop culture is in a moment of thinking about death. The surprise hit film of the year is Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” which turned a story about the development of the most destructive weapons ever into over $950 million in the global box office, five Golden Globes, and Oscar night success. It cannot be lost on us that at the same time that Hollywood is celebrating the face of the ultimate weapon of mass genocide, the US government is busy supporting the Gaza genocide by sending Israel funds and military hardware.

Many of us who think professionally about death and the ways it can be caused by nuclear weapons have praised the film for returning the work of nuclear arms control to the front of the public consciousness. But getting people to think about nuclear weapons is not the same as getting people to think about the structures that decide who lives and who dies in the atomic age. 

Nolan’s decision to use the story of a white man and his deadly achievements to resurrect the tale of the dawn of our apocalypse-adjacent era is a political choice. It is an attempt to define who is allowed to drive discussion about why our white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society seems to require some to die in order to perpetuate itself.

The stories we choose to tell, and to reward the telling of, matter. We should not be content with a discussion about death and nuclear weapons that centers those who are both most removed from it and work to maintain this necropolitical status quo. The trend toward self-reflection about our decades-long flirtation with mass annihilation is welcome, but it is incomplete and violent without centering the stories of the disproportionately Black, brown, and Indigenous people who have and continue to be killed by the production, maintenance, modernization, and use of nuclear weapons. 

A productive approach to re-examining the age of nuclear weapons and the oppressive systems that uphold them requires going beyond Oppenheimer and learning, showcasing, and building on the stories of the people who have been directly harmed by our nuclear infrastructure. We don’t even need to leave the Manhattan Project to start.

The Story of Ebb Cade

The morning of March 23, 1945 started off like any other early Saturday morning for Ebb Cade. Cade was a 55-year-old cement mixer for a construction company contracted by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Oak Ridge was responsible for enriching the uranium that would later be used in the bomb dropped over Hiroshima during World War II.  He and his two brothers were picked up by a friend, and off they went to work. While driving to their workstation at the Oak Ridge facility, their car got into an accident with a dump truck. 

Everyone was transported to the Oak Ridge Army Hospital. Cade sustained several injuries, including multiple broken bones. However, instead of providing medical care, a doctor noted that Cade was a “well developed, well nourished colored male” and decided he was the perfect fit for a new top-secret series of experiments carried out by the Manhattan Project to understand how plutonium interacts with the human body. 

On April 10, a doctor injected 4.7 micrograms of plutonium — almost five times the amount scientists felt could circulate in the body without causing harm — into Cade’s left arm without his informed consent. Nearly three weeks after the accident, the doctors finally set Cade’s bones back into place. They pulled out eighteen of his teeth and took portions of his gum tissue and jawbone to analyze for traces of plutonium. Eight years after the Manhattan Project doctors injected the plutonium into an unknowing Ebb Cade, he died of heart failure. His siblings outlived him by decades. 

Cade’s story was part of a years-long clandestine program. As US nuclear oversight evolved from the ad hoc Manhattan Project to the more institutionalized Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), government personnel continued to forcibly contaminate thousands of civilians with plutonium and other radioactive mixtures, all without obtaining informed consent. The government had no comprehensive consent policy for the experiments until 1974. The victims, journalist Eileen Welsome wrote, were, “almost without exception… the poor, the powerless, and the sick.” AEC scientists even snatched the bodies of dead workers from uranium production facilities and dead babies from other countries without parents’ knowledge or consent. The public remained ignorant of these sordid experiments until 1995, when the Clinton administration finally released a report with findings from an investigation on the issue. 

You may be wondering, why haven’t I heard of this report or these experiments before? It just so happened that the very same day the US government made the report public, the O.J. Simpson trial verdict was released, a trial that captivated the entire country and dwarfed any news of these astoundingly horrific experiments done on unwitting civilians.

The Savage Success of the Nuclear Death Machine 

Unfortunately, this horror didn’t start with Ebb Cade, nor did it end with him. It began in the Shinkolobwe mine located in the Haut-Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which at the time was still a colony of Belgium. 

The Belgians first began mining uranium from the Shinkolobwe mine to extract radium, but it wasn’t until 1940 after the Nazis gained control over Belgium that the US worked with the mine’s owner, the mining company Union Minière du Haut Katanga, to transport 1,200 tons of uranium ore to Staten Island, New York for “safekeeping.” Two years later, the US bought the 1,200 tons along with an additional 950 tons to be packed and shipped from the Congo. 

It wasn’t Belgians mining, sorting and packing the uranium that supplied 80% of the uranium used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and and used to make the plutonium in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. It was the Congolese people, already being forced to labor and subjected to severe human rights violations in order to enrich the Belgian colonial empire, who were exposed to lethal amounts of radiation. It’s possible that they weren’t even made aware of the dangers they faced as they interacted with the chemical element. With US support, Congolese miners continued to be overworked and underpaid throughout the 1950s. The US even aided in the assassination of the newly independent DRC’s first democratically-elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and propped up a dictator by the name of Mobutu Sese Seko for nearly 30 years. 

Getting people to think about nuclear weapons is not the same as getting people to think about the structures that decide who lives and who dies in the atomic age.

The violence inflicted on Black, brown, and Indigenous communities in the name of nuclear domination proliferated like wildfire once Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project achieved their aims. 

The Japanese are still the only population to ever have had nuclear weapons used against them in a time of war. The effects were horrific and inter- and transgenerational. Radiation exposure harms people biologically, mentally, emotionally, and socially, with women and children bearing the brunt of the harm. The US government, already aware of the dangers of radiation exposure, gaslit the entire world to hide just how awful the effects of this novel weapon were and denied the pain and suffering of the Japanese for years after the initial bombings. 

After World War II ended, nuclear harms continued. Just ask the Marshallese, who were forcibly displaced from their ancestral islands so the US could test nuclear weapons. Or the Navajo Nation and other Indigenous communities, whose lands were stolen and contaminated to mine uranium for an arms race that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation more times than people are willing to acknowledge, and whose communities were poisoned due to negligent mining practices. You can also ask the Aboriginal people in Australia, who were unjustly exposed to radiation from 12 nuclear tests conducted by the British, or the Algerians, other North Africans, and Polynesians whose homelands were used as a nuclear testing ground for France. 

Books have been written about the countless communities around the world that have been intentionally harmed in the pursuit of full spectrum dominance. When you specialize in the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons like I do, you notice a pattern very quickly: more often than not, the victims of these harms are Black, brown or Indigenous peoples. That the victims of the nuclear death machine are largely people of color is not an accident. 

Necropolitics and the Making of “Death-Worlds”

Philosopher Achille Mbembe defines necropolitics as the relationship between sovereignty and the power to decide who gets to live and die. The white supremacist, capitalist patriarchal society we live under is fueled by necropolitics. It has to be, because a system that relies solely on perpetual exploitation and extraction of people and the planet is constantly in the work of death, taking what life it can in pursuit of endless profits and power for a select few — namely wealthy cis-hetero white men. In fact, racism is a key aspect of necropolitics, creating clear divisions between those worthy of life and those predestined for death. The dehumanization inherent in racism rationalizes these deaths and allows the perpetrator to absolve themselves of guilt, because after all, their victims aren’t really human. 

Necropolitics isn’t just about outright killing, however. The slow violence of necropolitics creates what Mbembe calls “death-worlds,” whereby the conditions of life are so horrific that they turn its victims into the “living dead.” Those most vulnerable to COVID-19, which we’ve seen are largely people of color, are left to die while the government pretends the pandemic is over and no longer their concern. Black people are imprisoned at exorbitant rates, harassed, starved, and forced to live in squalor to grease the wheels of the prison industrial complex. 

Women — especially Black women and other women of color — are dying in childbirth at terrifying rates because our medical system is racist and politicians have politicized women’s bodies so much they are no longer seen as human but rather as pawns in an election campaign. Around the country, families unable to make ends meet are starving and losing their homes because grocery prices and rent have soared. 

The examples could go on in perpetuity. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a vast expanse of the US population is struggling to survive or dying under this system that is designed to kill us. And while we’re busy combating the very visible and proximate issues that threaten our safety, the nuclear death machine is working overtime in the background to add a unique layer of suffering for us all. 

Professor Gabriele Schwab takes Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics a bit further, establishing a subcategory of nuclear necropolitics that came into being at the dawn of the nuclear age. Not only can nuclear weapons and the industry around them dictate on a massive scale who gets to live and die via a nuclear attack and who must endure slow death through radiation exposure, but the violence of nuclear weapons is also deeply psychological. Victims of radiation exposure from the mining, production, testing and use of nuclear weapons are haunted both by the harms of their own exposure, and the ways that harm will inevitably be passed down to their offspring and their offspring’s offspring, and so on. This psychological trauma is an added — largely invisible — layer of violence within the world of nuclear necropolitics, further cementing Mbembe’s assertion that we are the living dead.

The victims of nuclear necropolitics are too often Indigenous peoples, enduring a nuclear colonization of land, body and mind to maintain a nuclear arsenal we hope to never use, on top of the original European and American colonization that wiped out their communities and stole their land. 

Our Stories Matter

Continuing to uphold the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchal society that relies on necropolitics to survive is unsustainable. Continuing to build and maintain nuclear weapons, the ultimate weapon utilized to justify and carry out the necropolitical actions of the state, is unsustainable. If we are to survive — if humanity is to survive — we must reject this politic of death and embrace a politic of life. 

We must abolish the systems that predestine our death for their survival, and work together to build new systems that prioritize life-giving and life-sustaining practices. This work will require abolishing nuclear weapons, which sit at the apex of necropolitical systems, and are a threat to all life on earth. It requires the nuclear abolition movement, and other movements for environmental and social justice to work together to dismantle this deeply rooted white supremacist, capitalist patriarchal society that upholds the nuclear death machine. 

This work sounds daunting, I know. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless to think about dismantling so much and rebuilding anew when death-making is all we’ve ever known. But the first step to take is to tell the right stories. To tell the stories of those who have been determined disposable, who have been treated as nothing more than a thing to be used and discarded for profit and power. Stories are what connect us, what helps us to step into each other’s shoes and understand that what harms you also harms me. 

Stories give us hope. They remind us that all life is unique and valuable, and that when we work together we can and we will transform our world so that we all have the opportunity to not just survive, but thrive.

Jasmine Owens

Jasmine Owens is a Senior Fellow at Win Without War

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.