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Sociological Forum, Vol. 18, No. 2, June 2003 (

C 2003)

The Paradoxes of Modernity: Scientific Advances,

Environmental Problems, and Risks
to the Social Fabric?
Margarita Alario1,3 and William Freudenburg2

Recent reviews have contrasted U.S. sociologists empirical work on tech-

nological risks with the theoretical risk work of Giddens and Beck, but the
reality is more complex. Most U.S. sociologists are less likely than Giddens
or Beck to see risks as transcending socioeconomic and other divisions,
but the United Statesbased work tends to interpret the trustworthiness of
scientifictechnical expertise in ways that lie between the arguments of Beck
and Giddens. An examination of early nuclear technologies indicates that the
United Statesbased perspectives provide a better fit, for theoretical as well
as empirical reasons. The development of nuclear technologies was mixed,
rather than high or low, in its competence and trustworthiness, and it cre-
ated social and environmental risks that did not so much transcend social
divisions as to reinforce them.
KEY WORDS: Argonne National Laboratory; Chicago; Cold War; ecosystem protection;
Forest Preserve; Manhattan Project; nuclear technology; reflexive modernization theory;
social theory of risk.


Discussions of technological risks have long been dominated by tech-

nical disciplines, such as engineering and applied mathematics, but since
the 1980s, increasing numbers of sociologists have begun to analyze techno-
logical risks. Particularly in recent years, in fact, sociological contributions
1 Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana-
Champaign, 1023 PSL, MC-634, Urbana, Illinois 61801.
2 Environmental Studies Program, University of California, Santa Barbara, California.
3 To whom correspondence should be addressed.

C 2003 Plenum Publishing Corporation
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194 Alario and Freudenburg

have become sufficiently numerousand sufficiently diverseto have cre-

ated not just a certain level of confusion, but also a number of questions
about the usefulness of potentially competing approaches.
The present paper responds to this current state of affairs in two ways.
First, we offer a relatively simple comparison of the three best-known lines
of macrosociological analysis of risk-and-society issuesinvolving the work
of Ulrich Giddens, of Anthony Beck, and of a set of United Statesbased so-
ciologists. Second, we compare the strengths and weaknesses of these three
approaches for dealing with a particularly telling case, examining the way
in which the prototypical hazards of a risk society, involving nuclear tech-
nologies, were originally developed. We conclude the paper by discussing
implications for future research.


To many of those who have offered observations on risk-and-society

issues from outside of sociologya category that includes the vast majority
of all those who have offered such observationsthe notion that the present
world might be considered a risk society would clearly come as a surprise.
Particularly in the United States, much of the public policy discourse relating
to risk has focused instead on what low levels of risk have now been achieved
by the advanced industrialized societies. These widespread views have been
summarized, critiqued, and dissected by any number of social scientists (see
e.g. Fiorino, 1989; Freudenburg and Pastor, 1992; Rosa, 1998; Short, 1999; see
also the compilations by Krimsky and Golding, 1992, and by Cohen, 2000a);
briefly, however, the emphasis of most of that work tends to be on statistical
risks (particularly the risk of death) and on the fact that, at least for industri-
alized countries, the statistical risks of death have dropped dramatically over
the course of the twentieth century. For the most part, when authors from
this technologically oriented literature have discussed the relationships be-
tween technological risk and the broader society, they have called either for
educating the public about real risk numbers, or else for removing the
public from risk decisions altogether; some of the more extreme titles decry
everything from phantom risk, to higher superstition, to eco-hysterics
and the technophobes (see e.g. Beckmann, 1973; Foster et al., 1993; Gross
and Levitt, 1994).
With very few exceptions, sociological treatments of risk-and-society is-
sues have expressed starkly different viewsalthough that is not to say that,
save for a shared lack of enthusiasm for the sociologically naive arguments
that still tend to dominate public policy discussions of risk in the United
States, the sociological analyses have expressed anything like a uniformity
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The Paradoxes of Modernity 195

of views. The roots of this sociological work date back at least to the time of
Habermas (1970), with many sociologists having raised questions about the
legitimacy of the social order, but much of the earlier thinking about ques-
tions of legitimation crisis tended to emphasize the challenges of main-
taining legitimacy by minimizing economic risks and maximizing economic
performance (see e.g., Block, 1987; Habermas, 1970, 1975; OConnor, 1973;
Offe, 1985). Particularly beginning in the 1980s, however, increasing numbers
of sociologists began to focus on potential challenges to legitimacy relating
to technological risksand as the amount of attention has increased, the
paths have tended to diverge.
Today, even if we focus merely on those who have offered macrosoci-
ological lines of analysis, it is possible to discern three main patterns in the
accumulated sociological work on risk. The first two of these lines are asso-
ciated with two well-known European social theorists of reflexive modern-
ization who are often discussed together, but whose work actually diverges
in important and relevant ways. The third, by contrast, combines the work of
several scholars, predominantly from the United States, whose work shows
considerable convergence on relevant questions. We discuss all three briefly,
beginning with the two European theorists.

Reflexive Modernization

One of the most vital bodies of sociological work in recent decades has
involved the scholarship on reflexive modernization. While this body of
work is both large and complex (for overviews/summaries, see e.g. Bauman,
1991; Lash, 1993), perhaps its most important proponents are two major
theorists who are both based in Europe, namely Ulrich Beck and Anthony
In many ways, it is certainly understandable that the work of these two
theorists would be seen as involving important similarities. Both of these so-
ciologists are part of what in German is called zeitdiagnostisches Soziologie
literally a time-diagnosing sociology, although in essence, the phrase sug-
gests a down-to-earth sociology. In addition, their work reflects a good deal
of compatibility on the important issue of risk, with both authors placing spe-
cial emphasis on what Giddens calls high-consequence risks. In the work
of Giddens, this phrase refers to truly formidable, global-scale risks, ranging
from nuclear warfare and nuclear winter to chemical pollution of the seas
(Giddens, 1990:124, 125)risks that he characterizes as creating a society-
wide concern so pervasive that it transcends all values and all exclusionary
divisions of power (Giddens, 1990:154). Beck, similarly, pays special atten-
tion to nuclear, chemical, ecological, and genetic engineering risks, which he
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196 Alario and Freudenburg

sees as involving uncontrollable consequences that are not limited in time

or space (Beck, 1995:31), and which he sees as presenting risks so massive
as to destroy the . . . principal pillars of insurance, being too large to be
underwritten even by modern-day insurance companies (Beck, 1995:127).
Although both of these theorists place a good deal of emphasis on large
issues of reflexivity and risk, however, they do so in ways that include a
number of important differences, including differences in the concept of re-
flexivity itself. Giddens draws largely from the work of ethnomethodologists,
who have used the term reflexivity to emphasize the fact that our sense of
order is a result of conversational processes: it is created in talk, and that
to describe a situation is at the same time to create it (Marshall, 1994:149).
In Becks theory, by contrast, reflexivity contains two key elements, namely,
awareness and reflectionawareness of the global consequences of indus-
trial and technological developments, and reflection upon the risks they im-
Perhaps more importantly, these two authors have also taken the no-
tion of the self-referential nature of reflexivity in quite different directions.
In his Consequences of Modernity, Giddens (1990) emphasizes the founda-
tional nature of expert systems, with particular reference to their function
in securing freedom from risks. According to this line of analysis, there
are interconnections between the systems of reflexive modernization that
have been developed for dealing with hazards (social, environmental, and
even psychological) and the liberating nature of expertise. In Modernity and
Self-Identity, Giddens (1992) continues to develop these ideas, depicting the
breakup of traditional communities, in conjunction with globalization pro-
cesses, as freeing individuals to reflect on their actions and to develop or
choose their identities. He sees scientific knowledge as playing an increas-
ingly important role in that process, providing key potential inputs for the
exercise of dialogic democracya concept involving open communica-
tive exchanges, independent from formal political institutions, and spread-
ing social reflexivity in ways that condition both everyday life and collective
action (Giddens, 1994:115). Other scholars (e.g., Couch and Kroll-Smith,
1997:189) have taken Giddenss idea further, tracing the movement of sci-
entific knowledge away from its institutionally protected and privileged lo-
cation in universities and corporations and into lay communities (see e.g.,
Brown, 1987). Although Giddens is careful to distinguish his expectations
from the philosophical theorem of universal pragmaticsand from the ideal
speech situationenvisioned by Habermas, he nevertheless sees high po-
tential for contributions to the social order. As Giddens puts it, his vision
of dialogic democracy is based in part on the expectation that dialogue in
a public space provides the means of living along with others in a relation
of mutual tolerance. . . . Dialogue would be understood as the capability to
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The Paradoxes of Modernity 197

create active trust . . . a means of ordering social relations across time and
space (Giddens, 1994:11516).
Becks Risk Society, on the other hand, could scarcely offer a less sim-
ilar view of the role of science (Beck, 1992). In his view, the legitimacy of
scientifictechnological rationality has been called into question by its inabil-
ity to control the very risks that it has brought into beingrisks that, unlike
the personal risks of the industrial society, have become global in scope. As
Beck puts it, One can possess wealth, but one can only be afflicted by risks
(23). In his risk society, accordinglyin contrast to the important role that
Giddens ascribes to scientific knowledgeBeck argues that the sciences
monopoly on rationality is broken (29). Instead, Becks risk society is char-
acterized by communities of anxiety, with citizens finding solidarity not
through a shared appreciation for scientific expertise, but through a shared
skepticism toward it, inspired in good measure by their shared exposure to
risks (see also Picou and Gill, 2000). In Becks risk society, in short, haz-
ards are seen as having become so predominant that they have restructured
global society, creating what amounts to a system of organized irresponsi-
bility (Alario, 2000c; Beck, 1988). As noted by Beck, Giddens, and Lash
(1994:116), Beck sees reflexivity as involving a critique, but Giddens sees it
as reflecting an attitude of trust, both toward expert systems and toward the
political system that is expected to govern them.

Risk and the Social Fabric

If in some ways the work on reflexive modernization is best understood

as involving two different perspectives on risk, each associated with a single
author; virtually the opposite is true of the multiple authors whose work
has contributed to the study of what James Short, in his presidential address
to the American Sociological Association, described as risks to the social
fabric (Short, 1984). The scholars and researchers working in this second
risk tradition, who are based principally in the United States, have offered
analyses that differ quite starkly from the views of Giddens and Beck, and
few of them would describe themselves as working from within a perspective
of reflexive modernization. Perhaps partly for that reason, it is common
to contrast European and U.S. approaches. In what may be the most
careful and balanced assessment to date, for example, Cohen (2000b:15)
refers to two principal schoolsan American school of approximately two
decades standing, grounded largely in a social problems perspective, and a
European school of more recent vintage that operates within a more social
theoretical framework. In substantive terms, however, although this United
Statesbased work does tend to differ from the work of both Giddens and
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198 Alario and Freudenburg

Beck on the issue of transcendence, as we explain below, the United States

based work on a second key issue, involving the roles and trustworthiness of
scientific knowledge and technical experts in democratic systems, involves
not so much a counterpoint to as a position that is essentially between the
views of the two European theorists. We will explore both of these points
transcendence and the roles of scientific/technical expertsin turn.


Like Giddens and Beck, United Statesbased risk researchers have de-
voted a good deal of attention to nuclear, chemical, and ecological risksthe
work of Perrow (1984), for example, originally grew out of investigations for
the presidents commission on the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear
facility in 1979but much of the United Statesbased work has treated the
socially salient risks as being precisely those risks that do not transcend
all values and all exclusionary divisions of power (Freudenburg, 2000:112;
emphasis in original). The distinction is particularly clear because, in many
respects, the early U.S. work on technological risks and disasters grew out
of an earlier emphasis on so-called natural hazards and disasters, such as
earthquakes and tornadoes. The earliest of the well-known studies of what
are sometimes called technological disasters, in fact, was Eriksons study
of a flood in West Virginia (Erikson, 1976) caused by the collapse of a coal
mines earthen dam, leading to the flooding of a valley that left more than a
hundred dead and more than a thousand homeless. As Erikson pointed out
in considerable detail, however, rather than creating a communitywhether
of anxiety or any other kindthe experience of risks from this human-
caused disaster led to what the subtitle of his book called the destruction of
community. Erikson emphasized the destruction of community partly be-
cause the phenomenon was so different from the pattern that had been seen
more commonly in so-called natural hazards and disasters up to that time.
As the disaster literature had clearly shown by the 1970s, natural disas-
ters did indeed tend to be characterized by what had become known in that
literature as a therapeutic community (e.g., Barton, 1970). In the com-
monly observed pattern, citizens from all walks of life would come together,
more or less spontaneously, to offer aid to the victims in the aftermath a
disaster. Such reports almost never occur in cases where the risk or disaster
has been of human origin, as noted in a later review of the differences be-
tween natural versus anthropogenic, or technological, disasters; instead,
the common pattern involves what that later review characterized as cor-
rosive communities (Freudenburg and Jones, 1991; see also Erikson, 1976,
1994; Picou et al., 1992).
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The Paradoxes of Modernity 199

In other ways as well, the United Statesbased work has tended to report
just the opposite of a community of anxiety phenomenon. In their study of
an underground coal mine fire that released toxic fumes into the community
above, Kroll-Smith and Couch (1990) reported that, in the words of the title
of their book, The Real Disaster Is Above Ground. Rather than forming
a community of anxiety, the affected citizens became increasingly angry,
contentious, and even bitter, divided into numerous factions that battled
over how dangerous the contamination actually was and what should be
done about it (for comparable reports from other cases, see e.g. Edelstein,
1988; Fowlkes and Miller, 1987; Vyner, 1988). Rather than finding a shared
solidarity in their rejection of official risk estimates, the residents of each
of the communities studied appear to have become deeply divided among
themselves, trying hard to decide just what accounts to believe, and suffering
increased stress in part because of their inability to agree or decide.

The Trustworthiness and Roles of Experts

When it comes to the second dimension of trust and trustworthiness,

by contrast, the United Statesbased literature presents a view that is best
seen not as opposing the arguments put forth by Beck and Giddens, but
as being intermediate, between the views of the two European theorists. As
described earlier, Giddens depicts the role of science and of technical experts
as being relatively unproblematic, providing the broader citizenry with one
important set of inputs for dialogic democracy. Beck, by contrast, depicts
technological innovation as increasingly eluding the control of social and
political institutions, in ways thatfar from creating the preconditions for
trustcreate the belief that technological progress is out of control.
In the United Statesbased literature on technological risk, to offer yet
another contrast, the central tendency is to see most such technological sys-
tems as having worked properly, the vast majority of the timebut with even
occasional exceptions being profoundly troubling, leading to the creation of
what Short (1984) has termed risks to the social fabric. In what may be
the most explicit statement of this perspective, Freudenburg (1993) traces
the reasons back to European social theoretical frameworks of an earlier
vintage, deriving largely from Durkheim ([1893] 1933) and Weber ([1918]
Much as Durkheim spelled out, Freudenburg argues, the division of
labor in society does appear to have permitted tremendous increases in the
overall level of expertise and prosperity enjoyed by present-day citizens
of the industrialized worldbut it has done so with one important catch.
When Durkheim first called attention to the division of labor, he referred
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200 Alario and Freudenburg

approvingly to what he called organic solidarity, seeing the coordination

of differing specializations as being relatively unproblematic. With increased
specialization, he argued, different kinds of people would come to need each
other just as much as do different organs of the body, with the heart and the
stomach, for example, each filling its own specialized role. Unlike stomachs,
however, humans have the capacity to discern specialized interests that can
differ significantly from the needs or interests of the collectivity.
Although Durkheim did not treat such possibilities as being problem-
atic, they lie at the core of what Freudenburg calls recreancythe fail-
ure of institutional actors to carry out their responsibilities with the de-
gree of vigor necessary to merit the societal trust they enjoy (Durkheim,
1993:909)and they appear to be important, as well, in terms of what Short
has called risks to the social fabric. As Weber pointed out in his discussion
of what it meant to live in a world of intellectualized rationality; moreover,
this point is potentially vital. What made the world a rational one, in We-
bers view, was not that the modern citizen could be expected to know more
about the world around him/her, but very nearly the opposite. Unless he is
a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened
to get into motion. And he does not need to know. He is satisfied that he
may count on the behavior of the streetcar, . . . but he knows nothing about
what it takes to produce such a car so that it can move. The savage knows
incomparably more about his tools (Weber [1918] 1946:138139).
In short, far more than was the case for our great-great-grandparents,
the citizens of todays world tend to be not so much in control of as depen-
dent on our technology. We need to count on that technology to work
properlynot just in principle, but also in practice. As a result, we are de-
pendent not just on the technologies, but also on the social relations that
bring them into being, involving whole armies of specialists, most of whom
have areas of expertise that we may not be competent to judge, and many
of whom we will never even meet, let alone have the ability to control. This
perspective, accordingly, is neither as pessimistic as the expectations of Beck
(according to whose arguments technology is essentially out of control), nor
as optimistic as those of Giddens (according to whose arguments the inputs
of science and technology are relatively unproblematic). Instead, the U.S.
work suggests that most present-day technology can be counted on to work
properly, most of the timebut that citizens may be acting quite rationally
if they become concerned when some key element of the sociotechnical sys-
tem sends a signal (cf. Slovic, 1987) that matters are not being controlled
as safely as they ought to be.
Table I offers a simplified graphic summary of the differences spelled out
so far. Both Giddens and Beck see risks as transcending most relevant so-
cial distinctions, while United Statesbased scholars such as Short are shown
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The Paradoxes of Modernity 201

Table I. Simplified Representation of Salient Differences in Authors Views

Sociologically significant risks
Reinforce or Exacerbate Transcend
Role of scientific/technical expertise Social Divisions Social Divisions
Essentially unproblematic Giddens
Generally helpful, but Short, Erikson, and Freudenburg
occasional failuresproblematic
Highly problematicorganized Beck

near the opposite end of that continuum. Regarding the role or fate of sci-
entific and technical expertise, on the other hand, the same U.S. scholars are
shown as having views that are actually between those of Giddens and Beck.


Clearly, all three of these bodies of work take seriously the challenge of
dealing with the consequences of modernity in broad and abstract terms, but
their approaches differ quite markedly in their implications. How might the
conflicting expectations be resolved? Among the options available, we have
chosen to reanalyze a key part of the history of what may be the prototyp-
ical example of risky, modern activities (e.g., see Rosa and Clark, 1999),
involving nuclear technologies in general, and nuclear weapons in particular.
In one sense, the risks of nuclear weapons appear to provide a text-
book illustration of transcendent risks, since they have brought threats
to the world that are obviously massive in scale and scope. In the words
of Smith (1988:62), Nuclear energy was conceived in secrecy, born in war,
and first revealed to the world in horror. What was revealed was a war-
making technology so much more powerful than anything that had ever
been developedor even imaginedthat just two bombs could end a world
war. The capacity proved so horrifying that, for much of the latter half of the
twentieth century, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists graphically depicted
a sense of impending doom with a clock showing just a few minutes remain-
ing before midnight, a metaphorical representation of the potential for
ending all life on earth. Harry Kendall, a founding member of the Union
of Concerned Scientists, even seemed to echo reflexive modernization the-
orists such as Giddens and Beck when he subsequently argued for the need
to consider a broadened range of risksnot just the risks that are upon
us as in the nuclear arms race, but also those that are imminent, as are
pollution-induced climatic and ecological changes, and those that lie beyond
the horizon, as for example, genetic manipulation (Kendall, 2000:11).
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202 Alario and Freudenburg

Yet at the same time, most of the latter half of the twentieth century
offered an abundance of benign atomic icons, as well, although many of
these more positive images also seemed to involve the transcending of so-
cial boundaries. Even the mushroom cloud was seen as a symbol of national
pride; it was soon joined by Albert Einstein, the Atomic Energy Commis-
sion logo, the Walt Disney cartoon genie, and even our friend the atom. In
addition, the rapid expansion of the post-War economy and living standards
seemed to demand cheap energy sources. The latter half of the twentieth
century was one of those times when the confluence of science, nuclear
technology, and economic interests all appeared to be in tune with military
and national security goals, making the United States one nation, after
all. From Truman to Reagan, presidents and Congresses generally agreed
that advancing U.S. scientific, technological, and economic preeminence was
worth any price; even a hint that the Soviet Union might challenge U.S. nu-
clear superiority was often enough to open Congressional pocketbooks (for
a careful and more detailed historical examination of the period, see espe-
cially Boyer, 1994).
Events that supported such reactions, moreover, were readily at hand.
The Korean War and the Soviet nuclear explosion of the early 1950s were
followed by the launching of the Sputnik satellite, on October 4, 1957; the
erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961; the Cuban missile crisis in 1962; and
the Vietnam War, which stretched throughout the later 1960s and into the
1970s. In essence, national security seemed to demand an ever-increasing,
shared emphasis on military, scientific, and technological readiness.
In a completion of the circle, finally, much of that emphasis on readi-
ness involved nuclear weapons. What began from the remnants of the
Manhattan Project (which created the first atomic weapons during the lat-
ter days of World War II) ultimately expanded into a labyrinthine network
of research and production facilities, sponsored first by the Atomic Energy
Commission and ultimately by the Department of Energy, growing to a total
of some 30 laboratories, employing close to 30,000 scientists and technicians,
by the latter days of the Cold War (Holl et al., 1997: Appendix 2; National
Research Council, 2000). Furthermore, the concerns of warboth hot and
colddid stimulate scientific discoveries and technological developments,
which generated enthusiasm in turn because of their potential market appli-
cations. To borrow a metaphor from Vannevar Bush, who played a key role
in designing U.S. science policy in the latter half of the twentieth century
(see Kleinman, 1995), science truly did seem to offer not just an endless
frontier, but an exciting one.
If any form of human technology could be said to transcend all values
and all exclusionary divisions of power, of course, a technology with the
potential capacity to destroy all life on earth would certainly qualify. Still,
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The Paradoxes of Modernity 203

the current postCold War situation provides the analytic distance that can
help us to gain a deeper understanding not only of the historical context of
the massive military buildup, along with its associated scientific and tech-
nological developments, but also of the broader societal implications of the
process. From the perspective of this paper, in other words, it is worthwhile
to examine the major implications of this process for the relationships among
technological risks, society, and nature. To be more specific, the Cold War ex-
perience offers an important opportunity for dealing with the two key points
of difference in the existing sociological literature. First, were the most im-
portant sociological implications of the Cold War experience the ones that
transcended or the ones that reinforced all values and all exclusionary divi-
sions of power (Giddens, 1990:154)? Second, did the Cold War experience
of nuclear technologies lead to trust in expert systems (a la Giddens), to a
pervasive distrust (a la Beck), or to a more complex set of risks to the social
fabric (a la Short)?
To answer the question, it is important to recognize that, particularly
after the end of World War II (WWII), the risks associated with nuclear
weapons were not limited to the possible use of these weapons in time of
war. Instead, beginning even in the years before the dissolution of the for-
mer Soviet Block, and continuing afterwards, a different form of nuclear
risk emergeda problem of peacetime contamination that proved to be
pervasive. One article in the New York Times, for example, noted that, from
simmering tanks of high-level nuclear waste in Washington State and plu-
tonium laced with chemical poisons in Idaho to production of radioactive
gases in South Carolina, the federal governments nuclear weapons program
has festering technological and environmental problems like no one else in
the country (Wald 2000:C1).
The research community has taken note of the extent of the prob-
lem, as well, rendering quite consistent verdicts. Whether at Rocky Flats
(Lodwick, 1993), Hanford (Gerber, 1992), Fernald (Hardert, 1993; Sheak
and Cianciolo, 1993), Oak Ridge (Cable et al., 1999), Pantex (Del Tredici,
1987), or across the weapons complex as a whole (Dunlap et al., 1993; Hooks,
1991; Jacob, 1990; Morone and Woodhouse, 1989; Shrader-Frechette, 1993;
Slovic, 1993; U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, 1991), a large number of
independent scholars and scientists have found the U.S. track record in nu-
clear weapons production to have been sorely lacking. Perhaps the earliest
concise summary of the verdict was the one offered by Zinberg (1984:241):
As more of the history of nuclear waste management has become public
knowledge, there has been a growing awareness that bad judgment and in-
competence have often been masked by military and industrial secrecy. Sub-
sequent analysts have generally concurred with and, if anything, reinforced
the verdict, generally doing little to provide confidence about the kinds of
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204 Alario and Freudenburg

commitment to openness and environmental preservation that will be re-

quired for the ongoing, long-term, institutional management of these now-
contaminated sites. Instead, regrettably, the relevant federal agencies have
sometimes showed greater concern over the release of potentially harmful
publicity than of potentially harmful substances.
Still, although the problems have been socially pervasive in at least one
sense of the word, in that they have affected hundreds of sites around the
country, the risks at each site have been relatively localized, extending a few
miles at most (for details, see National Research Council, 2000). Particularly
in the United States, moreover, much of the attention to this problem has
been focused on the most severely contaminated areasa focus that is un-
derstandable. As noted above, however, our focus here is on activities that
started in the earliest days of nuclear technology development, and in the
intellectual center of much of the earliest work, where we might expect the
level of attention to safety to have been higher than in the case of weapons fa-
cilities that were deliberately placed far from the nearest population centers.
The key early activities, to be more specific, took place within the second-
largest metropolitan region of the United States at the time, namely Chicago.


The entire process of nuclear weapons production, beginning with the

Manhattan Project and continuing with some of the key scientific and tech-
nological developments of the Cold War, had deep roots in the heart of the
windy city. The worlds first controlled nuclear chain reaction took place
under the seats of Stagg Field, at the University of Chicago. Even after that
time, however, when the project had grown large enough that it needed to
be relocated, the nerve center of the emerging atomic age shifted to a site
that was roughly a mile south of downtown Chicagoan area known as the
Red Gate Woods of the Palos Altos in Cook County. The newly develop-
ing weapons, however, were not just potent instruments for fighting wars,
both hot and cold; instead, these new weapons systems, both nuclear and
chemical, also became important sources of health and ecological risks in
times of peace. These war technologies were generating the new patterns of
environmental impacts of the post-War era.

The Chicago Connection

The Manhattan Project needed a safe, adequate site for a full-sized ex-
perimental pile. The secretive work had to be concealed yet located
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The Paradoxes of Modernity 205

reasonably close to the laboratory. . . . [W]hile on a Saturday afternoon

horseback ride, [the] University of Chicago physics professor, Nobel laure-
ate, and coordinator of the program, found an attractive site in the Argonne
Forest (Holl et al., 1997:13). At this historic site the worlds first two nu-
clear reactors would be built, in 1942 and in 1943, under the leadership of
the Nobel Prizewinning physicist, Enrico Fermi.
Before the atomic scientists arrived, however, Red Gate Woods was a
legally protected area. It had been secured for preservation purposes decades
before, under the Illinois Forest Preserve District Act of 1913, which strictly
forbade the transfer or use of the land for any other purpose. Still, the legal
protection for this natural sanctuary proved to be too weak to keep it from be-
ing used for nuclear research. The federal government simply appropriated
the lands, in the name of the urgencies of war, to build its military-industrial
In other respects, however, matters were not quite so simple. In com-
pliance with the friendly condemnation procedures of the Department of
War, Cook Countys Argonne Forest Commission did agree to lease the
Forest Preserve to the federal government for the duration of war pursuits
(see Board of Forest Preserve Commissioners, 1961:1619). Yet the Forest
Commission also sought to deal with the legal prohibition against such an
arrangement. As one key part of that effort, the president of the board
simply refrained from requesting a lease fee. Instead, he requested com-
plete restoration of all property to its former use, once all of the military
and atomic research facilities were relocated, although the date of such a
relocation was never specified.
The starting date for weapons activities in the Forest Preserve, on the
other hand, can be identified far more precisely. On August 13, 1942, the
bomb-making Manhattan Project moved to the Forest Preserve. Site A, as
this area is known, is the place where Fermi moved the nuclear reactor that
was simply called Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1). It is also the place where the second
reactor, Chicago Pile-2 (CP-2), was built from scratch. A nearby area, known
simply as Plot M, was the research teams nuclear waste depository. Not until
many years later would the world realize what such activities might imply
for the complete restoration of all property to its former use.
Still, even though the impacts of the Manhattan Project would not end
as soon as the war did, there was a small window of opportunity for non-war-
related policies between the end of WWII and the full-force arrival of the
Cold War shortly thereafter. During that time, the Cook County Advisory
Committee invoked the Forest Preserve District Act of 1913 and success-
fully rejected the Department of Wars request for a permanent lease. This
window, however, proved to be very small. Soon, the logic of the Cold War
would impose a new set of national security priorities that would lead to
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206 Alario and Freudenburg

further demands on the ecosystems of the Greater Chicago areademands

that would continue for decades.
Congruent with the national security demands of the time, the Atomic
Energy Act of 1946 insured that the Atomic Energy Commission would have
a legal monopoly over all forms of nuclear science and expertise, specifically
including reactor technologies and applications. The Argonne Laboratory
was designated as the first National Laboratory on July 1, 1946, and the
search for a permanent site soon began.4 As part of that search, Secretary of
War Robert L. Patterson requested for the second time retention of 265 acres
from Cook County in perpetuity.
The request, clearly, was not without complications of its own. As the
Forest Preserve Commissioners Advisory Committee emphasized, the de-
sired site happened not just to be legally designated for environmental pro-
tection, but also to be close to the center of one of the finest and undoubtedly
the largest of the County Forest Preserves, which was carefully planned and
acquired to incorporate these particular hills and valley, a topography which
is rare in Cook County (see Carmody, 1997:1.1). Due in large part to such
concerns, the commissioners indicated that, once again, rather than relin-
quishing the site in perpetuity, they were willing only to offer something that
would be much smaller and shorter in durationcontinued use of a reduced
area of the Forest Preserve for a reasonable period of time, during which
arrangements may be consummated for acquiring and developing another
site . . . for a permanent National Atomic Research Laboratory (Board of
Forest Preserve Commissioners, 1961:19).
By September 10, 1946, Colonel Frye, chief of the Army Corp of Engi-
neers of Chicago, had asked local engineers to survey other potential sites for
the new laboratory. The site they identified, however, was one that happened
to be located in another Forest Preserve, covering 3367 acres in the south-
east corner of the Rocky Glen Forest Preserve of nearby DuPage County.
Although WWII had ended by that time, the federal governments ability to
lease the land it wanted had not. Invoking the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, the
Department of War appropriated 1700 acres of the Forest Preserve to serve
as the permanent site of the Argonne National Laboratory.

The Cold War Context: Not Out of the Woods?

In the years that followed, the Cold War and the outbreak of the Korean
War in 1949 insured that the entanglement of the federal government in
4 In addition to Argonne, the network of National Laboratories would soon include Brookhaven,
New York; Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and
Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore, California.
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The Paradoxes of Modernity 207

scientific and technological research would continue at an unprecedented

pace. A fundamental issue in this raceand it was indeed a racewas the
military application of nuclear science and technology. By 1952, all efforts
at the Argonne National Laboratory were concentrated on securing U.S.
nuclear superiority. At the time, it seemed as if the future of democracy
and the West depended on the research being pursued in this and other
national research laboratories. The protection of democratic rights seemed
to depend on high-risk technologies, which in turn imposed a toll on the
health and ecological integrity of the surrounding ecosystems.
By 1956, the first of the two Forest Preserve sites, in the Red Gate
Woods, had been cleared of all nuclear structures and returned to Cook
County, even though nuclear waste continued to be buried there. More than
a third of a century later, in 1992, pieces of still-dangerous uranium were
found on the site. After a five-year moratorium and an announcement by
the Department of Energy that it had completed a $6 million cleanup to
rid the site of radioactive materials and chemicals, the site reopened in the
October of 1997 (see Ziemba, 1997).
As these words are being written, more than a dozen years after the fall
of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and a decade after the end of the Cold War in
1991, Argonne National Laboratory continues to occupy 1,700 acres of the
Rocky Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County. Although the preserve com-
missioners tried to protect the ecological integrity of the Forest Preserves
at the end of WWII, they could not have anticipated the results of a later
study from the National Academy of Sciences (National Research Council,
2000), which acknowledged that some nuclear sites may be contaminated in-
definitely, containing hazards that, while localized, are nevertheless beyond
the capacity of present-day science and technology to remediate, even half a
century after they were first created. The practical consequence is that some
such sites may never be cleaned up enough to allow public access; instead,
as the New York Times (2000) stated, there was evidence that, for practical
purposes, many nuclear sites may be toxic in perpetuity.




In some senses, the events of the early nuclear age within the Chicago
metropolitan region can be seen as being consistent with the Giddens/Beck
emphasis on transcendence, or the focus on risks that transcend all values
and all exclusionary divisions of power (Giddens, 1990:154). The activities
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208 Alario and Freudenburg

at these sites, after all, involved the production of nuclear weapons, and for
most of the latter half of the twentieth century, at least the citizens of the
United States were largely united in seeing such weapons as providing an
important deterrent against the threats that were perceived to emanate from
the other side of the former Iron Curtain.
Even if the risks involved in this nuclear standoff could not be said to
transcend all values and all exclusionary divisions of power, there was, in
other words, a good deal of transcendence at the national level. Most U.S.
citizens, after all, felt a good deal of shared commitment to the policies of
the time, and most citizens on the other side of the former Iron Curtain
apparently felt a good deal of shared commitment to the policies of their
own leaders, as well. At a broader level, moreover, it would be possible to
argue that full transcendence was in evidence with respect to the greatest
risk of all: Virtually all people on earth could be said to have had a shared
recognition that all-out nuclear war presented unacceptable risksa point
underscored by the fact that, despite all the tensions of the Cold War, the
weapons have never again been used in anger, to date, after the two atomic
bombs that were widely seen as helping to end World War II.
Despite these successes, however, the failures and exceptions appear to
have been both telling and troubling. They are telling in that they involved
the federal governments failure to comply with relevant laws for the pro-
tection of public health and the environment, resulting in levels and types
of contamination that subsequent analyses have found to be genuinely trou-
bling. In terms of the issue of transcendence, however, the exceptions have
tended to be troubling in a way that is socially concentrated, not widespread.
These exceptions, in other words, point to a shared weakness in the
logic put forward by both Giddens and Beck. Although the weapons were
not actually used against those who were defined as enemies, they created
significant problems for those who were officially seen as friendsfor some
of the very people for whose benefit, in part, the weapons were claimed to
have been created, and from whom came some of the tax dollars that made
the weapons activities possible.
From the perspective of the present, it is clear that, on both sides of
the former Iron Curtain, the weapons activities led to the contamination or
loss of areas that had been set aside for other purposessome of them for
environmental protection, as in the case of Chicago, and others for peoples
farms and homes. Even though some of the disruptions were intended to be
temporary, as in Chicago, todays scientists warn that the levels of contami-
nation may be so high as to prohibit the return of some areas to other socially
valued uses more or less forever (National Research Council, 2000). Human
health concerns are also an issue; government estimates indicate that more
than 8000 workers nationwide may have been harmed (see the summary in
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The Paradoxes of Modernity 209

Roe and Manier, 2001). Under the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation
Act, the federal government officially acknowledged its responsibility for
the increased risk of injury and disease that workers experienced while
serving in the nations national security war industry during the 1940s1960s.
Rather than transcending all social boundaries, clearly, these risks were
concentrated on those who were directly but often involuntarily exposed
to nuclear radiation in their work. Indeed, even the governments official
acknowledgment of responsibility has proved to have only limited tran-
scendence. The federal government began paying compensation under the
Act in 1992, but the fund ran out of money in the spring of 2000since then,
claimants have received only IOUs (see Graham, 2001).

The Limits of Trust?

The second issue highlighted in our earlier literature review had to

do with the roles played by scientific and technical expertise. For Giddens,
as we noted, reflexivity in modernity involves a significant degree of trust
in expert systems. Reflexivity is possible via a double hermeneutic that
involves the self as the first medium of interpretation, and experts as the
second. For Giddens, the project of modernity has become the search for
trust in a risk society, where subjects rely on their reflexivity and that of in-
terpersonal/expert relations against the uncertainties of fortuna. The reverse
is the case of Becks notion of reflexive modernization, where risk society
reaches its paroxysm in the manufacturing of risk, as represented by nuclear
technology, because of its statistically unlikely yet potentially devastating
impact. This means that, for Beck, reflexivity leads not to trust but to dis-
trust of scientific institutions. For scholars who represent the third school of
thought considered in this paper, meanwhileU.S. scholars such as Short,
Erikson, or Freudenburgthe expectations are more mixed: Most citizens
feel able to trust most of societys experts most of the time, but even rela-
tively rare exceptions can lead to relatively high levels of distrust. This third
perspective, as we read the data, comes closer to fitting the facts of the case
than do either the more optimistic views of Giddens or the more pessimistic
views of Beck.
As noted in our introductory comments, earlier work on what Habermas
(1970) termed a Legitimation Crisis (see also Block, 1987; Offe, 1985)
emphasized the challenges of maintaining legitimacy via economic perfor-
mance. From the perspective of the twenty-first centurywith the threats
of the Cold War now more than a decade in the past, but with spending on
the U.S. Department of Defense continuing to rival the peak levels of the
Cold Warthe implications for the maintenance of legitimacy via economic
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210 Alario and Freudenburg

prosperity may continue to have some relevance. At the same time, how-
ever, partly because growing numbers of citizens have become aware of
the evidence of extensive (and expensive) contamination, there has been a
growing loss of legitimacy of a different sort. In some ways, this loss of legit-
imacy could be seen as consistent with Becks emphasis on hazards that are
so pervasive as to have structured a global society; but on closer inspection,
the loss of legitimacy proves to be more focused than that. For the most
part, the uncontrollable risks were not those that were scientific or tech-
nological; instead, as stressed by U.S. sociologists such as Perrow (1984) or
especially Clarke (1999), the relevant risks proved to be socialbureaucratic
or organizationalin their nature and origin.
This point deserves emphasis. As already documented by the National
Research Council (2000), the key problems of contaminationwhether in
chunks of radioactive uranium that have shown up at abandoned sites in
the Chicago region, or in more broadly diffused plumes of toxic materials at
hundreds of other sites that are so badly contaminated that they cannot be
fully cleaned uphave not been that the scientific or technological risks have
been uncontrollable or beyond the capacity of government and science.
Instead, in a set of findings that may actually be more troublesome, the prob-
lem is that the relevant federal agencies put so much emphasis on developing
and building the weapons that, in some cases, they did not even take the sim-
plest or most basic steps to protect citizens rights and the environment.
In this respect, the findings from Chicago are generally consistent with
those from more remote corners of the country. Even the explicit legal pro-
tections built into the 1913 Forest Preserve Act proved insufficient to safe-
guard these ecosystems; instead, national security priorities were used to
overturn all other forms of rightsincluding the relatively minimal atten-
tion to rights that would have been involved in finding other, nearby sites,
whether during WWII or during the era of similarly heightened patriotism
that characterized the early days of the Cold War. Virtually all of these risks
would have been entirely possible to contain, technologically, even at that
time. To put the matter simply, the problem proved to be that, for years, the
responsible institutions failed to act responsibly, at least with respect to
the control of contamination. This case, in short, fits the classic definition
of recreancy, or institutional failure, with institutional actors not being to-
tally irresponsible and yet failing to carry out their responsibilities with the
degree of vigor necessary to merit the societal trust that they once enjoyed
(e.g., see Freudenburg, 1993; Short and Clarke, 1993).
To some extent, this understanding of the problem is compatible with
the ones that Giddens and Beck have spelled out, and yet the differences
in detailand in precisionare important. On closer examination, what
emerges is something more paradoxical than depicted by either of these
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The Paradoxes of Modernity 211

well-known theoristsnot an uncontrollable or all-transcending form of

risk, but a more prosaic form of institutional failure in the management of
known risks, leading to the creation of significant risks to the social fabric.
The situation offers not so much a clear case of success or failure as
it does a combination of two faces of modernity. Impressive advances in
science and technology became entangled with the social imposition of risk
something that happened partly because of the failure to give due weight to
organizational performance, democratic rights, and environmental concerns.


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