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Evolving Education: Exploring the Connection Between Nuclear Technology and Social Work Ethics
By Mike Laird, LCSW, CEAP
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 1 P. 12

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I took undergraduate students from my Social Work Ethics course on a field trip to a largely unknown and relatively remote forest preserve 25 miles southwest of the Chicago Loop. Unbeknownst to them, Red Gate Woods contains the remnants of the world’s first consequential atomic research.

On the day of the field trip, the students and I met in the Red Gate Woods parking lot early in the morning. At the edge of the parking lot is a narrow path that enters into the woods. Next to the path’s opening is a small and inconspicuous sign that reads in big bold letters: DAWN OF THE ATOMIC AGE.

The students and I walked nearly a mile on a muddy path and eventually reached our destination to begin the day’s lecture and discussion.

What is the connection between social work ethics and nuclear technology? It may not be obvious at first, but nuclear technology has had profound environmental and geopolitical effects since the 1940s. Nuclear technology has powered cities, diagnosed and treated diseases, and helped nations win or deter wars with devastating outcomes.

Since the NASW Code of Ethics explicitly states that social workers have ethical responsibilities to broader society, we are given the opportunity to briefly explore the ethical grey areas in how we understand nuclear technologies to affect communities and the individuals that live in them.

Although the science of atomic radiation can be traced to 1895, the onset of World War II and the multinational quest for an atomic bomb meant that most development took place between the years 1939 and 1945, according to the World Nuclear Association. Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States all engaged in intensive research during that time.

The Manhattan Project in the United States built multiple research laboratories with the goal of harnessing the power of a nuclear chain reaction. One of those labs was located underneath an abandoned field at the University of Chicago. On December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi and other scientists were able to create the world’s first self-sustaining chain reaction. As a result, the nuclear age was born.

By 1943, the location of the experiments, including the nuclear reactor, moved from the University of Chicago to a 19-acre plot outside of Chicago. Experiments would continue under the direction of Argonne National Laboratory, which was the first nuclear laboratory in the United States. By 1956, the original reactors had outlived their design and were subsequently dismantled and buried underground in what is now known as Site A and Plot M in Red Gate Woods.

Class Lecture and Discussion
After a brief overview of the site’s history, the students and I continued our discussion with a targeted review of the Ethical Standards section in the NASW Code of Ethics. The first five Ethical Standards emphasize micro- and mezzo-level practice, whereas the sixth Ethical Standard focuses on social workers’ responsibilities to broader society, or macro-level social work.

Social Welfare 6.01
“Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments.”

Nuclear technology’s potential to bring energy resources to communities is indisputable. However, nuclear power plant accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima released dangerous radiation into the atmosphere, land, and ocean, rendering the surrounding areas either contaminated or unlivable.

While these accidents suggest that the risks of nuclear power outweigh its benefits, there is also evidence that supports its use despite the potential dangers. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, 20% of the United States energy supply comes from 96 nuclear power plants in 29 states. These power plants don’t produce carbon dioxide, which is the main pollutant responsible for climate change. Advocates of nuclear power plants claim that nuclear power is a clean energy source and has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A student asked why everyday social workers not living near a nuclear power plant need to be concerned about this issue. We discussed that even when an accident doesn’t occur, spent nuclear fuel requires careful storage to prevent radioactive releases into the atmosphere and surrounding areas. Storing spent fuel has proven to be costly and the risks are still unsubstantiated.

Public Participation 6.02
“Social workers should facilitate informed participation by the public in shaping social policies and institutions.”

This includes not only participation in the debate over nuclear energy but also how nuclear technology is used militarily. The Arms Control Association reports that between 1945 and 2017, eight nations tested 2,056 nuclear bombs. Many of these tests took place on Indigenous land and spread radioactive material either through the atmosphere or the deep underground, contaminating soil and water sources.

The never-to-be-forgotten bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an estimated 225,000 people. Even with nonproliferation treaties and the steady reduction of nuclear bomb testing, some scientists believe the risk of a major nuclear disaster is closer than it has ever been. The effects of ill-conceived policies surrounding nuclear weapons could be catastrophic for communities and the people who live in them.

Public Emergencies 6.03
“Social workers should provide appropriate professional services to the greatest extent possible.”

What about social workers who practice in a community that has a nuclear power plant? Are they familiar with the issues that affect employees of the energy companies that run the plants? Are they prepared to offer Critical Incident Stress Debriefings or Psychological First Aid should an accident occur?

Since competence is one of the profession’s core values, it’s important that social workers in these communities are prepared to address the needs that may arise should an accident occur.

Social and Political Action 6.04
“Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully.”

Nuclear medicine is providing health outcomes that would otherwise be unachievable. According to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, nuclear medicine is a “medical specialty that uses radioactive tracers (radiopharmaceuticals) to assess bodily functions and to diagnose and treat disease.”

Interestingly, this is an area that students likely have a direct connection to, either through themselves or a family member or friend. A goal of social workers is to ensure that health care policies enable clients to have access to these life-saving technologies without discrimination.

Field Study
To the students’ surprise (and sudden concern), Red Gate Woods underwent a major rehabilitation after the discovery of radioactive materials was found in the soil and nearby woods in the 1980s. In 2002, the Illinois Department of Public Health concluded that Site A and Plot M didn’t pose any risks to public health. Nevertheless, both areas continue to be monitored annually.

Discussing nuclear technology and social work ethics at the site where the remnants of groundbreaking atomic research is buried allowed the students to realize that discussing macro-level social work issues in an ethics class is not a mere intellectual exercise. It’s also an opportunity to learn about the risks posed by nuclear technology and how those dangers are often much closer to home than we realize.

Mike Laird, LCSW, CEAP, works at a union-based employee assistance program and teaches part-time at St. Augustine College in Chicago.


Arms Control Association. (2020, July). The nuclear testing tally. Arms Control Association. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/nucleartesttally

Atomic Heritage Foundation. (2016, December 1). Chicago pile-1. Atomic Heritage Foundation. https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/chicago-pile-1

Children of the Atomic Bomb. (2007, October 10). Hiroshima and Nagasaki death toll. Children of the Atomic Bomb. http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/cab/200708230009.html

Forest Preserves of Cook County. (2013, October 1). “Site A” at Red Gate Woods and the world’s first nuclear reactor. Forest Preserves of Cook County. https://fpdcc.com/site-a-the-worlds-first-nuclear-reactor/

National Association of Social Workers. (2018). Code of Ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/about/ethics/code-of-ethics/code-of-ethics-english

Spinazze, G. (2020, January 23). Press release—it is now 100 seconds to midnight. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. https://thebulletin.org/2020/01/press-release-it-is-now-100-seconds-to-midnight/

National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. (2016). Nuclear medicine. National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. https://www.nibib.nih.gov/science-education/science-topics/nuclear-medicine

Nuclear Energy Institute. (2020). The advantages of nuclear energy. Nuclear Energy Institute. https://www.nei.org/advantages

World Nuclear Association. (2020, November). Outline history of nuclear energy. World Nuclear Association. https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/outline-history-of-nuclear-energy.aspx