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Mary X. Mitchell (Cornell University): "Exposing the Boundaries of Nuclear...

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Virginia Tech Research Center - Arlington

900 North Glebe Road

Arlington, VA 22203

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Mary X. Mitchell (Cornell University): "Exposing the Boundaries of Nuclear Liability: State Sovereignty and Radioactive Contamination after Chernobyl"

Abstract: Radioactive contamination challenged traditional conceptions of state sovereignty and practices of international relations. Diplomats considered the role of the state in addressing the harms of nuclear reactor incidents during the1950s and 1960s. They bracketed these questions, however, in order to craft international agreements that would foster the widespread development of nuclear energy. National laws and international treaties facilitated the transfer of parts, plants, raw material, and technical expertise. Focusing laws on third party liability ensured the participation of industry leaders by defining and limiting their liability, but left open broader questions of what role states would play in addressing local and international harms of a meltdown. The catastrophic meltdown at Chernobyl raised these questions anew, exposing how the harms of nuclear technologies troubled traditional conceptions of sovereignty while creating opportunities and constraints in the field of public international law.

Dr. Mary X. Mitchell's work focuses on the intersections of nuclear science and technology with law and social movements. She is currently an Atkinson Fellow in Sustainability at Cornell University, and will join Purdue as an assistant professor in the history department next year. She earned her PhD in history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016. Before beginning her doctorate, Mitchell worked in university technology licensing, earned her JD, practiced law, and served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Anthony J. Scirica of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Dr. Mitchell’s research explores the transnational legal histories of nuclear weapons and energy. She is completing a book manuscript tentatively titled, Test Cases: American Law, Nuclear Weapons, and Extraterritorial Power in the Postwar Pacific. Test Cases uses legal conflict over nuclear weapons testing to trace the contours of America’s Pacific expansion following World War II. She is concurrently beginning research for a new book about the history of liability, insurance, and compensation frameworks for nuclear reactor incidents. Dr. Mitchell has published articles in Environmental History, the Journal of the History of Biology, and Change over Time.


About the seminar series: This lecture continues a speaker series featuring leading international experts on nuclear emergency response. Part of an NSF CAREER Award (PI Sonja Schmid) and hosted by Virginia Tech’s Department of Science and Technology in Society, with generous support from the Office of the Vice President for the National Capital Region.

  • Light refreshments will be served.
  • Graduate students are encouraged to arrive at 12:00 to chat with the speaker before his talk.
  • The URL to the online version of the event is http://www.ncr.vt.edu/live/ for anyone who'd like to join remotely.
  • To submit a question to the speaker, please e-mail it to siren@vt.edu.


If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, please contact Sonja Schmid at 703-538-8482 or email sschmid@vt.edu during regular business hours at least 10 business days prior to the event.

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Virginia Tech Research Center - Arlington

900 North Glebe Road

Arlington, VA 22203

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