The fall-out 50 years on

Nuclear Wastelands
September 22, 1995

It is not often that a heavyweight academic tome manages to time publication with such topicality as Nuclear Wastelands, which describes itself as a global guide to nuclear weapons production and its health and environmental effects. The 50th anniversary of the only use of atomic bombs in conflict was a predictable publishing link, but the uproar over the latest round of French nuclear testing makes the book even more interesting. The editors have brought the daunting amount of material from the Special Commission of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research together into a reasonably coherent, if somewhat repetitive, story.

First we are taken through the production processes involved in uranium extraction, plutonium production and nuclear weapon manufacture. The health hazards, some potential and some documented after past incidents, are covered in great detail. This section should be required reading for anyone in the nuclear industry, and will doubtless fascinate any specialist in occupational medicine. For the strategic studies specialist, the tragic tales of silicosis in 36 Canadian workers out of the 1,364 workers at the Elliot Lake uranium mine are difficult to put in context. Mining of any ores is full of hazards, and the layman is hard pressed to draw comparisons between relative risks. Having visited the Rossing uranium mine in Namibia last year, I looked to see what horrors I had missed. The verdict is less than clear: shortcomings of the past are highlighted, yet it is also said that Rossing had responded to international criticism by the 1980s. Certainly, the major concern of the workers last year seemed to be the decline in the market for their product, and the possible knock-on effect on the various amenities which the company had provided throughout Namibia.

It is the second half of the book which will interest the strategist more. Nuclear weapon powers, actual and potential, are examined one by one. Seven categories of such states are identified: the five declared nuclear powers; the three undeclared nuclear weapon states of Israel, India and Pakistan; two potential candidates with current weapon material production in Japan and North Korea; South Africa as the only ex-nuclear weapon state; nine or ten states with sufficient technical capability to go nuclear if they wish; three former Soviet Union states with weapons on their territory; and finally Libya as the sole example of a state seeking to become a nuclear state by purchasing whatever is necessary. The chapter on the United Kingdom focuses, unsurprisingly, on the difficulties of obtaining information on nuclear weapon matters. Looking at the role of the Defence Select Committee, the authors claim that it has little power, cannot require civil servants to appear before it or provide specific information. I doubt that those who have been involved with preparing evidence for the Committee would agree with this view. The chapter on France gives no help to the searcher for knowledge about the Pacific testing programme and its effects beyond a map of the area. The United States, Russia and China nuclear weapon production industries are listed site by site, and the text interleaved with the disasters of the past.

Although much sparser in detail, the most interesting part of the book is the collection of information available on some potential nuclear proliferators. Yet others, although identified in the opening chapter on methodology, get little or no mention. The reader wants to know about Iraq's nuclear programme. Much evidence is in the public domain, but it hardly has a passing mention. This seems surprising given that Iraq showed little concern for environmental health in the Gulf War, and a nuclear armed Iraq was not long away from arriving on the world scene.

It is a long and winding journey to the final chapter which looks at the global picture today. The authors admit that deriving any estimate of the effect worldwide of the last half century of nuclear weapon manufacture is impossible. They indicate where the risks to health are higher than average, and they make a series of recommendations for the post-Cold War world. It is the last of these recommendations which allows the reader to understand what the authors have set out to prove in the preceding 590 pages. They recommend that we "re-examine the concept of nuclear deterrence in view of its role in the health and environmental damage that has been caused in the name of national security and in view of its effect of promoting nuclear ambitions and arsenals". That is quite an assertion to make without also looking at whether the world has been healthier as a result of nuclear deterrence. It is not just 50 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also the same half century since the end of the last world war. Nuclear weapons are difficult and hazardous to produce, which is why so few states have managed to do so. Yet nuclear deterrence prevented conflict between two power blocks which had the conventional military capability to affect the health of many. Certainly the world needs to move towards ever greater safety of nuclear materials, both military and civil, and the research in this book will help those who must deal with these difficult materials. There are other things to be done. The Complete Test Ban Treaty will be an important step forward. The continuing reductions in nuclear armouries are important. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons developed by unfriendly states may pose potential security threats for some time ahead; and in such circumstances, deterrence will remain the most effective safeguard.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is commandant, Royal College of Defence Studies.

Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and its Health and Environmental Effects

Editor - Arjun Makhijani
ISBN - 0 262 13307 5
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £34.95
Pages - 666

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments