Mushrooming waste

August 4, 1995

Fifty years after Hiroshima, nuclear scientist Arjun Makhijani talks to John Davies about the legacy of nuclear weapons production.

The public, at least in the United States, has a very complex attitude to science, looking at it as some kind of magic black box that can deliver solutions to everything. The public gets disappointed when the delivery doesn't happen."

Arjun Makhijani is talking as a scientist who has been studying the effects of 50 years of nuclear weapons manufacture and nuclear power. The Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, of which he is president, is one way, he feels, of "making science seem more responsible". Even if it means making "the kind of science that has been done on health and environmental issues in the nuclear weapons complex seem irresponsible - because it was."

This irresponsibility surrounding the making of nuclear weapons is the subject of Nuclear Wastelands, the latest IEER "guidebook". Previous books from the institute have detailed effects of nuclear weapons testing and nuclear power; like Nuclear Wastelands, they were commissioned by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the organisation that won the Nobel peace prize in 1985. The institute has aimed "to put good science" into concerned people's hands, in Makhijani's words, "so that they can stand up and use this book in an official setting without fear they will be shot down". Recently, he also acted as the principal scientific consultant for the BBC2 documentary Geiger Sweet, Geiger Sour - Tales from the Radiation Age, opening a season of programmes to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.

Makhijani was born in India and got a first in engineering from the University of Bombay, but has lived in America since gaining a doctorate at Berkeley in the 1970s - he specialised in nuclear fusion. In Britain earlier this summer to take part in a conference on low-level radiation, organised by Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, he found himself answering the arguments of a scientist from the UK Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell. Research on teeth collected from dentists all over the country showed that in the Sellafield area as much as three times more plutonium had been absorbed by local people than by those in other parts of the country. In control areas it was around four becquerels per kilogram of teeth - "we all have some, from nuclear test fallout" - while in that part of Cumbria it was between ten and 15 becquerels.

"The man from Harwell put up a chart showing there was this much plutonium from Sellafield, then very many times that much - 100 or 200 becquerels per kg - of uranium that comes from natural sources, and similar amounts of thorium 232. He laid down a challenge: is it rational to worry about the plutonium in your teeth when there's already far more radioactivity than that from natural causes?" Makhijani replied by asking: "Is it reasonable to worry about what your neighbour does to you compared to what God does to you, if God gives you birth and is going to kill you? But if your neighbour came up to you and said: 'God is going to kill you soon so; let me punch you on the nose, it's a much smaller dose', you'd want him to be locked up.

"This kind of logic on the part of the nuclear establishment is not accidental. They've put themselves in the place of God ever since Oppenheimer saw the first atomic bomb go off and quoted the Hindu scriptures. Actually he quoted out of context. He said: 'I am become the destroyer', but the destroyer in Hinduism is part of a trinity. There is a birth god, a maintenance god, if you will, and a destruction god; death in nature is an essential part of regeneration. Hinduism has cyclical views of things, but if you look at atomic destruction, there's no intimation of regeneration in the picture."

Sellafield is, of course, by no means the worst of the "nuclear wastelands" surveyed in the IEER book. The longest chapters examine weapons production in the US and the former Soviet Union, but the comparatively neglected topic of uranium mining's impact is also given due weight.

Although the situation is now more alarming in the former Soviet Union than in the United States, from the 1940s to the mid-1960s both countries shared "a real frenzy to produce more and more weapons and material", he says. In both countries, too, the nuclear weapons establishment "operated in secrecy, under cover of national security. In the US they did human experiments. Clearly there were many unethical and undemocratic practices in both."

But there were differences, Makhijani adds. From the start in America, there was "a terrific fear of liability". Not because of environmental damage, initially; in the case of the Manhattan Project, it was a fear of congressional investigation - a fear that the work on the atomic bomb might be seen as a military failure. "That was, I believe, one of the reasons for the haste in using the bomb; they were desperate to demonstrate that this $2 billion expenditure was useful in ending the war."

Such haste, and early "back-of-the-envelope calculations" concerning radioactive waste, mean that no country now "has any reasonable way to deal with the long-term implications of what has been done. So much waste has been generated - we've got 2 tanks of high-level waste at Hanford (Washington State) and Savannah River (South Carolina)."

But the former Soviet Union has "turned out to be much more of a disaster area than the US". He talks despondently of the "30 tons of surplus plutonium" at the plutonium production centre of Chelyabinsk in the Urals. "It's stored in Thermos-flask-sized stainless steel bottles hung from the ceiling. There are thousands and thousands of them. You can imagine the security issues in just keeping track. The loss of a single one would be a major problem for the world for a duration of time that we don't know how to compute."

Where do we go from here, then? While Nuclear Wastelands is "about the legacy of nuclear weapons production", it ends with nine recommendations, among them "treat plutonium as a hazardous waste material rather than as a resource" and "fully involve the public in cleanup and waste management decisions". But there have been some improvements in the intervening years. The problems of underground disposal can be addressed better than heretofore with "policy based on what we're sure about". He points to a 1983 study by the US National Academy of Sciences that looked at potentially stable rock formations and found, ironically, that one of the safest locations for deep burial of plutonium was "50km west of the Chesapeake Bay - approximately putting it under the White House rose garden."

The IEER had its beginnings in the early 1980s, "when soldiers who had been involved nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific came to me and a colleague because they could not understand some of the documents they had discovered. They'd been told that the radiation doses they'd been exposed to were insignificant." Makhijani and his colleague discovered otherwise: "The authorities didn't have the instruments to measure plutonium in the field." From there he went on to do further research in the federal archives, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, "and a picture began to emerge of what an environmental mess we had in the US.

"The whole idea is to democratise science, to do it in a thorough way that will be respected, and in an approachable way. I would like to bring academics, activists and journalists together to think through how a research agenda for science, especially in universities, can be more democratic and more responsive to the needs of the community."

Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and its Health and Environmental Effects, edited by Arjun Makhijani, Howard Hu and Katherine Yih (MIT Press, Pounds 32.95), is published in the UK on September 4.

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