- Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age
The story of the development and spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy over the last 60 years is not a pretty one. Just as ugly is the issue of disposing of radioactive nuclear waste, for which there is still no satisfactory solution. Even today, discharge of liquid radioactive waste into the sea continues in a number of places, including from Britain's notorious Sellafield plant. Britain's victory in ensuring legally sanctioned sea discharge in the face of a vigorous environmental movement from the 1960s is part of the fascinating story that Hamblin charts in his book.
Hamblin offers a study of the competing interests of science, politics, diplomacy, and the too-often cynical world of policy-making surrounding the nuclear industry after World War II in Britain and the United States. As Hamblin notes, the former Soviet Union's routine violation of international norms and agreements on marine pollution by large-scale dumping of radioactive waste has been public knowledge at least since the early 1990s when it was officially acknowledged by the Yeltsin administration. But while Western democracies deemed communist states to be inherently, indeed pathologically, anti-environment, what is not common knowledge is that democratic nuclear powers, led by the United States and the United Kingdom, routinely dumped nuclear waste into the sea for decades. Hamblin paints a detailed picture of the struggles for authority between groups of scientists, between institutions, and between governments in the United States and Europe, against the backdrop of the ColdWar and the nascent environmental movement.
The book explores four central themes emblematic of these struggles for authority between competing groups: the "power of threshold values in setting [End Page 150] policies and justifying them to the lay public;" the "struggle for authority between health physicists and oceanographers;" the "role of radioactive waste in cold war international relations;" and the "relationship between radioactive waste and environmental policy making" (pp. 5–8). Each of these intensely political struggles is laid out in the book, illuminating the complicated mesh of the (limited) scientific knowledge of risk, political expediency, cynical public relations and lobbying strategies, and cover-ups of mishaps, as governments on both sides of the Atlantic sought frantically to justify poorly designed national policies on nuclear waste disposal.
Looking at the issue of threshold values, Hamblin examines how health physicists, including radiobiologists, biophysicists, and sanitary engineers, invoked notions of "tolerance dose," "permissible dose," and "safe capacity" to set arbitrary policies on the impact of radiation on humans, even as they rejected suggestions by some geneticists that the very idea of thresholds was illusory. US oceanographers managed to negotiate their way to the nuclear table, persuading the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to fund large-scale research on the impact of dumping radioactive waste in the ocean. But they too emphasized the "opportunities and uncertainties of waste disposal" (p. 101), with little or no interest in preventing radioactive waste being disposed of at sea.
The book explores not just the competition among scientists for patronage and authority, but also the turbulent international context in which nuclear waste disposal policies had to be defended. Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" initiative led to the setting up in 1957 of the International Atomic Energy Agency under the United Nations, which opened up both nuclear weapon and civilian nuclear power programs to international scrutiny. Using this forum (among others) to attack British and US policies of dumping nuclear waste in the oceans, the Soviet Union argued that "putting the dangerous by-products of the nuclear age into the oceans was like poisoning a village well, the shared source of life for all" (p. 7). Indeed, it was the persistent questioning by Soviet scientists of the use of the seas for nuclear waste disposal, evidence from Japanese scientific research, alongside new critical reports from the US National Academy of Sciences Committee on Oceanography, and, most significantly, intense public opposition, that ultimately...