- Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age
When historians of technology write about disposal of nuclear waste, it is usually in terms of sites such as Yucca Mountain—vast underground nuclear graveyards designed to keep waste secure for thousands of years. But at the dawn of the atomic age this mode of disposal was not a foregone conclusion, as scientists and policymakers looked to land and skies, and to the ocean, as possible disposal zones for nuclear material.
Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s Poison in the Well addresses a sector of atomic history that has, like much of the deep oceans, not yet been explored, never mind carefully mapped. His account traces far more than the title indicates—he begins his history in the 1940s and 1950s and continues until the 1980s and 1990s. He also shifts his geography chapter by chapter, covering the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and a host of smaller countries and their waterways.
Hamblin has delved into archives on both sides of the Atlantic and composed an authoritative account of policies concerning the dumping of nuclear waste. He takes the reader inside the operations of the Atomic Energy Commission in the United States and into similar agencies abroad. He also examines the politics of the National Academy of Sciences and international agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency.
What Hamblin finds in the archives is a parallel to the case study of the atomic physicists in the wake of World War II. But while the atomic physicists sought and found influence in policymaking circles of the AEC, oceanographers never gained the level of respect and patronage that their counterparts in physics achieved. Instead, oceanographers at times floundered about, looking for government patronage but finding less than ideal levels of support for long-term basic research on the dynamics of ocean systems. As Hamblin’s story moves into the 1950s, policymakers and scientists are forced to deal with a series of public-relations crises that threaten ocean disposal of atomic waste. The so-called Lucky Dragon incident in 1954 raised concerns about radioactivity, and over the decades since then a series of dumping incidents (usually involving drums of waste that refused to sink) have made headlines.
Hamblin chronicles all of these events but returns over and over to the theme of the book—that the quiet discharge of radioactive waste from pipelines on the shore far exceeded any ocean dumping in drums. While international treaties such as the 1975 London Convention barred ocean dumping of waste, the stream of waste pouring from nuclear-processing plants such as Great Britain’s Windscale continued. [End Page 246]
Hamblin asserts that there are no villains in his narrative, and there are few heroes either. Most of the scientists who appear in the book, whether physicists or oceanographers, follow the lead of their patrons, seeking funds for long-term research. A few environmentally minded scientists (including a young Jacques Cousteau) make an appearance, but they are brought into the fold by their national atomic agencies, sometimes over a cocktail or two. The national leaders in Hamblin’s account are realists, not idealists. The Soviet Union disposed of its waste secretly into rivers and seas, all the while denouncing Great Britain and the United States for doing the same. The United States explored ocean dumping of waste early on, but, with a larger landmass than Great Britain, turned to land disposal instead.
This is a dense account of politically and scientifically complicated material. But Hamblin is able to pull it together and reach solid conclusions about what the events he describes mean for historians of science and technology as well as for those interested in policy and environmental history.
Dr. Olwell is associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.