Jake Lynch

Friends of the Earth, the UK-based environmental advocacy group, greeted the British government’s plan, announced this week, for deep cuts in the emission of greenhouse gases, with something approaching jubilation. A press release quoted Executive Director Andy Atkins: “Today’s announcements are a significant step towards the creation of a safe, clean and low-carbon future”.

Environment minister Ed Miliband presaged a 34% cut by 2020 from the 1990 level of emissions – the ‘golden ticket’ of a tough interim target that campaigners had been calling for – to be achieved through an “energy trinity” of renewable sources, such as winds and tides, ‘carbon-capture’ coal, and new-build nuclear power plants. Getting these up and running within the next decade would be “tricky”, according to an editorial in the green-tinged Guardian, but should be “pursued energetically”.

In Australia, meanwhile, investigative reporting by the Sydney Morning Herald established that Peter Garrett, Miliband’s counterpart and a former environmental activist rock star, had approved a proposal for a new uranium mine from a “reclusive billionaire” named James Neal Blue. Blue, the paper noted, was “one of the world’s biggest arms dealers” and the supplier, through his company, General Atomics, of the Predator drone aircraft being used in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The new Four Mile mine, in South Australia, would use the same “acid corrosion technique” to extract uranium from aquifers, environment reporter Ben Cubby wrote, as the nearby Beverley mine, which had recorded 59 separate spills of radioactive material in the past decade. Cubby didn’t raise the point, but real fears have surfaced, over the same period, that South Australia might run out of water, with its state capital, Adelaide, afflicted by salination and drought. It seemed that the exploitation of a resource with a high market value was taking precedence over the preservation of one with unique life-giving properties.

Nevertheless, the Herald opined, in its own editorial, that the “world had changed” since Garrett’s salad days as the outspoken frontman of his band, Midnight Oil, when he opposed both uranium extraction and military alliance with the US. To open up a “major export income stream” from Australia’s world-leading reserves of yellowcake uranium ore was “logical”, the paper went on, given the potential for atomic energy to help cut global warming. It seems, then, that opposition to nuclear power has been effectively muted, as concerns over pollution and the damage to ecosystems from mining operations give way to what the Herald called “a dramatic change in the debate”.

I’m presently attending a conference at Melbourne University, titled, ‘Journalism in the 21st Century’, and was privileged to listen to a fellow journalist-turned-academic, Barbie Zelizer, speaking about the “cannibalisation of memory” by powerful interests, intent on overriding particular, local “mnemonic frames” – community opposition to mining developments, for instance – in favour of “global” narratives encapsulated, in this case, in the title of the Herald editorial: “the world tilts towards uranium”. Too often, she suggested, journalism proved a handmaiden to such projects, and important knowledge was shoved unceremoniously off the front pages and into the dim recesses of collective memory.  

Time then, perhaps, to dredge up some of the nuances otherwise in danger of being forgotten, but emphasised usefully in two new books, Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element, by Jeremy Bernstein (Cornell University Press) and In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, by Stephanie Cooke (Black Inc Books).

Among the fascinating snippets in the first is the story of how Otto Hahn learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry: from a British newspaper delivered to Farm Hall, where he and several German colleagues were interned at the end of World War II. This was shortly after the detonation of two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Hahn – who was honoured for the discovery of nuclear fission – fell into deep despair at the implications of his life’s work.

Among the other dramatis personae in Bernstein’s enjoyable narrative are some whose names the general reader may remember from school physics classes: Rutherford, Bohr, Becquerel and Röntgen. Scientific papers are described as “monumental” or “magisterial”.

Excitement at their exploits, probing and prying ever deeper into the secrets of the atom, is belied by the grave consequences, of course. Another turning point comes in 1942, in the American nuclear project, which paralleled and surpassed its German rival, when “the army, in the shape of General Leslie Groves, took over and called all the shots”.

Bernstein himself is a marginal player in the history he recounts, his lifelong preoccupation with nuclear physics forged in the heat of the Nevada Desert, at the height of the Cold War in 1957, when he witnessed a test explosion and cradled the core of an atomic bomb in his hands. He was an intern at the Los Alamos military nuclear laboratory, before opting instead for an academic career with a sideline in columns for the New Yorker.

The element at the heart of humanity’s deadliest weapons is plutonium, and Bernstein describes the science leading to its eventual production in sufficient quantities to manufacture bombs, evoking intrigues, along the way, that crossed the borders of Mitteleuropa, with protagonists fleeing Nazi persecution and heading for points west. Plutonium is a by-product of civil nuclear reactors, and Bernstein ends with a wry commentary on its sheer uselessness for any but military purposes. From the initial laboratory quantities measured in millionths of a gram, the world is now “awash” with the stuff, he says: 155 metric tons in total.

The problem is, how to get rid of it, and this is where the apostates, such as Peter Garrett and Friends of the Earth, might be urged to consult their memory banks. Britain, for instance, still has not settled on one site for the long-term disposal of waste from its existing nuclear plants. The cost, now estimated at well over seventy billion pounds, or about US$120 billion, has been palmed off on the government, while the attractive new-build opportunities, with their guaranteed revenue streams, are handed out to the private sector as a form of corporate welfare.

The trouble is, no-one wants nuclear waste on their doorstep. To resist, with Professor Zelizer, the cannibalisation of my own memory, I recall attending, as a mouthy teenager, the inaugural meeting of HAND, Humberside Against Nuclear Dumping, which successfully saw off plans for a ‘repository’ at South Killingholme, a village on the south bank of the Humber estuary. Later, the Blair government, at the height of its popularity in the early 2000s, raised, then had to drop, proposals in a ‘green paper’ to exempt such strategic siting decisions from having to negotiate local planning procedures.

Across the Atlantic, the Hanford reactor that produced plutonium for Los Alamos was mothballed long ago, Bernstein notes. The risk from leaks to swimmers and anglers downstream on the Columbia river was hushed up when it was operational, but it now represents a ten-billion-dollar time bomb which might – just might – be made relatively safe within six years or so.

Bernstein stops short of the deeper philosophical questions raised by this sequence of events. Instead he contents himself with quoting an assessment by one of the scientists involved, that the war was costing half a million lives a month, and had to be decisively stopped.

There is more to it than that, of course, and for further exploration, we must turn to Stephanie Cooke’s “cautionary history of the nuclear age”. She accepts that one bomb could have been rationalised as necessary to end hostilities, but two? The real reason for the second, she says, was to demonstrate power, and the willingness to use it, since “the first nation to detonate a weapon based on the energy inside an atom would control the world”. Moreover, the openness that had enabled liberal democracy to flourish was now consigned to the past: “for the new order, security and secrecy were essential. America became a classified nation, at once fearsome and fearful”.

Her book therefore attempts to lift the lid on the political calculations, and human motivations and doubts, behind the official version of nuclear age nostrums. Atomic power stations were supposed to produce electricity “too cheap to meter”, and Cooke makes what is, surely, the essential point: their real purpose was to win public acceptance, as a fortuitous ‘fringe benefit’, of an arsenal rapidly expanding in size and destructive potential.

Today, Britain and Australia are both members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which the Bush Administration exploited to undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty by passing nuclear fuel to India, simultaneously attempting to thwart any nuclear ‘ambitions’ on the part of Iran. The UK, meanwhile, is set on replacing its Trident submarine-based missiles – an opportune moment, perhaps, for fissile energy to get a new smiley face.

Cooke meets Joseph Rotblat, the physicist who left the Manhattan Project and founded the Pugwash group, dedicated to promoting understanding between the superpowers: proof, in his own trajectory, that there was nothing inevitable in scientists consenting to their expertise being harnessed for martial ends. And she recounts the doomed diplomatic effort, led by Henry Kissinger, to prevent Israel from acquiring nuclear capabilities, because, in his words, it was “more likely than almost any other country” to use them.

Kissinger’s sworn Washington foes, the neo-conservatives, eventually had their moment in the sun, of course, and Cooke ends by considering the slippage, under the Bush Administration, in thresholds for the first use of nuclear weapons by the US itself. In the civil domain, the “nuclear renaissance” now underway creates a lucrative market for uranium suppliers like Australia, but, she observes, also multiplies the risk, of both accidents and proliferation.

We need a network of internationally controlled depositories, Cooke argues, where countries could send their weapons systems for dismantling. And we need “an aggressive, solution-seeking program to meet future energy demand”, investigating viable alternative sources to nuclear power and characterised by the “brilliance” on display in the creation of nuclear weapons in the first place.

Nuclear fission, an artefact of modernity, represents a great achievement of progress, but it could end all human life. That paradox has done as much as anything to propel us, arguably, into a postmodern condition, one in which we are now more pessimistic about human agency in its ability to shape the world around us. Can we come through the nuclear age to create a safer shared future? I would venture yes, we can, perhaps on no better grounds, ultimately, than the words of Sir Ernest Rutherford, quoted by Bernstein, when asked to justify his assessment of a new experiment: “I feel it in my water!” On present trends, however, the precise chemical composition of that water, here in Australia, might be harder to predict.

This column is adapted from a book review that originally appeared in the
Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday July 18, 2009.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Jul 2009.

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