Tuesday, 29 August 2017

On the Ruin of Rongelap. When Protectors Become Destroyers

This post is offered on 29th August, 2017, nominated by the United Nations 
It is also offered in commemoration of the life of Tony de Brum, who died on 22nd August 2017. 
Tony de Brum served a life of generous and unrelenting advocacy for his people. 
He held the position of Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands over several periods from 1979 to 2016.

The "Baker" Explosion, Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, 1946

The first thermonuclear explosion ever to occur on the earth, Ivy Mike, was detonated by the US Military on Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands on 1st November 1952. The device itself weighed 60 tons and was housed in a six-storey structure containing the massive cooling apparatus needed to produce a temperature of minus 250 degrees Centigrade whereby the deuterium used to fuel the bomb could be liquefied.

Sixteen months later, the explosion of Castle Bravo on Bikini atoll marked the beginning of a second series of thermonuclear tests staged with the express purpose of creating a much smaller "deliverable" thermonuclear weapon in the megaton range.

On the Ruin of Rongelap offers an account of the events surrounding those tests, and describes the human and environmental consequences of such immensely damaging activities from the perspective of the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands.

This post offers both an audio presentation and a substantive essay detailing the events leading up to and following on from the nuclear weapon testing program conducted by the US in the Marshall Islands from June 1946 to August 1958. Special attention is given to the effects of Castle Bravo, the first of six thermonuclear tests that were conducted as part of Operation Castle between 1st March and 22nd April 1954.



The Ruining of Rongelap can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 audio file is also available for download here.



Production Notes
Voices
J. Robert Oppenheimer: Archival recording
Holly Barker: Interview with Mick McCormick, February 2012 (Radio4All)
Tony de Brum: "Atomic Testing in the Marshall Islands" (Youtube)
Steve Osborn: Interview with Dori Smith, March 2004 (Radio4All)
Martini Gotje: Interview with Shirin Brown, July 2010 (Internet Archive)
Vincent Di Stefano: Commentary
Music
A. Coe, "Now I am Become Death" (Jamendo)
Alexander Sitnikov, "Downfall" (Internet Archive, MixGalaxy Collection)
Steve Kahn and Rob Mounsey, "Mahana"
Dead Can Dance, "Black Sun"
Doc and Lena Selyanina, "Steppe" (Internet Archive, Netlabels Collection)
Dead Can Dance, "As the Bell Rings the Maypole Spins"
Archie Roach, "There is a Garden"
Poetry
Steve Osborn: "The Day of the Two Sunrises"
Effects
Ryansnook: "Nuclear Explosion" (Freesound)
Production
Vincent Di Stefano


WHEN PROTECTORS BECOME DESTROYERS


While the colours of the rising sun were beginning to play over the skies of a still Pacific morning on the first day of March 1954, a second sun suddenly and furiously erupted from Namu Island in the Bikini atoll. It carried the fruition of an unflinching determination by the nuclear physicist Edward Teller to gift the world with a weapon as powerful as the sun itself, a weapon based on the fusion of hydrogen atoms.

Within one second of that infernal detonation, an immense fireball 7 kilometres in diameter had formed. In less than a minute, the fireball had risen to a height of 14 kilometres. Eight minutes later, the fiery cloud had billowed out to a height of 40 kilometres and had spread out over a distance of 100 kilometres. Even so, it continued expanding outwards at a rate of more than six kilometres a minute. Beneath this unearthly fury, the Bikini atoll had been riven in two by a gaping crater two kilometres wide and nearly 200 feet deep.

The clever men who had worked so hard to create such a weapon were well pleased. The 80,000 inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, in which the Bikini atoll was situated, were to suffer for generations to come. 

Rongelap atoll lies 170 kilometres to the east of Bikini. On the morning of March 1st 1954, the sky lit up as it had never lit up before. The atoll shuddered as from an earthquake and a horrific roar filled the air. A little later, white flakes began to fall from the sky, covering everything on the atoll with a layer of ash up to two centimetres thick. The sky had turned a ghastly grey, and families gathered together wondering what had happened. The children played with the strange “snow” fallen from the heavens. Some even tasted it to see what it might be.

One day later, some Americans arrived by boat. They were wearing full protective clothing and proceeded to take a number of measurements with their Geiger counters. According to the islanders, they came and went within 20 minutes, and did not speak to any of them during that time. A number of US navy boats returned the next day, more than 48 hours after the initial blast, and began to evacuate the islanders.

Even before the Americans arrived, most of the inhabitants of Rongelap had developed symptoms. Many were vomiting and had developed diarrhoea. Within a few days, their skin started itching and burning and began to develop black-pigmented areas that became ulcerated and infected. Within a fortnight, most of their hair had fallen out, and blood tests showed significant abnormalities. This was but the beginning of a tribulation that continues to sear the lives of three generations of Marshall Islanders.

Further afield, the radioactive plume from the Castle Bravo atomic test had settled on numerous inhabited atolls in the Marshall Islands archipelago, exposing many thousands of their inhabitants to varying levels of radioactivity.

Hiroshima was the first triumph of a group of new Prometheans intent on unleashing undreamed of destructive power in the service of the forces of war. The first atomic explosion in human history, not-so-cryptically named Trinity, had lit up the morning skies of the New Mexico desert in July 1945. That awesome event inspired J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, to ecstatically sing Vishnu's chant of power from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The Ruins of Hiroshima, August 1945
Within a year of the atomic slayings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US military had claimed the Marshall Islands as their hidden testing ground for nuclear weapons. As a result of backroom negotiations, the United Nations handed over the Marshall Islands to the US as a Protectorate in July 1947. But in June 1946, a full year before the UN handover, the US Navy exploded a 23-kiloton atomic bomb above Bikini atoll. Three weeks later, they detonated a similar device 90 feet below the atoll. The Promethean Games had begun in earnest.

At the end of World War II, Stalin lost no time in ensuring that the Soviets would not be left behind in the race for nuclear supremacy. Armies of engineers and scientists were put to work and within four years had constructed a replica of the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The Soviet version was detonated in August 1949 and had an explosive power of 22 kilotons, or the equivalent of 22,000 tons of TNT.

This successful detonation by the Soviets drove US military planners into a frenzy of renewed activity. They soon enlisted the support of the Hungarian physicist Edward Teller who, even while working on the Manhattan Project, was dreaming of the feasibility of producing a fusion bomb based on deuterium and tritium, the isotopes of hydrogen. He understood that theoretically, there was no limit to the explosive power of such a weapon.

Edward Teller
After the Soviet atomic test in 1949, Teller set to work convincing his colleagues that the time had come to develop a more powerful weapon based on thermonuclear fusion. Both Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi had voiced their opposition to the construction of such a bomb. But the successful Soviet atomic test changed everything. After intense lobbying at the highest levels by Teller and his military supporters, US president Harry Truman rubber-stamped the project in 1950.

Many of the nuclear physicists who had worked on the Manhattan Project were contacted. Within a short time, a group of 20 scientists calling themselves “The Matterhorn Gang” were furiously working up theoretical formulae to compute the progress of a man-made thermonuclear combustion process. The calculations proved so formidable, that IBM programmers in New York, the entire computation department of the University of Pennsylvania, and the operators of the large experimental computers owned by the US government were enlisted in the project. Most of the available computing power in the United States at the time was handed over to the scientists at Los Alamos.

Work began shortly after on the construction of a large-scale heavy water nuclear reactor at Savannah River in South Carolina. This facility was to produce the tritium that enabled the production of a massive arsenal of thermonuclear weapons by the US over the next forty years.

Ivy Mike
In less than three years, the previously deserted Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands had become home to a six-storey structure built especially to house the first hydrogen bomb, innocuously named Ivy Mike. It contained an immense cooling apparatus to maintain temperatures at minus 250° Celsius (minus 417° Fahrenheit) in order to liquefy the deuterium used to fuel the bomb. The whole assembly weighed over 60 tons. This structure was linked to a two-mile long tunnel filled with helium, which enabled scientists to determine what occurred in those infinitesimally small moments during which the fusion reaction commenced.

Despite the fact that Teller had driven the process from the start, he chose not to join the audience of over 10,000 mainly military observers gathered around Bikini Atoll to witness the event preferring, rather, to monitor the explosion on a seismograph in a Californian laboratory. He reasoned that if the detonation was successful, its shock waves would be easily detectable on the US West Coast, 8,000 km away. He had reasoned correctly. Long before word of the event could arrive through the usual channels, Teller jubilantly reported the success of the operation to his colleagues at Los Alamos, and to his political sponsors in Washington.

The blast exploded with a force of 10.4 megatons, the equivalent of 10.4 million tons of TNT. It completely vaporised the structure in which the bomb was housed leaving a crater more than a mile wide and forming an immense mushroom cloud 100 miles wide and 25 miles in height. The blast destroyed all life on the immediately surrounding islands.

Teller and his group immediately set to work on building a new bomb that would be “deliverable” by air to any nominated target. In the design that followed, the liquid deuterium used in the first thermonuclear explosion was replaced by solid lithium deuteride. This could be detonated in such a way as to split the lithium atoms into heavy isotopes of hydrogen, thereby providing the necessary fuel for a thermonuclear fusion process. This new design formed the basis of the weapon that was exploded on Bikini atoll on March 1st 1954.

Despite their most careful calculations, Teller and his group seriously underestimated the explosive power of their second more portable version. They had predicted a yield of five megatons, but when their baby burst forth into the world, it flashed out at an astonishing 15 megatons – a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima - and spewed millions of tons of radioactive debris throughout the region.

Stalin and his scientists had in the meantime been watching these developments with great interest. On August 12th 1953, nine months after Ivy Mike, the Soviets exploded their own thermonuclear device. It came in at 400 kilotons, nearly 30 times more powerful than the bomb used in Hiroshima. Unlike the first US hydrogen bomb however, the Soviets had produced a useable weapon that could easily be dropped from a plane. Two years later, the Soviets detonated a more respectable 1.6-megaton hydrogen bomb at Semipalatinsk in northeast Kazakhstan.

Tsar Bomba Detonation, 1961
The party got progressively wilder. Within six years, the Soviets exploded Tsar Bomba, a mother of a bomb that clocked in at 58 megatons. In human language, that single bomb carried the explosive power of 58 million tons of TNT. At the time, Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev boasted that his scientists and engineers could easily have done better, but were restrained by the fact that the Soviet Union was not large enough to absorb a shock that would have shattered windows 4,000 miles away.

Teller had been correct in his conjectures. There was in fact no limit to the explosive power that could be released in thermonuclear detonations.

Writing from Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky a year after the Tsar Bomba explosion, Cistercian monk Thomas Merton reflected:
“Up to now (August 1962) there have been 106 nuclear tests since testing began again (almost a year). Thirty-one of these by the USSR, seventy-four by the USA, and one by Britain, in the USA (Nevada). The USA has made twenty-nine atmospheric tests, twenty-six in the South Pacific and three in Nevada. The USA has also made forty-four underground tests and one in the stratosphere. Total of all nuclear tests since the beginning: USA 229, USSR 86, UK 22, France 5.
Grand total: 342 tests, of which 282 were in the atmosphere.
Nice going, boys!” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1965)
But it was not such nice going for the people of the world, and more particularly, for the people of the Marshall Islands who had in the 12 years between 1946 and 1958, weathered the fallout of 67 atmospheric tests conducted by the US military.

Within a decade of the Castle Bravo test, 90% of the children who were under 12 years old on Rongelap at the time of the explosion had developed thyroid tumours. Marshall Islanders continue to have one of the world’s highest rates of abnormalities of the thyroid.

Many of the women from Rongelap suffered stillbirths and miscarriages in the years after Castle Bravo. Beverley Keever, author of “News Zero: The New York Times and The Bomb” describes the experiences of Ainri, a young 18 year old woman who was pregnant with her first child at the time of the 1954 test:
“After the blast, Ainri gave birth to a son, Robert. His thyroid glands were so damaged that he became dwarfed. The glands were later removed, consigning him to a lifelong regimnen of medication. Ainri got pregnant again and gave birth, she said, to “a bunch of grapes that had to be pulled out of me.” Twice more Ainri got pregnant, she said, and gave birth to children who appeared to be normal but died several days later. Another son, Alex, survived, but again with damaged thyroid glands. Ainri herself has thyroid problems: two new growths recently (2004) appeared there.”
There is a more sinister dimension to the experience of the Marshall Islanders that has only recently come to light. Even before the Castle Bravo detonation, a research document entitled Project 4.1 carried the statement that the Bikini blast would enable a “study of responses of human beings exposed to significant beta and gamma radiation due to fallout from high yield weapons.” That particular document was circulated on November 10, 1953, four months before the test.

What had been observed after Hiroshima and Nagasaki was simply not enough. More data was needed and the Marshall Islands, being at a suitable remove from the US mainland, provided an opportunity for some useful “information” to be gathered. Those who oversaw the “management” of the Marshallese affected by the atomic tests knew exactly what they were doing.

The irradiated inhabitants of Rongelap were removed from the island three days after the initial blast. They have been monitored on and off ever since. In 1957, they were returned to the island by US authorities. During their three-year absence, the US continued to carry out both atomic and thermonuclear weapon tests in the Marshall Islands. A further 11 thermonuclear tests had been conducted on Bikini atoll, while an additional eight atomic and three thermonuclear tests were carried out on Eniwetok atoll.

No attempt was ever made to clear Rongelap of the immense amounts of fallout to which it had been exposed. The Rongelapese were told that it was perfectly safe for them to return to their ancestral lands. They were, however, advised to avoid the more northern islands in their fishing expeditions. It was also suggested to them that they should eat mainly imported canned food.

In 1956, the year before their repatriation to Rongelap, Merril Eisenbudd, an official with the Atomic Energy Commission, had this to say about the “data” being gathered for Project 4.1:
“Now, data of this type has never been available. While it is true that these people do not live the way westerners do, civilized people, it is nonetheless true that they are more like us than the mice.”
And after they had been returned to Rongelap, Dr Robert Conard, head of the Atomic Energy Commission medical surveillance team wrote in his 1957 annual report:
“The habitation of these people on Rongelap Island affords the opportunity for a most valuable ecological radiation study on human beings. . . .  The various radionuclides present on the island can be traced from the soil through the food chain and into the human being.”
During the 1970s, the inhabitants of Rongelap became increasingly distrustful of reassurances by US government representatives about the safety of their land. A number of children had been born with birth defects and others had been diagnosed with leukaemia and thyroid tumours. They sought independent advice.

In 1983, the people of Rongelap were eventually provided with copies of a translation of a US Department of Energy document prepared in 1978. The document stated conclusively that many parts of the island they had lived on since 1957 had a contamination rating of Level 3, the same as that deemed for both Bikini and Eniwetok atolls where all human habitation was forbidden.

Their worst fears were realised. They immediately approached the US authorities and asked to be evacuated from the island. Their request was summarily refused and they were again reassured by the US Department of Energy that Rongelap was “safe” and that there was no cause for concern.

Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. Auckland 1985
Yet they were desperately concerned about their own and their children’s futures. Again, they sought outside help. The Greenpeace yacht Rainbow Warrior travelled to Rongelap in May 1985 in order to relocate all of the inhabitants to Mejato Island, 180 kilometres away. This was to be the last action of the Rainbow Warrior.

Two months later, the Greenpeace yacht was on the bottom of Auckland Harbour after having been torn apart by two bombs planted by agents of the French government.

In 1988, the US government was forced to acknowledge the extent of the contamination of Rongelap declaring parts of the island group “forbidden territory” and in the words of Beverley Keever, “recommending that the remaining part would be safe only if inhabitants ate imported food for the next 30 to 50 years” (italics in original). During the 28 years from 1957 and 1985, the inhabitants of Rongelap had been continuously and knowingly exposed to dangerous levels of Caesium 137, Strontium 90 and a white-hot cauldron of long-lived radioactive isotopes that had settled everywhere.

In the time since their relocation by the Rainbow Warrior, some reparations have been made through the US Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Over 1,800 Marshall Islanders received some financial compensation from the US government for the leukaemia, cancers of the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas and bone, and severe growth retardation due to thyroid damage that they have suffered. But Keever observes: “46% of affected islanders died before they were fully paid for their injuries.”

Clean-up operations on Rongelap began in 1999, with massive amounts of potassium being shipped to the island. This was added to the soil in order to decrease the uptake of radioactive caesium by plant life. Despite the unimaginable damage that has been done to their lands, the people of Rongelap are looking forward to soon returning to the islands that they have inhabited for over 4,000 years.

The story of Rongelap is not an isolated event in the sordid history of nuclear adventurism. Between 1945 and 1998, the US has conducted a total of 1,054 nuclear tests, over 330 of which were atmospheric. The Soviets have detonated over 700 nuclear weapons during the same period. Between 1966 and 1996, the French have carried out nearly 200 nuclear detonations - both atmospheric and underground - in Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in Polynesia. China has conducted 45 tests, as has the UK, while India, Pakistan and North Korea have between them exploded 14 nuclear devices.

The world has been irremediably altered by the nuclear tests conducted during the latter half of the twentieth century, a time in which we have also come to see the creation of a massively expensive medical system to treat a world-wide epidemic of childhood cancers and so-called “diseases of civilisation.”

What we have witnessed during this time is the dehumanising dimension of certain aspects of the scientific endeavour. This is not a peculiar feature of twentieth century civilisation, but is evident in the calls of Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century to extract “nature’s secrets” by whatever means possible. This attitude toward the natural world was further spurred by Rene Descartes in his declaration that life was essentially a clockwork mechanism that could be subjected to the demands and manipulations of the res cogitans, or the sphere of human thought and will.

The free expression of the seemingly limitless power of human rationality has come at the cost of distancing the human heart and human feeling from the determinations of so-called dispassionate science and research. Yet the present over-reach has brought in its train its own inherent breakdown. Having failed to cultivate the capacity to reflect on the human and natural consequences of our projection of power in the material world, we have lost sight of the sustaining forces that have enabled such projections to begin with. We are both in the world and of the world and as the air, earth, fire and water within which we live, move and have our being become progressively more damaged and more toxic, so too ourselves.

Within the sweep of history, the fate of the people of Rongelap is but another small stain in the wash of blood and grief that reaches far beyond the vast charnel grounds of time and empire.

The gift of human intelligence has yet to be sufficiently informed by the greater gift of human wisdom. The power of human will has yet to be sufficiently infused by the greater power of human love.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.

Further Sources

1. Beverley Keever’s important paper “Suffering, Secrecy, Exile. Bravo 50 years later” published by Nuclear Age Peace Foundation describes many of the hidden dimensions of the plight of the Marshallese since the Castle Bravo detonation.

2. Glenn Alcalay’s brief overview “Atomic Atolls” published March 12, 2010 by CommonDreams.org offers the perspective of an American anthropologist who served as a Peace Corps volunteer on in the Marshall Islands during the 1970s.

3. For the more masochistically inclined, there is fascinating insight to be gained regarding the mindset of the scientists involved in the creation of both the atomic and thermonuclear weapons at Los Alamos in a series of video remembrances by Edward Teller recorded in June 1996.

This essay is available in PDF form here.

An earlier version of this essay, "Shattered Atoms, Shattered Islands", can be accessed here.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Nuclear Wasteland


"Why pay we such a price, and one we give
So clamoringly, for each racked empty day
That leads one more last human hope away,
As quiet fiends would lead past our crazed eyes
Our children to an unseen sacrifice?" 

If a person persists in acting in ways that are damaging to their health, a point will be reached beyond which their capacities will inevitably decline, if not collapse. In a similar way, if we continue to collectively live in ways that are fundamentally damaging to the earth and her creatures, thresholds will be crossed beyond which unpredictable and inevitably damaging consequences will result. This is effectively the story of industrial/technological civilisation as it has unfolded over the past century.

Runaway climate change is but the latest manifestation of a process that has been steadily eroding the delicately balanced equilibrium of our planet. The contemporary litany is evident to all who have sought to remain informed. Near-universal deforestation, widespread denaturation of agricultural lands, poisoning of inland lakes and waterways through industrial and mining activities, accelerating depletion of the ocean's fisheries and loss of coral reefs, and urban over-reach throughout the world all reflect aspects of a deepening systemic deterioration in the health of the earth's ecosystems. These processes have been inexorably gaining momentum since the time of the industrial and petrochemical revolutions during the nineteenth century.

Among the more disturbing influences to be unleashed over the past century have been the energies within the atomic nucleus. Immediately after the fateful and devastating eruption of nuclear fire over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the major powers of the world sought to possess and to control the newly discovered energies within the atom. An early driver of this process was the desire for military supremacy. This desire was masked by the promotion of nuclear power as a source of energy for an increasingly energy-hungry world. The inherent dangers of nuclearisation were systematically downplayed by technocratic elites and by those attracted to the power and control made available by the nuclear demon.

The ruinous consequences of seventy years of nuclearisation are now patently manifest. The Hanford facility in the U.S., Sellafield in the U.K. and the Mayak Industrial Complex in the former Soviet Union have all served as "sacrifice zones" where plutonium pits were manufactured for deployment in nuclear warheads during the Cold War era. They are now vast nuclear wastelands with unthinkable quantities of radioactive wastes stored in ageing containers and leaking landfill sites. Less visibly, countless abandoned uranium mines throughout the world continue to release radioactivity into the air, soil, local waterways and groundwater. And most recently, the meltdowns at both Chernobyl and Fukushima have irrevocably poisoned vast tracts of land and the waters of the northern Pacific ocean, insidiously undermining the genetic future of plant, animal and human communities.

Despite the voicing of concerns regarding the "grave potential hazards" of nuclear power plants by over 2,000 members of the Union of Concerned Scientists over 40 years ago, neither the nuclear industry nor its supporters have offered a sober reflection on precisely what has been released into the world by the nuclear project. Rather, the present temper enthuses over "new builds" and spins tales of an energised nuclear renaissance driven by the promise of smaller, safer, smarter nuclear power plants to replace the fleet of ageing reactors around the world that have reached their use-by date. In the meantime, the earth heaves under 400,000 tones of spent nuclear fuel produced by these monsters with an additional 12,000 tons added to the tally with each passing year. These deadly fruits of a reckless civilisation will remain dangerous to all life over geological time scales.

The problem of nuclear waste has yet to be dealt with. There have been numerous plans made, numerous barrel-loads of dangerous waste dumped into rivers, water-ways and oceans, numerous false starts that went nowhere, and numerous failed projects. As cooling ponds around the world near their capacity, spent nuclear fuel rods have become the singular intractable problem for those who operate nuclear power plants. They generate high temperatures that must be controlled for decades. And they hold a mix of highly radioactive fission products that must be kept isolated from the environment for hundreds of thousands of years.

Early Stirrings

Although the Manhattan Project was bankrolled by the U.S. government, its conceptual and intellectual foundations were firmly rooted in the work of European physicists. Much of the early research investigating the feasibility of producing an atomic weapon was undertaken by what became known as the Maud Committee in the U.K. in 1940 and 1941. English physicists joined the Manhattan Project in 1943 and proved to be instrumental in the design and construction of the first atom bombs. After Little Boy and Fat Man had done their appalling work on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the British government lost no time in securing similar prizes. The production of weapons-grade plutonium was deemed absolutely necessary if Britain was to retain a prominent place in the emerging Promethean circus.

A small prototype nuclear reactor was designed, constructed and successfully fired up by British scientists and engineers at Harwell in August 1947. A month later, the British government had acquired the Sellafield Royal Ordnance Factory in Cumbria, changed its name to Windscale, and started building two large nuclear reactors and a reprocessing facility for plutonium extraction. Both reactors were fully operational by 1951. Their sole purpose was to produce plutonium for the creation of atomic bombs. The first plutonium was separated from spent fuel in July 1952. Within three months, the U.K. had detonated its first nuclear bomb. It shook the Montebello Islands off Western Australia to their foundations.

A year later, the U.K. government commissioned the construction of two massive 4-reactor complexes of British design for the production of both plutonium for the military and electricity for the national grid. The first reactor complex, Calder Hall, was to be situated adjacent to the Windscale facility on the Calder River. The second group of reactors was to be sited at Chapelcross in Scotland. Australian physicist and historian of science Jim Falk has referred to Calder Hall in the following terms: "In 1956 the first 'commercial' nuclear reactor began operation in the U.K. It was a plutonium producer for the nuclear weapons program, to which had been added a small generator."

Windscale/Calder Hall, 1957
The first of the Calder Hall reactors was triumphantly launched by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on October 17th 1956. It was the first industrial-scale nuclear reactor to be built anywhere in the world. The dual purpose Calder Hall reactors ushered in what would become a fleet of 26 Magnox nuclear reactors constructed in the U.K. between 1956 and 1971. The Magnox reactors were so-named because the cladding for the fuel rods was made of magnesium-aluminium alloy. A peculiarity of this design was that spent fuel rods were prone to early deterioration and therefore could only be stored for a limited time. They were designed for rapid reprocessing in order to extract plutonium.

The reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel took place at Windscale just across the river. These activities have gifted the U.K. with a nightmarish stockpile of nuclear waste - including over 100 tonnes of plutonium - that nobody knows what to do with.

The Growing Burden

By the mid-1970s, it had become apparent to those within the U.K. nuclear establishment that it was faced with a major problem. A number of the 26 Magnox reactors were by that time approaching their use-by date and a second generation of more powerful Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs) were about to be fired up. Immense amounts of radioactive waste from Windscale had already been dumped into the Irish Sea, the English Channel, and into deep channels in the North Atlantic ocean. By 1982, nuclear activities in the U.K. had contributed 80% of the load of 140,000 tons of nuclear waste sitting on the North Atlantic ocean floor in flimsy metal drums. The high level wastes from nuclear reactors and the reprocessing of spent fuel were not, however, to be so easily disposed of.

Spent fuel rods from Magnox reactors were reprocessed at Windscale in order to recover plutonium and uranium for recycling. This involved dissolving the fuel rods in nitric acid and subsequently separating out the various fission products using a range of solvents. The reprocessing of spent fuel created vast quantities of high-level fission products in liquid form. Much of this liquid waste was stored in stainless steel tanks but from the 1960s, various methods of fusing the waste into glass blocks were tested in order to convert the liquid into a more stable form that could later be stored in geological repositories that were yet to be built.

In 1976, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) started to search out possible sites in the U.K. for the burial of wastes from British reactors. The Scottish highlands were early identified as relatively stable geological areas where high level nuclear waste could be stored underground. From an initial list of 127 possible sites, 8 were selected for test drilling and further investigation. The process did not, however, get very far once word began to circulate and public opposition gathered momentum.  Other sites were nominated in Somerset, Leicestershire, North Wales and Caithness in Scotland soon after, but they too suffered a similar fate. Local protests were so strong that these did not even get past the stage of test drilling.

Greenpeace action, North Atlantic, June 1982
Realising the extent of public opposition, the government changed direction and in 1981, refocussed its attention on the growing reserves of low and intermediate level wastes hoping that their disposal would attract less opposition. Again, they were mistaken. Up until that time, such wastes were often secretly dumped into the sea in metal drums. Once this became known, Greenpeace and other activist groups sprung into action. They ignited widespread outrage by alerting the public to the routine practise of ocean dumping of nuclear wastes. The British government could no longer rely on such reckless ways and began to look for other methods of disposal. Its attempts to create sites for the underground burial of low level wastes over the following 15 years proved fruitless, again because of vocal opposition from local communities.

By the late 1990s, Sellafield, the former Windscale site, had become the de facto storage site for much of the U.K.s nuclear wastes. In addition, vast tonnages of steadily-accumulating spent fuel languished in cooling ponds situated alongside the nuclear reactors of Great Britain.

Mountains of Waste

The situation was similarly fraught on the other side of the Atlantic. As early as the mid-1950s, scientists and engineers in the U.S. had understood that the promotion of civil nuclear reactors for electricity production as part of the grievously misnamed "Atoms for Peace" program would compound the already thorny issue of nuclear waste management. Despite their call for the creation of suitable geological repositories in anticipation of the flood of high level wastes that would issue from a civil nuclear energy program, very little was actually done.

Spent fuel storage pond (USA)
It took another 40 years before work commenced on the construction of a deep geological repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada in 1994. Fifteen years and fifteen billion dollars later, the Obama Administration declared the project unworkable due to unresolved safety issues. The Yucca Mountain project was formally abandoned in 2009 without taking in a single gram of nuclear waste. Soon after, nuclear power facilities in 38 states commenced legal proceedings against the US government claiming tens of billions of dollars in damages for failing to deliver. In the meantime, over 2,000 tonnes of incandescent spent fuel rods continue to be added to the already overloaded cooling ponds of nuclear reactors throughout the U.S. with each passing year

The situation in Canada which was also involved in the nuclear project from its inception in the 1940s is equally chaotic. As in the U.K., steps were taken by the Canadian government to create geological repositories for the long-term storage of its growing stores of nuclear waste during the late 1970s. And as in the U.K., the plans came to naught due to widespread popular opposition.

Nearly four decades later, and after numerous studies and investigations by the Canadian government and the nuclear industry, the situation remains precarious and uncertain. Work has yet to actually begin on the construction of a deep geological repository for Canada's nuclear wastes, but the government is confident that a suitable site will be located and that a storage facility will be built and made ready to receive its deadly accumulations by 2035.

It can therefore come as no surprise that the entrepreneurial possibilities for creating a lucrative international repository for spent nuclear fuel began to attract the attention of some big players once the enormity of the problem was realised.

The Nuclear Cowboys

The Australian political scene was unexpectedly shaken in the late 1990s when it was revealed that a small but highly organised and well-connected group had been secretly developing a finely orchestrated plan to import 75,000 tons of spent fuel together with an unspecified quantity of high and intermediate level nuclear wastes into the central Australian desert. The project was conceived by Pangea Resources International (PRI) and it detailed the mobilisation, conditioning and packaging of nuclear wastes in their nations of origin, the creation of a fleet of special-purpose ships for the transoceanic transport of these wastes to a yet-to-be-built sea terminal, the construction of a dedicated rail transport system from the port to an isolated repository in Western Australia where the wastes would be temporarily stored above ground, and the construction of a deep geological repository 500-1,000 metres below the surface where the stored wastes would eventually be deposited.

PRI was well connected and well cashed-up from the outset. Anticipating a possible solution to its own problems, British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), wholly owned by the U.K. government, bankrolled Pangea to the tune of 35 million dollars by purchasing an 80% share in the company. The remaining holdings of 20% were shared by NAGRA, a consortium owned by the operators of Switzerland's five nuclear reactors at the time, and EHL, a company wholly owned by Golder Associates, a Canadian waste-management corporation.

This ambitious project came unstuck in December 1998 when the British chapter of Friends of the Earth contacted its sister organisation in Australia and passed on a leaked promotional video produced in the U.K. by Pangea. It soon became evident that there was little appetite for the project among Australian politicians, among the general public, and especially among the indigenous groups for whom central Australia was a homeland and not an empty wasteland into which the world's nuclear wastes could be dumped.

By August 1999, the Australian Senate had overwhelmingly rejected Pangea's plan. The following month, the West Australian government passed a bipartisan motion expressing its complete opposition to the construction of a deep geological repository for nuclear wastes anywhere in Western Australia.

Nuclear Wastes, Sellafield U.K.
The driving force behind Pangea was David Pentz, a London-born geotechnical engineer who in 1966 began his career with Rio Tinto, one of the world's largest mining corporations. He joined the Canadian mining-engineering and waste management company Golder Associates in 1970, eventually rising to the position of President and Chairman. During the 1980s, Pentz participated in high level discussions in the U.S. regarding the geological isolation and disposal of nuclear wastes. And during the 1990s as a director of Golder Associates U.K., Pentz was privy to the fact that the British government had reached a virtual impasse in the matter of disposing of its own burgeoning stores of spent fuel and high-level nuclear wastes. He clearly understood the magnitude of what was becoming a major global problem.

After several years of discussion and planning, David Pentz joined forces with James Voss, his long-time colleague and brother-in-arms at Golder Associates. Together, they established Pangea Resources International in 1997. Its stated goal was to promote and eventually create an international geological repository for the disposal of a large part of the world's radioactive wastes.

Pentz offered the following account at a nuclear waste management conference in the U.S. in March 1999:
Over the period of 1992-1995 . . . . my colleagues and I began to define the objectives for forming an international disposal corporation. This has as its centrepiece a geological repository located in very simple geology and topography with a robust arid climate whose safety could be predicted with relative ease. . . .

This enabled us to identify extensive adjacent sedimentary basins extending from central Western Australia into northern Southern Australia that we believe are among the world's best regions for deep disposal of long-lived radionuclides.
Not everybody shared Pentz and Voss's enthusiasm or certitude that wastes stored in the Australian desert would be perennially safe and immured from endangering future generations. Among the first to offer a deeply informed critique of the Pangea project was Professor John Veevers from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Macquarie University and a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. After pointedly noting the strong financial involvement of the British Government in the project, Veevers went on to refute Pentz's claims that the safety of the proposed Australian repository "could be predicted with relative ease." In addition, he expressed deep concern at the inherent dangers involved in transporting such large quantities of high level nuclear waste half-way around the world. Citing a 1997 geological study, John Veevers questioned the easy assumption of seismic stability implicit in the Pangea project.
. . . although they may be currently aseismic, faults in stable continental regions [as the Great Victoria Desert] that are favourably oriented for movement in the current stress field could produce damaging earthquakes, often in unexpected places.
Veevers also pointed out that the notion of perceiving the Australian desert as an unchangeable "robust arid climate" was both foolish and presumptuous and suggested that a number of dry lakes in the Great Victoria Desert of central Australia may have been full to overflowing with water as recently as 6,000 years ago.

John Veevers' concerns regarding seismic stability were later echoed by Professor Mike Sandiford from the School of Earth Sciences at Melbourne University, a fellow member of the Australian Academy of Sciences:
Australia is not the most stable of continental regions, although the levels of earthquake risk are low by global standards. To the extent that past earthquake activity provides a guide to the future tectonic activity, Australia would not appear to provide the most tectonically stable environment for long-term waste facilities.
In the meantime, we have collectively come to understand that the reality of climate change, of melting polar ice caps, and of the high probability that water tables throughout the world will rise in the future all add further dimensions of uncertainty to a picture that demands absolute environmental and geological stability for the hundreds of thousands of years that long-lived radionuclides need to be kept isolated from all ecosystems due to their extreme danger to all of life.

Even after it had become obvious that both political and popular opposition to Pangea's plans were near-insuperable, David Pentz confidently murmured in a Four Corners documentary produced by the Australian Broadcasting Commission at the time, "Ideas of this size don't go away." Pangea Resources Australia came and went in four years, having been set up in January 1998 and then formally dissolved in January 2002. But the seeds had been firmly planted.

It was to take another 15 years before Pentz's prediction came to fruition, but in its reincarnated form, the project was to be driven by the South Australian government and a small cohort of nuclear cowboys. 

Pangea Redux: The South Australia Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

Regardless of whether one's nation is a member of the British Commonwealth or not, the notion of a Royal Commission evokes the expectation of a process that is inherently ethical, that seeks above all else to uncover the truthful dimensions of whatever subject-area is under investigation, and that is objective, fundamentally unbiased, and deeply informed. The South Australian public, together with many who have closely followed the progression of the recent South Australia Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (SANFCRC), have come to realise that even as hallowed an institution as a Royal Commission remains vulnerable to manipulation by special interest groups operating from within.

In March 2015, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced the establishment of a state-based Royal Commission to independently and comprehensively investigate the possibilities for greater participation of South Australia in a number of aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. Prominent among those possibilities was the establishment of an international facility for the storage and disposal of high-level nuclear waste as a commercial venture.

A former Governor of South Australia, Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, was appointed as its head. Four months before the Commission was constituted, Kevin Scarce had acknowledged publicly that he was "not just an advocate for the nuclear industry." Yet soon after being appointed, he contradicted himself by stating: "I have not been an advocate and never have been an advocate of the nuclear industry." Soon after, a five-member Expert Advisory Committee was established. Three of those members were known proponents of the nuclear industry, with only one member, Professor Ian Lowe, former head of the School of Science at Griffith University, holding an explicitly anti-nuclear position.

Predictably, when the Royal Commission Report was released 12 months later, its primary recommendation was that South Australia be actively promoted as the ideal destination for over one third of the world's accumulated stores of high-level nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel rods, and that an additional 400,000 cubic metres of intermediate-level nuclear wastes be imported as part of an ambitious 120-year-long business plan that would relieve the South Australian government of its financial woes ever after.

Ever-mindful of the sorry fate of Pangea's attempt in the 1990s, an elaborate "public education" campaign was immediately launched in order to soft-sell the plan. In additional, a "Citizens Jury" was commissioned in the hope that some public consensus in favour of the project could be manufactured by suitably-delivered "information sessions".

The Citizens Jury process was as transparently biased and manipulated as the Royal Commission itself. Mercifully, this was not lost on the participants who voted overwhelmingly that the plan to create a vast nuclear burial-ground in South Australia not go ahead. Predictably, Premier Jay Weatherill spat the dummy and in the face of the failure of the Citizens Jury ruse, declared that what was now needed was a nuclear referendum to give the people another opportunity to make the "right" decision.

In the meantime, the whole crooked underbelly of the project was exposed when it was discovered that the economic edifice provided by Jacobs MCM on which the entire project depended was not only fundamentally flawed, but had been quietly driven behind the scenes by the old Pangea crew. The details are all on the record and are a further testimony - if one is needed - of the demonic tenacity of the supporters of the nuclear industry to ensure that their unspeakably violent and inhumanly toxic method of boiling water in nuclear reactors to generate electricity is here to stay, and to hell with the possibilities held in renewable sources of energy and the safety of future generations.

The whole industry is implicate. There are no good guys or bad guys among them. The self-interest of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its collusion with the World Health Organisation in the matter of suppressing public knowledge of the true consequences of such catastrophic events as Chernobyl and Fukushima have been extensively documented. And yet, the lies continue to circulate and the whitewashed proclamations of the IAEA and other nuclear agencies are given sacrosanct immunity.

The soporific ennui that appears to have overwhelmed many within the Western world has been quintessentially evidenced in the election of an ignorant, arrogant and dangerous bigot to the position of Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful economic and military machine that has ever taken form on the earth. Yet gentler currents continue to circulate and gather, often invisibly, awaiting their own day. This is evident in the small but great triumph of native American peoples in the matter of the South Dakota pipeline, and in the rejection by the people of South Australia of attempts by nuclear technocrats to put the hellish wastes of a spent civilisation out of sight and out of mind in the Australian desert so as to allow an ill-fated nuclear "renaissance" to proceed unhindered.



Vincent Di Stefano M.H.Sc., D.O., N.D.
Inverloch, December 2016

A pdf copy of this essay can be downloaded here


RELATED POSTS

Spent nuclear fuel rods in storage pond
1. Poison in the Heart. The Nuclear Wasting of South Australia

This earlier Satan's Cauldrons post offers a brief review of the development of the nuclear project from the early years of the 20th century to its fearsome culmination in the atomic lashings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. It further examines the post-war activities of the nuclear industry that have created immense quantities of nuclear waste that are stored around the world and reflects on the recommendation of the South Australia Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission that much of this waste be shipped to Australia for storage and eventual underground burial.




Titan missile in silo, Arizona


2. Glowing Cores

This Integral Reflections post offers a short poetic expression of the hidden dimensions of nuclearisation and considers the altered reality that has been gifted to present and future generations by nuclear activities.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Poison in the Heart. The Nuclear Wasting of South Australia



"Nuclear weapons and nuclear power are both leading instances of the irrationalities 
that result from a social world that has been constructed to concentrate power 
in the hands of tiny minorities, and to make it possible for them 
to maintain and defend their power."

". . . because a few, by fate's economy, shall seem to move the world
the way it goes."

Our planet is deeply burdened. It presently harbours 390,000 tons of high level nuclear waste produced by nuclear reactors and weapons programs over the past 70 years. Spent nuclear fuel is one of the most dangerous materials on earth. Most of it is stored underwater in numerous cooling ponds throughout the world. High level nuclear waste is dangerous to all life for unthinkable periods of time. Plutonium, which is produced in every nuclear fuel rod, has a toxic lifespan of 240,000 years. With each passing year, a further 10,000 tons of spent fuel is added to the world's accumulated stores of deadly waste. In addition to the spent fuel from nuclear reactors, vast amounts of lower-level radioactive waste lie scattered in mining sites, tailings dams, undersea dumps and soil-borne contamination on every continent.

We have no idea what to do with the stuff. The Americans sank over $13 billion into the construction of a massive underground repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. It was closed down in 2010 without taking in a single gram of nuclear waste. The Soviets didn't bother with such elaborate schemes and until recently, simply dumped much of their waste - including obsolete submarines complete with nuclear reactors - into the Kara Sea and elsewhere in the Arctic Circle where they slowly corrode, leaching their lethal contents into the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean.

In the meantime, a small cadre of aspirational Promethean technocrats in South Australia have somehow decided that Australia holds the solution to the global problem of nuclear waste. The recently released Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report recommends that the South Australian government accepts over one third of the world's high level waste for above-ground storage and eventual burial in yet-to-be-built underground repositories in the South Australian desert. The report proposes that South Australia imports 138,000 tons of high level radioactive waste in the form of spent fuel rods as well as an additional 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate level waste for storage and eventual disposal.

This has all been spruiked as a fail-safe commercial venture that will relieve the South Australian Government of its financial problems ever after and create a rosy economic future for generations that have yet to be born. Such madness blithely ignores the fact that the genetic and biological futures of those generations may thereafter be a different story. 

Awakening the Nuclear Beast


The cadaverous face of nuclear energy was revealed right from the start. Marie Curie, who discovered the radioactive elements radium and polonium, was fascinated with the peculiar luminosity emitted by the salts of uranium and radium. Her decades-long work with these elements was, however, invisibly accompanied by a slow and silent destruction of the blood-forming cells in her bone-marrow. This eventually led to her death from aplastic anaemia in 1934. Curie's notebooks written over a century ago are stored in lead-lined boxes. Present-day researchers who wish to examine them are required to wear protective clothing.

The US military was among the first to realise the possibilities of glow-in-the-dark radium salts. Towards the end of World War I, it commissioned the painting of watch-dials and other instruments with radium. The idea became more widely popular and the United States Radium Factory was set up in New York in 1917. Over the following decade, 70 young women were employed to paint watch-dials with radium salts using fine camel hair brushes. They were instructed by their supervisors to keep the brush tips sharp by rolling them between their lips or on their tongues. Their inevitable fate is recounted in Eleanor Swanson's powerful but harrowing poem The Radium Girls. 

Ernest Rutherford's work with uranium during the early years of the twentieth century led him to develop the first coherent model of the structure of the atom. Danish physicist Neils Bohr worked in his laboratory for a short time in 1912. Soon after, Bohr had refined Rutherford's theory and formulated the idea that electrons moved in fixed orbits around a central nucleus and that, by absorbing or emitting energy, they could instantaneously change their orbits. His theory formed the core around which a more complete understanding of quantum mechanics could develop over the next decade.

Hahn and Strassmann. Tabletop Nuclear Fission Apparatus, 1938
Things then began to move very quickly. The development of particle accelerators enabled physicists to routinely transmute one element into another by the 1930s. In December 1938, the German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann observed that bombarding uranium with neutrons resulted in the formation of lighter, rather than the heavier elements that they expected. Hahn was mystified by the results and communicated the findings to his former colleague Lise Meitner who had taken refuge in Sweden because of Hitler's anti-Jewish policies. She was visited soon after by her nephew Otto Frisch, a physicist at Neils Bohr's laboratory in Copenhagen, and spoke with him about Hahn's letter. In the discussions that followed, they realised that Hahn had unwittingly described the phenomenon of nuclear fission - the breaking apart of atoms of uranium. Together, they pieced together a plausible account of the process and submitted a short paper outlining their theory to the scientific journal Nature. It was published in February 1939.

The Human Chain Reaction


In the meantime, Otto Frisch had returned to Copenhagen and chanced to meet with his boss Neils Bohr, the early theorist of quantum mechanics. Bohr was just about to board a ship for New York City with a physicist colleague, Leon Rosenfeld. Otto Frisch later recalled:
"When I came back to Copenhagen, I found Bohr just on the point of parting, of leaving for America and I just managed to catch him for five minutes and tell him what we had done. And I hadn't spoken for half a minute when he struck his head with his fist and said, "Oh, what idiots we have been that we haven't seen that before. Of course this is exactly as it must be." 
As the ship steamed across the Atlantic, Bohr and Rosenfeld had ample time to reflect on the revolutionary news that Frisch had delivered. During those six days, they developed a detailed theory of the nature of nuclear fission. Otto Frisch in the meantime had confirmed that uranium atoms in fact were capable of dividing into smaller atoms with the release of large amounts of energy.

The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who was also among the new cadre of quantum theorists, was waiting on the pier when Bohr and Rosenfeld arrived in New York. Like many of his colleagues, Fermi had fled Europe because of the anti-Jewish policies of both Mussolini and Hitler and had taken up a position at Columbia University. Over the next few days, Bohr and Rosenfeld excitedly passed on this new revelation of the behaviour of uranium atoms to the close-knit group of elite physicists at Columbia and Princeton Universities. The implications were immediately understood by all.

These pivotal events in the early weeks of 1939 sent the world of physics into a fury of activity that culminated six years later in the detonation of the world's first atomic bomb at Alamogordo in the New Mexico desert.

The Nuclear Chain Reaction


In the four months after Niels Bohr arrived in the US, the theoretical foundations for the creation of both a controlled nuclear chain reaction and a uranium-based weapon of unthinkable destructive power had been laid. Bohr and his colleagues were fully aware that after annexing Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Adolph Hitler had immediately seized the uranium mines at Joachimsthal and prohibited the export of uranium ore to any other country. They also knew that German physicists were actively engaged in atomic research.

More than 100 nuclear physicists left central Europe between 1933 and the early 1940s because of Hitler's policies. Most of them ended up in universities and laboratories in England and America. They, together with their newly-found colleagues, quickly put the dots together. Soon after, a small group of expatriate European physicists persuaded Albert Einstein to sign a letter addressed to Theodore Roosevelt. In it, Einstein called for the immediate acquisition of uranium in large quantities and also for the development of a vigorous research program into both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The letter, dated August 2nd 1939, stated:
"In the course of the past four months it has been made probable . . . that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which large amounts of power and vast quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. 
This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable - though much less certain - that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may be constructed. . . . In view of this situation, you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America.
Chicago Pile-1, layer 17
Three years later, Enrico Fermi and his group at the University of Chicago succeeded in their efforts to produce a controlled nuclear chain reaction. The world's first nuclear reactor, named Chicago Pile-1 consisted of 40 tons of uranium oxide and 6 tons of uranium metal fashioned into 22,000 cylindrical slugs embedded in 380 tons of highly-purified graphite. Chicago Pile-1 went critical on the afternoon of December 2nd 1942.

As soon as the sustained nuclear reaction had been confirmed, Arthur Compton, the head of the Chicago laboratory, called his colleague James Conant, fellow physicist and director of the National Defense Research Committee in Washington. He cryptically reported: "The Italian navigator has landed in the new world." Conant inquired, "How were the natives?" Compton replied "Very friendly."

In the intervening decades, we have come to learn that the natives are not so friendly after all.

First Fruits


It was soon after confirmed - as Fermi had predicted - that the controlled fission in Chicago Pile-1 produced a new element, plutonium-239 in significant quantities. Plutonium promised to be even more fissionable - and hence more suitable for creating an atomic bomb - than the uranium-235 that physicists in the U.S. and the U.K. were hastily attempting to extract from uranium ores. The separation of uranium-235 tested the ingenuity of physicists on both sides of the Atlantic. But within three years of Fermi's kindling of the first atomic fire at Chicago, both fissionable uranium and plutonium had been produced in sufficient quantities to construct three nuclear bombs.

The first was successfully detonated in the Trinity test at Alamogordo in the New Mexico desert on the morning of July 16th 1945. The second, a uranium bomb similar to the first, was dropped on the city of Hiroshima three weeks later. Three days after that terrible event, the world's first plutonium bomb was ruinously "tested" on the people of Nagasaki. In those two atomic lashings visited on the people of Japan, 200,000 lives were vaporised by the unearthly infernos that erupted from the fissioning of less than two kilograms of heavy metal.

So as not to lose the edge that it had thereby gained, the U.S, military set about creating stores of plutonium as a matter of urgency. And nuclear reactors were now a ready means of producing virtually limitless supplies of this new element. The US military was not, however, alone in its aspirations.

First UK Atomic Bomb Test. Montebello Islands, Australia, 1952
The Soviets built their first nuclear reactor in 1946 using confiscated German uranium. In August 1949, they detonated their first atomic bomb. Its core consisted of plutonium. By 1951, the U.K. had built four nuclear reactors. On October 3rd 1952, the U.K.'s first atomic bomb was successfully tested in the Montebello Islands off the West Australian coast. It too was a plutonium device. By that time it was clear to all who coveted such power that nuclear reactors were essential for the creation of new arsenals of atomic weapons.

Thus were the beginnings of the nuclear age.

Catching Butterflies With Sledgehammers


A strategy was needed to redeem these technologies of death and make them more acceptable to the general public. Under the rubric of Atoms For Peace, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the United Nations General Assembly in December 1953. In his carefully-crafted speech, Eisenhower launched the idea of creating an International Atomic Energy Agency that would oversee the development of a global nuclear power industry. He thereby initiated a soft sell that would, by 2016, see the world populated with 444 nuclear power plants in over 30 countries, with a further 63 reactors in the pipeline.

Nuclear reactors do not generate electricity. They generate ferocious amounts of heat, and that heat is used to produce steam that then drives powerful turbines. Nuclear reactors do, however, generate immense quantities of highly radioactive materials that are lethal to all forms of life. These materials must be kept isolated from living ecosystems for geologic periods of time because of their inherent dangers. These dangers were clearly understood long before the first commercial nuclear power plants began to appear in the late 1950s.

Within two years of Eisenhower's Atoms For Peace speech, a conference on the disposal of radioactive wastes was organised at Princeton University in New York. It was attended by an elite group of physicists, nuclear engineers and representatives of private companies. Its purpose was to both address the growing problem of radioactive wastes from the U.S. nuclear weapons program, and to anticipate the consequences of the future deployment of large numbers of commercial nuclear power plants, each of which would produce dangerous wastes as a result of their operation.

Nuclear Waste Disposal, Hanford, 1950
The gravity of the waste problem was made clear to the group even during its first meetings in 1955, and was acknowledged within the first few paragraphs of the conference report: "The hazard related to radioactive waste is so great that no element of doubt should be allowed to exist regarding safety." (p. 3) Later, Harry H. Hess, the conference chairman was to state:
"The waste we have on hand is not being disposed of, in any strict sense, and it is something to worry about. . . . For the immediate future, extending to many years, wastes will constitute a serious problem." (p. 75)
Regardless, the dark horse of nuclear power was deemed ready to be set free and to gallop where it would through the steadily thickening airs of the twentieth century.

The Great Impasse


Participants at the conference agreed that arrangements should be made as a matter of urgency to develop and implement a program for the disposal of nuclear wastes in abandoned salt mines and deep salt beds. Vast deposits of bedded salt were known to exist along the southern edge of the Great Lakes extending from New York state to Michigan. Other potentially suitable sites were nominated in the Gulf states of Texas and Louisiana, and also in Utah, Colorado and Kansas. The conference also recommended that concurrent research be undertaken to find ways of stabilising nuclear wastes in the form of ceramics or insoluble slag.

Yet a curious inertia permeated the U.S. nuclear establishment. It took a further 45 years before the first (and only) functioning underground nuclear waste depository was actually constructed. The safe disposal of radioactive wastes was clearly not as straightforward as many had assumed.

Stacked Drums of Transuranic Wastes. WIPP, New Mexico
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico was built in a deep underground salt deposit and eventually opened in 1999 after years of contention between Federal and State regulators. The WIPP does not actually house any wastes from commercial nuclear reactors. It was specifically assigned to store the extremely long-lived transuranic wastes - which include large quantities of plutonium produced by the U.S. military nuclear weapons program between 1944 and 1988.

The WIPP repository has not been without its problems. In February 2014, a deflagration reaction within one of the barrels containing radioactive waste caused an intense fire that consumed the contents of the barrel. This resulted in the release of radioactive contamination throughout the underground tunnel system and into the surrounding environment. Above-ground monitors soon after detected the spread of radiation one kilometre away from the site of the fire. Waste storage operations were shut down immediately after the incident but are slated to resume in December 2016. The clean-up cost is already in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

More recently, doubts have been raised regarding the ultimate suitability of salt mines and salt domes as safe storage sites for radioactive wastes. Water has been found flowing through what were earlier believed to be impermeable salt deposits. This has certainly been the case in Germany's Asse II underground salt chambers in which over 100,000 barrels of low to medium level nuclear wastes have been stored from the 1960s. The unexpected movement of water into these chambers has raised fears of longer term radioactive contamination of local groundwater.

In the meantime, most of the 70,000 tons of spent fuel in the U.S. continues to quietly glow in cooling ponds located alongside nuclear power plants. Many of these cooling ponds have reached their storage capacity with some 20% of the spent fuel stockpile having been transferred to above-ground dry storage casks. The situation is similarly fraught in Canada, the U.K., continental Europe, Russia and the Ukraine, China, Japan, Korea and many other countries where nuclear wastes continue to accumulate even as new reactors are commissioned.

Resuscitating a Nightmare


It is a curious thing to observe the confidence with which the recent Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission has embraced the promotion of South Australia as the ideal destination for over one third of the world's accumulated stores of spent nuclear fuel. This spent fuel, together with the 400,000 cubic metres of intermediate-level nuclear waste that the Royal Commission recommends be transported to South Australia, represents a problem that nations with decades-long histories of nuclear energy production have failed to resolve. The entrancement induced by a whiff of billions of dollars of new revenue presently has a closed circle of nuclear advocates and politicians straining to persuade the people of South Australia to obligingly make their way as latter-day lemmings towards a dangerous and uncharted nuclear abyss.

In the short term, the Commission calls for the transportation of vast tonnages of highly radioactive materials from around the planet for decades-long storage in above-ground facilities. In the longer term, it proposes the construction of a deep underground repository for the "permanent" burial of the most dangerous wastes produced by a destructive and senescent civilisation.

Onkalo. Nuclear Repository Under Construction
The pursuit of projects such as that envisioned by the South Australian Royal Commission has been plagued by unanticipated complications as has been shown at both the WIPP repository in New Mexico and Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository at Olkiluoto in Finland has been held up as the gold standard in nuclear waste repository design, but at the present time it remains an idea that has yet to be tested. The repository has been under construction since 2004 and is expected to open in the 2020s. It will eventually cost around $5 billion and is designed to store 5,000 tons of spent fuel from Finland's four nuclear reactors for a period of at least 100,000 years. Meanwhile, Finland's nuclear program continues to expand with a fifth reactor under construction and another on the drawing board.

Quo Vadis?


The project to bury the world's nuclear poison in the heart of the Australian desert has not sprung out of a void. It is an idea that has been insidiously festering for two decades in a variety of incarnations. The first stirrings of the hellish project to turn Australia into the world's nuclear dumping ground emerged in the late 1990s when Pangea Resources, a U.K. based company promoted the construction of a commercially-operated international waste repository in Western Australia. The project was supported by a $40 million budget, 80% of which came from British Nuclear Fuels Limited (wholly owned by the U.K. government), with the remaining 20% from two nuclear waste management companies.

That particular project came to an abrupt halt in 1999 after Friends of the Earth in the U.K. came into possession of a promotional video produced by Pangea Resources and sent it on to its sister organisation in Australia. The project did, however, excite the imagination of a number of prominent Australian politicians including former prime ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard. In 2005, Bob Hawke excitedly proclaimed: "Forget about current account deficits . . . we could revolutionise the economics of Australia if we did this."

The situation is no different today. Current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten seem to be in lock-step regarding the desirability of importing the world's high level nuclear waste into South Australia. Neither has listened to the voices of indigenous traditional owners or of the more informed advocates of restraint and sanity.

Olympic Dam Uranium Mine, South Australia
One of the more disturbing elements of the Royal Commission report is its explicit endorsement of the progressive nuclearisation of the planet over the course of the next century. But given the make-up of the Royal Commission, this comes as no surprise.

The fact that the earth presently heaves under the detritus, the violence, and the unquenchable excesses of a terminally destructive civilisation blind to its own approaching convulsions has simply not entered the consciousness of those who would sell the future for a mess of pottage. The projections of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission report are prefaced on the assumption of continuing social, political, economic, climatic and existential stability for the next 120 years - which is the nominated life-span of the project - and continuing geological stability for tens of thousands of years thereafter.

At a time when our collective energies could be given over to creating the conditions that will bring to an end the excess and wastefulness that have brought us all to such a perilous edge, we find ourselves being quietly goaded into a more-of-the-same, business-as-usual entrancement that ignores the realities we presently face and those that await our children and their generations. One can only hope for a general awakening whereby people everywhere will come to recognise the deceits, the distractions and the seductions perpetrated by those who would move the world the way it goes.

It has been said that the beginning of a situation holds the seeds of its future fruition. The will to power and the disregard of consequence that were made manifest by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has already borne the dreadful fruits of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima and worldwide radioactive contamination. Let us nonetheless continue to strive to find the will to live in ways that honour the delicacy of life, the sublime coherence of nature, and the mystery of the love that brings forth all beings.

The Pangea Story


The video clip below was produced by the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1999. It offers a remarkable account of how the shadowy dealings of corporate entities acting in concert with governments can be brought to light and held to account by attentive vigilance and informed commitment.




Vincent Di Stefano M.H.Sc., D.O., N.D.
Inverloch, July 2016 

A pdf copy of this essay can be downloaded here


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