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


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


Ivy Mike. The 1st Thermonuclear Bomb

1. On the Ruin of Rongelap. When Protectors Become Destroyers

This post carries a 30 minute audio production together with a substantive essay When Protectors Become Destroyers that detail the effects of atomic testing in the Marshall Islands during the 1950s. The essay presents an historical overview of the events that led to the development of thermonuclear weapons by Edward Teller and his group. It also recalls the role of the Greenpeace yacht Rainbow Warrior in the relocation of the people of Rongelap from their highly contaminated island in 1985.

Jaduguda Mine and Processing Mill

2. The Art of Disregard. Jaduguda and the Indian Nuclear Project

This post offers an account of the activities of UCIL, the Indian government owned Uranium Corporation of India on the lives of several Adivasi communities in Jharkhand, where a number of villages are situated close to uranium mines with their tailings dams. The post includes embedded video produced by Indian film-maker Shri Prakash which reveals the extent of disregard by Indian authorities of the consequences of their mining activities on local communities.

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Devil's Century

Our present generation is living out of the spiritually vacuous philosophies of modernism and post-modernism, the cancerous ideologies of free-market economics and unrestrained economic growth, and the corporate and political tyrannies that have nurtured an energised ethos of transience. The triumphalism of modernity has effectively wiped from our collective memories a coherent view of just what has gone down in the flourish and flash of the late twentieth century. The immensity of human misery and the degree of cultural waste wrought over the past century have been largely forgotten.

We have succeeded in erasing from our consciences the terrible crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We have similarly glossed over the outpouring of vast torrents of radioactive elements into the earth's atmosphere. Every living human being now carries radioactive elements in their bodies as a result of the 520 atmospheric nuclear tests - with an explosive power equivalent to 29,000 Hiroshima bombs - that were conducted between 1945 and 1980. We also choose to ignore the insidious infiltration of radioactive elements throughout the biosphere from every stage of the nuclear cycle, from the mining and processing of uranium to the routine ventings of nuclear power plants. And despite the global dispersal of a devil's brew of long-lived radionuclides from the catastrophic accidents at Chelyabinsk, Chernobyl and more recently Fukushima, our technocratic minders and their political puppets continue to steer public opinion towards the embrace of a salvific nuclear renaissance that will put to rest all nasty prospects of runaway climate change.

One does not need an overheated imagination to conclude that the past century has been in the thrall of demonic forces that have somehow subverted our capacity for thoughtful evaluation and corrective restraint. Having witnessed the holocaust of the so-called Great War, William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
A century later, some things seem not to have changed at all . . . .

Echoes from a Cathedral

Pope Leo XIII
There is a story told in certain circles that offers a most unusual view regarding the nature of the forces unleashed on the world during the twentieth century:

After celebrating a morning mass in 1884, Pope Leo XIII attended a mass of Thanksgiving, as was his practice. At a certain point, he lifted his head and began to look steadily towards the altar. He was staring motionlessly without batting an eye. His expression alternated between horror and awe and the appearance of his face was alternately flushed and pale. He seemed completely overtaken by what he was experiencing. As his facial colour returned and he became more settled, he rose from his seat and went straight to his office without speaking to anybody or giving any indication of what he had just experienced. When he emerged half an hour later, Pope Leo handed his secretary a newly composed prayer to Saint Michael with instructions that it was thenceforth to be read in Catholic churches after every mass. This practice commenced soon after and continued for many decades. It was abandoned only after the reforms of Vatican II during the 1960s.

Pope Leo later described how during the time of his entrancement, he had heard two voices emanating from the tabernacle. One was a deep guttural voice that boasted that he could destroy the Church if given enough time and power. A strong but gentle voice replied asking how much time and how much power was needed. The other said that a century would be sufficient but that he needed greater power over those whose service he could avail himself of. Pope Leo then heard the reply: "You have the time. You will have the power. Do with them what you will."

The twentieth century has in fact seen not only the destruction of much within the Catholic Church that was held sacrosanct during the time of Pope Leo who held office from 1878 to 1903, but the unleashing of destructive forces on a scale never before witnessed on the earth.

Leviathan Awakens

The decades following Pope Leo's vision saw a consolidation and expansion of the new powers that the industrial revolution had spawned. But the high intelligence that brought forth the many innovations of the time carried its own dark shadow as an unshakeable companion. There were some with prescience who descried the oppression that lay hidden within emerging industrial developments. Among the first were the romantic poets who lamented the destruction of the natural world that invariably accompanied urban and industrial expansion. As early as the first decade of the nineteenth century, William Blake had envisioned the new forms of enslavement and the forfeitures of freedom that lay in wait in the nascent industrialism revealed by the dark satanic mills of Georgian England.

The development of new industrial methods of production enabled the exploitation of coal reserves, mineral deposits, and newly discovered petroleum fields on a hitherto unimagined scale. They gave rise to new dynasties of immense wealth and power. As factories began to proliferate, vast numbers of people found themselves subjected to lives of bondage in servitude to the Machine. In the United States, Andrew Carnegie's steelworks poured out thousands of kilometres of railway tracks that carried coal-fired locomotives and their heavy cargoes to all parts of a newly opened continent. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company drew forth the energy-rich black blood stored in ancient forests that had been hidden in the earth. Crude oil was progressively fractionated and manipulated by a new class of chemists to produce fuels and lubricants for internal combustion engines, fertilisers for agriculture, explosives for military and industrial use, and the building blocks of powerful new drugs that would completely alter the way medicine was practised.

That creativity was, however, shadowed by a destructive aspect of equal magnitude. This was made manifest in its tragic fullness during World War I that raged from 1914 to 1918. During those four years, some 17 million people died violently and a further 20 million were wounded. Even greater numbers of those who were not killed by bullets, mortars, bombs or chemical weapons were later taken out by the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Woman in Prayer at Hiroshima Memorial Park
Never before in the history of humanity had so much metal been used to such destructive purpose. Never before had such explosive power been so catastrophically released. Never before had so many young and old men in uniform been mobilised over such vast distances. Never before had so many people been destroyed in such numbers by fellow human beings. Yet the experience of World War I proved to be but a prelude to the far greater devastation that erupted a short 21 years later culminating in the dropping of two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The dual nature of modernism had revealed its extremity.

Lengthening Shadows

The Great War was but a first manifestation of the unleashing of the prodigious powers and capabilities that would come to dominate the twentieth century landscape. These powers found expression in virtually all domains of human endeavour - economic management, political ideology and methods of social control, mineral extraction and utilisation, electricity generation and supply, and ways of land, air and maritime transport. The ingenuity and brilliance embodied in these developments were, however, accompanied step by step by forces that darkened all the visionary rhetoric promising the arrival of a new golden age, a tomorrowland of prosperity, freedom and happiness for all.

The opposing ideologies of capitalism and communism began to crystallise, the one marked by a philosophy and practice of unrestrained privately-owned production and a similarly unrestrained consumption, the other by a forfeiture of private property and the creation of state-owned enterprises built on totalitarian methods of social and political control. By the late 1920s, the seeds had been sown for a massive collapse in the economies of both the United States and Europe. By the early 1930s, millions of workers and tens of thousands of financial institutions in the so-called free world had been brought to ruin by the Great Depression.

The Soviet Union was declared by Vladimir Lenin in 1922. When he died two years later, Joseph Stalin consolidated his own power and outmanoeuvred his opponents to become supreme dictator by the late 1920s. Vast tracts of agricultural land were seized by the State and millions were imprisoned in an archipelago of labour camps. Stalin's suppression of all opposition in the Ukraine was merciless. Between 1929 and 1933, seven million Ukrainians - three million of whom were children - had been systematically starved to death.

Meanwhile, Adolph Hitler's rise to power had become irresistible, fuelled as it was by the growing resentment of a German people who had been subjected to regional dismemberment, economic degradation and deep humiliation by the Treaty of Versailles imposed in 1919.

Yet the party rolled on. America and Europe recovered, the Soviet Union continued to gain in power, and Germany became increasingly militarised. By the time World War II erupted in 1939, the machinery to both create and deploy technologies of destruction on an immense scale was fully in place. Under Hitler, entire populations were herded into mechanised death camps. Aerial warfare enabled a totally new level of devastation. In the latter stages of the war, it was directed to the complete destruction by fire of entire cities, as occurred in Hamburg in July 1943, Dresden in February 1945, and Tokyo in March 1945.

The deadliest fruit that ripened on the flaming tree of war was, however, that born of the Manhattan Project. In the final furious exhalation of hell's fire that drew the curtain down on World War II, 70,000 human lives were vaporised in just 4 seconds after Fat Man, a single bomb carrying four kilograms of plutonium, exploded above the city of Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945.

Opening the Portals

Particle accelerator, Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, 1939
Uranium was discovered in the late 1700s. It took another century before the element had revealed its hidden fire to the French physicist Henri Becquerel in 1896. Becquerel discovered that salts of uranium not only glowed in the dark but darkened photographic plates when placed in contact with them. He concluded that the salts emitted some form of radiation. Ernest Rutherford also worked with uranium, and by 1911 had established the atomic structure of matter. He also discovered that certain elements were inherently unstable and underwent radioactive transformations into other elements. Within eight years, Rutherford succeeded in replicating these transformations by bombarding a range of elements with alpha particles, one of the three forms of radiation emitted by uranium. By the mid 1920s, particle accelerators had appeared on the scene and made easier the manipulation of atomic nuclei in the laboratory.

In 1934, it occurred to the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi that bombarding uranium with neutrons might create heavier atoms by the capture and transformation of the neutrons in the nucleus of uranium atoms. His hunch eventually proved to be correct. Others who were conducting similar experiments observed that neutron bombardment of uranium atoms could also produce highly radioactive smaller atoms that were approximately half the size of uranium atoms. It was soon understood that uranium was capable of undergoing fission, of breaking into smaller radioactive fragments, when its nuclei absorbed neutrons.

Building on these developments, Fermi constructed a nuclear pile at the University of Chicago in order to generate such reactions on a massive scale. On the first day of December 1942, Fermi succeeded in igniting a controlled chain reaction. The mix of fast and slow neutrons that were produced not only tore atoms apart, but created the whole new litany of man-made elements - including plutonium - that Fermi had predicted eight years earlier. Four weeks later, on the 28th December 1942, President Roosevelt authorised the Manhattan Project.

The portals of the nuclear abyss had been thrown open.

The Violent Century

One of the key signatures of industrial/technological civilisation has been its willingness to exercise an ever-increasing violence in the pursuit of its aims. That violence has been made shockingly manifest in the wars conducted over the past century. Seventeen million people died violently during World War I. By the time World War II was drawing to a close, sixty million people - some 3% of the world's population - had been killed. In the short period between the two wars, the instruments of death had changed from bullets and mortars to air-borne bombs and rockets. The final act of infamy was the killing of over 200,000 Japanese people by two nuclear explosions in August 1945.

Within twenty years, the United States had constructed over 31,000 nuclear weapons. And by 1985, the Soviet Union possessed over 39,000 nuclear weapons. This feast of hubris and insane excess was made possible by the generation of enormous amounts of plutonium in nuclear reactors. That flush of militaristic madness began to subside once the situation came to be more widely known. The present time has seen some small retreat. Yet more than 15,000 nuclear weapons continue to grace the arsenals of nine nations.

Nuclear reactors themselves are another story. There are more than 440 operational nuclear power plants in 31 countries. Over 60 new reactors are under construction. According to the World Nuclear Association, some 220,000 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel rods are presently immersed in cooling ponds around the world. An additional 25,000 tons are presently stored in dry casks.

Thousands of tons of new high-level wastes continue to be produced by existing nuclear reactors each year. Meanwhile, the shadowy supporters of the nuclear project blithely champion an increasingly nuclearised future.

Olympic Dam Uranium Mine, South Australia
The shattering of atoms, whether cataclysmically in nuclear bombs or in controlled chain reactions within nuclear power plants is an inherently violent act. That violence is itself the end of a sequence of violence that begins with the extraction of uranium from the earth. Violence is inflicted on the many indigenous peoples whose ways of life and whose health and safety have been over-ridden by governments and mining companies determined to draw forth the power and wealth hidden within uranium ores. That violence is further contained in the slowly seething nuclear wastes that litter the hinterlands of Canada, the United States, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa, Jharkhand, and Australia among other places. The same violence is silently experienced by millions of people throughout the world who contend with the debilitating and often lethal effects of the assimilation into their bodies of radioactive elements released by atmospheric tests, nuclear accidents, and the slow bleed of radionuclides into the lands, airs and waters of the earth through the mining of uranium and from the operation of nuclear reactors. 

Successive posts on Satan's Cauldrons will progressively reveal the many faces of the nuclear project during this time when the forces of nature begin to return the violence that has been exercised so recklessly against the earth and her creatures for so long.

Vincent Di Stefano
Inverloch, June 2016

A pdf copy of this essay can be downloaded here

Nuclear Energy. Sculpture by Henry Moore, University of Chicago