Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Reality check on nuclear waste

Since US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, the erstwhile USSR also decided to join the nuclear arms race, thereby increasing their nuclear stockpiles manifold. The standard argument that is given is that the deterring nature of these weapons provides a security guarantee to many states. Kenneth Waltz, who is recognized as the father of realism in international relations has argued that the consequences of nuclear proliferation are likely to be positive.The power of a nuclear weapon state actually lies in not using the weapon, but in having it—because once a state uses such weapons, it can risk the wrath of the entire international community.

It is argued that nuclear weapons, thus, aren’t weapons for offence, but for deterrence. Even their usage for deterrence might be justified only when a state faces the gravest threat to its security and survival. Since 2014, the United Nations has been annually observing the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. The biggest threat today about nuclear weapons is the fear of these going into the hands of non-state actors, like terrorist groups, who can exploit them, inflicting tremendous harm to humanity at large.

The present era has been called the era of the balance of terror. The nuclear weapon powers hold populations of nations as mutual hostages. Many scientists support the destructive deeds of nations and politicians. Not surprisingly, the best scientists usually live and work in countries that are rich as well as strong. Many scientists are amoral and opportunistic, prone to claim credit for the good done in the name of science, while hastily repudiating the evil,  claiming that the latter was the responsibility of either the technologist or his political and economic mentors, not that of the scientist.

The existence in social consciousness of the perception that the scientist's inventions cannot be separated from his moral values is illustrated by the fact that Frankenstein, the creator of the monster in Mary Shelley's story, has become the name of the monster in the public's mind. What is technically possible is not necessarily morally admissible. In all the rational, realpolitik discussions about nuclear weapons what is often ignored is the problem of nuclear waste.  In Tomorrow is already here,  Robert Jungk writes:
Most strongly supervised of all are the "burial grounds" in which radioactive refuse is interred. These are dismal squares in the desert surrounded by red painted cement stakes. Each is under the care of a "burial operator," an atomic cemetery custodian, and is serviced by heavily masked workers.
Here, in long deep graves are buried the contaminated objects made of solid materials, such as receptacles, cans, metal caps, under a layer of earth a yard thick. Fluid refuse goes from the factory through subterranean pipes directly into deep under-ground tanks. These atomic graves increase in dimensions year by year. They provide the Atomic Energy Commission with more headaches than any other phase of its activity. 
For the materials buried here in the northwest inland desert will outlive us, the generation who have freed them through nuclear fission, by thousands, in part even by millions, of years before they lose their life-destroying power. Therefore the grave-yards must be marked so clearly and durably that each succeeding generation will know to shun them. Woe if the knowledge of the exact position of these poisoned zones were to be lost in the course of time! 
But there is also the danger that the "buried" in the Hanford graveyard may not be lying as quiet as their custodians wish. It is possible, even probable, that the radioactive poisons may be gradually working their way through the subsoil water and conceivably even through the layers of earth to regions not yet contaminated. A constant supervision of the entire geological sub-structure not only during our lifetime but increasingly during the lives of our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and more remote descendants is therefore indispensable. 
All other attempts at "removal of waste" through encasement in cement blocks which were sunk into the sea, interspersion with certain forms of bacteria and seaweed, mixture with special sorts of loam, have so far shown themselves uncertain and not particularly promising. There has even been some thought of the possibility later on of shooting the bits of refuse with rockets out of our atmosphere into space. Only in this way, it is said, shall we be truly rid of them. 
"In the long run," a research worker at one of the Hanford laboratories said to me, "this problem seems weightier to me than the question of atomic-weapon control. For even if the powers were finally to agree and an atomic war should never be fought, the fact still remains that by splitting the atom we have released life-destroying forces into the world with which the future will have to deal. With each century it will be more difficult to control the mounting quantity of atomic waste. Everything made by man has faded, fallen into ruin or rotted within measurable time. For the first time we have produced something by our own interference with nature which if not eternal, is, by our measures, nearly eternal. A dangerous inheritance which may far outlive all our other creations, a bit of near-eternity: a bit of hell." 
The technical achievement of advanced industrial society, and the effective manipulation of mental and material productivity have brought about a change in how mystification is achieved. In modern society, the rational rather than the irrational has become the most effective vehicle of mystification. Previously, floods, earthquakes and other natural calamities were explained as the wrath of gods. Now it is the rational mobilization of the material and mental machinery which does the job of mystifying the society.

Apart from some scientists and technicians, nobody knows how the gadgets they use do what they do. Modern myth-makers or fairy tales tellers are commonly called advertising executives, web-designers, reputation managers, image makers, etc. (Rationality coins impressive titles for con-men.) This mystification makes the individuals incapable of seeing “behind" the machinery. Herbert Marcuse says in One-Dimensional Man:
Today, the mystifying elements are mastered and employed in productive publicity, propaganda, and politics. Magic, witchcraft, and ecstatic surrender are practiced in the daily routine of the home, the shop, and the office, and the rational accomplishments conceal the irrationality of the whole. For example, the scientific approach to the vexing problem of mutual annihilation — the mathematics and calculations of kill and over-kill, the measurement of spreading or not- quite-so- spreading fallout, the experiments of endurance in abnormal situations — is mystifying to the extent to which it promotes (and even demands) behavior which accepts the insanity. 
It thus counter-acts a truly rational behavior — namely, the refusal to go along, and the effort to do away with the conditions which produce the insanity.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Objective science and its human consequences - VI

The targeting of individuals if their views are not to the liking of the state is common even in democracies. Robert Oppenheimer followed the American military line on every issue during the making of the atom bomb but raised objections later to making the hydrogen bomb.He soon fell from the status of an American hero to a  hesitant egghead who was a security risk. The militarist pressure groups maneuvered an investigation into Oppenheimer's activities, and he was deprived of his security clearance and stripped of his honors.

The persecution of Oppenheimer illustrates a key objection to modernity and modernization that Gandhi had: it renders individuals impotent by making them subservient to institutions and unable to act according to the dictates of their conscience. He emphasizes that things are not always what they seem and continually draws attention to what is ignored. He does not deny the benefits that modernity brings but draws attention to the costs that individuals will have to bear in order to get those benefits. For eg., take the case of freedom: you may be free to pursue pleasures and comforts but  you may not be free to make moral choices as you see fit. You will always be captive to fear and live at the mercy of the powerful. Ronald Terchek writes in Gandhi: Strugling for Autonomy:
. . .Gandhi recognizes that the costs involved in pursuing a person's moral principles are often high and that many refuse to pay the price; and he is not ready to to condemn ordinary men and women who fail to rise to the highest sacrifice. He continually seeks to design institutional arrangements that lessen the costs to ordinary people of meeting their moral responsibilities. In his ideal society, men and women are not constantly placed in morally tragic situations in which the the only way to follow the good is at continued high personal sacrifice. 
Scientists and Gandhi focused on different issues. Scientist focused on their research and said the technologies that resulted from their discoveries were not their responsibility. Gandhi maintained that theories were irrelevant and the only issue of consequence was how scientific research was used. Nowadays, only a small percentage of scientists are engaged in pure science and the vast majority are involved in technology with the majority of them in defense technology. As Sir Solly Zuckerman says, 'The needs of defense, or the presumed needs of defense ... condition the kind of technology, and ... the kind of science, that is encouraged in countries which by political circumstances have been forced into the arms race.'  Ashis Nandy writes in Science, Hegemony and Violence:
Yet, at the same time, we can be reasonably sure that the concept of pure science and the conceptual difference between science and technology will be carefully retained. It will be retained not because of the demands of the philosophers of science but because it is only by distinguishing between science and technology that all social criticism of science can continue to be deflected away from science towards technology. A shadowy, ethereal concept of science that has little to do with the real-life endeavors of practicing scientists can then be politically defended as the pursuit of truth uncontaminated by human greed, violence and search for power. 
One key principle that Gandhi espoused was that the end rarely justifies the means. For him, means were invariably more important than ends. In the goal-driven and competitive environment of many academic settings, it is easy to forego moral principles. I heard of an interesting way in which scientists avoid taking responsibility for the products of their research. Who discovered penicillin? Vaccination? Every school-child will know the name and they will be mentioned in school textbooks. Scientists are eager to showcase them because they are seen as examples of benefits of science for mankind.

Now comes the other side of the ledger. Who invented Agent Orange? Nerve Gas? Napalm? Nobody will know the answer. This is because the scientists concerned and the enterprise of science as a collectivity want to avoid taking responsibility for them. They will pass on the responsibility for the nefarious uses of the products of their research on to the state. They will say that they only provide the means and whether they are used for good or bad purposes depends on who is using them. This brings us to the question of the value neutrality of science and technology.

Value-neutrality is a principle that directs us to keep our emotions and biases in check when dealing with certain products. Scientific research requires an investment of money and time and it is often chosen keeping in mind the possible use of their outcomes and results. Therefore, receiving funds and practicing scientific research are not value-neutral activities because by approving and accepting researches and projects scientists tacitly do agree with the goals by providing means to them.

Scientists require to adhere to moral norms and values and to be responsible for conducting scientific researches. It is the responsibility of scientists to consider the implications and usage of their findings since they know much more about them than the general public. They cannot ignore the consequences of their scientific conducts for society.  This is more so because of the strong presence of science in moral, social, and political decision-making processes; not just as an impersonal set of formulae.

Scientists can no longer hope naively that people will only use science for the public good and will not be hijacked by the greed for dominance and power. An assessment of the desirability of the pursuit of a particular project has to be part of the mental make-up of scientists. Jungk cites von Laue's statement that 'no one ever invents anything that he does not really want to invent'. Like all other people, scientists are responsible for both what they intend to achieve and for the application of their work that are readily foreseeable. There is nothing sacrosanct about being a scientist that removes this burden of responsibility. 

The gap between power and responsibility has widened more than ever before. According to Hanna Arendt's diagnosis of the contemporary predicament, processes with unfathomable consequences are being released in a society of beings too absorbed in consumption to take any responsibility for the human world or to understand their political capacities. She observes in her prologue to The Human Condition, that "thoughtlessness" (itself related to the loss of the common human world) is "among the outstanding characteristics of our time'.

She says, 'If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.' But she points out that in human affairs it is actually quite reasonable to expect the unexpected, and that new beginnings cannot be ruled out even when society seems locked in stagnation or set on an inexorable course.

PS: In Tomorrow is Already Here  (the book was published first in 1954 so it is about the present), Robert Jungk gives a glimpse of the world that a deterministic science is attempting to build. The major assumption of such a science when shorn of all flowery language is that the world is like a machine whose uncertainties can be eliminated by planning using more data. For them, nature's shortcomings are, as Donald Worster puts it, "but an invitation to man to become nature's engineer and create a paradise on Earth of his own design, whose functioning he can plan and direct in all its detail."