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.

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