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The production of nuclear weapons has created plutonium and other radioactive wastes. In any future utopia these will have to be dealt with. Rachel Western argues that finding ways to cope with this legacy, with the care and respect that is needed, could be part of creating a utopia.

Nuclear utopias

During the Second World War, nuclear weapons were developed and used. Obviously they have no part in a utopia, but although these weapons can be taken apart, the materials used to make them will be left behind.

There are high-tech schemes to “zap” away these wastes, but they are enormously expensive and don't actually do the job. In addition, the huge volumes of radioactive wastes left from the manufacture of the weapons will present a threat of cancer for hundreds of thousands of years.

There is no solution to the problem of nuclear wastes; however, there is the possibility that facing up to the problem, in such a way that we cope with it in the best way possible, could create new patterns of care, respect and humility that would be an important part of the establishment of a utopian society.

Creating nuclear wastes

In a nuclear reactor two main types of nuclear waste are made. Heavy atoms such as plutonium are created when other atoms fuse; and intensely radioactive fragments known as “fission products” are made when atoms fall apart. Radioactivity is the release of particles and energy because an atom is an unstable size. It is this energy and particle release that can cause damage to genetic material.

Apart from the physical creation of radioactive atoms, the way that these are processed also produces waste because of the contamination of other materials. This is a particular problem for plutonium weapons where the plutonium extraction stage involves an extremely messy process. Large volumes of different kinds of materials become mixed with radioactive materials, creating an extremely complex management problem.

Risks from nuclear wastes

Nuclear wastes present two main threats. Firstly the weapons material could be used again to make bombs. Secondly, if the wastes come into contact with life they could cause genetic damage which could lead to cancer or mutation. There is no “safe” level of exposure to radiation. This presents two aspects to the care of nuclear wastes:

  • Reduction of the weapons threat;
  • Reduction of the genetic threat.

 

Reduction of weapons threat

The two types of nuclear weapon used in the Second World War were one made with uranium and one made with plutonium. For uranium a dilution technique can be used to reduce its weapons threat, but for plutonium this technique won't work and a different approach is needed. Billions have been spent in separating plutonium from other wastes. All plutonium, including the plutonium from nuclear power reactors can be used to make bombs. Despite this, huge tonnages of so-called “civil” plutonium has been extracted in addition to specifically military plutonium.

The pattern of perpetual plutonium production was established with a commitment to deception. Despite claims to the contrary, in Britain so-called civil plutonium was sent to the US for weapons use. It was believed that plutonium could be used to fuel nuclear utopian reactors that made more fuel than they used up. These “fast breeder reactors” have been an economic and technical disaster and have been largely abandoned.

The question of what to do with stocks of separated plutonium goes to the heart of alternative utopian visions. In the past there has been a technocratic vision of a future where plutonium is seen as something useful. This version of the future contains capital intensive weapons and nuclear reactors, an intense degree of security and an ever-present risk of a devastating release of radiation through bombs or reactor accidents. This vision can be set against the vision of plutonium as something which needs to be respected and taken care of and treated to reduce as far as possible the risk that it is made into weapons in the future.

To take care of plutonium in this way it must be mixed with the radioactive fragments or “fission products” made in nuclear reactors. The idea of this is to create a radiation barrier that would make it difficult, though not impossible, for people to recover it and make it into a weapon again. There are different ways of doing this: mixing it with the leftovers from the plutonium extraction, mixing it with old fuel rods that are radioactive or, finally, actually putting it in a reactor.

The best way is to mix it with old fuel rods. The problem with the first technique is that the extraction left-overs consist of an intensely radioactive acid solution.

If a plane crashed into this material -such as on 11 September-the result would devastate a vast area of land.

Putting plutonium into reactors would be even worse than using uranium in terms of the accident risk and expense.

The need for new thinking

To actually get plutonium treated safely demands a recognition of the possibility of change. The nuclear industry has been dominated by a religious fervour that knows that it knows best. Today, in Britain alone, we face a bill of the order of 50bn for clean-up costs from the past, yet it is technocrats from the same mode of thought who want to decide for us how to deal with one of the most potentially significant threats we face.

In both the nuclear industry and government, new initiatives are being taken and there are new personnel with a fresh agenda. However, a gear-change is demanded if we are to see that we ourselves can take responsibility and create new institutions and structures that do not perpetuate the problems and mistakes of the past.

Coping with radioactive wastes

Nuclear waste first appeared in the mid twentieth century. Its creators brushed aside the problem of producing something that would be so dangerous for such a long time by saying that it could be simply buried-that putting it out of the way like this would get rid of the problem. What they didn't mention was that it would seep back. There was a great deal of confidence that the “migration of radionuclides along hydrogeological pathways”-or the leakage of radioactivity through watercourses in rock-was well understood. However, when the research was finally done to firm up earlier predictions it was realised that there is an enormous amount that we simply don't - or even cannot - know. There will be risks in the future; we do not know their size and we do not know when they will occur. The problem of how to distribute risk creates a problem for ethics. Past analyses of ethics-the utilitarian approach-has considered “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. A newer approach, known as “deontological ethics”, focuses on human rights, autonomy and freedom. There is a tension between the two approaches. The public, who tend to take the second approach and focus on the individual, tend to mistrust the institutional approach of government, who tend to take the first approach. There is also, of course, the question of whether governments are actually capable of calculating “the greatest good for the greatest number”.

Guardianship

Apart from this more theoretical ethical question, there is also a more spiritual ethical question associated with radioactive wastes, and also with plutonium. This is the question of guardianship. Advocates of guardianship argue that we should not hide away the problem of nuclear waste but keep it in sight. Kathleen Sullivan and Joanna Macey have done a great deal of work on this area and the Nuclear Guardianship Project have produced an “Ethic of Guardianship” which has at its core the belief that nuclear materials should not be abandoned. Apart from the question of not hiding from the responsibility of ongoing care, this approach presents practical benefits because it means, in fact demands, that the wastes are continually kept in view in such a way that they can always be treated, contained or repaired if there is an unforeseen problem. However, the adoption of guardianship is not a straightforward choice. What if there was a terrorist attack on a store? What about natural disasters and even maybe another ice-age? The problem of radioactive waste does not leave itself open to simple answers. Plutonium is a case in point. There is a strong argument that plutonium should definitely not be held in guardianship as this would always leave open the possibility that it could be used to make a weapon at some point in the future, yet we do not know enough to enable us to dispose of plutonium once and for all. There is at present no answer to this problem. Even the official bodies openly struggle with the implications of having built up this legacy of bomb material that we cannot get rid of and which carries the ever-present risk of being made into a weapon in the future.

What next?

So where do we go now-faced with two intractable problems, should we just bury our heads in the sand and wish it all away? The problems that we now face originated in an era where there was deep fear and hatred. There is the risk that that could be recreated with the “axis of evil” thinking coming from the US. Alternatively there are the initiatives coming for responsibility to be taken, to move away from that kind of thinking and rhetoric. Taking responsibility for the debris of the nuclear era can only happen when two main issues are addressed and resolved. Firstly, the countries with nuclear power and weapons programmes need to stop making the problem worse. Presently they make a daily contribution to the problem through continuing the make the wastes. Secondly the nuclear technocrats and civil servants need to start telling the truth - only then can decision-makers face up to the problem and begin to think about how to move forward. When these issues are resolved we can begin to work together to deal with care and respect to try to protect people in the future from the dangerous hazard that we will inevitably hand over to them. Perhaps in doing so we would take a practical step towards creating a peaceful utopian society.

Thanks to Kathleen Sullivan and Anna Littleboy for providing material and helping with this article.

Rachel Western is a research associate at Lancaster University and works for Friends of the Earth in London, and as a consultant to Nirex the British nuclear waste-management body (+44 207 566 1690; email rachelw@foe.co.uk).