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It’s Complicated! Our Toxic Relationship with Nuclear Technology

A Q&A with Fred Pearce

Nuclear waste

It’s the sort of relationship that keeps bringing out the worst in us. From the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Chernobyl nuclear accident, our eight-decade-long relationship with nuclear technology has been marked by our tendencies to secrecy, coverups, and disasters. What promised to be a cutting-edge source of power has laid waste to the environment as much as it has to the human psyche. Distinguished environmental journalist Fred Pearce gives us a global tour of our nuclear legacy—from Nevada and Japan to the UK and secret sites of the old Soviet Union—in his latest book Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with Pearce to ask him about the book and what we should take from it now that President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal.

Christian Coleman: Tell us what inspired you to write a book on our nuclear legacy.

Fred Pearce: Nuclear scandals and disasters have been a recurring theme of my life as an environment journalist for several decades. But they seemed to have fallen off the radar. Old news, but definitely not fake news. Then I was commissioned to visit the heart of Britain’s nuclear industry, both military and civil, at a remote spot on the northwest coast of England called Sellafield. I was profoundly shocked at what I found, from the mile-after-mile of coastal mud that qualifies as radioactive waste to the world’s largest stockpile of plutonium, sitting inside a warehouse and wide open to terrorist attack. I set out to explore the world’s hidden legacy of nuclear fallout and debris, and this book is the result.  

CC: Whether nuclear technology is being developed for weapons of war or as an alternative energy source, there’s always what you call the “culture of secrecy” surrounding it. Why is that?

FP: The culture began because the nuclear industry started as a secret military project during the Second World War. And it has never gone away, partly because the links between civil and military nuclear technology have never gone away—the plutonium coming out of the back of a power reactor is potentially the raw material for bombs—and partly because the industry has remained crippled by public opposition and the legacy of accidents from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl and Fukushima. Nuclear proponents and engineers are as paranoid as some of their opponents! That’s why one of my main conclusions is that we as a society are simply incapable being rational about nuclear stuff. So, even leaving aside the bombs, we’d best call the whole thing off.

CC: Later in the book, you bring up radiophobia, the societal fears brought on by government secrecy, nuclear fallout, contamination, and long-lasting health risks of radiation. Why was it important to address the psychological impact of nuclear technology in the book?

FP: Because it is a real impact. A lot of people in the nuclear industry dismiss their critics as suffering from radiophobia. It is true that probably the biggest health impacts of Chernobyl and Fukushima have been the psychological suffering—because of the dislocation of evacuations, the fear of lingering radiation and so on. Many of those fears are, I concluded, excessive in the extreme. (Anti-nuclear people can be as anti-scientific as the worst climate-change deniers.) But these fears are real effects of the industry, for which the industry must take responsibility. Psychological impacts are as real as radiological impacts. Also, this is far from being all on one side. The psychological ill-effects of nuclear technology extend deep into the industry itself and its supporters. Radiophobia is matched by a kind of rabid enthusiasm for nuclear technology that results in an inability to think through the things that might go wrong and their consequences. Most of the accidents have happened because of this. 

CC: In your travels around the world, you’ve seen how atomic waste has been disastrously mishandled. What are some environmentally-sound methods of storing it?

FP: We need to find permanent disposal sites. We can’t visit this stuff on future generations by keeping it in store. For the long-lasting stuff—mainly containing plutonium, which has a half-life of thousands of years—we have to bury it safely out of harm’s way for that length of time, while it decays. Deep underground in the safest geology we can find. I hate to say it to the people of Nevada, but Yucca Mountain is about as good as it gets. It’s not perfect, but we can’t wish this stuff away. The danger is that if everyone says “not in my backyard” the end result is this stuff stays in everyone’s backyard. Most states in the US have supposedly interim stores of this highly dangerous stuff, and as of now, we have nowhere to put it.

CC: You mention several movies touched by the popularity of the nuclear age, such as Dr. Strangelove and Godzilla. You also mention atomic-themed design trends, nuclear themed beauty pageants, high-school football teams named “The Atoms.” Why has the nuclear age had such a cultural impact?

FP: Because it was a new and alien technology that captivated some and terrified many more. For some, it would generate electricity “too cheap to meter”; for others, it would blow up the world, or turn us all into mutants. Once it was so all-the-rage that when they tested the first A-bombs at the Bikini atoll, French costumiers named their latest two-piece swimsuit after it. How weird is that? Long before climate change, it was the great global threat. We talk now about the Anthropocene, the age when humans are in charge of our planet’s destiny. When we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, that was the start.

CC: What would you like readers to take away from your book about our nuclear legacy, especially in light of President Donald Trump announcing that he’s withdrawing the US from the Iran nuclear deal?

FP: Treating nuclear weapons as just another weapon for macho posturing is crazy. Trump is the real rocket man. The bottom line is we have to get rid of these weapons for the safety of the world. We forget that America signed up with most of the world to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, under which nuclear powers committed to phasing out their nuclear weapons in return for non-nuclear powers committing not to develop their own weapons. Yet we demand that countries like Iran and North Korea stick to their side of the bargain when we don’t stick to ours.  

The status quo is dangerous. Withdrawing from the Iran deal—which the Iranians were sticking to—is  dangerous folly and undermines the chances of getting a deal with North Korea to disarm. Why would they trust America? The trouble is we have kind of got used to having nuclear weapons around. That is maybe the most dangerous thing of all. We need to rediscover fear about our own weapons. When researching my book, I travelled through Colorado looking at the weapons silos in fenced off corners of corn fields. It was almost like they were an accepted part of the landscape. That was truly scary. I have a poster on my wall showing how the Russians have 7,300 nuclear warheads; America has 7,000; and the rest of the world has just over 1,000 altogether. The Iranians have none. Get real, America. Get disarming.


About Fred Pearce 

Fred Pearce has reported on environmental, science, and development issues from eighty-five countries over the past twenty years. Environment consultant at New Scientist from 1992 to 2018, he also writes regularly for the Guardian newspaper and Yale University’s prestigious e360 website. His many books include The New WildWhen the Rivers Run DryWith Speed and ViolenceConfessions of an Eco-SinnerThe Coming Population Crash, and The Land Grabbers.