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"Forget the Rest" blog

“How to Understand Anti-Nuclear Hysteria”
Winter, 1990, Greg Mello

In February and early March the Department of Energy held a series of four public hearings concerning the scope of the environmental impact statement for its proposed new plutonium research and development facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.   Hundreds of people attended these hearings, which in each case extended late into the night.   The content of the presentations was, on every evening, overwhelmingly negative toward the DOE's proposal.

These hearings, it should be noted, were not the first hearings in Santa Fe concerned with nuclear issues.   In the past year, we have had hearings about WIPP, hearings about the incineration of radioactive waste at LANL, and hearings about the investigation and possible cleanup of disposal sites at LANL.   At all of these hearings, a dominant theme of public comment was the possible health effects of the proposed nuclear activities.   (This was, of course, not the only dominant theme, especially in the recent hearings, when many well-articulated economic, political, and moral issues were raised.)

It is very clear that some of the people who are most alarmed about these health effects know very little of the details of nuclear safety or health physics.   The concerns and fears they express often seem disproportionate to the actual facts of the case at hand.   Some scientists have even remarked that they see an inverse relationship between nuclear knowledge and nuclear fear.   Leaving aside the many points made at these hearings which made some sense to everyone, including some very valid and scientifically-sound points about health risks, how are we to understand the more "far-out" health concerns?   Are these concerns just naive?   Are these people just "anti-nuclear weenies," as Vernon Kerr put it?

I doubt it.   First of all, there is the striking fact that our nuclear weapons research and production facilities--overseen by supposedly well-qualified technical experts--are, in almost every case, severely contaminated.   Hundreds of tons of uranium dust wafting into the Ohio sky, millions (yes, millions) of pounds of mercury released into streams in Tennessee, vast areas of the Snake River aquifer contaminated in Idaho, unknown numbers of pounds of plutonium oxide dust released into suburban Denver, the intentional secret release of thousands of curies of iodine-131 in Washington, an experiment which heavily contaminated parts of three states--all this and much, much more has been done by experts employed by the DOE.   The historical record unfortunately shows that nuclear safety scientists employed by the DOE have simply been untrustworthy.

It is not just that these events occurred--that would be bad enough.   What is worse is that all this took place amid a constant refrain of denials that anything dangerous was happening--in most cases, even, denials that anything dangerous could happen.   I used to think that, in past decades, people just didn't know better.   But the record shows that many of these nuclear experts certainly did know better, and that individuals of integrity who complained were usually silenced.   The DOE and its predecessor agencies have for decades practiced an intentional policy of secrecy and coverup, a policy in which betrayal of the public trust was rewarded and from which contamination was the inevitable result.

This coverup is not something that happened elsewhere.   Many of the most contaminated DOE facilities--including the Y-12 Plant in Tennessee, the Rocky Flats plant near Denver, the Savannah River Facility in South Carolina, Pantex in Amarillo, and others--were overseen by our own DOE office in Albuquerque.   And neither are coverups a problem only for the DOE, something that couldn't happen at, say, Los Alamos.   According to the March 9, 1990 Albuquerque Journal, a federal researcher this month told a panel in Washington that he was pressured to alter the conclusions of his epidemiological research which found significantly elevated cancer rates among workers at Rocky Flats.   He was told to do this by a deputy director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  

Stories like this have been in the newspapers practically every week for many months.   I, for one, am forced to draw a somewhat paradoxical conclusion:   the anti-nuclear crowd--who certainly do not know the details of health risks as well as the technicians--may be more in touch with the "big picture" than are many of the "experts."   The concerned citizens, it appears to me, are often more correct overall than they are in the details.

How can this be?   It may be that the matters at hand have more to do with political science than with nuclear science, and more to do with history than with half-lives.   And beyond this, it may be that nuclear decisions inevitably and rightly are symbolic as well as factual, and that--God forbid--imagination may have a rightful place in the discourse.   For who can doubt the importance of the imagination, where nuclear weapons are concerned?   Many a weapons scientist will assert that these weapons are made so that they will never be used, meaning that the imagined effects of explosions--explosions in the minds of the adversaries--are what ultimately count.   "Imagination," Einstein once said, "is more important than facts."   The psychological and political effects the weapons engender are, in fact, their hoped-for use.   Throughout strategic discourse, imagination and symbol interweave with so-called "objective" reality, each influencing and creating the other.   We and the Soviets, each "thinking the unthinkable," create and sustain our nuclear world.

In this broader context, the intuition and experience of the general public is, in fact, very well qualified.   It is precisely on the larger questions that many of the nuclear technicians and scientists rightly fall silent, knowing on the one hand that their narrow expertise gives them no particular claim to historical or political wisdom, and on the other hand knowing that they have a conflict of interest.   For not only are they rewarded for supporting "the program," but they know (and clearly imply in conversation) that they will be disciplined if they speak out.

But I think there is a great deal more involved in citizens' health concerns surrounding defense nuclear activities than just the objective health risks, coupled with a reaction to past bad faith and contamination.   To look at this further, imagine two somewhat idealized or caricatured groups:   the dyed-in-the-wool nuclear technicians, on the one hand, and the anti-nuclear zealots on the other.   One group, we postulate, has faith that their technology and the programs of their employer will keep any public health or environmental threats well below acceptable limits.   The other group does not want any chemical or radioactive contamination (or risk of contamination) whatever, no matter how trivial.

Each group, we may notice, is the shadow, in the Jungian sense, of the other.   Each expresses what the other does not and so each completes the other.   But neither side, it seems to me, understands the other.  

The technicians' truth is logical, and it is proportionate.   It is logical to say, for example, that 0.1 or 1 or 10 millirems per year resulting from some nuclear activity is far less than a background dose of 125 or (with radon) 325 millirems per year.   Aside from the doses themselves, the risks involved in these small doses are dwarfed by the inescapable risks to which we are subjected daily in our lives, plus whatever additional lifestyle risks we choose for ourselves as well.

This is a simple and pure way of reasoning.   It is unassailable.   It is the logic of addition and subtraction.   A child can understand it.   It is a form of thinking made dominant and indeed nearly universal in our time probably not so much by physical science and its practical achievements as by business, by the necessity of living in a world permeated by economic markets mediated by money.   (But surely money has nothing to do with all this, right?)

On the other side, the hysterical zealots' side, a different logic prevails--so different in fact, from the technical point of view, that "logic" seems too kind a word.   But logic it is, though of a different order.   For these people, reason must stand aside for what they perceive as Reason.   They sense, in the very core of their being, truths which the emotionally and spiritually-impoverished discourse of our time allows only a most imperfect expression.   It is as if their--and our--psyches, our souls, are instruments of a most sensitive kind, which can perceive events that cannot otherwise be measured:   the motives of actions, the tilting and sliding (as it were) of the great historical themes, the subtle changes in Zeitgeist of which we are in our daylight moments only dimly conscious.   While the scientist has schooled himself to discern what is objectively verifiable (and therefore "true") from what is not (and therefore humbug), his training per se has not prepared him to understand what is important.

The differences between these two groups are so great that the political encounter between them is a collision, not just of interests, but of two widely differing (and, to each other, largely incomprehensible) realities.   It is a contest between two incommensurable truths, a struggle not just between different values, but between very different ways of choosing what is valuable.   The assumptions of each group differ so widely from each other that their common ground can be difficult to see.   There cannot be, in such a case, any "objective" solution to who is more "right."   Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky describe this situation:

Choice depends upon alternatives, values, and beliefs...Values and uncertainties are an integral part of every acceptable-risk problem...There are no value-free processes for choosing between risky alternatives.   The search for an “objective method” is doomed to failure and may blind the searchers to the value-laden assumptions they are making...[The issue is] who should rule and what should matter.

The question of "what should matter" is, in this case, not just a choice pertinent to any particular nuclear waste issue but is, I believe, also an increment of a historic choice of major significance, a kind of watershed for our culture.   The choice of "what should matter" is a choice not just of a particular outcome but of the ground rules for all future contests, a choice of context as well as content.   It is a choice of what sort of evidence is admissible to the public debate about nuclear waste, and many other debates as well.

For what the antinuclear zealots sense is, perhaps, not just the pollution of DOE sites and their surrounding areas, the permanent poisoning of the land, the decades of secrecy behind which these activities have taken place, all of which are facts.   I believe their response is also and above all to the toxic intention that has built these institutions, an intention which can fairly be called poisonous, and which grows more plainly so every year.   I am referring to our intention to devise weapons that will enable us, if necessary, to kill--and not just soldiers, but to kill broadly and widely:   women, children, animals, plants, the land, the future.   This intention--so horrific, so repellant it cannot be fully grasped--is what lends to its byproducts and special materials an overweening toxicity that transcends the ordinary sense of the term.   It throws a shadow over the land that is darker, much darker, than the plume of any incinerator or exhaust stack, and which rightly inspires terrific fear.   To kill, to destroy, to lay waste, to prevail--all, of course, only "if necessary:"   we throw this intention forward into the future like a spear and it falls back bloody upon us and our children now, both as physical wastes (the smallest part, it will someday be plain) and as our own doom.   Intending to kill others in the body, we kill ourselves in spirit, and our decline presently unfolds all around us.

It is, the zealots may be saying, as if our attempt to filter out and isolate ourselves from the toxic by-products of our intention is ultimately futile.   Aren't they saying that though we may survive, we cannot truly live, with this intention carried on the breeze?   Aren't they saying that, if they do not speak their hearts, the spring wind will no longer be fresh to them and they will not be partners in its promise of renewal?   Aren't they saying that no matter how oh-so-squeaky-clean we want to keep our lovely towns, in this our beautiful place, we can no longer do so?   When shown a modern piece of plutonium technology, don't they see it as part of an effort that was itself obsolete many years ago? What to some appears to be the cutting edge of weapons science, to them just seems cut off:   cut off in time from history, solving the crises of 1943 all over and over again, and cut off from the urgent cries of a world--our only world--in pain.   They will not be hoodwinked, as they see it, by measurements and predictions that, however truthful they may turn out to be, are ultimately irrelevant.   Their concern is not about amounts; it is an attempt to cast out of their lives, and to keep far away from, what in another time would be called, simply, evil.

The social and political discourse of our time provides for these concerned citizens and for all of us no true public hearing, no true telling of this fear and grief.   So it spills out in what channels it can, and I for one cannot call it inappropriate.   For here we are dealing not just with pollution--something in the wrong place, as anthropologist Mary Douglas said--but with defilement, with substances that in many people's view should not exist at all.   No surveillance instrument will ever be able to gauge this defilement or allay this fear.

Somehow these concerned citizens sense that nuclear weapons--weapons which lie by their very nature outside the moral and even the legal canons of our civilization--are genocidal.   Developed in response to the genocide of fifty years ago, they bear an ontogenetic relationship to it.   They are our moral legacy from Nazism, a kind of necrophilic inheritance.   From out of the dark shadow they throw across this land and our future, one can hear Hitler's last laugh, but without a foreign accent.    The concerned citizens want no part--not any--part of this.

Ultimately, it is not a question of safety at all.   The lives of the anti-nuclear activists are not safe and they well know it.   Safety is not what they ask for.   They are asking for life, for its pains, risks, pleasures, and for a future.   They want a life that is rooted in the earth, in its seasons, in their senses, a life where woman and man--and not machines--are the measure and the end of their shared labor.

In any case, the anti-nuclear zealots do not understand how background radiation doses can be compared to those from nuclear technology.   It is, to them, like comparing apples and oranges.   You may say "But either can make you sick or kill you just the same!"   Not so; deaths are hardly equivalent in their meaning, just as lives are not.   To say they are reduces life to a statistic, to not-life; even to compare these two doses is, in this view, an affront.   As if the risk which obtains from breathing radon in one's home, something one does in the course of family life, living in eros, in the generative and productive life, could be compared to an accidental death from contamination incurred by nuclear weapons work.   It is a mark of how far we have slipped, the degree to which an obsession with quantity has taken over our minds.

All of this bears centrally on the problem of remediating the contaminated legacy of LANL's past.   To remediate sites contaminated from nuclear weapons design and production requires not just a physical stabilization or containment, but a transformation of purpose as well.   The damage done is mythic as well as chemical and physical, and requires a heroic response.   The earth of Los Alamos, and the history of Los Alamos on the earth, cannot be reclaimed if it is not also redeemed.   This will require a conversion, not just away from weapons work, but toward a new calling altogether.   In that day, and not before, joy will truly return to this place, and people will no longer be frightened of the wind.

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