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Poison in the Well

Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 326
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  • Book Info
    Poison in the Well
    Book Description:

    In the early 1990s, Russian President Boris Yeltsin revealed that for the previous thirty years the Soviet Union had dumped vast amounts of dangerous radioactive waste into rivers and seas in blatant violation of international agreements. The disclosure caused outrage throughout the Western world, particularly since officials from the Soviet Union had denounced environmental pollution by the United States and Britain throughout the cold war.

    Poison in the Wellprovides a balanced look at the policy decisions, scientific conflicts, public relations strategies, and the myriad mishaps and subsequent cover-ups that were born out of the dilemma of where to house deadly nuclear materials. Why did scientists and politicians choose the sea for waste disposal? How did negotiations about the uses of the sea change the way scientists, government officials, and ultimately the lay public envisioned the oceans? Jacob Darwin Hamblin traces the development of the issue in Western countries from the end of World War II to the blossoming of the environmental movement in the early 1970s.

    This is an important book for students and scholars in the history of science who want to explore a striking case study of the conflicts that so often occur at the intersection of science, politics, and international diplomacy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4423-6
    Subjects: Environmental Science, History of Science & Technology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    When russian president Boris Yeltsin decided in the early 1990s to reveal some of the old Soviet regime’s dark secrets, he dropped an environmental bombshell. A major report from his special advisor on the environment, Alexei Yablokov, unveiled the long history of dissimulations and lies by the Soviet government about dumping radioactive waste at sea. Despite decades of denials under communism, Yablokov now revealed that the Soviet Union had dumped large amounts of dangerous radioactive waste into rivers and seas, notably into the Arctic Ocean. Between 1959 and 1992, the Soviet Union routinely violated international norms and agreements, including the...

  5. Chapter 1 Threshold Illusions
    (pp. 10-38)

    As oceanographer richard fleming went home to the University of Washington in the fall of 1952, he was hoping to have lifted a heavy burden from his shoulders. He had just put together a draft statement about the disposal of radioactive waste at sea, and he admitted, “I am returning to Seattle feeling years younger and six inches taller with this load off my neck.”¹ There was a new faculty position waiting for him there, and he was eager to devote his energy to it. But over the years, he had been part of a committee sponsored by the National...

  6. Chapter 2 Radiation Anxieties
    (pp. 39-72)

    When american biophysicist Detlev Bronk invited British nuclear physicist Sir John Cockcroft to breakfast in April 1956, it became more than a meeting of old colleagues. Bronk was president of the National Academy of Sciences, and in some six weeks the academy would issue its most authoritative study yet, on the biological effects of atomic radiation. Cockcroft, on the other side of the table, was the director of Britain’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE), whose operations hinged upon the recommendations of authoritative scientific bodies. The British were also about six weeks away from issuing a similar study, conducted by the...

  7. Chapter 3 The Other Atomic Scientists
    (pp. 73-98)

    In his 1957 charter address at the University of California, Riverside, oceanographer Roger Revelle mused about the new roles of scientists and politicians in the postwar era. Between them, he said, they held the future of the human race in their hands, and each should pay close attention to the other. Politicians should become more science-minded, while scientists needed to consider the political dimensions of their actions. More specifically, he outlined some steps that scientists needed to take in the realm of politics. First, he said, they ought to emphasize the uncertainties that surround political action rather than adhere to...

  8. Chapter 4 Forging an International Consensus
    (pp. 99-125)

    Although there were some tough questions at the press conference about the BEAR committees on exposure from fallout and waste disposal, academy president Bronk and the six committee chairmen conveyed the unified message that no harm had been done yet. But there were some bumpy spots, as when one reporter asked why there were no political recommendations. Bronk had explained that the National Academy of Sciences was not charged with that responsibility. This was, after all, simply a scientific evaluation. As noted in previous chapters, both Roger Revelle and Warren Weaver understood quite well the implication. What were the policy...

  9. Chapter 5 No Atomic Graveyards
    (pp. 126-158)

    When oceanographers came to Göteborg, Sweden, in 1957 to plan the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58, they knew they were on the cusp of a scientific opportunity about which generations of their predecessors could only have dreamed. For the first time in history, the IGY gave oceanographers a chance to pursue a scientific ideal: global studies involving simultaneous multiple observations in various locations around the world. Some sixty nations were to take part, including the Soviet Union and the United States, with full cooperation and funding from their governments. Lev Zenkevich, one of the Soviet Union’s leading marine biologists,...

  10. Chapter 6 The Environment as Cold War Terrain
    (pp. 159-189)

    When arnold joseph, an Atomic Energy Commission sanitary engineer, feared that John D. Isaacs’s report would rattle the British Atomic Energy Authority (AEA), he was right to do so. Already the report on nuclear-powered ships implicitly criticized Britain’s high levels of discharge at Windscale. Now the American oceanographers were taking aim at dumping packaged waste at sea, throwing doubt on the British practice of putting most of theirs into the relatively shallow English Channel. The AEA had worked hard over the years to convince other British government offices to authorize ocean dumping. The American oceanographers’ focus on biological absorption and...

  11. Chapter 7 Purely for Political Reasons
    (pp. 190-218)

    When british health physicist H. J. (John) Dunster visited Lisbon in April 1967, the city recently had constructed a new suspension bridge that boasted the longest suspended span in Europe. Overlooking the wide Tagus River, the bridge was named after Portugal’s longtime prime minister, António de Oliveira Salazar. Dunster had come to the city to participate in what promised to be a contentious meeting of the European Nuclear Energy Agency (ENEA), which was planning to dump thousands of drums of radioactive waste into the ocean far off Portugal’s coast. Dunster had a lot at stake; he had been an influential...

  12. Chapter 8 Confronting Environmentalism
    (pp. 219-251)

    By 1970, british radiobiologist Alan Preston had been working for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for nearly twenty years, at its Fisheries Radiobiological Laboratory at Lowestoft. During that whole period he and his colleagues had been studying organisms in the Irish Sea, into which the pipelines at Windscale discharged their effluent. Like other Lowestoft scientists, he based his work on the assumptions set down by Harwell scientists in the early 1950s that permissible levels of discharge should vary depending on the environment. The amount of discharge into the Irish Sea should, Preston and others believed, depend upon the...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 252-260)

    The london convention went into effect in 1975. Ten years later, the Commission of the European Communities inaugurated a study, Project Marina, to assess the radiation exposure to Europeans from radioactivity in the seas around northern Europe. Although most of the participants had to redirect their work in 1986 to assess the effects of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, they did identify the primary pathways by which Europeans received radiation exposure from the sea. Windscale (at that point known as Sellafield) continued to be the primary source for annual exposure, exceeding the combined levels of exposure from natural radiation, all...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 261-290)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 291-300)
  16. Index
    (pp. 301-312)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 313-314)