Our nuclear legacy is also our nuclear future via The Verge

Journalist Fred Pearce chronicles nuclear disasters throughout history in his new book, Fallout.

In the spring of 2016, journalist Fred Pearce spent an afternoon drinking what he suspected was radioactive vodka, flavored with herbs grown near the site of Chernobyl’s 1986 nuclear disaster. He was visiting a settler who had returned to live in his home within the 18-mile radius around Chernobyl that’s so heavily contaminated children still aren’t allowed to live there.

“I trusted that probably a couple drinks would be all right, but he’d been drinking this stuff for a long time,” says Pearce, who visited this self-settler in Chernobyl while researching his new book Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age. “It was a bizarre experience. All I can say is however radioactive he is, he’s still alive and seemed pretty fit to me.”

Pearce’s visit to Chernobyl is just one of his stops on a world tour of nuclear disasters and cleanups, chronicled in his book Fallout. Published by Beacon Press, the book investigates the toxic legacy left behind by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the race to build more nukes, and the ongoing challenge of dealing with the nuclear energy industry’s waste. “It’s a pretty messy legacy, not least because most of the waste disposal problems created in the heyday of nuclear power haven’t been solved,” Pearce says.

The book originated as a story about just one site: “the heart of the British nuclear industry,” called Sellafield, Pearce says. It’s where plutonium was produced for the first British bombs, and it continues to reprocess waste produced by nuclear power. Back in the 1980s, when Pearce was a writer and editor at New Scientist magazine, “we had stories nearly every week at some new scandal down at Sellafield,” he says. So he went back to see what was going on there now. “Many of the buildings that hold the [waste] now crack, leak, corrode, sprout weeds, and accumulate dark radioactive sludge,” he writes in Fallout.


You talk about the messy legacy after more than a half century of nuclear power — both military and civil — why are we facing this toxic legacy?

We just never got to grips with the problem. Partly that’s because of environmentalists and other people who just said, ‘We don’t want this waste in our backyard,’ which is perfectly understandable. But the result is that the waste is in everybody’s backyard. In the US, 35 states have stores of spent fuel from nuclear reactors, with nowhere permanent for them to go. Nobody wants it. Nobody can agree on a site because partly we’re frightened of radioactive waste, understandably so, and partly the industry has just not organized itself to have a concerted effort to deal with the problem. Nobody has wanted to face up to this emerging legacy, which we’re now just passing on to future generations.


In the book, you talk about environmental contamination from weapons manufacturing and from nuclear power. Are you worried that you’ve conflated the legacies of the two?

No. The legacies are very similar, because the technologies are very similar. Nuclear reactors were developed to manufacture plutonium for bombs. It was clear that those reactors produced very large amounts of waste heat, which was a byproduct that wasn’t useful initially, but people realized very quickly that so much waste heat being produced in the reactors could be turned into power. And therefore, after the bomb-making of the 1940s and the 1950s, people turned these reactors of essentially the same design into reactors whose primary purpose was to produce energy rather than plutonium. But the reactor technology is essentially the same. You can turn the waste products that you produce out of every civilian reactor, you can reprocess it and turn it into plutonium. So even if the economic or public purpose of military and civilian reactors are different, the technology is the same and the waste products are the same.

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