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No Nukes!

This review was originally published in the June 1978 issue of Monthly Review.

Considerations of Environmental Protection Criteria for Radioactive Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Radiation Programs, Waste Environmental Standards Program, Washington, D.C. 20460, February 1978.

Most government reports make dull reading, and this one is no exception. But it contains a message which needs to be taken in by everyone even minimally concerned about the future of the human race. That message, quite simply, is that there is not and cannot be a safe program for disposing of radioactive wastes. The reasons are basically simple, do not depend on any complicated scientific arguments, and cannot be refuted or made irrelevant by any conceivable increase in scientific knowledge or technological capability. They can be summed up in a series of quotations from the report:

“It is generally conceded that risk estimates for many of the long-lived radionuclides would depend on numerous imprecise variables which would be little more than speculation after certain time periods. For example, C-14, Pu-239, and I-129 could present potential dose commitments for hundreds of thousands to millions of years. Such uncertainty could result in intense controversy over any calculations or judgments upon which environmental protection criteria or standards would be based. This circumstance places a considerable burden on government decisions regarding radioactive wastes” (p. 1). The only trouble with this statement is that “considerable burden” should read “absolutely unsustainable burden.”

“Other [than TRU-contaminated wastes] radionuclides which may be of special concern are I-129 and C-14. Iodine-129 is a volatile nuclide with a half-life of seventeen million years; thus its isolation from the biosphere over the long term will be difficult to assure. Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,600 years and, if released to the biosphere, would represent exposure of the entire world’s population due to rapid movement into the carbon cycle” (p. 10). Why “difficult to assure”? Why not “totally impossible to assure”?

“It should be noted…that there is no way to guarantee protection from pollutants such as radioactive materials which are assumed to have no threshold for effects, other than by prohibiting their production” (p. 14).

“The degree of risk that the producing generation passes on to the future represents an important legacy of radioactive wastes. This transference involves a moral judgment of responsibility, including the length of time for which responsibility extends into the future.* An ethical basis for decisions regarding risk transference is needed not only for philosophical reasons, but also for the practical purpose of implementing evaluation techniques and risk-cost analyses. Unfortunately, society has not established clear approaches for dealing with the imposition of such risks far into the future” (pp. 17–18). Fortunately we do not need to assume that society will remain forever incapable of attaining a “clear” understanding of the situation and taking a stand against the imposition of any such risks on future generations.

“Isolation of waste materials is an important consideration for reducing their risk-producing potential….In general, permanent isolation cannot be expected….” Or maybe even for 5,600 years? See next quotation.

“Uncertainties dominate predictive ability. For more than a few thousand years, there is only uncertainty” (p. 26). Of course it might be safer to date the onset of total uncertainty a bit sooner, say a few decades.

“Deciding on a reasonable time for dependency on institutional controls is essentially equivalent to estimating the shortest likely period of institutional continuity. It is clear that there is no definitive scientific method for such a determination, but it is difficult to predict the course of events from current trends for more than several hundred years” (p. 26). One could wish for a footnote reference here citing examples from the past of such predictions for up to several hundred years.

“Radiation effect on health at low doses and dose rates are presumed to have a linear dose-response relationship for public health protection purposes. This implies that any radiation dose, however small, conveys a proportionate chance of producing a genetic alteration or a somatic health effect such as cancer….Within this context, therefore, the appropriate goal is to avoid any increment of radiation in the general environment due to radioactive waste” (p. 1). And this leads logically to the next statement:

“Because total avoidance of exposure may be very costly or difficult to guarantee [as previous quotations have shown, the report has already argued that total avoidance of exposure is impossible to guarantee], people might choose to forego the benefits of the waste-producing activities.” All the more so, one would think, because by far the greatest of these “benefits” is to add to the potential for blowing up the world!

The truth of the matter is that more and more people are moving toward precisely this choice, which can best be summed up in the simple slogan “No Nukes!” The merit of this report, whether or not intended by its authors, is to help them move further and faster in the same direction.


* In this connection it is reassuring to be told that “a study of public attitudes and values associated with radioactive waste disposal based on polling techniques showed that long-term safety is widely held to be at least as important as safety over the short term” (p. 16). What the people lack is apparently not decent values but adequate knowledge.


[I]f President Clinton had come out for single payer, it would have swept the country. The underlying premise here…is that if the President had made himself champion of single payer, the media conspiracy of silence [the main obstacle to near universal popular support for single payer] would have been blown out of the water.

What are we to make…of this: That Clinton is a fool or a bad politician. As our English cousins might put it, not bloody likely….The health-care “industry,” made up of a number of components (doctors and other health-related professionals, hospitals, insurance companies, equipment manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies), accounts for almost 15 percent of GDP and probably an even larger proportionate share of total surplus value. From capital’s point of view, Clinton’s job as President of the United States is to keep that enormously lucrative industry firmly under the control of capital. Reform, to the extent necessary to quiet public demands, should give away as little as possible while streamlining the present system to serve capital more effectively. These are precisely the objectives of the Clinton “plan.” Universal coverage (vigorously rejected by the more conservative proposals) is the necessary concession, while streamlining takes the form of herding all the newly covered into the corral of insurance buyers, only partly subsidized by taxpayer money. If accepted, it would no doubt be a good bargain for capital.

In contrast single payer is seen by capital, and hence by Clinton, as an unmitigated disaster. Simply put, it would wipe out the whole multi-multi-billion dollar health-insurance industry. This is why Clinton never got behind single payer.

—Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, “Notes from the Editors,” Monthly Review, April 1994.

2008, Volume 59, Issue 09 (February)
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