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A dark dawn: the nuclear age is with us

By Jake Lynch - posted Monday, 27 July 2009

Friends of the Earth, the UK-based environmental advocacy group, greeted the British government’s plan, announced this week, for deep cuts in the emission of greenhouse gases, with something approaching jubilation. A press release quoted Executive Director Andy Atkins: “Today’s announcements are a significant step towards the creation of a safe, clean and low-carbon future”.

Environment minister Ed Miliband presaged a 34 per cent cut by 2020 from the 1990 level of emissions - the “golden ticket” of a tough interim target that campaigners had been calling for - to be achieved through an “energy trinity” of renewable sources, such as winds and tides, “carbon-capture” coal, and new-build nuclear power plants. Getting these up and running within the next decade would be “tricky”, according to an editorial in the green-tinged Guardian, but should be “pursued energetically”.

In Australia, meanwhile, investigative reporting by the Sydney Morning Herald established that Peter Garrett, Miliband’s counterpart and a former environmental activist rock star, had approved a proposal for a new uranium mine from a “reclusive billionaire” named James Neal Blue. Blue, the paper noted, was “one of the world’s biggest arms dealers” and the supplier, through his company, General Atomics, of the Predator drone aircraft being used in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


The new Four Mile mine, in South Australia, would use the same “acid corrosion technique” to extract uranium from aquifers, environment reporter Ben Cubby wrote, as the nearby Beverley mine, which had recorded 59 separate spills of radioactive material in the past decade. Cubby didn’t raise the point, but real fears have surfaced, over the same period, that South Australia might run out of water, with its state capital, Adelaide, afflicted by salination and drought. It seemed that the exploitation of a resource with a high market value was taking precedence over the preservation of one with unique life-giving properties.

Nevertheless, the Herald opined, in its own editorial, that the “world had changed” since Garrett’s salad days as the outspoken frontman of his band, Midnight Oil, when he opposed both uranium extraction and military alliance with the US. To open up a “major export income stream” from Australia’s world-leading reserves of yellowcake uranium ore was “logical”, the paper went on, given the potential for atomic energy to help cut global warming. It seems, then, that opposition to nuclear power has been effectively muted, as concerns over pollution and the damage to ecosystems from mining operations give way to what the Herald called “a dramatic change in the debate”.

I’m recently attended a conference at Melbourne University, titled, “Journalism in the 21st Century”, and was privileged to listen to a fellow journalist-turned-academic, Barbie Zelizer, speaking about the “cannibalisation of memory” by powerful interests, intent on overriding particular, local “mnemonic frames” - community opposition to mining developments, for instance - in favour of “global” narratives encapsulated, in this case, in the title of the Herald editorial: “the world tilts towards uranium”. Too often, she suggested, journalism proved a handmaiden to such projects, and important knowledge was shoved unceremoniously off the front pages and into the dim recesses of collective memory.

Time then, perhaps, to dredge up some of the nuances otherwise in danger of being forgotten, but emphasised usefully in two new books, Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element, by Jeremy Bernstein (Cornell University Press) and In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, by Stephanie Cooke (Black Inc Books).

Among the fascinating snippets in the first is the story of how Otto Hahn learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry: from a British newspaper delivered to Farm Hall, where he and several German colleagues were interned at the end of World War II. This was shortly after the detonation of two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Hahn - who was honoured for the discovery of nuclear fission - fell into deep despair at the implications of his life’s work.

Among the other dramatis personae in Bernstein’s enjoyable narrative are some whose names the general reader may remember from school physics classes: Rutherford, Bohr, Becquerel and Röntgen. Scientific papers are described as “monumental” or “magisterial”.


Excitement at their exploits, probing and prying ever deeper into the secrets of the atom, is belied by the grave consequences, of course. Another turning point comes in 1942, in the American nuclear project, which paralleled and surpassed its German rival, when “the army, in the shape of General Leslie Groves, took over and called all the shots”.

Bernstein himself is a marginal player in the history he recounts, his lifelong preoccupation with nuclear physics forged in the heat of the Nevada Desert, at the height of the Cold War in 1957, when he witnessed a test explosion and cradled the core of an atomic bomb in his hands. He was an intern at the Los Alamos military nuclear laboratory, before opting instead for an academic career with a sideline in columns for the New Yorker.

The element at the heart of humanity’s deadliest weapons is plutonium, and Bernstein describes the science leading to its eventual production in sufficient quantities to manufacture bombs, evoking intrigues, along the way, that crossed the borders of Mitteleuropa, with protagonists fleeing Nazi persecution and heading for points west. Plutonium is a by-product of civil nuclear reactors, and Bernstein ends with a wry commentary on its sheer uselessness for any but military purposes. From the initial laboratory quantities measured in millionths of a gram, the world is now “awash” with the stuff, he says: 155 metric tons in total.

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This column is adapted from a book review that originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday July 18, 2009. Also published by Trend Media Service.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Jake Lynch divides his time between Australia, where he teaches at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies of Sydney University, and Oxford, where he writes historical mystery thrillers. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone, is published by Unbound Books. He has spent the past 20 years developing, researching, teaching and training in Peace Journalism: work for which he was honoured with the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, awarded by the Schengen Peace Foundation.

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