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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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 Well provides 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.

Excerpt

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 London Convention, which restricted marine pollution. In addition to effluent and packaged waste, it dumped sixteen nuclear reactors from submarines and icebreakers, some still with nuclear fuel, most of them in water less than one hundred meters deep.

The international outrage that followed these disclosures seemed to suggest not merely corruption or incompetence, but also a problem of pathological proportions within the former Soviet Union that linked its decaying institutions with its blighted environment, already known to be marred by the poisons in Lake Baikal and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. An appalled United States Congress put its Office of Technology Assessment to work gauging the consequences of the Soviets' Arctic pollution. Some scholars charged that Soviet political culture, lacking democratic openness and political accountability, invited such excesses. Others concluded that the Soviet regime concentrated on production at any cost and ignored its problems, assuming that scientists and engineers eventually would solve them. Exploring the links between communism and environmental degradation became a veritable cottage industry among academic writers.

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