The exploitation of nuclear-fission power has created an enduring controversy about the control of the materials which it uses and produces. These doubts relate to the spread of nuclear weapons and the safety of the nuclear-fuel cycle. This book has been about the technical and institutional responses to the problem of safely managing waste materials in the fuel cycle in three European countries: the United Kingdom, Sweden and the Federal Republic of Germany.
Hazards arising from the fuel cycle can be distinguished according to the time span over which they persist. In the short term, nuclear safety is mainly concerned with the control of operating nuclear reactors and the management of raw radioactive wastes. Over the longer term, safety is assured through the effort of predicting the movement and radiological effects of radioactivity which have been released to the general environment, or sequestered in repositories. Besides splitting the atom and harnessing the energy released, the main function of nuclear technology is to contain the movement of man-made radioactivity. The doubts which surround nuclear power are, first of all, doubts about the capacity of operators and regulators to understand and control this activity and so prevent unnecessary health risks to human populations.
Interpretations of the nuclear era must explain why this doubt about the capacity to contain radioactive materials should have been so deep and persistent. The nuclear industry has defended itself with the assertion that it presents rather lower risks to the health of the public than many other industrial activities. Social science has tended to follow suit by concentrating on the notion of risk and how it is perceived.
I have argued here that the persistence of social doubt can be viewed as turning on the problem of relinquishing control over radioactive wastes. While other industries producing toxic materials have always assumed that their wastes could be disposed of on land or to the sea, the nuclear industry has stored a significant portion of its wastes. Storage of these materials at nuclear sites left open the question of how they were to be disposed of, and marked out an area of technical, and later political,