What is it like to be in a radiation-polluted land?

A Walk Through an Irradiated Forest 

With growing recent advocacy for more nuclear power plants, I have been thinking about a little-known, unique and curious experiment conducted in the 1960s and 1970s at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island, NY: the laboratory radiated an entire forest. Back in those cold-war days the danger of a nuclear war and of other releases of radioactive materials seemed real. One response of the Federal government was to sponsor three experiments examining the effects on natural ecosystems of releases of radioactive isotopes, the kind of things that make electricity in nuclear power plants or are by-products of that production.

Radiated ForestI was one of the researchers in that radioactive forest. We could work in the forest four hours a day because the radiation was the relatively “clean” kind – from the heavy metal Cesium’s radioactive isotope 137. This produced only gamma rays – rays like x-rays only with much shorter wavelengths and much deadlier. The Laboratory moved the largest source of Cesium-137 that could be handled by earth moving machinery safely into the forest, mounted it on a vertical, movable pole with gadgets that allowed the radioactive material to be lowered into the ground and protected under lead shielding four hours a day.

It was weird and strangely fascinating to walk into that radiated forest after a decade of its exposure. Near ground zero, as the photograph I took shows, all the plants were dead, but they did not decay – the radiation cleaned the area even of fungus and bacteria, earthworms, bark beetles, and other creatures that participate in the decay of dead wood. It was a forest of standing dead trees, somewhat blackened, looking as if it had just burned the day before, but many of the trees had been killed years before.

We hunted around for the hardiest life that could survive the radiation. Within about six feet of the source we found, on the back of a warning sign, a small green patch that turned out to be a kind of algae, called Protococcus, that grows on the surface of damp soils. The hardiest flowering plants were some sedges that could grow in the shadow cast by the standing dead trees.

The plan for nuclear wastes is to avoid such landscapes by burying the used but still radioactive materials. As Vice-President Cheney has acknowledged, exactly how to handle the wastes hasn’t been completely worked out. The leading proposals are to bury them deep in Nevada or some other place out of sight of the nation’s capitol. But the radioactive wastes remain dangerous for 10,000 years. A government task force assigned the job of designing a warning that could be understood by people for one hundred centuries proposed, as one solution, solid structures above the waste depository that were designed to emit mournful sounds when the wind blew. With modern acoustic engineering, perhaps we could design a structure that would play a sad, mournful melody for 10,000 years.

Many physicists and engineers say that this buried waste would be perfectly safe, but just in case it leaked, the warning would be necessary. And imagine the legacy of our civilization if it did leak. Not only would we produce a melody, but if people came to investigate it, they would wither and die. Wow! We could outdo the curses of the Egyptian priests who tried, with little success, to prevent robbing of the great pyramids. And if we do fail to deal with the nuclear waste problem, we might find that we have created landscapes like the Brookhaven National Laboratory experiment, or perhaps worse, contaminated with all forms of radiation including those that linger and get into ecological food chains.

Members of that task force point out that the longest surviving purposeful artifacts of past human civilization have been either graffiti or large structures – like Stonehenge – whose purposes we do not understand. Our contribution to the future of the world would be a message that people would really understand – music and death.

Consider the alternatives. Suppose we put the money proposed for nuclear power plants into solar energy. Solar energy collectors can be placed on roofs of buildings and be pretty much invisible. And because they produced electricity where it was needed, the huge new transmission lines that Cheney has told us are necessary would not be built.

Another alternative is wind energy, but windmills are more controversial. Although they are economically competitive with fossil fuel energy production, some people think they are pretty and some don’t. Wind mills can run in farm and range land. And if a farmer abandoned farming, the land might revert to prairie, with windmills in it.

The irradiated forest at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the problem of creating a warning sign that will communicate danger for 10,000 years bring out the real issues underlying the energy debate: the quality of our lives. If we step back and ask: why do we want electrical energy, automobiles, and airplanes? The answer – aside from money and power to those who run power companies – is to improve the quality of our lives. Why throw out or endanger some aspects of the quality of our lives – human and environmental health and well being – pleasing landscapes, reduced sense of risk – in our attempt to save another part – such as modern technologies of transportation and the advantages of modern computing-based technologies that are based on the use of electricity. Both are deeply meaningful to human beings and to the continuation of civilization.

Many experts argue the numbers, about how much power can be produced, about the economics and cost-efficiency. Before we approach those issues, however, we have to come to terms with the fundamental human values that are the basis of the debate: the underlying and powerful issue of the quality of life and the beauty and health of our landscapes, of nature.

Copyright © Daniel B. Botkin 2003

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