The Limits of Human Control: Nuclear technologies threaten all life, so why do we persist?

In his recent novel The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy constructs a narrative embedded in the formative processes that gave us the atomic age. The Passenger touches on the early twentieth-century conceptual reconstructions in scientific understanding of the cosmos that we associate with Albert Einstein and his colleagues, but it especially focuses on the closely related complex of the new worlds that burst upon us in 1945 following the explosion of the atomic bomb. It was this combination of academic theory apparently unrelated to the productive world with practical technology in the real world that signalled the emergence of technoscience as the embracing frame of life in our era.

As we all know, this triumph of scientific technology was simultaneously the carrier of devastation on a new scale. This became what one might call the scientist’s burden. Many spoke out against the use of the Bomb, including a good number of those involved in its development, but it is in the nature of technoscience that when it is joined with capitalist expansion, utility will out. More profoundly, the scope and type of devastation that the nuclear bomb brought registered entirely new powers and dangers. Its signature devastation points to powers not of this world; it forces upon us the mysterious, the profoundly unknown. Here is McCarthy’s description of that day in 1945:

There were people who escaped from Hiroshima and rushed to Nagasaki to see that their loved ones were safe. Arriving just in time to be incinerated. He went there after the war with a team of scientists. My father. He said that everything was rusty. Everything looked covered with rust. There were burnt-out shells of trolley-cars standing in the streets. The glass melted out of the sashes and pooled on the bricks. Seated on the blackened springs the charred skeletons of the passengers with their clothes and hair gone and their bones hung with blackened strips of flesh. Their eyes boiled from their sockets. Lips and noses burned away. Sitting in their seats laughing. The living walked about but there was no place to go. They waded by the thousands into the river and died there. They were like insects in that no one direction was preferable to another. Burning people crawled among the corpses like some horror in a vast crematorium. They simply thought that the world had ended. It hardly even occurred to them that it had anything to do with the war. They carried their skin bundled up in their arms before them like wash that it not drag in the rubble and ash and they passed one another mindlessly on their mindless journeying over the smoking afterground, the sighted no better served than the blind…

It is this devastation, generated out of an alien and abstractly constituted ‘nature’, that marks the life-worlds of key actors as McCarthy’s novel unfolds.

Of course, the existential experience of this particular expression of technoscience was and is unsustainable socially unless suppressed in some way or other. The Bomb created a world of ever-present existential terror after the elemental destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, giving birth to the Cold War, which held the world in suspension geopolitically and in deep cultural silence for four decades. This terror, and the deep anxiety it caused, had to be managed if this new world was to be sustained. However crude and unstable, the Cold War was a way to achieve this. Well-named strategies such as MAD—Mutually Assured Destruction—in which rationality was to be achieved by preparation for nuclear war that ensured any first strike would be met by a return strike leaving both parties destroyed (meaning in reality that the Earth would also be destroyed) illustrate the length to which this unhinged existential brinkmanship went, and still goes in the silent background of most current strategic tensions. Quite apart from other nuclear players, the United States and Russia today hold a total of 10,000 nuclear warheads, which would need many Earths should they ever be fully deployed.

It is wrong to assume that the reason for such existential fears has passed, or that they would be merely remnants of an irrational past. On the contrary, these fears have simply been displaced, while the threat is unchanged. As Daniel Ellsberg made clear in The Doomsday Machine, such calculations continue today in military, intelligence and political discussions out of public view, quite divorced from the everyday world. This divorce between those who know and those who are left to their everyday lives may seem benign, but it is more worrying than the first stage of response to the emergent nuclear reality. For the displacement of raw fear has been achieved by a creeping normalisation of nuclear technology. Existential fear has been deadened through lack of knowledge—in large part, organised ignorance—including through the suppression of information about the meanings of nuclear technology, and this in turn has had basic consequences.

One of these is its implicitly clearing the way for the creative expansion of the technoscientific revolution beyond nuclear power as such, without people ever coming to terms with the effects of that technoscientific revolution for social life. From cybernetics to biotechnology, from gene therapy to geo-engineering, a practical delving-into and taking-apart of a previously taken-for-granted natural world becomes culturally possible. Where taken up by capitalism, or any productive institutions oriented towards economic growth, such discoveries expand and take in the various sectors of society. In this context, the balance of social strata also shifts, with scientific intellectuals and those trained in higher education institutions growing in influence and social power. This influence, especially where it lacks social reflexivity, leads society in directions that may enhance economic growth and a sense of progress, but will produce disastrous effects in the longer term.

Normalisation has other effects. It not only opens the door to an expanded use of nuclear power but tends to downplay in the public mind the significance of the deployment of nuclear weapons, as seen recently in Western responses to Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats and the West’s creeping challenge to Russia and China via the expansion of NATO in Europe, where the possibility of a nuclear exchange cannot be discounted.

Normalisation treats nuclear technology and other technoscientific technologies as ‘just technologies’—at best, as dangerous technologies. But their difference is much more basic than that. The source of nuclear technology is different from that of all previous technology; it is a source made available for manipulation by a scientific-technological logic that is systematic in its effects. It will be argued here that this source—the deep levels of the natural world uncovered and engineered by technoscience—opens up the possibility of effects that are beyond the power of the human species to control. Of course some scientists think they can achieve control, but the record suggests otherwise. This is especially aggravated where technoscience is in integral relation with the Powers, which is to say, the complex of state and corporate interests and forms of governance.

These effects of technoscience appear to be more threatening now, when the institutions created at the end of the Second World War to manage large-scale violence are disintegrating, than ever before. Paradoxically, they are rapidly falling apart under the pressure of the rapid transformations brought about by the technoscientific revolution itself. This includes the capacity of the United Nations. In these circumstances, nuclear terror, as well as bio-terror, could re-emerge at any time.

The peaceful atom and low-level emissions

The declassified history of nuclear weapons testing has showed how little care or responsibility leaders took for damages caused by the detonation of the equivalent of 29,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs.

The period of nuclear testing qualifies as the most unhinged, suicidal chapter in human history. In the name of ’peace’ and ‘deterrence’, military leaders waged global nuclear war.

Kate Brown, Manual for Survival

The other major strategy pursued by both technoscience and the Powers since Hiroshima has been that of the ‘peaceful atom’—a notion designed to legitimise use of nuclear technologies outside of nuclear warfare, and in particular nuclear energy for our everyday world. The peaceful atom is not without its dangers. While nuclear weapons are far more dangerous, the facilities that generate nuclear energy produce waste that has both low and high levels of emissions.

Low-level radiation emissions are also associated with the ongoing effects of nuclear fallout after deployment of nuclear weapons and the consequences of nuclear testing or accidents. Much of the debate about these effects is found in scientific research into the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the massive atomic testing carried out in subsequent decades, largely in the Pacific but also in the United States and Australia. In this research it is typically concluded that low-level emissions from both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are relatively harmless for adult populations.

In Manual for Survival, however, the historian of science Kate Brown shows this to be at best a fantasy. She has done a service for humanity by delving into the secrecy and cover-ups typical of atomic research and its interplay with the powers of the day. She takes low-level radiation and its effects very seriously. Her initial focus was on the Chernobyl crisis, where the reactor ran out of control, burnt fiercely for ten days and sent radioactive emissions across Europe. It created a situation that required a response from Soviet authorities so large that Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union at that time, attributed the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union to the unmanageable impacts of Chernobyl. In retrospect, he was in no doubt about the long-term impossibility of the challenges posed by nuclear energy, let alone nuclear weapons.

It is typical that such assessments of nuclear technologies are ignored by the Powers, and especially by the technoscientific establishment. This technology is fiercely defended, no matter the dangers, and as we will see, if Brown’s assessment is correct these dangers are profound. I suggest that this engineered blindness is deeply entwined with the ontologically destabilising foundations of the technoscientific revolution that open the door to a form of social development—the apparently liberatory and expansive possibilities of high-tech capitalism—pursued by the Powers and, at least for the moment, desired by much of the population. With the technosciences and their capacity to enhance our ability to harness nature in the foreground, this order prevents any straightforward assessment of the truth, especially by the ordinary citizen.

Predictably, the Chernobyl part of the defence of nuclear emissions’ safety has been about the low death toll associated with the explosion—‘only’ 150 or so deaths are recorded. Much has been made by both scientific commentators and the press of this ’unfortunate’ but nevertheless relatively insignificant outcome, as compared, say, to the human cost of coal mining. But Brown demonstrates that this is achieved by ignoring the outcomes of exposure to relatively low levels of radiation over time. She shows that in the areas to the north of Chernobyl both within Ukraine and further north in Belarus, there has been a growing epidemic of thyroid cancers among young people—those in touch with adults who were in the expanded zone around Chernobyl at the time of the explosions. Contrary to most Western scientists, but not Belarusian scientists on the ground, she estimates deaths from radiation cancer are likely to be in the range of 100,000. The general decline in public health is another profound outcome:

The first Western historian to work in the Ministry of health archives, I found overwhelming evidence to confirm what was plainly visible to local observers that soon after April 1986 healthy people in Chernobyl territories, especially children, fell ill. In subsequent years, rates of chronic disease increased. People suffered not just from cancers but also from diseases of the blood-forming system, digestive tract, and endocrine, reproductive, circulatory and nervous systems.

The destruction of community life outside of the immediate crisis zone has also been stunning, a context largely ignored in the research studies, as well as by disaster tourism.

Brown notes that studies of the tests on the Marshall and Bikini Islands in the 1950s allowed a better insight into the effects of radiation than all earlier studies, as they allowed before and after comparisons. This also applies to the extensive tests in Nevada on the US mainland. It is all too predictable that the reports and findings related to these tests have largely been suppressed. From the standpoint of governments and vested interests, Chernobyl was not only a danger to nuclear energy strategies, it also potentially created a situation in which these earlier findings could enter public knowledge.

This was a real danger because there was growing evidence that populations were used for radiation testing. This is clear in the case of the Marshall Islands, where Islanders exposed to radiation were given medical examinations but no treatment after exposure. Brown notes that ‘in the top secret studies, the American scientists recorded thyroid cancers and thyroid disease among 79 percent of exposed Marshall Islands’ children under ten. Anemia in the group was rampant’. Despite this, US officials claimed for decades that there was no aftermath and that the general health of the Islanders was good. Such indefensible treatment of the people of another culture has been through the US courts and is still subject to negotiation, with the United States admitting responsibility only for individuals who were actually at the test site—an obvious diversion given the nature of nuclear radiation.

It is tempting to view this treatment of the Marshall Islanders, and Aboriginal communities in Australia by British and Australian authorities, as simply racist. But while it is certainly this, it is also more complicated because testing in the US state of Nevada had widespread effects across the populations of many regions. The US National Cancer Institute has found that proximity to the explosions there mattered little, and that there were between 11,000 and 200,000 extra thyroid cancers across a swath of American states. This fact, which is barely known even today, reflects a cavalier attitude to populations in general, making us all the experimental subjects of nuclear technologies. This could be argued to be simple ignorance about the effects of a technology, but the continuing refusal to take these effects seriously points elsewhere.

The hubris of science towards the everyday world is not a new phenomenon, but where the practices of technoscience now frame our world this tendency is radically escalated. A devaluation of the ordinary person and certain populations as collateral damage to a clear line of progress is an obvious temptation. This was given an extreme expression during the period of nuclear experimentation.

In respect of low emissions from nuclear energy, it is crucial to note that while thyroid cancers are emphasised when nuclear accidents occur, this is not the only point to make. While thyroid cancers did accelerate after the 1986 explosion, they had been rising in the Chernobyl region for decades, which Brown associates with the Chernobyl complex’s proximity to human communities. Low-level radiation is inseparable from the peaceful atom, and this lays the basis for a serious deterioration of our life-worlds. As Brown remarks, ‘Western researchers are discovering, like Soviet scientists before them, that radioactive decay at low doses changes the way cells behave in subtle and life-changing ways’, laying the basis for ‘chronic radiation syndrome’. As the Russian haematologist Andrei Voroblev wrote in his memoirs, ‘Acute radiation illness is an accident. Chronic radiation syndrome is a crime.’

Unless there is a radical change of attitude by governments and the technoscientific establishment, even if nuclear warfare is avoided, chronic radiation syndrome will be our future.

Nuclear technology is not the only example of the existential dangers arising from technoscience’s encounters with deep levels of the natural world, but it is a crucial one that is highly educative, revealing a world enmeshed in cultural contradiction. In the United States, following the development and use of the atomic bomb the whole society was thrown into a highly disruptive crisis, preoccupied with security, which brought on the Cold War and a shift in the level of tension in political as well as everyday life. This has not really left us seventy years later. The stress works at various levels—certainly in politics and military policy, but more generally too. Emerging from the engagement of technoscience with elemental nature that bridges into the radically unknown and probably unknowable, it steps beyond the familiar world of our species history, leading to bureaucratic excess to calm fears and normalise life in the shadow of the nuclear threat.

Arguably, our unwillingness to turn away from what can only be thought of as an existential threat of the most profound kind is tied up with our attraction elsewhere. That we are drawn to the new world made possible by technoscience in its enhancement of capitalist expansion presents a contradiction of the deepest kind. It brings the world of high-tech capitalism and the expanded forms of individualised consumption up against the limits of planet Earth. Drawn towards this fateful and entirely novel encounter, the consequences in terms of growing risk, declining life expectancy and psychological pain tend to be brushed aside. And the exercise of power designed to conceal real effects adds to the difficulty of responding.

The threat of nuclear war has been renewed with great force as war has broken out in Europe. The normalisation of nuclear technology over the last fifty years means that we no longer have the ‘protection’ of the extreme fear that was the experience of many in the first twenty years after Hiroshima. Not only is Putin threatening nuclear war over Ukraine, he is increasingly cornered by the West in its long-term campaign in Europe. It is no pro-Putin observation to see this as a great danger of nuclear destruction for the whole world.

That this war is being pursued in territories that contain many nuclear-energy generation and dump sites only adds to the many ways in which Earth and all its species are endangered. Apart from the more obvious dangers of war, the peaceful atom threatens the world in ways that are hard to comprehend. Radiated nuclear waste cannot be safely buried or dealt with anywhere, and is simply piling up around nuclear reactors all over the world. It is deeply disturbing then to have Australia, in full normalised mode, once again entering the world of chronic radiation syndrome, not only buying nuclear submarines but also welcoming US bombers into northern Australia. For many years there have been advocates of a larger nuclear program for Australia who are heartened by such developments. Others offer remote Australia to the world as a site for managing nuclear waste. Others still suggest that going nuclear is the only option for solving the climate crisis. Any of these proposals lead us down a path towards chronic radiation syndrome. The sooner the history of nuclear testing, cover-ups and attempts to pacify populations is seen as a crime, the sooner we will be able to strike out on a mode of development that has a future.

The Limits of Control

Timothy Erik Ström

Compelled towards impossible dreams of infinite growth within finite nature, the cybernetic capitalist system is decidedly expansionist and colonial…

About the author

John Hinkson

John Hinkson lectured in the Education Faculty at La Trobe University for many years. He is a longstanding Arena Publications Editor.

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Categorised: Arena Quarterly, Arena Quarterly #13

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