Careful Mismanagement

J.L. Heilbron

  • Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age by Catherine Caufield
    Secker, 304 pp, £12.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 436 09478 9
  • The Demise of Nuclear Energy? Lessons for Democratic Control of Technology by Joseph Morone and Edward Woodhouse
    Yale, 172 pp, £20.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 300 04448 8

Are your teeth false? The uranium in each of them may brighten your smile with about ten times the radiation you get from the natural background, from cosmic rays attacking from above and radon and its decay products attacking from below. Do you wear corrective lenses? They may add to the flash of your eye a radiation five times the natural background level. Then there is enamel jewellery, cloisonné, smoke detectors and slick paper. Reading a glossy magazine might do more harm to your body, though perhaps less to your mind, than watching television. These odd hazards, culled from a report released by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1980, are the comic relief of Ms Caufield’s book. Most of her material is more familiar and more alarming: the dangers of exposure to medical treatment, to nuclear hazards in the industrial work-place and to fall-out.

‘Exposures’ should be understood as a double-entendre. Caufield both chronicles famous exposures – of the painters of dials on radium watches, of the inhabitants of islands near test sites, of the Japanese fishermen on the Lucky Dragon, of observers at Bikini, of troops at Camp Desert Rock, of Navajo uranium-workers, of the 4200 sheep mysteriously dead after a big test in Nevada – and exposes the disingenuousness of the agencies responsible. The dial-painters ingested enough radium to make their breath radioactive and rot their jaw bones: their employers accused them of poor dental hygiene. The Atomic Energy Commission evacuated the islanders from hot atolls while denying they faced any danger; its chairman insinuated that the Lucky Dragon, which he called ‘a Red spy ship’, deserved its blanket of fall-out. The AEC further denied that the Bikini observers and the Desert Rock troops, although exposed to levels far beyond what it permitted in its own installations, had suffered radiation damage. The Navajo miners, whose rate of death from lung cancer exceeded the national average by a factor of five, were told that they smoked too much. As for the 4200 sheep, they died of malnutrition.

Caufield tells these and other stories in an unexcited way that gives them greater impact than accounts that reek of blood and conspiracy. We encounter officials and businessmen trying to cover their tracks, trying to avoid liability, trying to advance what they took to be the national interest, or their own interest, usually in ignorance of the hazards to which they exposed themselves, their employees and the general public. Unwilling to disclose risk, habituated to operating in secret, the AEC and its successors, the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have tended to treat the public with a mixture of mystification and arrogance.

The nuclear establishment acted as it did partly out of concern that the public would panic if told the truth. The policy has failed. Morone and Woodhouse, in their useful Lessons for Democratic Control of Technology, suggest that had the establishment been less paternalistic and greedy, and more open to public scrutiny and debate, when the industry expanded prematurely in the Sixties, it might now not be moribund in the United States and under attack in Europe. They suggest that wider discussion might have slowed development, put safety first, promoted better competitors to the light-water reactor, and brought public rather than private ownership. They have put their finger on important considerations, but omitted what are perhaps the major causes of public rejection of nuclear power: the problem of disposing of radioactive wastes; the worry that the proliferation of plants will bring nuclear material into the hands of irresponsible governments and political terrorists; and the distrust developed in people everywhere by the gratuitous distortion of truth on the part of the responsible authorities. Morone and Woodhouse observe that the public in most of Western Europe and the United States now fears nuclear power as much as it does nuclear bombs. It took careful and persistent mismanagement to induce such an attitude.

The tragedy of the dial-painters, the fall-out from atmospheric testing, the deliberate exposure of military personnel, the near-disaster at Three Mile Island, the catastrophe of Chernobyl, and the fifty or so serious nuclear accidents admitted by the American authorities between 1950 and 1959, give fire and plausibility to critics of the nuclear enterprise. Defenders point to the generally good safety record of power plants and of the 23,000 laboratories and medical facilities licensed in the United States to study or apply radioactive materials. Major installations constantly monitor exposure of employees according to standards that have become more stringent with time. Here, too, however, the regulating authorities affected to know more than they did. Since they had to set standards before they possessed sufficient information, they could not avoid guesswork and arbitrariness. Since today’s standards have developed by subdividing the original ones, they are not free from the initial arbitrary choices.

The earliest international standards for radiation exposure were promulgated in 1928, largely on the initiative of radiologists and manufacturers of x-ray equipment. They derived from the concept of the ‘erythema dose’, or e.r., the quantity of x-rays that just redden the skin. Radiologists estimated from personal experience that they suffered no ill-effects if they received a hundredth of an e.r. per month. At the same international meeting in 1928, a more objective measure of radiation intensity than the e.r. was adopted, the ‘roentgen’ (r), the quantity of x-rays that ionises air to a specified amount. How many r in an e.r.? Again, the standard-setters surveyed the opinion of the frequently-irradiated. The result: 600 r = 1 e.r. Hence the ‘tolerance dose’ of six r/month or .2 r/day. The international group accepted this number; its US counterpart preferred .1 r/day. But it scarcely mattered. As the chair of the US committee said, ‘we just didn’t see any difference between .2 and .1.’

The limit thus carefully derived was extended without change to gamma rays and then, during the war, to other radiations by a factor to account for the different biological effects of massless and massive radiations. Exposure was expressed in rem (‘roentgen equivalent man’); for x or γ rays, 1 rem = 1 r. The first international post-war standards, accepted in 1950, reduced the pre-war limit for radiation workers by a little over a half, to .3 rem/week or 15 rem/year. The limit on exposure for the general public has ranged around a tenth of that for radiation workers, which has gone down by a factor of three (in the United Kingdom by a factor of ten) during the last decade. (The UK standard for the public is therefore little more than the background, .1 rem/year.) This finagling, though doubtless in the right direction, has resulted not from a new approach to the problem of safety, but from a feeling that the old numbers were too high and a realisation that improved technique made reduction of exposure possible. One important change of perspective did occur. Whereas in the Thirties .1 r/day was considered a ‘tolerance dose’, the post-war .3 rem/week was the ‘maximum permissible dose’. During the war health physicists recognised that any exposure to radiation is hazardous: at no level can it be guaranteed safe or tolerable.

The groups that issued these standards – the US National Committee for Radiation Protection and the International Committee for Radiation Protection – had no governmental authority or public resources. The international forum usually followed the US Committee, which got much of its information from the AEC, which (to complete the circle) employed or supported the research of most of the Committee’s members. At times the Committee pulled its punches when those it hoped would adopt its standards protested against their stringency; in return, the AEC usually followed the Committee’s lead. The system worked because the US Committee co-opted all the experts in the country and because, as an unofficial body, it could modify its standards without changing Government rules and regulations. The US Committee had many clients besides the Government and its contractors. The Association of Embalmers once demanded to know how to avoid accompanying bodies killed by radiation into the next world. It received a brochure on ‘Safe Handling of Cadavers Containing Radioactive Isotopes’.

Neither Caufield nor Morone and Woodhouse write about the technical problems of measurement, containment, regulation or exploitation of nuclear energy. Caufield is a journalist, apparently without training in the relevant physical sciences, since she enrolls neutrons, alpha rays and beta rays among electromagnetic radiations. Morone and Woodhouse are professors, of management and political science, respectively, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They handle competently the little technical information needed to follow their story. According to her subtitle, Caufield regards herself as a chronicler; according to theirs, Morone and Woodhouse consider themselves analysts and advisers. The one tells stories, the other draws lessons. In their different ways, their books help and oblige the reader to reflect upon the grave challenge of regulating secret, dangerous, complicated, but necessary technologies in a democracy.