by Mary Logan
Sometimes we are better defined by what we don’t talk about than the topics that our media, politics, and culture do focus on. Talking about radiation is taboo. Since radioecologists discovered energetic systems principles during the study of radioactive fallout, we can frame the discussion of nuclear waste hazards using systems principles, thus illustrating how the principles apply to our modern economies. This is a complex issue, so it is important to always start with topics by viewing the larger scale first to understand the big picture. We need to know why understanding this new hazard, radiation in the environment, is necessary, since our governing leaders are denying the dangers. We need to understand the linkages between the physics, chemistry, and ecology of nuclear waste.
How are taboos and energy related?
In anthropological terms, taboo means forbidden. Taboos often arise as religious strictures that promote fears to protect the group or support hierarchies of status through conformity of group behavior. Harris (1993) considered taboos as cultural restrictions that help to adapt human cultural systems to their environment, creating cultural rules without requiring special knowledge, and promoting group think. So taboos often have to do with energetic principles, dictating how to behave to maximize power in the system, with dictums about food and other behaviors such as sex that impact population size and community survival. For example, Harris (1977) suggested that the religious taboo in India against eating beef in India may have developed from an energetic basis of allowing more efficient use of the food chain–humans eat grains instead of the higher emergy beef. Harris also suggested that the ancient Israelites prohibited the consumption of pigs when deforestation in the Middle East made pig production ecologically unsound. But in countries with large amounts of resources, our secure lifestyles have made taboos less important.
Taboos have occurred in all cultures in history, but the subjects of taboos have changed in industrial society. The shift to a high energy culture in the past 200 years has promoted cultural feedback loops that enhance further use of energy in many ways. While food and environmental taboos are no longer as prevalent, economic taboos that encourage growth and consumption may have replaced them. Historically, restraining economic taboos dictated where we could cut down a tree in the commons or whether we could hunt totem animals or hunt out of season. Our society has replaced those taboos with laws, and the laws have been commandeered by corporations who apply cultural pressure that encourages us to use more resources. Except for rare journal articles, books, and conference talks, the growth ethic is primarily questioned by free agents on the Internet who have no vested interests in the dominant industrial society. Our culture has created cultural feedback loops that limit the discussion of limits. Most importantly, there is a religious taboo against the discussion of any form of population control, including birth control, abortion, end of life planning or assisted suicide. And until recently, the high priests of capitalism have been in charge of the message of growth, shunning any who propose alternatives. No funding for you!
Kurt Cobb threw out the question last week, “Can we bear the legacy costs of industrial society’s toxic pollution?” With this question, he is challenging a taboo, since growth ideologies represent the goals of our civilization. If we question environmental pollution, we question our growth ideology and our assumptions about our way of being and reasons for living. It is time to talk taboos, since taboos will also change (or change back) in descent, as less energy inputs redesign our cultural behaviors.
In descent, natural selection will occur through a number of both traditional and novel mechanisms. Traditional problems such as chronic diseases and disease of aging will kill the elderly as diseases we have suppressed reemerge. Many will suffer from increased epidemics as healthcare becomes less effective or available and populations become more crowded and with decline in public health factors provided by an adequate environment, such as clean water, air, sanitation, and nontoxic food. We can protect against many of these threats through preventive health measures, if we are proactive and educated about the issues.
Are there any taboos now about environmental pollution? I can’t think of many. Increasingly, if you’re not paying attention, you or your heirs will be part of a grand genetics experiment on natural selection. One of the most dangerous forms of invisible threats is environmental pollution from long-lasting, toxic industrial wastes, including heavy metals, pesticides, and radioactive isotopes. These threats cannot be seen or felt or tasted, so we defer the worry about accumulated health impacts of low levels of pollution to descendants. Protecting oneself from these invisible threats requires either owning your own watershed (and air-shed!) and control over your food chain, or it requires education and expensive technology to detect the threats. Taboo behaviors will shift, and issues of descent will become matters of survival. Medical health taboos will need to redevelop about seen and unseen dangers to the group, to protect uninformed members about complex, rapidly shifting relationships between the energy basis of our economy and the environment.
The food chain hierarchy and biomagnification
Uptake and turnover of matter within a food chain is complex (Fry, 2006). Biomagnification is the concentration of matter such as radioisotopes up the food chain as energy transfers occur and matter is passed from producers, to consumers, to predators, from trophic level to trophic level. Persistent environmental pollutants such as PCBs, DDT, heavy metals such as Mercury, and radionuclides are passed in this fashion.
The evidence on low-level chronic radiation’s effects is gamed politically, as complex ideas are difficult to convey, damage is invisible, and research has been very poorly funded. Radioecologists originally learned about food chain interactions developed from the study of Isotopic tracers at Hanford, Washington and elsewhere in the 1950s. But radioecology appears to have fallen out of favor, judging from the interest on Wiki. And the associated, medicine-related field, Radiobiology, appears to avoid the ecological piece of integration of radiation into food chains and ecosystems. Instead, there are sanctions against exploring how radioactivity travels through ecosystems and food chains. For example, the World Health Organization is muzzled against speaking out on nuclear issues. Evidence of the damage exists from Chernobyl and elsewhere, but you have to dig for it (Independent WHO, 2012). The nuclear industry promotes the idea of minimum safe dose levels, which is probably not the case. Chronic low doses result in cancers for individuals and long-term genetic degradation of populations. During nuclear accidents, media focus is on rapidly decaying isotopes such as Iodine-131, with less emphasis on the longer lived isotopes that will travel up the food chain over time. The few researchers trained in radioecology are having difficulty being heard, and most employees in the nuclear industry have signed employment contracts with gag clauses. There are major political and economic ramifications of contamination of our foods, so taboos about discussion keep the genie in the bottle. Since we can’t see it, and no one is talking about it, that means it is not there. So we’re going to have to do the best we can on this one.
Contamination through internal emitters is far more dangerous than external exposure. As we breathe, drink, or eat a radioisotope, it gets absorbed and taken up into organs, carried around for months, years, or decades, while it continues to impact tissues. Our journalists discount the difference between internal and external exposure and the media avoids internal contamination issues, which are complex and threatening. Manmade unstable radioactive isotopes have very long half-lives with slow rates of decay, so they accumulate over time up the food chain. Radionuclides continue to accumulate in the background and up the food chain if the input rate exceeds the rate of natural decay. Some plants such as lichens and mushrooms have high uptake rates, so animals that eat those plants have higher
contamination rates. For example, people who eat caribou that eat lichen are much more vulnerable to high rates of contamination. In the ocean, isotopes are taken up by phytoplankton, which is eaten by zooplankton, which is eaten by herring, which is eaten by salmon. Salmon is then eaten by seals, or bears, or eagles, or humans. Mutations increase over successive generations, as faulty DNA information accumulates and is then
passed on. The greatest danger over time is to complex organisms with more DNA, such as humans, that are higher up the food chain. Humans are more easily damaged or killed than lower order organisms such as bacteria or insects (EP Odum, 1983, p. 248). Humans take up isotopes rapidly, concentrating them far beyond the dilute levels in the environment. Isotopes in your body follow chemical pathways, lodging in your heart muscle, or your bones, or your fetus, releasing more slowly over time, depending again on a number of factors.
Metabolism and spatial concentration of emergy
Matter cycles round and round in the system. In the biogeophysical world, isotopes disperse into the air via steam, smoke, or explosion, and are transported via wind, and attaching to water droplets to fallout in rain onto ground or water. With enough uplift, isotopes rise into the jet stream, they can travel around the globe on bands of jet stream winds. Fukushima’s plants are still steaming, but isotopes’ travel is dependent on weight of the isotope, weather, and other factors. Groundwater and surface waters spread isotopes through the water cycle. If isotopes reside in a tree, they may get expelled as pollen or smoke in a fire and spread by weather, or on a fungus or mushroom in decay, which then recycles into soil. If isotopes are in the soil, they may get taken up by your spinach or flushed into the water cycle. Isotopes will decay into stable isotopes over time, but they do not go away, as matter is neither created nor destroyed. Concentration is greater in nutrient-poor soils, in thin vegetation, and poor drainage (EP Odum, 1983, p. 250). Residence time in any one spot and distribution depends on a number of factors.
“The ultimate effect of a pollutant or toxin is not only related to its transformity, but more importantly to its concentration or empower density (emergy per unit area per unit time, i.e. seJ/m2*day) in the ecosystem. Where empower density of a stressor is significantly higher than the average empower density of the ecosystem, it is released into, one can expect significant changes in ecosystem function” (Ulgiati & Brown, 2009, p. 318).
At the same time that nature is redistributing the waste, man’s use of fossil fuels concentrates the isotopes. Japan’s situation illustrates some feedback loops that are making the problems worse within economic systems. Authorities are concealing contamination and failing to create evacuation zones. This spreads radiation by allowing people to export food, waste, and other products from contaminated areas. The city imports goods which are then consumed. Incineration spreads isotopes by air, since incineration does not destroy isotopes. Sewage and waste handling policies may further spread or concentrate the materials. Both emergy and matter concentrate spatially. Is the spatial concentration of radiation isotopes increasing over time in the Tokyo city center, above? Nature redistributes matter slowly through natures renewable energies at the smaller scale, it can redistribute quickly at the larger scale impacts of storms, earthquakes, volcanoes or other catastrophes. Here is a small scale example of concentrated waste from a landfill being redistributed in a village, creating groundwater hazards. The same can happen with radiation–concentrated wastes can be dangerous to public health, and nature works to redistribute them.
Man’s nonrenewable energies may also focus concentration but also allow more extensive transport spatially through trade and other mechanisms. Imports and exports both spread materials–industrial economies result in industrial levels of pollution. Decontamination is not effective, since we cannot get rid of materials–we can only redistribute them. Because post-industrial cities are fossil fuel-intensive, concentration of pollution could be significant if this occurs. If a nuclear accident contaminated fields destined for biofuels, we could even create pollution from our tailpipes, as environmental loads increase. Time will tell. By not evacuating a heavily contaminated area, we commit to the path of spreading radiation over time. Man has concentrated uranium, and nature works, with man’s help, to redistribute it.
“Material concentrations are highly skewed, with many deposits of low concentration and a few deposits of high concentration. Since materials are cycled by energy, and energy is hierarchically organized, materials are organized similarly, in hierarchies, with decreased quantities at each level of scale in inverse relation to concentration. . . Emergy per unit mass is inverse to the quantity. Materials of high value are scarce because more energy is required to make them. . . Part of the environmental problems of our time appears to result from displacement of chemical substances from their normal position in the energy hierarchy” (Odum, 2007, p. 120-22).
Feedback loops and material cycling of nuclear waste
We have concentrated many of our industrial wastes locally, where the pollutants are avoidable in the short-term. Over the longer scale of time, nature sequesters long half-life isotopes in glaciers, sea bottom sediments, and other mechanisms and eventually returns them back into the ground. But nature or man disperses other pollutants quickly by air, water, or mechanical means, such as explosions or wars. Sudden dispersal may occur when the complex, interconnected systems start to break down or become chaotic. The high complexity in society can also be the means of our downfall.
With nuclear hazards, we have dug dangerous materials out of the ground, concentrated them greatly, and then reprocessed them into lethal manmade isotopes. We enrich uranium to make bombs. The US military is escalating the use of depleted uranium in wars. We have concentrated our spent nuclear fuel into swimming pools perched on top of cooking nuclear reactors that heat to the temperature of small stars. We have reprocessed the nuclear waste into fuels with higher concentrations of plutonium, which is particularly deadly, as nuclear plant disasters can now distribute mixed oxide fuel with high plutonium content. Internal emitters such as plutonium and uranium are particularly dangerous as they emit alpha particles and have a half-life of many generations. Read here for an earlier post on this topic.
Our empire requires more and more energy diversion from growth to maintenance as resources contract over time. As emergy yield ratios of our energy sources declines, our ability to support increasingly complex systems will fail. When systems fail, the danger of environmental pollutants that escape will increase, especially if explosive mechanisms disperse pollutants widely. As our nuclear plants degrade, we must sustain cooling of nuclear waste or safely store it, since maintaining the highly concentrated, deadly, and explosive fuels requires complex systems. We are only 100 minutes away from a meltdown event at any one of our 435 nuclear power plants around the world, with a loss of coolant accident (LOCA). Complexity is failing more often, with at least eight “partial meltdowns” in the US and increasing patterns of blackouts as our energy basis wanes. When one considers the feedback loops in place, the number and age of plants, and our motivations to support growth, the future of environmental contamination from nuclear plants can only grow.
Americans fear other countries’ nuclear development, and they fear nuclear plant terrorism as a boogeyman, but we are projecting our fears on others when we need look no farther than ourselves for the source of our potential undoing. Any number of threats arise from failures in our complex systems, from sustained regional blackout or droughts, hurricanes or tornadoes, which could create dirty bombs out of our power sources. “We have met the enemy, and he is us” (Walt Kelly, Pogo).
A summary of energetic systems principles
Because researchers conceived many energetic systems principles during the study of isotopes as they are moved through ecosystems, we can use the hazard of nuclear waste to illustrate these systems principles.
- Material cycling distributes the isotopes biogeochemically across the landscape. Renewable and nonrenewable energies transport industrial waste matter across the landscape, metabolizing and spatially concentrating them in ecosystems and economic systems through self-organization.
- The process of transformity concentrates isotopes as they flow up food chains hierarchically, concentrating emergy and isotopes at the top levels of the food chain, and degrading the complex information of DNA.
- Autocatalysis or positive feedback loops create growth demands that impel society to continue on a hazardous path long after it should have stopped, producing large quantities of environmental pollution with long lag times on impacts.
Impacts of environmental hazards will become clearer over time as the results of our grand genetics experiment begin to accumulate and become widely known. Eventually our cultural system will redevelop taboos or religious strictures that help to keep us safe. Many feedback delays exist in the processes of vertical food chain concentration, horizontal emergy concentration, and in concentration of genetic mutations in the population over time. So there will be a delay before we have taboos that tell us what foods to avoid. Osei (2006) identifies a number of taboos related to ecological sustainability in Africa. He reminds us of the Akan Philosopher’s words, that “it is not a taboos to go back for values that one has forgotten or left in the past.” But if we allow industrial-scale pollution to lay waste to the biosphere, we will need to form new taboos geared towards avoidance of new, man-made, invisible dangers.
The topic of nuclear waste is difficult to write about–each time I write the words expand quickly beyond the limits of the post while I try to chase the connections. We cannot understand the details without first understanding the principles. So the details of protecting yourself will have to wait.