Taboo topics–nuclear waste

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.

(Odum & Barrett, 2005, p. 205, after Ophel 1963) How come we have to go back 50 years for diagrams like this?

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 /fingernails/results/foodchain.html As usual, the food chain does not portray humans, since we are not part of nature

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

(EP Odum & Barrett, 2005, p. 203)

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).

Spatial concentration of materials in Tokyo?

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.

http://www.emergysystems. org/lectures.php Inverse Relationship Material Flow & Energy per Mass

“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. US reactor map

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Header art: Castle and Cherry Blossoms, Japan (Martha Odum, 1962)

  • Good post over an important topic… (you go fast… I was just trying to write a comment no the issue of last week, gender, and now this one…)
    as an old anti-nukes activist, I appreciate this comment and this view through the energy-lens and the macroscope…. its actually quite difficult for most people to think on the long-time prospects of all those nuclear power plants, worse even the sites where all the trash is dumped…
    Interesting enough, that many of the native american sacred sites turned out to be Uranium mines… those people knew about the special energy of those places, and the potential danger of being there too long…
    ¿Will our nuclear power plants be the sacred sites of future generations?
    saludos desde México


  • Thanks, HH. You and my husband may be the only ones who read this one. Americans suffer from an economic taboo against thinking longer term than the next quarter, because when we follow our long-term scenarios to their ends, none of them end well. It’s bad for business, it’s called not being an optimistic, not being a team player.

    Great point about sacred sites. If we don’t get to work casking our spent fuel, we can make the entire northeast parte de los Estados Unidos into a holy site, como Planet of the Apes.


    • BobSmith,

      I like your approach of framing Nuke Hazard discussions as an “Economic Taboo” – politically incorrect terms that can’t be talked about in public without “sanctions”. The San Onofre Nuke Plant in So. Calif. has been shut down for repairs – and a large number of Sierra Club, Democrats, concerned citizens are organizing to oppose re-opening the facility. George Lakoff ( ) and Richard D. Wolff both have useful frames for speaking to city councils and other influentials. Your blog on this is timely and I’m forwarding it to those who can use it.


      And there were more than 3 of us who read the Nuke Taboo blog….

  • Thanks for your comment, Bob Smith. Living near San Onofre can’t be pleasant. I’ve been following the saga. This post was really hard to write. Synthesis is much harder than analysis. The mind keeps wanting to reduce and focus and chase details. Starting with the principles helps.

    Garett Hardin apparently harped on this theme of economic taboos also. I found it after the fact when I googled economic taboos. My list of books to check out keeps growing–that’s another problem with synthesis.

    Hardin, G. 1993, Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos Oxford University Press.

    The Osei PDF linked in the article above (2006) identifies a number of Akan or Ewe economic taboos. Among them he lists stealing communal property, shifting farm boundaries without authorization, farming near watersheds or destroying sacred forests, or selling or leasing without approval of the Chief, who is custodian of lands for everyone, including the unborn. Historically economic taboos placed limits on the commons. We’ve turned those taboos on their heads. Instead, now, we sanction discussion of issues that might limit populations such as birth control, family limits, abortion, restraints to care of premature babies, end of life issues, and so on. Now privatization of communal property such as hospitals, fisheries, and forests is a good thing. Leases of public lands for resource production is good. Name a conservative agenda, and the idea of economic growth is lurking somewhere in its shadows?

    In fact, since you mention framing the issues, let me go one step further and hurl equal accusations at the liberals. While conservatives are solidly in the infinite growth camp, most liberals and environmentalists also believe in growth, or at the very most, in maintaining business as usual, which is arguably almost as bad, since maintaining business as usual while trying to expand complexity in a setting with declining resources results in solutions like nuclear plants that are past their due dates, expanded use of biofuels, and other bad ideas like hydrofracking.The only solution that will work in a setting with declining resources is to relocalize and simplify our lives? The reason that neither party can collect a coherent platform in the current environment is because both parties’ agendas are to keep the current operating system. Increasingly, their platforms fold in upon themselves as they contradict themselves trying to form policy agendas, and falling into whirlpools of circular reasoning as returns on business as usual diminish.
    (post framing the issue underlying many of our environmental agendas)


    • Bob Smith

      Good observations on the differences between Analysis (pulling one thing apart into smaller and smaller parts) and Synthesis ( pulling many things together based on functional, spatial or logical properties into some integrated and comprehensable whole – or gestalt) – Synthesis is many times more difficult, especially without appropriate Macroscopic tools.

      Some architects are good at synthesis, most are not. A team was asked by the AIA to rethink architectural education – and our approach is a synthesis methodology.

      Chris Martenson (Crash Course) – page 121 and page 136, among many others, does a decent job of explaining the failures of both parties in Washington DC to design coherent policy agenda responsive to Energy-Environment-Economy requirements for “sustainable growth” rather than “exponential growth”.



  • Bob, one of our emergy researchers is an architect at UPenn, William W. Braham–have you seen any of his stuff? His website and a recent conference that he put on, with videos of the talks, are linked below.

    I use Chris Martenson’s 17B video in my course to explain net energy to my students. He’s a talented teacher. But the net energy numbers he supplies in the 12 minute video are grossly inflated; I have to preface the video with a caution that the numbers are much too optimistic, especially from my perspective, which is emergy basis (which yields more conservative numbers anyway, since the measurement is more inclusive of human labor in particular). So I wrote Chris to ask him about the numbers, and he said that when he was making the videos, he may have pulled many of the values from companies making alternative energy products.


  • Brian

    Wanted to thank you for all of your posts. Got me to read Environment, Power and Society. I was explaining the book, specifically pulsing, to my wife and she asked if it made me feel better. And in some ways it does. We are or something else would have pulsed and that is just generally what happens. Looks like radiation through biological amplification is most toxic for things with high transformity. What better way to ensure a pulse on beings of ridiculously high transformity?

    • Thanks, Brian, I am afraid you have it exactly right regarding the pulsing and transformity. HT would have been delighted with your observation. We’re going to be hoist by our own petard–a sword of complexity. I guess the good news is that in descent, those better adapted to lower energy will do well, if they can avoid land mines like this one. Getting educated is the first step in avoidance. I owe it to my daughter to write about this, just in case she ever decides to have a child.

      EP and HT Odum developed their ideas through work with radiation with the Atomic Energy Commission–analyzing energy flows in coral reefs at Eniwetok in the 50s, EP’s work at Savannah River Nuke plant, and HT’s rain forest project at Luquillo, in Puerto Rico in the 60s. The lectures I got at home were different from what got published. I still wonder what kind of limits they were under in writing about all of this, beyond the usual scholarly restraint of proposing theories without data. And I was about 8 during Luquillo. My father would not allow me to go onsite where the pig (source) was irradiating the rainforest. I cruised all over the mountain, but was not allowed to go near the source with my tender young self. And HT died of a glioblastoma (brain cancer). There was an episode where the pig (source of radiation) got stuck in the open/on position during a storm, and he had to go hammer it shut with a wrench. He wondered at the end whether the brain cancer might have been caused by that time when he was hammering on the source with his head over the device.

      I really think that we have a huge blind spot regarding radiation. I think ionizing radiation is a partial basis, at least, for many conditions including many cancers, many cardiac problems, and Type 1 diabetes in children. And in the future, obesity and larger size may become even more problematic (more food, more isotope loading). But if you look at epidemiologies for these diseases, radiation is a blind spot–absent from the list. I asked a pathology professor friend if cesium heart was on his radar, and he said no, he had never heard of it. I sent him the link below (big PDF, poor translation, but great pathology photos). The best science we have on the medical effects have come from Chernobyl, but very little of the information crosses over into western medicine–a combination of reductionist thinking, taboos, and growth memes where technology = progress. We find explanations that fit our world view. We are now discovering that inflammation is a probable cause of coronary disease, in contrast to previous theories about cholesterol. So much for the statins. And radiation damages the intimal linings of arteries (2nd link below). What if the idea that obesity as a risk factor for heart attacks is in part related to accumulation of background radiation and fallout? These things are not on practitioners radar.

      And those environmentalists who support nuclear power? That’s the other reason for hammering on this taboo topic. Our environmentalists are contributing to our technological morass of pollution through their insistence that technology can save us, either through non-net “renewables”, nuclear alternatives, or energy-intensive and biosphere-damaging technological solutions such as geoengineering. This is one potential growth outcome that could do in the biosphere and we want to build more? Climate change is distant, small change next to the isotope loads sitting in those spent fuel pools, 100 minutes from catastrophe. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

      Pulsing makes everything more productive. Examples are everywhere–long fallow winters, a good night’s sleep, the heart’s responsiveness to cardiothoracic pressure changes, late summer holiday walkabouts. Knowing that pulsing is productive allows us to welcome down time and going with the flow of nature, so it makes me feel better, too.

      I added a 50 year old food chain diagram of SR-90 uptake and a diagram showing mammals’ relative sensitivity above that I scanned yesterday. These sorts of food chain diagrams of uptake are not readily available on the internet today–these were in EP Odum’s early editions of his Fundamentals book, 1983 and earlier, and republished in the final version in 2005.

      Thanks again for the support. This one was hard.


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  • 50 minutes, but well worth watching to understand how science gets marginalized.

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