Life inside the zone

Fallout: Disasters, Lies and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age. By Fred Pearce. Beacon Press; 264 pages; $27.95. Portobello Books; £14.99. 

THE Hanford nuclear complex in Washington state contained radioactive alligator carcasses. Nuns used their blood to daub crosses on a missile silo in Colorado. In Cumbria, northern England, 1,500 contaminated birds were killed and buried with some radioactive garden gnomes.

These lurid tales from the nuclear world are all real. But the industry also generates myths that are widely accepted as true. For example, Chernobyl is not a dead zone: its wildlife thrives (see picture), and many returnees have lived into ruddy old age, eating produce from the radioactive soil. The evidence suggests those who die early are the evacuees who, Fred Pearce writes, “languish unhappily in distant towns—free of radiation but often consumed by angst, junk food and fear.” Likewise, no one seems to have died as a direct result of the meltdown at Fukushima. The deaths related to the accident were mainly suicides prompted by the chaotic evacuation and loss of home, jobs and family. “Psychological fallout” can be lethal.

When the truth seems ludicrous, and falsehoods are widely believed, facts can be elusive. In “Fallout” Mr Pearce, a veteran science journalist, travels the world to pin down what he calls “the radioactive legacies of the nuclear age”. He moves between weaponry and energy, cataloguing mistakes, dishonesty and irrational fears. The result is a panorama of atomic grotesquerie that is at once troubling, surprising and ruthlessly entertaining.

His nuclear odyssey yields some hideous examples of the industry’s secrecy, particularly a visit to the Russian village of Metlino, on the Techa river in the Urals. In the 1950s this was the world’s most radioactive river; Mr Pearce reckons it may have been responsible for more sickness than all of the other nuclear incidents in history combined. Upstream sat the Mayak power plant, which “poured into it an average of one Olympic swimming pool’s worth of highly radioactive liquids every two hours.” Villagers received “staggering” doses of radiation; scientists quietly monitored the rates of illness and death.

Such callous episodes, and better-known calamities such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, dominate the nuclear debate. As Mr Pearce observes, similar attention is rarely given to various studies demonstrating that no link exists between nuclear plants and local cancer rates, nor the painstaking schemes, such as those in Germany, to safely dispose of nuclear waste. His deepest worry is about Britain’s Sellafield plant, home to a massive stockpile of plutonium. In 1995 its fence was easily scaled by Greenpeace activists, who sprayed “bollocks” on the walls. A bomb sent across the fence could result in “a terrorist Chernobyl”, yet Mr Pearce saw little being done to reinforce the site.

He asks how long the beleaguered nuclear-power industry can survive—hobbled as it is by the association with nuclear weapons (“the Achilles’ heel of civil nuclear power”), a litany of disasters and the doomsday hyperbole of anti-nuclear activists. Mr Pearce recognises that “most civilian nuclear activities are safe”, but notes that in democracies, at least, the public has the power of veto, however sensibly they wield it.