May 23, 2019

Is Poverty Necessary?

“In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

So I was introduced to an economics wholly dominated by two considerations: making money and saving face. The second of these has required a narrow definition of the first. The cost to the United Kingdom over time could hardly be compensated even by the flood of foreign money that Sellafield attracted. I won’t get into the peculiarities of British nuclear engineering. Suffice it to say that the country’s graphite-moderated reactors are hard to control and to shut down, harder as they age. And some of them are now very old. They have built many of these plants in Britain and throughout the world, at an ultimate cost to the planet I blanch to consider. Such costs weigh not at all against cash in hand, as any cynic could have told me, I suppose. (Cynicism is the great enabler of corruption, normalizing and universalizing it so that any particular instance of wrongdoing can be left to fester or metastasize as the world wags.) While writing the book, I told some American environmentalists on their way home from En­gland what I was working on. They had never heard a thing about Sellafield—it was all over the press—and they were a little taken aback. Then one of them said, “Well, look what we did to the Indians!””

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