THREATS BY MAN
Many of ours fear an incoming nuclear war, a war that will really wipe our existence out of this world. This time I have good news. Well… it depends whether you call good news the survival of half of us.
I wish to begin this paragraph with a clarification: This is a personal theory. I am gambling on the safe side, because nobody can question it until such a war breaks out and, if I am wrong, nobody will be left to question it.
The ghost of a global nuclear war between superpowers is hovering over us since the early fifties, when the former USSR gained the Atomic and Hydrogen bombs. The story is well known: The USSR developed nuclear weapons because they were afraid of the possibility that the USA will force them to give up with their Communist regime… China was afraid of nuclear-armed USSR… India became afraid of China and … Pakistan of India. Nobody else was afraid of Pakistan, so the nuclear weapons proliferation stopped there. Well… not quite. Some other nations developed nuclear weapons, although they do not declare it openly. In fact does not really matter, because the message is well understood. Everybody is telling the potential enemy: “I have it. Don’t try to destroy me, otherwise you will be destroyed as well!”. Of course nobody has the real intention of destroying-and-being-destroyed. Unfortunately the picture has changed in recent years, when the nuclear-powered nations realized that others could get the bomb too, but without conforming themselves to the rules of the game.
Much has changed about the know-how of developing nuclear weapons since the Manhattan Project. Sometime people say that nowadays even a high school team, given the necessary components, could assemble an atomic bomb.
This is not a joke. Although no schoolboys will try to do it, small fundamentalist terrorist groups are actively trying to get the atomic. The problem with such groups, as we all recently learnt, is that they do not care being destroyed as they attack an “enemy” big city. Apparently the main difficulty for them, in such an apocalyptic scenario, is how to get the critical component of the bomb: enriched weapon-grade Uranium or pure Plutonium.
The political and economical collapse of the former USSR augmented the concern, as everybody understands that weapon-grade fissile elements might have already leaked out and might be in the wrong hands. The present scenario is more frightening than it was in the cold-war period, because the danger is no more a virtual one. It is very real: the wrong finger on the wrong button and the world will find itself in the very situation described in “Dr. Strangelove” or “Planet of the Apes”…
I don’t think so. Here is my theory:
If we take a look at the not-yet-nuclear-armed states (forgetting for a moment the not-yet-nuclear-armed non-states), we can see that quite a few of them have the potential to develop atomic weapons. The reason why many nations do not have the bomb is because they do not have (still) the know-how or the money. However, if we take a deeper look, we can find a handful of states that, willing it, could have the atomic yesterday, but they deliberately chose to have it not. Why? Lets’ look at four of them: Swiss, Sweden, Canada and Japan.
The first two are traditionally neutral and have no enemies. They have no reason to spend money and defend themselves with the atomic. Canada is a huge, sparsely populated country, surrounded by two oceans, the North Pole and… the USA. They are, in a sense, very well protected. What about Japan? From a strategic point of view they have very good reasons to protect themselves with the atomic. They have two traditionally unfriendly nuclear neighbors: Russia and China. They already fought bloody wars against them in the near past. They are a rich, technologically advanced state, which, in some future historical scenario, could be attacked and conquered by hordes of enemies.
But the reason why the Japanese detest the idea of having the bomb is obvious: They knew it for real. They had been the only nation in the world that found themselves on the wrong side of two atomic explosions. They still remember. They will never forget. For the Japanese the atomic is not just a strategic weapon, it is Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Japanese attitude teaches us something beyond all the theories: if some evil finger pushes the button and starts a nuclear war, friends and foes, seeing the apocalyptic results will immediately stop fighting. The price would be unthinkable, perhaps many million of casualties, but no more than that. And if the conflict breaks out on a regional basis, other far dwelling nations will survive: if India and Pakistan decide to destroy each other, South America will be spared. If fundamentalist nuclear-armed Islamic states and the Occident decide to ruin each other, China will survive. The human species will survive.
Any way or the other, we shall overcome.
Unfortunately there is another, much subtle way nuclear weapons can destroy completely the human species.
Plutonium is a man-made element. It is produced in Nuclear Power Plants. Before 1940 there was no Plutonium on Earth. Perhaps there is no Plutonium anywhere in the entire Solar System and beyond it. Plutonium is a very dangerous substance. The atom of 239Pu (one of the two long-lived radioactive isotopes) undergoes spontaneous nuclear fission, like the 235 isotope of the natural element Uranium. That means that if you bring together a few kilograms of pure Plutonium, it will explode in a disastrous manner, freeing huge amounts of energy. It was produced the first time exactly for this purpose, and blasted on Nagasaki, on August 9th 1945. Less pure Plutonium cannot be brought to explode that way and is a by-product of nuclear power plants, even if built for pacific use, like the making of electric power. If you do not blast it as an atomic bomb, you cannot destroy Plutonium. It lasts forever. Not quite exactly. In fact it also undergoes a very slow radioactive decay. The half-life of 239Pu is about 25,000 years and that means that you have to wait about a hundred thousand years before 90% of it starts the process that will transform it into the less dangerous Lead (no hope for the other long-lived isotope 244Pu – with a half life of 8x107 Y) During the last 60 years men created quite an amount of Plutonium, for warfare and pacific use as well. The problem was how to get rid of it. Plutonium from obsolete warheads and spent nuclear fuel was sealed in massive containers and hidden inside mountains all over the world. We have got several thousand metric ton of it buried deep in disposal facilities, some of them kept secret and all of them guarded by government and military officials, to avoid stealing it for ignominious purposes, like the making of atomic bombs by some fundamentalist movement. But the long lasting, real danger comes from Plutonium itself. Besides being a nuclear explosive, because of its radioactivity, Plutonium is probably the most poisonous substance known on Earth, a few micrograms of its oxide, the form in which is stored, if breathed cause lung cancer that ultimately will kill a human being. A simple theoretical calculation shows that if the amount of Plutonium used for the Nagasaki bomb where democratically distributed between all the people living in the U.S., all of them would have succumbed. And that was a few kilograms. We have got several thousand tons of Plutonium on and into the Earth’s surface!
We can be relieved by the fact that Government Authorities will keep an eye on it against misuse by mankind, but how can we be sure that Mother Nature will not put a spoke in their wheel? We cannot be. The present situation is not so good already, and it will get much worse in due time. Pessimistic thought? Perhaps. We shall return on this issue.
Aluminum is a natural element. The Earth surface has plenty of it. Most of the Earth crust is composed of aluminosilicates, substances formed by Oxygen, Silicon and Aluminum. Geologists call it Sial, an acronym formed by the chemical symbol of the last two elements. The silvery, light metal we all know is really good stuff. Not so strong as Iron, still strong enough, is much more lighter. It can be cast and worked easily and is a very good heat and electricity conductor, in fact is the forth best conductor element, after Silver, Copper and Gold. Aluminum do not rusts like Iron and is cheaper then Gold, Silver and Copper. Aluminum is never found in nature in its metallic native form. It combines readily and strongly with Oxygen and other elements and for this reason was isolated only in the XIX century, at first with great difficulty only in chemistry laboratories. Metallic Aluminum was quite expensive and rare when the Americans built the Washington Monument. They wanted to show off their country’s wealth and technological advancement and decided to put on top of it a lightning rod tip made of Aluminum. The monument was dedicated in 1885. Pity that a year later C.M. Hall (concurrently with the French chemist Heroult) found an ingenious method to isolate the metal by electrolysis of the melted ore, and made Aluminum cheap and abundant.
Since then, men found innumerable ways to use this wonderful metal. You can find it in building structures, pots and beer cans, car and truck parts and elsewhere around you. Asked to call this era by a metal’s name, like The Iron Age, you can surely call it The Aluminum Age. Since in nature Aluminum is bound very strongly with Oxygen, you can wonder how the metal do not rusts. In fact it does, but after a very thin layer of oxide is formed on its surface, Oxygen from the air cannot penetrate deeper in the metal. You loose a little shine, but the metal do not rots like Iron. Good stuff, indeed!
Aluminum affects our lives, and many human beings make a living of it, but what do we really know about the influence of Aluminum on the living things? Not so much, I am afraid.
In 1901 the German physician A. Alzheimer examined a 51-year woman who had been admitted to the Frankfurt hospital. She was unable to answer simple questions or write her own name without being reminded of what she was doing. The symptoms were of early-onset senility, but Dr. Alzheimer was unable to link her condition to any specific, pre-identified disease He continued to treat the patient, documenting her deterioration. She died five years later. Dr. Alzheimer performed a brain autopsy to establish the pathologic anatomy of her disease. Using a new staining technique, he discovered the neurofibrillary tangles and senile plaques characteristic of the disease called after him since then. The progression of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is characterized by gradual memory loss, decline in the ability to perform routine tasks, disorientation, difficulty in learning, loss of language skills, and personality changes. In the late stages AD inevitably causes a complete inability to care for oneself, and death.
After a hundred years the etiology of AD is not fully understood still, but the concern about its impact on the world population greatly arose, especially in developed countries, where the senior people represents a considerable part of the total population.
Some years ago research works produced evidence that Aluminum might be a culprit. There were reports on an abnormal Aluminum concentration in the brain of people who died from AD and cytological findings similar to AD in laboratory animals exposed to high-Aluminum diet. The findings are controversial. There is still an open argument whether the Aluminum brain accumulation is a cause or a consequence of Alzheimer’s disease, or even just a coincidence. Possibly scientists will never reach a clear-cut conclusion. We cannot even rule out emotional and/or opportunistic involvement: the prosecutors perhaps are making all that fuss about the Aluminum-Alzheimer link in desperate search for a culprit (not having the slightest clue about who perpetrated the crime); on the other hand the counsels for the defense might be protecting the interests of the Aluminum-linked industries…
Whatever the case, we can at least submit an intriguing question: What is the meaning of the time coincidence between the AD first diagnosis and the beginning of widespread use of Aluminum? Whether AD was a preexisting disease, or it was discovered at the beginning of the XX century because it was not there before the Aluminum Era?
In the seventies something barely noticed by anyone happened on the supermarkets’ shelves: the plum jam changed its color. The so familiar purplish-brown became suddenly a very un-plummy, pinkish hue. What happened?
The food industry, as you know, makes large use of artificial substances called additives. Colors, flavors, antioxidants and preservatives are an integral part of almost every factory-produced foodstuff we buy and ate. The use of food additives is subjected to severe regulations in most developed countries, the FDA being the leading regulatory organ worldwide. The name of any substance added to the food must be written clearly on the label. For shortness and simplicity the additives are designed by an international code, a capital E followed by three digits, the E standing for Edible (fit for human consumption). Colors are in the one hundred ranges, preservatives in the two hundred ranges and so on. Properly speaking some of the food additives are natural or “identical to natural” substances (for example lemon-extracted and synthetic Citric Acid respectively), but most additives are artificial (substances not existing in nature).
The FDA and other similar organizations monitor constantly the use of the food additives and publish warnings about their safeness. Whenever researchers produce reliable evidence that some food additive is potentially harmful to human health, the organizations issue a directive to stop immediately the use and marketing of foods containing the substance. This is exactly what happened in the seventies to E123, Red Amaranth, the artificial color of choice for plum jam. Unfortunately the food industry did not find a permitted substance able to reproduce the hue, and the plum jam changed its color.
It’s not fair to accuse the food industry for trying to constantly poison us with colored foods. Sometimes they put in them good stuff. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) and Carotene, the extensively used orange of carrots, a precursor of vitamin A, are the choice colorant for margarine. Here a curiosity on regard: Did you ever think about the origin of the name “margarine”? It comes from the Latin “margarita” which means pearl or mother-of-pearl. Fat is essentially white, and pearly, oily white was the color of this man-made vegetal butter substitute. The original margarine resembled mother-of-pearl and so the makers gave it its name. But butter is yellowish and they had to put in some lipid-soluble yellow color. They choose Riboflavin and Carotene and they sell us now a butter substitute, which is not only “Cholesterol-free”, but also “vitamin-rich”! Good for health, good for business. Medical scientists will object, though, that you shouldn’t exaggerate with the intake of vitamin A, because an overdose of it might even poison you, but the food industry is not to blame, since you will never able to eat enough margarine to get vitamin A poisoning!
If in the future, for any reason, the FDA decides that the yellow color is unhealthy, the margarine will face the same fate as the plum jam did, and we will find on the supermarkets’ refrigerated shelves the original pearly butter substitute, perhaps sold as a “new” brand “carotene-free” margarine. I suggest naming the product after the title of an old rock song I like the most: “A whiter shade of pale”.
The colors change frequently. As one is found to be harmful, another comes instead. We cannot give up. We are attracted by colorful food as bees by flowers. The chemists provide us from red Lycopene to violet Anthocyanins, the entire spectrum and more. But spectrum (specter) means also ghost, and the ghost is all around, imprisoning us in a colorful cage. Why can’t we set ourselves free?
Why, oh why can’t we fly over the rainbow?
Among the many artificial substances that represent a serious hazard to our health, Plutonium deserves a deeper examination. As I wrote before, this man-made element is probably the most poisonous substance on Earth: the radioactivity (energetic a particles) released by a few microgram of it can easily kill a human being.
According to conservative estimates, several thousands metric tons of Plutonium have been created worldwide in nuclear facilities during the last two human generations, and all this quantity is essentially still intact, because, with a half life of about 25,000 years (for 239Pu), it will take 1000 human generations to halve the amount, and another 1000 generation to make it a quarter… which will be still… several thousands metric ton!
Lets try to assess the potential threat to our life represented by this huge and everlasting quantity of poison. Although people do not like using big figures, here I am forced to use an exponential scale. I hope you will not get confused.
The quantity of Plutonium needed to poison a human being weights as all the red cells contained in a single drop of blood. Incidentally the number of red blood cells in the drop is around 250,000,000, or about the USA population count. One cubic centimeter of blood (the volume of half a cigarette) contains 5 billion red cells, the entire world population count. Ten thousand tons expressed in micrograms is 1016, the number of red blood cells that can fit in a 2000 liters big house-refrigerator. How many cigarettes can you stack in it? The answer is: one million, and this figure is also how many times the existing Plutonium amount on Earth can kill the entire world population!
Now you will certainly say that killing one million times has no meaning whatsoever. You are right, however it has a big meaning saying that one ppm (part per million) of the existing Plutonium can kill the entire world population once!
We all are living in an absurd nightmare: for the first time in a few hundred thousand years, since the end of the Stone Age (and the first use of the metal copper), a single human generation created de novo an indestructible poisonous metal that will conserve its potential of killing all of us for a time as least as long. More than that: a tiny fraction of it can do the job.
Do we have the responsibility to check whether the potential might become reality? And, if the answer is yes, do we have the responsibility to take appropriate steps to avoid the future destruction of the human species?
The reader will say: “The Plutonium is well kept and guarded. You see: half a century has passed and nothing happened. It is enclosed in strong and heavy containers, deep inside Yucca Mountain and other places. People will never fool around with such a dangerous substance!”.
Really? Are you sure? And what if… Mother Nature will “fool around”?
First of all, allow me to be skeptical about the “well kept and guarded”. Plutonium is the core component of strategic weapons, so the handling is restricted to the military and government authorities. No man out of these groups can really keep an objective eye on what is going on about the use and … misuse of the metal. The meaning of this is that you do not really know what is going on inside the nuclear disposal facilities, and you will never know, because the “gamekeepers” never tell you about their mistakes. Who is willing to be fired, after all?
Even assuming that they are doing their best, might be that best is not good enough: most disposal facilities were created before the sophisticate-computerized technology we have today. Although the engineers constantly upgrade the control and warning tools, they do not deal with the radioactive Plutonium containers. If for some reason one of the cases is leaking, they will tell us that something is wrong (thank you very much!), but they will not solve the problem itself, which is removing the rotting case from there and putting it in a safer place.
Fortunately (unless the Government Authorities are fooling us) no leaking of Plutonium out of the disposal facilities has been observed so far, and we are confident that the ever-progressing technologies will diminish the risk more and more, as time elapses. The confidence is, however, bad-kipped and psychologically based on the wrong conviction that we can master forever something we created by ourselves. But sometimes the Golem rises against his creator.
Mother Nature does not necessarily follow the rules we state. She behaves her way. Many disposal facilities were built near seismic faults, where the risk of earthquakes is quite high. We can expect that at less once in a few tenth years a major telluric movement will shake the mountains where the nuclear waste is kept. How much Plutonium has already found its way out of the disposal facilities? Once out of prison, other natural phenomena can cause the global spreading of the nuclear waste. Underground waters do not stay in the same place forever. The Ecclesiastes says that all the rivers flow to sea. The winds are blowing too. A storm here, a hurricane there, and the dangerous waste can be brought airborne far away. Nobody will know. Every one of us will feel, in due time.
Because, when a dangerous substance is everlasting, sooner or later Nature will find it.
The problem with Plutonium and friends is not if it will spread worldwide. The problem is when it will happen. And Plutonium has plenty of time for killing us all.
The Plutonium case might seem to many people a remote menace. “O.K. – the reader will say – It’s not happening tomorrow. We will find some solution in due time”. Perhaps the reader is right, perhaps isn’t. We are particularly gifted in creating new threats even where mustn’t be any. Advanced technology just picks up the creation’s pace. Many great discoveries were achieved thanks to human curiosity and the trial-and-error method. Here some errors:
Sorry, not finished yet !
In the previous pages I brought a few data in order to emphasize my point of view on a few controversial issues.
Some of these figures are problematic: the learned reader could easily question quite a few of them. I admit that pedantry is not the best quality of this writing, but in some cases approximation is much more icastic than strictness. As many readers already know, scientific publications are full of contradicting data, where exactness depends frequently on the statistics used, or … on the research’s goal. When the issues are controversial, the more you read, the less you understand who is right, and you miss the point. There is more: in some cases exactness is hardly important, if the conclusions are the same.
I will give concrete examples: according to public data, recently published by the DOE, the Plutonium reservoirs on Earth are one/two orders of magnitude smaller than the figures I reported: they fall a little shorter of one thousand metric tons. Since the authoritative publication is certainly right… am I exaggerating the threat, and seeding panic? Sorry, but I am not. I could make my argument more strict (and complex) giving data from other sources, or adding figures on the many other radioactive elements kept in the disposal facilities, but many readers would have lost their way between…the half-lives!
Does not really matter whether one millionth or one ten-thousandth of the existing Plutonium, worldwide spread, have the potential to exterminate the human species, Does it?
Sometimes, although the data are not contradictory, their range is so broad that you can get quite different answers to the same question but, again, if you ask the right question, you will get your unequivocal answer. Lets give an example from a topic I have not even treated in this writing: the Greenhouse Effect. According to many research works the atmosphere concentration of CO2, apparently constant for eons, is now steadily rising, because of forest burning, car emission and oil production. As a result the planet’s surface is warming up. There is no argument about the trend; the sole remaining question is how long it will take until the Greenhouse effect will seriously interfere with our capability to live on Earth. Some researchers speak of centuries, others of decades. The difference seems quite relevant, but it is not.
When you take a look at the graphs plotting the atmospheric CO2 concentration (or temperature) over time, you recognize a common pattern: lines or curves rising on the right side. If you compare the graphs, bringing the axes to the same scale, the only difference you see is the slope. Some lines are stepper than others, meaning that… we have less time left. The bottom line, however, is that all the graphs have a positive slope: the CO2 and the temperature are constantly building up. There is no point whatsoever for fine-tuning the trend. We must change it from a positive to a negative value. We will solve the problem only when we can see the lines going down.
The same rationale is good for any of the issues treated in this writing: Global warming, radioactive and toxic waste, harmful substances and worldwide-spread fatal epidemics.
Once we positively realize that the stepping slope is dragging us down, we must stop talking, roll up our sleeves and bend it earthward again!