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A Background Briefing on Radioactive Pollution

by Wendy Oser and Molly Young Brown, M.Div.

Abstract: This article explores technical, biomedical, political, psychological, and moral dimensions of the radioactive pollution problem. It critiques some of the arguments and proposals offered by the nuclear industry. It proposes a comprehensive approach toward creating appropriate global policy, based on principles of nuclear guardianship, and reports on movement in promising directions. Wendy Oser and Molly Young Brown, M.Div., edit and write for the Nuclear Guardianship Forum and other publications. They can be reached at Plutonium Free Future, P.O. Box 2589, Berkeley CA 94702.



You can't see it. You can't feel it. You can't smell it. It's effects may not show up now, this decade, this generation, this century. There is no marker on any disease or damaged cell saying "I was caused by that particular exposure to radiation." Yet the radiation of our nuclear legacy will endure for millennia. Our descendants will have one question to ask of us: What did you do with the stuff?

The scientific, technological, political, and moral challenges presented by radioactive pollution are huge. In the press of war, we learned how to create and use a nuclear chain reaction. Tragically, we have not learned how to control its horrific results. We do not know the extent of radioactive contamination nor the extremity of its damage. We do not know how to recall it once radioactivity is let loose. We do not know how to contain forever that which we still possess. We do not know how finally to say "enough is enough" and stop making it, selling it, and poisoning the planet. These challenges are explored in this article.

Helplessness may overwhelm us in the face of the enormity of the problem and its endurance through time. We may be broken-hearted in our grief, rageful at what has been perpetrated in our names, or in denial because our pain is so great. Yet, for the sake of unborn generations, growing numbers of people are mustering the courage to overcome the fear and are facing the monstrosity we have created.

At this time the only known protection of life on Earth from an increasing burden of radioactivity is to immediately abolish the nuclear industry and to monitor constantly the poison we have created (Makhijani 1994; Nuclear Guardianship Forum 1992). Nuclear guardianship provides a model for how we may responsibly protect the biosphere from further toxic contamination into the future.



An element is radioactive when it has an unstable nucleus that spontaneously releases energy (or decays). The particles emitted in the process, in the form of alpha or beta particles, neutrons, and gamma rays, affect other atoms, causing them to become unstable emitters of radioactivity themselves, with the potential to contaminate whatever they are near.

The nuclear chain consists of human activities that begin with disturbing natural radioactive uranium deep in the earth, and includes every stage of mining, milling, transporting, enriching, fabricating, processing, and so-called disposal. Every link in this chain results in contamination of the biosphere. As wind and water, microbes, insects, seeds, birds, and other life forms move through all ecosystems (including those identified as too contaminated to be inhabitable by humans), unconfined radioactivity eventually disperses through the biosphere worldwide.

Radioactive particles move through the air in the form of dust from both the mining of uranium and the wind moving over the tailings-mountains of uranium-laced earth left on the ground after three to 4% of uranium is removed for processing. Extracting the usable uranium contaminates the equipment used, the liquid that washes it, the vehicles that transport it, the clothing of the workers, the water they wash with, and the air with the radioactive gases that are routinely vented. Contamination continues at every step along the way without end; in the reactors, the submarines, the weapons manufacturing, stockpiling, storage, testing, use, and dismantling.

Accidents can happen at any reactor or in transport of radioactive materials. Nuclear reactors have been described as "accidents waiting to happen" (Roy 1993; Thomas, Greensfelder, and Akino 1996). Of course, some accidents have already happened.

Released radioactive gases and materials and structures left without effective on-going containment have let loose into the biosphere unknown amounts of radioactivity. Regions where the concentration of such abandoned radioactivity has been greatest from mining, accidents, spills, explosions, weapons fabrication, testing, dumping of wastes, etc., have been designated as "sacrifice zones": Chernobyl and Chelyabinsk in Russia, Hanford, Washington, Bikini Island in the Pacific, to name a few.

Whether through naivete or misplaced priorities, by plan or by accident, the development of nuclear technology has been accompanied by gross as well as minute releases of radioactivity into the atmosphere, the soil, the oceans, seas, and water table, showing up worldwide in animal, vegetable, and inert matter. Radiation crosses species and concentrates through the food chain, subjecting other animals and humans to its damaging effects.



The greatest threat of radioactivity to life as we know it is damage to the gene pool, the genetic make-up of all living species. Genetic damage from radiation exposure is cumulative over lifetimes and generations.

Some biomedical effects of radiation are well known. If the exposure is great enough, as it was for 200,000 people in Japan in 1945 and for the clean-up crew in Chernobyl, death can occur immediately or within days.

Even low-dose exposures are carcinogenic after extended exposure (Gofman 1990). The current generation, the one in utero, and all that follow may suffer cancers, immune system damage, leukemias, miscarriages, stillbirths, deformities, and fertility problems. While many of these health problems are on the rise, individuals cannot prove either increase in "background" radiation or specific exposure as the cause. Only epidemiological evidence is scientifically acceptable to impute cause. Perhaps the most extreme outcome over time would be simply the wholesale cessation of the ability to reproduce. Radiation is a known cause of sterility (Gofman 1981).

The quality of life of vast numbers of us may be affected by the increased burden of radioactivity we all bear. Many victims of radiation sickness do not show up in the statistics because the kind of symptoms experienced, while disabling, are not as significant as childhood leukemia, or stillbirths, or cancer, or birth defects. Nevertheless, lives of countless people have been affected by radiation exposure.

Beyond the physiological effects, the mental and emotional consequences of the trauma of exposure to invisible environmental contaminants in general, and radioactivity in particular, has been documented (Vyner 1988). One can only speculate about the spiritual consequences (Schell 1982; Lynch 1995).

"Background radiation" is a measurement of the accumulated radioactivity in the atmosphere from all sources combined: the sun, the earth, and all man-made explosions, leaks, accidents, purposeful ventings, and dumpings. The term, however, implies naturally occurring radiation is of no real concern. But before the Atomic Age there were no comprehensive measurements of naturally occurring radiation, so the use of this term obscures the reality that we already live in a contaminated world, and that radiation's effects are cumulative and irreversible.

With respect to nuclear pollution (and every other type of persistent pollutant which lacks a safe dose), it cannot be overemphasized: What counts biologically is the sum of all the injuries over time from all the combined sources and events which release persistent poisons (radioactive or other) into the biosphere. If the sum matters biologically, then each contribution to the sum matters (Gofman and O'Connor 1994).



Complicating our knowledge of and response to the problems of radioactive contamination and its consequences are political and economic complexities. Nuclear technology was initially developed for its destructive capacity and its terrifying threat. The discoveries were also fueled by the excited curiosity of the scientists themselves. Following the first use of atomic energy as weapons on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a worldwide movement arose in horror or hope to limit its use to peaceful purposes. (As a child in the late 1940s, one of the authors joined in gathering signatures for "Atoms for Peace.")

The nuclear industry has since spent vast amounts of money to make nuclear power acceptable to citizens; propaganda campaigns advertise nuclear power as a source of electricity "too cheap to meter," "green and clean," and a necessity in the face of the increasing demand for power (Hilgartner 1982). At the same time the industry has kept secret the intricate and inexorable labyrinth of problems that unfold at every stage of its operations.

While the promoters of nuclear power itself would argue otherwise, the authors, along with many other observers, assert that there is only one nuclear industry, that commercial nuclear power would not exist if it were not needed to justify military use (Taylor 1996; Thomas, Greensfelder, and Akino 1996).

All of the more than 400 nuclear power plants now operating in 32 countries produce large quantities of plutonium that, when chemically separated from spent (used) fuel rods, can be used to make reliable, efficient nuclear weapons of all types. Irradiated fuel rods, when not regarded as waste, are seen as a resource for use in breeder reactors (to produce more plutonium), or for direct conversion into weapons. Until we phase out all nuclear power world-wide, we continue to support "latent proliferation" of nuclear weapons, since any government acquiring nuclear reactors for energy production may change its mind about nuclear weapons (or be replaced by one that does), or may secretly prepare nuclear explosives ready for assembly and use (Feiverson 1977). Moreover, alarmingly large quantities of uranium and plutonium can no longer be legally accounted for, either through record-keeping errors, careless handling, or theft. Only when we stop regarding radioactive material as a resource and more accurately categorize it as the dangerously toxic substance it is, can we hope to limit the escalating contamination.

A legacy of the military roots of nuclear technology is the secrecy that has continued to shroud the nuclear industry. Even non-weapons nuclear research tends to remain classified in the U.S. National Laboratories at Los Alamos and Livermore, in part, because any discoveries may have weapons applications, and, in part, because a cultural norm of secrecy has developed over the years. (One of the authors grew up in Los Alamos; when recently touring Livermore Lab, she discovered how conditioned she was against raising challenging issues.) In the press of war, hot and cold, politics overruled and suppressed what scientists knew then of the dangers of radiation (May 1990). Although, since the end of the Cold War, policy shifts in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the former Soviet Union have allowed some increase in access to information, most citizens know little about the extent or the effects of radioactive pollution, and the issue is largely avoided by the press. In much of the nuclear world, governmental censorship continues to keep citizens ignorant of the threat from both military and commercial operations.

With the development of solar, wind, and other clean energy sources, nuclear energy cannot compete in terms of efficiency or economics. According to a British Parliamentary study, nuclear power produces a volume of greenhouse gases second only to coal (Eichelberg 1994) when mining, transportation and fuel reprocessing are included, even before waste contamination and monitoring are factored in. Nevertheless, nuclear technology is being aggressively sold to developing nations without revealing known environmental, economic and political consequences (or viable alternatives).

Because of their huge financial investments, multinational corporations and governments continue efforts to expand the nuclear chain (read: add to the burden of radioactivity). Although no new nuclear power reactors have been ordered in the U.S. since 1973, the same technology that is no longer seen as safe or profitable enough in the U.S. continues to be globalized and promoted by U.S., Canadian, European, and now Asian nuclear industries (Thomas, Greensfelder, and Akino 1996). Countries with small or modest energy output, particularly in Asia, are under tremendous pressure to accept the pitch of the multinational corporations marketing nuclear power. Threats have reportedly been made regarding favored trade status and economic failure in the capitalist marketplace to nations reluctant to take the nuclear option (Eichelberg 1994).



Millions of tons of lethal radioactive waste have accumulated (D'Arrigo 1986). A number of possibilities have been considered for dealing with what is not already loose in the environment. These possibilities are not necessarily based on a commitment to keep the material from mixing with the biosphere over the time period necessary to render it benign. Ten to 20 half-lives may be required for most radioactive material to reach levels that are indistinguishable from original background, "half-life" referring to the time it takes for a particular radioactive element to give off half its radiation. Twenty half-lives or more generally will apply to highly concentrated wastes such a those from nuclear power plants (Nuclear Information and Research Service 1996). For comparison with historic and geologic time, uranium-239 will remain radioactive into the future for as long as our solar system has been here; technetium-99 and uranium-234 for as long homo erectus has been around; and plutonium-239 for longer than our species has had burial rituals or musical instruments (Nuclear Guardianship Project 1994a).

Referring to the nuclear materials as "waste" products to be "disposed of," when they will remain radioactivity toxic for up into the millions of years, is oxymoronic. These are concepts we deal with every day: we flush our bodily wastes down the toilet and dispose of our garbage in bags and cans that are trucked off to be dumped somewhere out of sight. We can forget about it. Or so we, in the industrialized world, have been lead to believe. No doubt the pernicious, pervasive "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" premise is discussed elsewhere in this issue of International Issues. The "waste" and "disposal" vocabulary create the impression that, being no longer useful, they can be dumped and abandoned. And, in fact, that is precisely what has happened to much of the nuclear industry's leftovers (Caufield 1989).

The weapons branch of the worldwide industry has repeatedly disregarded the environmental consequences of dumping. Radioactive liquids have been dumped into the ground and waters at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, contaminating the ground water and the Columbia River. Lake Karachi, in Russia, by the Chelyabinsk complex is so toxic with abandoned radiation that to stand next to it only a few minutes would provide a lethal human dose of radiation, and the water level is dropping, reaching toward the ground water. Sellafield, in England, now and in its former life as Windsacale, pipes radioactive waste a mile into the Irish Sea. This is the state of radioactive waste disposal in the 20th century.

Regarding the stuff not yet abandoned, official policies vary around the world in part because the materials have been classified more in the interest of those who bear liability than in the interest of future generations. In the U.S. this has resulted in categories primarily determined by one regulating commission for so-called commercial waste, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and another, the DOE, for that of the military (Young 1994).

"High level" wastes, which include the euphemistically named spent fuel from commercial reactors, "need to be set aside not because their vigor is drained or their fever cooled but because these poisonous materials have become too irradiated for further use" (Erikson 1994). Deep underground burial is the disposal method currently proposed. The problems with putting the waste underground include that changing water tables, earthquakes, and other geological factors will eventually disturb the buried waste and lead to contamination of soil, water, and air (Thomas, Greensfelder, and Akino 1996). No scientist or engineer can give an absolute guarantee that radioactive waste will not someday leak in dangerous quantities from even the best repositories. Nor can we be confident that our descendants will not dig into the burial sites hundreds or thousands of years from now, out of curiosity (Peaslee 1993) or lack of information.

Military reprocessing wastes are also called high level. They are currently destined for deep geological burial inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada. This is tantamount to abandonment. Material which will continue to emit radioactivity for as long as 240,000 to half a million years will be sealed in underground caves that have demonstrated salt water seepage in their first five years. We simply do not know how to make containment materials that will outlast the radioactivity (Hamilton 1996).

Commercial producers of nuclear materials in the U.S. were initially held responsible for their unusable leftovers. Creation and management of dumps were contracted out by the utilities and military producers to waste management companies, who proceeded to put the stuff in unlined shallow trenches from where it has leaked into the soil and water. Suits for damages followed because of mismanagement and leakage. Five of the six commercial nuclear waste landfills are currently leaking. Four of those leaking have been managed by U.S. Ecology, the only company still being considered to manage the dump planned in the California desert at Ward Valley. All other firms have withdrawn their bidding due to insoluble liability issues. No other low-level dumps are proposed at this time. The NRC's unilateral emergency-access power to direct waste from any state to the Ward Valley site would make this site a national repository. The Ward Valley plan includes shifting financial liability from the producers to the tax payers (Goitein, Klasky, and Young 1996).

The siting of new waste dumps, long opposed by local public interest groups, has been identified by the American Nuclear Society as a necessary precondition for any new construction of nuclear power plants (Eichelberg 1994).

The "low-level" waste stream from nuclear utilities, (including the extremely long-lived plutonium leached from the irradiated fuel rods) accounts for 99% of the radioactivity, measured in curies, shipped to burial grounds (Hamilton 1994). An argument put forth to justify the need for these shallow dumps is the disposition of radioactive isotopes used in medical diagnosis and treatment. The short half-lives of most medical radionuclides (hours, days, weeks) enable them to be stored on site until the material has decayed to undetectable levels (and, in fact, most are) (Hamilton 1994). Only 1% of the "low-level" radioactive waste stream is generated by research and medical wastes.

Also perplexing is the argument of military, or security, necessity for geological burial of radioactive wastes. To those who conclude that serviceable storage sites could be targeted in war, there is less "risk" involved in choosing deep burial. "The objection that accessible storage sites would be vulnerable to terrorist attack is one I frequently encounter, especially among advocates of nuclear power," comments Joanna Macy (1994a). "I suspect that it is a 'red herring,' because if this concern were sincere, it would be seen to apply right now to every nuclear establishment, from fuel assembly plants to operating reactors, since any one of them would cause widespread disaster if bombed." Every nation that has nuclear power is a potential nuclear weapons state (Nuclear Information and Resource Service 1995). Any nuclear materials, including those unaccounted for, could be the basis of terroristic threat or activity. The nuclear industry is silent about this.

Along with generating waste, nuclear industry seems also to generate large amounts of muddled thinking. Japan, the nation that suffered 200,000 killed immediately by the use of atomic weapons, has begun a "breeder" (of plutonium) reactor program which, if fully carried out, will result in the largest stockpiling of plutonium in the world. And the U. S., the only nation to have used nuclear power as weapons, has told the world that it is the most trustworthy nation to protect the world's stockpile of plutonium (Tanahashi 1996).



The nuclear industry is researching peoples' willingness to accept risk. It is known that people feel safer driving a car than riding in an airplane, even though driving is more risky. The industry is attempting to offer that same illusion of control with regard to nuclear power. They bank on the hope that the public can be convinced that the benefits of electrical production outweigh concerns about safety and waste (Eichelberg 1994).

In the first five decades of the nuclear age, international recommendations for acceptable levels of worker exposure to radiation have been revised downward a number of times (from 30 centisievert per year to the whole body in 1934 to 15 in 1950, five in 1956, and two in 1990) (International Commission on Radiological Protection 1991). The dangers of exposure to low-level radiation have been historically underestimated. A 1989 NRC committee concluded that a given dose of radiation is four times likelier to cause leukemia than was thought ten years ago (Lenssen 1991). Existing human studies show that every dose of ionizing radiation confers a risk of carcinogenic injury (Bertell 1986; Gofman 1981). A growing number of specialists in the field today assert that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. "Safe" means free from risk of injury, and existing human studies show that every dose of ionizing radiation confers a risk of carcinogenic injury, the size of a radiation risk being tied to the amount of the accumulated dose (Gofman 1994).

Addressing the issue of how harm from toxins has managed to escalate, Gofman and O'Connor have put forth the Law of Concentrated Benefit Over Diffuse Injury: "A small, determined group, working energetically for its own narrow interests, can almost always impose an injustice upon a vastly larger group, provided that the larger group believes that the injury is 'hypothetical' or trivial or distant-in-the-future, or real-but-small relative to the real-and-large cost of preventing it" (1994). The essence of the axiom is triviality. Triumph for each injustice is virtually assured if the advocates succeed in presenting it as trivial. Even when new injuries or injustices truly are small, the aggregate abuse can accumulate to tragic proportions after the axiom of Concentrated Benefit has operated again and again and again.

Since the refusal of the American public to expand nuclear power, there has been a shift in government sponsored research away from learning more about the damaging effects of radioactivity. Instead grants are being given to proposals aimed at demonstrating that some radioactivity is beneficial to life. The DOE has been described as wishing to sell the public the following beliefs:

  1. a little radiation is good for you (hormesis);

  2. there a threshold dose of radiation below which no harm at all occurs;

  3. a dose of radiation is far less harmful if it is received slowly over time, than if the same dose is received all at once.
"Since 1980, the false claim that radiation received over time is two to ten times less harmful than in a single dose is invoked to reduce the cancers attributed to the atomic bomb by a factor of up to ten and is applied to predictions about the slow doses from Chernobyl" (Gofman 1990, 1994).


A definitive study of the accumulated costs of the U.S. nuclear power, Fiscal Fission: The Economic Failure of Nuclear Power (Komanoff and Roelofs 1992) revealed half-a-trillion dollars as a conservative figure for resources spent through 1990. Excluded costs, such as health effects of radiation, accidents, adequate insurance, could well total another $375 billion. These figures do not include the almost certain escalation in future waste and decommissioning costs.

The U.S. has just passed legislation, S 1936, that will result in transporting radioactive materials to centralized repositories, putting more than 50 million people in the U.S. at risk of high-level nuclear waste transport accidents. Taxpayers will pay for any accident damages, not the nuclear industry which generated the waste, nor the carrier transporting it. Few realize the extent of taxpayer liability. DOE intends to privatize the transport, while also indemnifying the carriers (Nuclear Information and Research Service 1996).

A move to increase DOE's budget for the radioactive waste program will only make sense when the commitment is also made to an orderly and economic phase-out of waste.

"Nobody at the time thought it would become such a disaster. Nobody here could even envisage that it could develop into such a tragedy. The truth was hidden because officials did not want to spend the billions of rubles it will take to cure this wound" (Drach 1991).



An aspect of nuclear pollution that has not been widely discussed is the psychological damage to the world's population, collectively and individually. Knowing that, because of the presence of nuclear materials, our planet, our home, our selves could be irreparably destroyed at any moment, impairs our ability to engage in meaningful, successful, protective strategies (Lifton 1979; Erikson 1994).

This psychological terrorism has been abated only superficially by the end of the Cold War. While some weapons are being dismantled, their plutonium pits are being stockpiled. We do not know how to make them harmless. How to make nuclear bombs is information that is publicly available. While reprocessed plutonium is the ingredient of choice in "high-tech designer" bombs, modest amounts of either plutonium or enriched uranium are sufficient to create "crude" nuclear weapons. In addition, every presence of nuclear materials, whether in civilian reactors, mine tailings, reprocessed plutonium, or so-called waste and dumped materials has the potential to be used in terrorist threats or acts of destruction (military or otherwise). This potential, whether or not carried out, constitutes an ongoing psychological assault upon the human family.



Humanity's vast body of scientific knowledge pales before the challenge of isolating nuclear waste until it is harmless eons hence. For less than a century scientists have been exploring the nature of the atom and radioactivity, and during only a fraction of that time have they begun to consider how to protect life from its harm.

Many ideas for "final disposal" have been put forward in addition to geologic abandonment but none have proven even remotely adequate. Each technical fix explored, including some already enacted, contains major flaws. Vitrification, radioactive wastes solidified in molten glass to reduce its movement, generates explosive and flammable gases and very hot radioactive sludge (Makhijani 1994). The process is vulnerable to accidents and was found to be 30 times more expensive than the option of storing materials on site (Roy 1993), and it renders the radioactive materials permanently inaccessible for application of future knowledge. Encasement in, or combining with, cement is being researched (Roy 1993), although no encasing material will outlast the radioactivity, which itself causes the cement to become embrittled, to crack and crumble. Proposals for transmuting the so-called waste materials would produce additional radioactivity materials, which are looked upon as further resources for economic reasons, thus continuing the nuclear chain and its enduring pollution (Fuller 1992; Thomas, Greensfelder, and Akino 1996). In addition transmutation requires great amounts of energy and chemical processing, creates new, massive quantities of waste, and radioactive waste problems will remain in any case (Makhijani 1994). Breeder reactors have been rejected by most nations that explored them because of their danger and the necessity for repeatedly transporting highly poisonous plutonium and producing more of that substance which, as previously noted, is uniquely valuable for weapons manufacture. Japan alone is continuing to develop its breeder program, against the rising voice of protest from its citizens. "By industry estimates, reprocessing multiplies the quantities of wastes requiring long-term isolation nearly ten-fold" (Lenssen 1991).

There are seminal ideas that capture the imagination as possibilities for the near or far future. Just this summer a primitive microbe was identified as a new form of life, offering possible new sources of renewable, nonpolluting natural gas and for cleaning toxic heavy metal waste. It belongs to the class of one-celled organisms, archaea, which can withstand radiation in doses rated at two million rads - where 450 rads would be fatal to any human (San Francisco Chronicle 1996).

Thought has been given to blasting radioactivity materials under the ocean floor or into the sun. The seabed idea is stopped by the same issues that prohibit deep burial in the earth: we cannot predict with certainty a stable geologic future for the required time spans. On the contrary, Earth changes geologically and biologically, and sooner or later the radiation will disperse.

Erikson (1994) suggests that, instead of saying "any methodology that claims precision in the anticipation of repository consequences must be viewed with appropriate caution," the DOE should flatly declare "any methodology that claims precision in that regard must be regarded as ridiculous."

While the sun could easily absorb the addition of our manufactured radioactivity, we lack the precision to ensure accident-free transport of the materials to Cape Canaveral, let alone an accident-proof launch. Writer Anne Herbert put it this way: "Nuclear accidents are made by fools like me, but only God could make a nuclear reactor that's 93 million miles from the nearest elementary school" (1994).



There is no solution. It is not known how to detoxify a radioactive particle, except by letting it spend itself through time, during which it will continue to contaminate and damage all life forms with which it comes in contact. How, then, shall we proceed?

The Chernobyl catastrophe was the final argument, according to Gorbachev. At that point "all of us understood the kind of monster we had created" (1994). The Ukrainian poet and playwright Ivan Drach said, "For the first time we understand what sovereignty means, what democracy means, what freedom means. The Ukraine has been sacrificed. This nation, which possesses thousands of years of history, is now on its knees, its radioactive knees. This is not drama; this is tragedy. But the most important thing is the children. Without healthy children, we have no future" (1991).

Why have we not simply ceased production? How is it we have accepted the continued production of radioactive toxins and the stockpiling and dumping of their wastes?

To begin with, world power is still measured in terms of plutonium, the "deadly gold of the Nuclear Age" (International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research 1993). Holding veto power on the United Nations Security Council are the five nations who have atomic bomb capability. "The question is: Which would be preferred by most human beings-a world in which possession and threatened use of nuclear weapons is allowed for some but forbidden for others, or one in which they are completely outlawed, with no exceptions?" (Taylor 1996) Non-nuclear states are afraid of being left out of the "nuclear Mafia."

Moreover, the centralized nature of an energy industry based on nuclear power plants makes it very attractive to multinational investment. If a country can be convinced to commit to nuclear power as its major energy source, the controlling corporation is almost guaranteed years of profit. Moreover, the nuclear industry has managed to convince governments to underwrite much of the developmental costs, plus the costs of "disposing" of wastes, freeing the corporations from this daunting concern. As more and more millions are invested in the industry, it becomes more and more difficult to reverse the commitment.



Perhaps our pain and horror at the destructive power of the split atom, our failure to see the effect of greed brought on by a materialistic value of life, and our fear and sense of helplessness living under the power of the military/industrial complex have all resulted in mass denial. "It should have been clear that our ignoring, or denial, of the devastating accumulation of the nuclear arsenal and nuclear waste was pathology and deeply connected therefore to the ways we lead our lives" (Haas 1992).

Thus we have tolerated the practice of human sacrifice, one of the unacknowledged costs of having a nuclear industry. Representatives of indigenous peoples from around the world have reported on the suffering and devastation inflicted on them by our nuclear activities (World Uranium Hearings 1992). Their testimony is an appalling indictment of nuclear colonialism.

For it is their homelands, their bodies and their ancient cultures that are most immediately victimized by nuclear power and nuclear weapons. On their land 70% of the world's uranium is mined (Native American lands, [former] Soviet minorities, recently independent Namibians), most of the testing takes place (Nevada, Bikini and Eniwetok, Tahiti, Maralinga, Central Asia), and radioactive waste is dumped (Prairie Islands Sioux in Minnesota, Tibet). These crimes are compounded, in virtually every case by secrecy and deception and intimidation on the part of industry and government (Macy 1993).



Is there, perhaps, some shift happening, allowing us the courage to face this heretofore overwhelming challenge? If this is so, it must come from, among other routes, a willingness to take on the moral and ethical aspects of the challenge, and to develop new ways of thinking from far broader and longer perspectives.

"The world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level at which we created them." (Albert Einstein)

"One must care about a world one will never see." (Bertrand Russell)

"The greatest revolution in our generation is the discovery that human beings by changing the inner attitudes of their minds can change the outer aspects of their lives." (William James)

"Because our nuclear legacy impacts the well-being of future generations, we must consider their rights when we plan for the disposition of radioactive materials. Because of the endurance of long-lived radiation and its cumulative damage, we must come to understand our place in "deep time" ." (Macy 1991b).

Citizen groups and a few government organizations around the world have begun to address these issues, including Cousteau Society, Greenpeace, Nuclear Free Zone movement, Nuclear Guardianship Project, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Don't Waste America, Women's Nuclear Free Network, World Information Service on Energy, and local groups everywhere there are nuclear materials.



Of these groups we give particular emphasis in this article to the work of Nuclear Guardianship Project (NGP), as that has been a focus of the authors' own citizen-involvement since its inception in 1988, and because of the importance of its focus on the integration of ethical issues with political and technical decisions.

NGP developed out of a citizens' study group addressing the issue of responsible care of nuclear waste. The group was initially drawn together by Dr. Joanna Macy, a scholar of general systems theory, Buddhism, and environmental ethics, and included a cosmological physicist, a poet, a cultural anthropologist, a nuclear engineer, a citizen-diplomat, educators, artists, and psychologists, a number of whom suffered from damaged immune system diseases possibly attributable to radiation exposure.

The group members educated themselves through teaching and reading, contact with experts and organizations, visits to sites and with the people living near and working at them, and through acts of imagination projecting themselves into past and future time. Ideas evolved through these experiences, and the following statement of principles emerged:

Nuclear Guardianship is a citizen commitment to present and future generations to keep radioactive materials out of the biosphere. Recognizing the extreme damage these materials inflict on all life-forms and their genetic codes, Nuclear Guardianship requires

  1. interim containment of radioactive materials in accessible, monitored storage, so that leaks can be repaired, and future technologies for reducing and containing their radioactivity can be applied;

  2. stringent limits on transport of radioactive materials, to avoid contaminating new sites, and to minimize spills and accidents;

  3. cessation of the production of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy; and

  4. transmission to future generations of the knowledge necessary for their self-protection and the ongoing guardianship through time (Nuclear Guardianship Project 1992).

The group tried to identify with its descendants, to intuit what they will want from us 50 years, 500 years, a 1000 years from now. We imagined their interest in our politics, our inventions, and our art will pale before their questions: "What did you do with the stuff? Where is the radioactivity and how can we protect ourselves from it?"

NGP has propose the following ethic as an evolving expression of values to guide decision-making on the management of radioactive material (Nuclear Guardianship Project 1994b):



  1. Each generation shall endeavor to preserve the foundations of life and well-being for those who come after. To produce and abandon substances that damage following generations is morally unacceptable.

  2. Given the extreme toxicity and longevity of radioactive materials, their production must cease. The development of safe, renewable energy sources, and nonviolent means of conflict resolution is essential to the health and survival of life on Earth. Radioactive materials are not to be regarded as an economic or military resource.

  3. We accept responsibility for the nuclear materials produced in our lifetimes and those left in our safekeeping.

  4. Future generations have the right to know about the nuclear legacy bequeathed to them and to protect themselves from it.

  5. Future generations have the right to monitor and repair containers, and to apply such technologies as may be developed to protect the biosphere more effectively. Deep burial of radioactive materials precludes these possibilities and risks uncontrollable contamination to life support systems.

  6. Transport of radioactive materials, with its inevitable risks of accidents and spills, should be undertaken only when conditions at the current site pose a greater ecological hazard than transportation.

  7. Research and development of technologies for the least hazardous long-term treatment and placement of nuclear materials should receive high priority in funding and public attention.

  8. Education of the public about the character, source, and containment of radioactive materials is essential for the health of present and future generations. This education should promote understanding of our relationship to the Earth and to time.

  9. The formation of policies governing the management of radioactive materials requires full participation of the public. Free circulation of information and open communication are indispensable for the self-protection of present and future generations.

  10. The vigilance necessary for ongoing containment of radioactive materials requires a moral commitment. This commitment is within our capacity, and can be developed and sustained by drawing on the cultural and spiritual resources of our human heritage. The Nuclear Guardianship Ethic is proposed as an evolving expression of values to guide decision-making on the management of radioactive materials.


Psychoanalyst Thea Bauriedl (1992) concluded that the idea of nuclear guardianship incorporates thinking that could lead to solving some of today's most difficult problems. By not attempting the "final solution" of burying life-threatening waste, we afford future generations a better opportunity to deal with the poisonous material. By storing the waste where we can keep an eye on it, we keep the danger, and the guilt it generates, from being suppressed. "The real peril lies in ignoring these dangers."

Bauriedl points to the implication of guardianship that to protect the next generations we must explicitly bequeath them the unresolved dangers of our nuclear waste production. As we simply are unable to free them from the consequences of our mistakes, we are at least not ignoring them, and they will have a chance to create viable strategies for their safety.

Guardianship recognizes the dangers of human arrogance, and allows us to become aware of the responsibility each parent generation holds for its children. Storage sites for toxic materials are to be places of contemplation to which everyone has access, where the intention is to remain aware of the necessity to protect the surrounding environment.

Places with the greatest potential for destruction the world has ever known acquire, in this way, a certain spiritual significance. All the great religions remind us that besides recognizing and accepting our mistakes, the path of freedom lies in owning our own failings, rather than projecting them onto others. This re-owning is not an excuse for past [or future] mistakes, but is humanizing and leads to compassion for ourselves and others.

Many scientists and technicians believe their work has nothing to do with mythology. They are mistaken: they, especially, live in the delusion that they can control nature. Through the guardianship concept, this myth can be called into question. We need new myths and new symbols to help us protect our lives and those of future generations (Bauriedl 1992).

She concludes that the basic acts of nuclear guardianship-ceasing production of the radioactive toxins and collectively maintaining them-are psychologically healing by bringing us together to bear the responsibility for what we have created.

Researchers may find uniquely valuable data to use by "listening" in a new way and to new subjects. "Our very lives might depend on this listening. After the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the wind told the story that was being suppressed by the [leaders]. It gave away the truth. It carried the story of danger to other countries. It was a poet, a prophet, a scientist" (Hogan 1991).



It is nearly inconceivable to consider being responsible into the future for tens or hundreds of thousands years. So arbitrary numbers have been chosen because of their economic, political, technical, or psychological implications, e.g., 100 years for monitoring shallow burial dumps, or 10,000 years to anticipate needing to communicate deep burial to our descendants (Erikson 1994).

Communicating with the unknown distant future was the mission of architects, anthropologists, materials scientists, and linguists convened by the DOE to consider long-term warning markers for a centralized disposal site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, New Mexico (Peaslee 1993). The project was posited on the assumption that human culture could suffer some rupture in the future, and, therefore, knowledge might not be passed on culturally.

Our wish to decide now-once and for all--how to "dispose" of the stuff reflects our lack of faith in the future. Yet, the rate of technological innovation promises to be infinitely more rapid in years to come than it has been in years past (Erikson 1994).

In her article "Fifty Years at a Time," Molly Young Brown (1994) explores an approach that is more psychologically manageable and would make it possible for future generation to apply their own ingenuity to the problem.

If we understand ourselves to be conduits of life and culture between the past and the future, we will find our responsibility less overwhelming. We can address ourselves to keeping nuclear materials out of the biosphere for the next 50 years or so, storing it so that the material and our knowledge about it remain accessible to our grandchildren. They in turn will carry this responsibility forward, according to the wisdom and values of their time.

"Fifty years at a time" reminds us of the "one day at a time" slogan for recovering addicts. It keeps one focused on the present task, within the context of a lifetime of recovery. And perhaps that is what we must now do as a culture: recover from our addiction to nuclear energy and its underlying dream of unlimited power over nature and one another.

We in the industrialized world have pursued such a dream of dominance for centuries, trying to assert control over the natural processes of life, and over each other. Our enchantment with nuclear energy-and the toxic mess we have wrought-reflects the larger pattern of human alienation from nature and destruction of the environment. Like protecting the rainforests, keeping air and water clean, preserving biodiversity, and all the other ecological concerns we have today, nuclear guardianship requires that we radically change our relationship to the biosphere. Instead of "power-over," we must learn "power-with," as we take our place in the vast, complex, interdependent web of life on Earth.

Nuclear guardianship is not more or less important than any of the other transformational tasks we humans face today. This and everything else needs to happen. To work on one task is to work on them all. Addressing the social injustices that lead to warfare and terrorist attacks, for example, will help create a stable social order within which guardianship can endure. We must learn to act sustainably in all aspects of our collective life, providing at least minimal food, clothing, shelter, and dignity for everyone, or radioactive contamination will be only one of many contributors to the collapse of our habitat.

Nuclear guardianship can be a training ground for this transformation of human consciousness. Through guardianship, we learn to sustain the gaze, to keep our attention on the reality before us, overcoming the temptation to deny or escape the responsibility. We affirm our commitment to the future, doing what we can now to assure the continuity of human life and evolution, and then faithfully passing the task along to our descendants.

Because of the vast eons of time involved in the radioactive decay of plutonium, nuclear guardianship keeps us humble. We realize that haste is our greatest enemy, for precipitous decisions made now may prove irrevocably disastrous, even within the next few years. Guardianship trains us to think in terms of the whole: the whole of humanity, the whole of the ecosphere, the whole of time.



A number of activities around the world are moving toward overcoming the denial that has surrounded the nuclear legacy and our responsibility for it. Some that include education and organizing for specific changes are the Nuclear Free Zone movement, Abolition 2000, the Campaign for a Plutonium Free World, and the successful World Court Project.

Some projects directed to remembering the past and connecting with the future have combined contemplation, aesthetics, location, and information. Participants on the Atomic Mirror Pilgrimage traced the geographic links of the nuclear chain, journeying from uranium mines to test sites to Hiroshima. For 17 years the Nevada Desert Experience, organized by an ecumenical community, has held annual vigils at the Nevada Test Site. Artists, such as Barbara Donachy, Mayumi Oda, and Kazuaki Tanahashi, are influencing awareness through their works, rituals, and installations, while others do so with photographic documentation (Goin 1991; Del Tredici 1987). Several films have given vivid imagery to what is at stake (Testimony 1983; The Day After 1983), as well as numerous documentaries and media reports (Video Project 1995). "Wake-up" books have been published addressing psychological spiritual, ethical questions raised for the present and future (Ruggiero and Sahulka 1996; Macy 1983, 1991b; Glendenning 1989; Posner 1990; Schell 1982) and giving relevant personal testimony (Griffin 1992; Williams 1991; Glendenning 1994). Some universities have established environmental ethics departments. Individuals (Seed, Macy, et al. 1988; Macy 1983, 1991a, 1991b; Cole 1992) and organizations (Institute for Deep Ecology Education; Center for Ecoliteracy; Interhelp) are exploring deep ecology and ecopsychology.

Mainstream media increasingly report on nuclear events, from governmental horrors of the past to the unsolvable waste situation. The New York Times Magazine devoted its cover and a 12-page article (Erikson 1994) to radioactive waste, urging patience. Noting that "nuclear waste buried in haste will still be deadly in 12001 A.D.," Erikson warned, "we dare not act as though as know," and urged the government to "relax its insistence on immediate and irreversible burial and turn to forms of storage that allow both continuous monitoring and retrieval."

NGP has developed a slide show presentation of an imaginative journey to a nuclear guardian site of the future. Through images, music, and narration, audience members envision how people at guardianship sites might keep accurate knowledge of our nuclear legacy alive, continue research,, and maintain containment of the radioactive materials. Vital to the presentation is the suggestion that these people in the future would feel gratitude that we, in the late 20th century, remembered them, calling on the wisdom traditions of our human heritage and our profound caring for life across time, thus allowing them to participate in protecting themselves from the enduring "poison fire" (Nuclear Guardianship Project 1989). Such positive future images are needed to balance anger, despair, helplessness, and other potentially incapacitating responses, and to free human energy for creatively, committedly facing the horror (Macy 1983; Glendenning 1989).



The general public has been woefully uninformed about radioactive materials, their biomedical effects, whether they can be safely stored, transported or used, and where the materials are located. Research is conducted primarily by vested interests within the nuclear industry, with little information made available to the public. Moreover, information has been hidden by governments in the name of "national security." As citizens inform themselves, they will influence their governments to pass legislation limiting production and transportation and safeguarding already produced radioactive materials.

People have the right to know about the slow, cumulative poisoning that is taking place in us all, and also to information about ways we can protect ourselves. There is no panacea, but there is information about what makes cells less, or more, vulnerable, to radiation damage (Lee 1990; Radiation Protection Home Page 1996). Diet for the Atomic Age (Shannon 1987), for example, details and justifies human dietary recommendation to help minimize radiation absorbed and detoxify radiation poisoning (e.g., eat low on the food-chain where radiation and other toxins are less concentrated). Such knowledge may make a difference in how incapacitated we or our children become from radiation exposure.

All this education and resultant action will only "occur in a context of a radical shift in our collective consciousness, away from materialism and greed toward reverence for all life. Creative imagination is needed, both to devise strategies, and to motivate us with the images of those [beings of the future] for whom we work today" (Brown 1992).

Through the concepts and contributions of environmental justice, deep ecology, and epidemiology, many people are moving away from an anthropocentric belief, which views nonhuman living species as inferior to humans, with less inherent right to exist. An "ecocentric" perspective views humans as an intrinsic part of nature, with a unique role and responsibility within the evolution of life on this planet. "We [humans] alone are capable of holding a truly broad world view that represents the whole of nature and includes all possible points of view in addition to our own. We can-and must-gain enough perspective to see ourselves as one part of a much greater living system, or being, and learn to act accordingly" (Sahtouris 1989).



What are the essential requirements of a responsible global policy on the care of radioactive materials? "Don't make it. Don't move it. Don't bury it. Don't forget it." (Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety 1988).

Growing numbers of non-governmental organizations are making proposals regarding the responsible care of nuclear materials (Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes, Greenpeace, Nuclear Guardianship Project, Nuclear Information and Research Service, Plutonium Free Future). They all recognize that safe storage of nuclear materials cannot be guaranteed. Even the best designed facilities will leak someday. Officials obscure that fact by proposing new sites for the waste with the implication that moving the waste will resolve the problem (Mongerson 1990).

Nuclear reactors themselves remain radioactive, long after decommissioning. They are de facto waste facilities already. Citizens are beginning to reject the "not-in-my-backyard" stance, accepting the burden of responsibility. Mongerson, living near a reactor, says it "is not a question of fairness to ask the people who live around the waste generators to bear more risk than the rest of us... Those of us who live at these existing facilities are just stuck with a raw deal" (1990). Her local citizens' group agreed that moved waste should not be placed in new sites but should go to existing facilities.

When we stop generating radioactive waste, the accumulation of these wastes will stop. Members of existing nuclear communities would continue to be employed as the reactors were decommissioned. Those who work with radiation and seek to contain it are already, in a sense, guardians (Macy 1994a).

The Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Waste (1990) subscribes to a plan of action specifying that generators must retain title to, responsibility for, and possession of the waste they have made. An independent policing system to assure generator compliance, [inter]national criteria and regulations are essential. Incineration, redefinition as "below regulatory concern," or dilution to disperse the dose over a larger population must not be allowed. Reparation and recovery plans must be developed for the residents and workers in areas where nuclear activity has taken place (World Uranium Hearings 1992).

Dr. Rustom Roy, a leading researcher in nuclear waste, recommends that we store nuclear waste in packaging "on the ground at military research and production sites where it was produced. Likewise, on-site storage of civilian fuel rods is the way to go for at least the next 50 years. We already have 500 huge, highly radioactive holes in the Nevada Test Site. These can never be moved, changed, or cleaned up. But one of them could take an enormous amount of grouted radioactive defense waste, making both safer" (1993). The goal in radioactive waste management must be to isolate human-made radioactive materials from the environment for their entire hazardous life.

Nuclear Information and Resources Service has created a proposal for storage-for-decay:

The material must decay to radioactive levels indistinguishable from (not in addition to) original background, as determined by using appropriate sampling techniques and the best available, appropriate detection instrumentation properly calibrated and set at the most sensitive setting. The general rule is that 10 to 20 half-lives is the hazardous life of radioactive materials. In some cases, depending upon the original amount of radioactivity in the material, 20 or more half-lives may be required for the material to reach levels that are indistinguishable from original background. The need for 20 half-lives or more generally will apply to highly concentrated wastes, such as those from nuclear power plants, and not to medical waste (1995).

Radioactivity can be measured on a number of scales: mass of the radioactive materials, amount of radiation given off, kind of radiation (alpha and beta particles, neutrons, or gamma waves), or the half-life of the radioactive isotopes. The choice of scale may depend on which arguments are being made (Young 1994). Long-term environmental safety should be the main concern of all nuclear policy. Guidelines for a uniform global classification policy for radioactive materials should thus include the following:

  1. all those containing significant amounts of long-lived radionuclides should be isolated from the environment according to the most stringent long-term management option;

  2. radionuclides should be segregated according to half-life;

  3. radioactive waste should also be classified by level of radioactivity (as in Sweden, where low, intermediate, and high-level categories require different levels of cooling and shielding) (Young 1994).


To accomplish phasing out worldwide nuclear power, while being responsive to the environmental disruption caused by continued large-scale use of fossil fuels, an intense, global response is needed, developing and using energy efficiency technologies and renewable energy sources which derive directly or indirectly from solar radiation (Taylor 1996).

Energy efficient technologies are fully developed for every end-use sector of the economy. They could cut U.S. energy consumption roughly in half, with no reduction in comfort, service, or lifestyle. Non-polluting renewable energy sources include wind power, solar thermal energy, solar photovoltaic electricity, biomass, and solar buildings. The DOE has made its own study showing that wind power alone could, in principle, supply more than the entire U.S. energy demand. Another little known fact is that the DOE has estimated the total renewable energy resource base in the United States to be enormous, nearly one thousand times the current energy consumption in the country. However, for renewable energy to flourish, regulatory conditions must be reformed to eliminate biases that favor conventional energy technologies over renewable technologies (Stockholm Environmental Institute 1993).

The primary obstacle to a sustainable energy future is not technical or economic but political will. The shift can happen in a timely way if enough governments, communities, and industries fundamentally change their approach and make a firm commitment to promote and develop renewable energy. Individual citizens, as policy-makers and community participants, play a critical role (Thomas, Greensfelder, and Akino 1996).



It will take public opinion on a wide scale to ensure that the world's leaders act. Radiation protection has been compared to safe sex; everybody has to be an expert. "We won't solve the problem of containing radiation until its danger is universally known, like knowing that fire is hot and you ought not to put your finger in the flame or you will be burned... It has to be in our bones" (Carde 1994).

Citizen involvement is needed. Citizen organizations must provide governments and international authorities with studies and analyses to strengthen international law for peace-keeping and to prevent worsening environmental impact from the dismantling of old systems and weapons proliferation (Gorbachev 1994). Rancho Seco, providing nuclear powered electricity to Sacramento, California, was the first reactor to be shut down by citizen referendum. A milestone was just marked in Japan when the town of Maki rejected a planned nuclear plant by referendum. The mayor has said he will honor the result and refuse to sell town land to the utility (The New York Times 1996). A "Resolution for a Plutonium Free World" has been offered to build consensus toward prohibiting the production of plutonium (Campaign for a Plutonium Free World 1996).

Projects are underway to address the total rejection of nuclear weapons. This year (1996) the World Court decided that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons would be a violation of international law under almost any conceivable circumstance. The Manhattan Project II calls for the same kind of commitment, intelligence, and urgency that created nuclear weapons to be brought to bear on abolishing them (Ellsberg 1996). The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is being signed, while India continues its demand that nations with stockpiled nuclear arsenals eliminate them within a specified time frame.

A fresh policy start is being advocated in the U.S. where organizations and members of the legislature have urged convening a Blue Ribbon Commission to conduct a top-to-bottom review of high- and low-level nuclear waste policies.

Roland Posner (1990) recommends that a legislative body for our descendants be formed to systematically collect relevant information for future generations. As Gofman (1994) put it, "A trustworthy data base is a sacred obligation to humanity." Posner calls for a "Chamber of Future Affairs," which would be advised by commissions for middle- and long-term prognoses and an ethics commission. It would be supported by an office of future-research, a data office to collect and make the relevant information accessible to everyone, and an executive office to supervise danger areas to warn people and other animals away.

We must develop a comprehensive global approach to managing all radioactive materials over the generations that they will exist. Political, military, and business leaders, and ordinary citizens must face the problem together. We need leaders in religion, politics, and science to speak out and point us in new directions, away from secrecy, and toward a new paradigm for our civilizations.



No accomplishment of our generation-no work of art or science-will matter more to posterity than the steps we take now to keep our radioactive legacy out of the biosphere. We have the technical ingenuity for nuclear guardianship; do we have the moral strength? Do we care enough for future generations? I believe we do (Macy 1994b).

As Macy's challenge states, all our remarkable human accomplishments will amount to nothing if future generations are sickened, crippled, and killed on a massive scale by the toxic byproducts of this generation's technological excesses. Radioactive pollution constitutes one of the most menacing threats to the present and future of humankind, because of its endurance over time, its ubiquity, and its invisibility. Although no one has found any permanent means of safely containing radioactive materials, the nuclear industry continues to produce more and more, through weapons research and production, and in nuclear power plants of all kinds. The industry mines, transports, processes, reprocesses, and buries nuclear materials with totally inadequate safeguards, threatening life and health at every step of the way. Secrecy and misinformation perpetuate public ignorance of the dangers. Citizens throughout the world must educate themselves and bring pressure to bear on governments and corporate interests to dismantle the industry altogether and provide for the safe, accessible storage and monitoring of all radioactive materials, so that future generations will be protected as much as possible and enabled to continue the guardianship of this legacy as long as necessary.



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Oser and Brown. Radioactive Pollution - Nuclear Guardianship Model

Copyright © 1996, Wendy Oser and Molly Young Brown

This article was originally published as:

The Guardianship Ethic In Response to Radioactive Pollution: A Meta Model for a Sustainable World

in Current World Leaders International Issues
v. 38, No. 6, December, 1996
International Academy at Santa Barbara
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