National Sacrifice Zones

Consider two approaches to dealing with toxins in a hypothetical garden.
In the first approach, imagine the tomatoes in your neighbor’s garden were found to have a lethal dose of a known human-made contaminant. His daughter eats one of the tomatoes and dies the next day.
In the second approach, he decides he must dispose of the tomatoes in case he or someone dear to him consumes them. However, a local farmer tells him that he can sell his tomatoes to the local co-op which will use them to make tomato juice and sell it over a wide area. The toxin will be diluted to a level which is below allowable levels. Studies have shown that at this level of dilution, the risk is so negligible that it will cause only one extra cancer death per 100,000, in addition to the rate that is “naturally” already several hundred per 100,000. Result: one additional death the next decade.
Whatever you think about the morality of the two approaches, the result is the same: one death by poisoning. It could be that our brains have evolved to be  tricked into thinking the second approach is better. We can discount the future and deceive ourselves into thinking someone else will be the victim, so we accept risks that are spread out over distance and time. This is "allowable risk." But our powers of rational thinking, if we decide to apply them, are capable of seeing that the two outcomes are equal. Unfortunately, the instinct-driven dilution solution has become the standard practice in Japan since the Fukushima Daiichi crisis.

In fact, as Ace Hoffman argues, dilution is the only option for all polluting industries:

With a poison which behaves according to the LNT [linear no threshold] model, dilution is the ONLY solution offered for such pollution, and it's not a very good one. Spreading LNT poisons into the environment IS premeditated murder, so you better have a pretty good reason for doing so, if you plan to do it. The nuclear industry excuses itself as "vital" because they produce electricity, which most certainly is very important.
But electricity -- and mountains of nuclear waste -- is ALL nuclear power plants produce. (One or two of them also produce a few medical isotopes, but that could be done just as well with a much smaller and safer reactor -- and ONE such reactor would be sufficient for the entire world. And, there are often other ways to obtain those isotopes or better yet, other medical procedures (such as MRIs) that can be done. So let's not get sidetracked...).

My 11-year-old daughter provided some perspective on this issue when she asked me about the human sacrifice scene we had recently watched in the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The film portrays a kitsch Aztec-ish priest ripping the heart out of a live human sacrifice (by the way, Lucas and Spielberg, nice touch for a children's movie), and my daughter asked me if there are still people in the world who do human sacrifice. I told her no, there are no civilizations left who believe it is necessary to satisfy their gods by ripping organs out of live captives. But I don't want to shelter her from what the world is actually like, so I asked her what she thought about the fact that a few people get poisoned in the process of making energy so that the majority can have their cars and electricity. She gave me her standard, "yeah, adults are stupid" reply, then added, "but that sacrifice is not like the movie, it’s not bloody, it's not face to face killing people right in front of you." No, it certainly is not, but it is something to keep in mind as we celebrate the marvelous decline of violence of the 20th century.

Further reading:

On National Sacrifice Zones, from the New York Times, October 1988:

Lawmakers who have studied the Energy Department's estimated $200 billion plan for decommissioning abandoned plants and for cleaning up radioactive and toxic wastes fear that the costs may be so high that the program may never be completed… Engineers at the Energy Department have privately begun calling such contaminated sites ''national sacrifice zones.'' They grimly joke that some zones could turn out to be larger than many of the 39 national parks. But they also say that failing to address the issue could mean that contamination continues to spread through the environment.

Some parts of the plutonium-contaminated buildings, inside the sacrifice zones, are also referred to grimly as “eternity rooms.”

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