Ackland diamond

The ruined cities, temples, and statues of history’s great, vanished societies (Easter Island, Anasazi, the Lowland Maya, Angkor Wat, Great Zimbabwe and many more) are the birthplace of endless romantic mysteries. But these disappearances offer more than idle conjecture: the social collapses were due in part to the types of environmental problems that beset us today.

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Yet many societies facing similar problems do not collapse. What makes certain societies especially vulnerable? Why didn’t their leaders perceive and solve their environmental problems? What can we learn from their fates, and what can we do differently today to help us avoid their fates?

There are the Hanford Nuclear Facility and Rocky Flats Plant stories to learn from. Construction on Hanford’s historic B Reactor began in October 1943.  B Reactor was part of the largest scientific, engineering and construction project ever–the Manhattan Project, a Corps of Engineers project organized in 1942 by the Federal government to develop a nuclear weapon. Built in less than a year, B Reactor was the world’s first full production-scale nuclear reactor.  It operated for over 25 years, playing a key role in ending World War II (WWII) and the Cold War.

America was isolationist before WWII, but emerged from WWII as a nuclear power and world leader. B Reactor’s product changed the global balance of power for all time since then.

One issue which was needed to tackle with these plants was that once they began processing irradiated slugs, the machinery would become radioactive to the point that it would be unsafe for humans ever to come in contact with it. They therefore had to devise methods to allow for replacement of any component via remote control. They came up with a modular cell concept, which allowed major components to be removed and replaced entirely by an operator sitting in a heavily shielded overhead crane.

Since then, most of the surrounding structures have been removed and buried and the other Hanford reactors have been entombed or “cocooned” to allow radioactivity to decay. B Reactor is currently included in the cleanup of the portion of the Hanford Site along the Columbia River and is scheduled to be continued public access as an interpreted historical exhibit.

It includes removing of all interior equipment, demolishing all peripheral structures adjoining the concrete shield wall around the reactor core reducing the building’s footprint dramatically, sealing all remaining openings in the shield wall, installing a 75-year roof, and eliminating access by welding the remaining door shut.

The failure to anticipate a problem may come from lack of experience. A society may fail to anticipate a problem because it cannot preserve the memories of events that happened generations before. People failed to anticipate the problem of Hanford Nuclear Facility’s dangerous radioactive early on because of lack of experience. At that time there has been no studies about the harmful effects of the facility; however, by the time the people discovered its unsafe effects to human and environment, they acted on it immediately no matter how much resources were put to waste.

The Rocky Flats Plant, on the other hand, was a weapons production facility of the United States Atomic Energy that operated from 1952 to 1988, which was located near Denver, Colorado. The general public experienced few health risks due to plutonium releases from the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production plant just outside Denver, Colorado. This conclusion is one of the findings of a decade-long study sponsored by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on releases of dangerous radioactive and toxic materials from the plant. This facility processed plutonium and manufactured nuclear weapons from 1952 until 1989 and is now in the midst of a multi-billion dollar clean up operation.

There is much evidence that radiological catastrophes were narrowly averted at Rocky Flats, particularly during two major fires in the buildings where plutonium was processed. Many nuclear weapons workers, including those at the now-demolished Rocky Flats plant near Denver, became ill or died as a result of radiation contamination during their building atomic bombs during the Cold War. The evidence also reveals how the government and its contractors intentionally kept the public in the dark about the dangers posed by the plant.

The Rocky Flats Plant story should serve as a reminder of how excessive secrecy can increase the health risks to the public. Secrecy worsened many plant safety and health problems, and greatly reduced both the plant management’s accountability and the public’s trust in its words. For example, during much of the plant’s history, it operated without regard to many of the Atomic Energy Commission’s fire safety standards then in effect. Following a major fire in 1957, neither the public nor the Colorado state government was informed that a major plutonium release had happened. At the time, the federal government didn’t even publicly confirm that Rocky Flats was handling plutonium.

Lessons about preventing and fighting plutonium fires that could have been learned as a result of the 1957 fire were simply ignored in the climate of secrecy and over-emphasis on production activities. The result was an even worse fire in 1969 that came close to contaminating the entire Denver area with large amounts of plutonium.

If the fire had not been contained by the heroic actions of the firemen, hundreds of square miles could be involved in radiation exposure and cleanup at an astronomical cost as well as creating a very intense reaction by the general public exposed to this. The fire had been largely kept within the building, therefore resulting in relatively small plutonium releases. If the fire had been a little bigger, it is questionable whether it could have been contained.

Plant officials shrugged off the plant’s brush with disaster; the plant official in charge of nuclear safety emergency planning advised the investigation board that there was no need to have plans for possible off-site damage or personal injuries, since it was not possible for serious off-site contamination to occur, and expressed the view that if such contamination were possible the plant should not be located where it is.

Following the 1969 fire, plant officials resisted telling the public that there had been releases of plutonium from the plant. Independent scientists started demanding answers and, through their detective work, forced the plant to admit to off-site plutonium releases, safety problems and additional accidents. However, most of the more alarming information remained secret.

The government subsequently released much previously secret information. This information, needed to estimate historical releases and determine environmental contamination, has been critical to the study’s thoroughness and public credibility. Such information was declassified without harming U.S. national security. Openness, accountability and national security need not be in conflict with one another.

By its thoroughness and scientific credibility, the recent health department study goes a long way in healing the wound in the Denver area about releases from the Rocky Flats Plant. Secrecy kept the public ignorant about the Rocky Flats Plant’s true risk. Realizing that cleaning up the plant can still pose a risk to the public means that active public oversight remains necessary. Societies should learn from history and avoid more secrecy. Jared Diamond has catalogued the resistance based on real, historical cases and it’s instructive. “By reflecting deeply on causes of past failures,” says Diamond, “we may be able to mend our ways and increase our chances for future success.”

Even after perceiving a problem, a society may fail to try to solve it. Societies often fail even to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived. Many of the reasons for such failure fall under the heading of what economists term “rational behavior,” arising from clashes of interest between people. That is, some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behavior harmful to other people. The perpetrators feel safe because they are typically concentrated and highly motivated by the prospect of reaping big, certain and immediate profits while the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals.

As Diamond says, “… the winners from the bad status quo are typically concentrated (few in number) and highly motivated because they receive big, certain, immediate profits, while the losers are diffuse (the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals) and are unmotivated because they receive only small, uncertain, distant profits from undoing the rational bad behavior of the minority.”

The plant officials, even having perceived the problem given that it already happened in the Hanford Nuclear Facility, focused on their motives rather than the public’s at large. All that mattered to them was the continuation of Rocky Flats projects, for its advantages, and disregarded or rather, denied its overwhelming disadvantages to humans and the environment.

A conflict between short and long term outcomes may well come from a clash between individuals or it may come from a clash within each individual. Environmental practices of big businesses are shaped by a fundamental fact that for many of us offends our sense of justice. Depending on the circumstances, a business really may maximize its profits, at least in the short term, by damaging the environment and hurting people. When government regulation is effective, and when the public is environmentally aware, environmentally clean big businesses may outcompete dirty ones, but the reverse is likely to happen if government regulation is ineffective and if the public doesn’t care.

Our blaming of business ignores the ultimate responsibility of the public for creating the conditions that let a business profit through hurting the public. In the long run, either directly or through its politicians, it is the public that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal, and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable.

Diamond notes another reason for a failure to attempt to solve perceived problems. It involves, he says, what social scientists call “irrational behavior” i.e., behavior that is harmful for everybody. Such irrational behavior often arises when each of us individually is torn by a clash of values: we may ignore a bad status quo because it is favored by some deeply held value to which we cling. Psychologists use the term, “sunk-cost effect” for a related trait: we feel reluctant to abandon a policy, sell a stock, or in this case, demolish a large nuclear plant of years, toil, and money, in which we have already invested heavily.

A tremendously large investment was accounted for the Rocky Flats Plant that it is almost understandable how hard it was to demolish the site. But no matter how regretful it is, the bitter pill must be swallowed and the society must bite the bullet to win in the long-term, to conserve, which matters more than anything.

Many scientists now claim to see evidence that humanity is approaching a point of no return. There is a critical threshold in the interplay between the composition of the atmosphere and planetary processes at the Earth’s surface. To put it more simply, humans have arrived at a point in their evolution where they could virtually drive themselves to the point of extinction along with more than half of the other life-forms on Earth. And that calculation doesn’t take into account the potential for a thermonuclear holocaust unleashed by humans in a fear-driven attempt to compete and survive on a severely resource-constrained planet.

Diamond says, “They also asked a related question: how often did people wreak ecological damage intentionally, or at least while aware of the likely consequences? How often did people instead do it without meaning to, or out of ignorance? My students wondered – if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now – those people of the next century will be as astonished about our blindness today as we are about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.”

Jared Diamond’s accounts of failures and successes are worth our consideration because they are keys to preventing a global collapse of unprecedented proportions. In the spirit of enlightened self-interest we may be sufficiently instructed by them to help prevent the current crises from overwhelming human civilization and the other species that depend upon us for continued existence.


Ackland, L., (1999). Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West. The University of New Mexico Press.

Diamond, Jared (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

Gephart, R., (2003) Hanford: a Conversation about Nuclear Waste and Cleanup. Columbus: Battelle Press.

“Glovebox removal heralds new Flats era”, (2004). The Denver Post.

Kelley, K., (2006)”Jury Urges Millions in Penalties for Contamination Near Former Nuclear Site”, The New York Times.

Reuteman, B., (2006). “Vindication at last for all who feared Rocky Flats”, The Rocky Mountain News.