In The Dust Of This Planet

[Image: Photo by Dmitry Kostyukov, courtesy of The New York Times].

The New York Times has the strange story of an abandoned and overgrown military base near Paris where “scientists blew up more than half a ton of uranium in 2,000 explosions… often outdoors, just 14 miles from the Eiffel Tower.”

The site is now being considered for demolition, the ground beneath it to be excavated as part of a new gypsum mine—however, all that construction work risks stirring up clouds of “toxic uranium dust” from an earlier generation’s detonations.

Today, the old fort is part picturesque ruin, part Tarkovsky film:

These days curtains flap from rows of overgrown buildings; radiation symbols and other graffiti cover the security post, which is filled, weirdly, with women’s shoes. The empty housing of a vast supercomputer sits in gloom; vines spill into laboratories. The ruins recall the post-apocalypse landscape of Pripyat, the Ukrainian town evacuated after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

For all the controversy and narrative suspense, however, there are surprisingly few sites of detectable radioactivity. “In 2011,” we read, for example, “Christophe Nedelec, a local environmentalist, broke into the fort and, using an amateur Geiger counter, found three spots with elevated levels of radiation.” Three spots—considering that no fewer than an astonishing 150 kilograms—or roughly 330 pounds—of uranium are estimated to have blown around the grounds of the fort, that’s a seemingly reassuring find.

Yet the less optimistic view is that the uranium dust has already been and gone, lost and dissipated over decades into the surroundings neighborhoods, that are only “about nine miles from central Paris,” perhaps even blowing back into the city itself on windy days over a timespan of decades—uranium dust swirling down onto the streets and sidewalks, landing on the shoes, coats, and coffee cups of everyday Parisians who would otherwise have no real reason to worry about what appeared to be ordinary soot.

So, in a sense, the site has already depleted itself. This, certainly, resembles the view of the mining company that now wants to tear down the old fort and rip the landscape into a gypsum mine.

In any case, the site—and the people now guerrilla-gardening there—is worth a quick look over at the New York Times.

(The title of this post is borrowed from a pamphlet by Eugene Thacker, which has surreally and hilariously been in the news this past month after popping up on Glenn Beck’s show as an example of the threat of nihilism in U.S. popular culture; there is otherwise no connection between this post and the book—just toxic uranium dust…).

2 thoughts on “In The Dust Of This Planet”

  1. The Glen Beck piece was outrageous, what a scoundrel!

    On the subject of radioactive dust flying through the streets of Paris, billowing up from the grates of the metro and falling onto us like carcinogenic snow, I recall the tragically famous story of how the French government coerced the media into dealing with the Tchernobyl meltdown. Throughout Europe, TV news was showing the cloud of radioactive material spreading out of Ukraine, windswept over Poland, Denmark, Germany, and Benelux…

    On French TV however, there were images of the cloud miraculously stopping at the French/German border.

  2. Here's a thing: uranium ore is not very radioactive. Pure uranium is much more so — but even pure uranium is not, by itself, particularly dangerous. It's an alpha emitter, which means the radiation is easily blocked by clothing or skin.

    Now, uranium pulverized to dust and spread in the air could be problematic, because if you breathe it in you have real problems. One, the alpha particles are now inside you, where they can do real damage. Two, you're going to be exposed to some uranium decay products, like radium and polonium. Even in very tiny amounts, those are very bad. And finally, uranium is a heavy metal: even if it weren't radioactive, it would be kinda toxic.

    However, you'd need to work some to get uranium dust spread very far. That's because uranium is really, really heavy — it's one of the densest of all metals. It's denser than gold, almost twice as dense as lead. So unless you disperse it into a very, very fine dust — or burn it at high temperatures to produce smoke full of lower-densit uranium oxides, as happened at Chernobyl — it's not going to travel very far before it settles to the ground. (Of course, then it can end up in the water table, which presents its own set of issues.)

    Doug M.

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