The Leak: Politics, Activists, and Loss of Trust at Brookhaven National Laboratory
How the discovery of a harmless leak of radiation sparked a media firestorm, political grandstanding, and fearmongering that closed a vital scientific facility.
In 1997, scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory found a small leak of radioactive water near their research reactor. Brookhaven was—and is—a world-class, Nobel Prize–winning lab, and its reactor was the cornerstone of US materials science and one of the world’s finest research facilities. The leak, harmless to health, came from a storage pool rather than the reactor. But its discovery triggered a media and political firestorm that resulted in the reactor’s shutdown, and even attempts to close the entire laboratory.
A quarter century later, the episode reveals the dynamics of today’s controversies in which fears and the dismissal of science disrupt serious discussion and research of vital issues such as vaccines, climate change, and toxic chemicals. This story has all the elements of a thriller, with vivid characters and dramatic twists and turns. Key players include congressmen and scientists; journalists and university presidents; actors, supermodels, and anti-nuclear activists, all interacting and teaming up in surprising ways. The authors, each with insider knowledge of and access to confidential documents and the key players, reveal how a fact of no health significance could be portrayed as a Chernobyl-like disaster. This compelling exposé reveals the gaps between scientists, politicians, media, and the public that have only gotten more dangerous since 1997.
Peter Bond is a retired physicist who worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory for 43 years in a wide variety of roles, including interim laboratory director during much of the period covered by this book.
Praise for The Leak: Politics, Activists, and Loss of Trust at Brookhaven National Laboratory
"This is a must read especially for science writers, public relations people, and laboratory bureaucrats."
"Seven Nobel prizes have been awarded for work at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Yet a leak of radioactive water from the facility turned its 50th anniversary in 1997 into a year of “chaos rather than celebration”, write philosopher of science Robert Crease — author of a history of the lab — and former Brookhaven physicist Peter Bond. Although the incident posed no health hazard, according to federal, state and local officials, it sparked a “firestorm” of activism and politics, captured in this vivid first-hand account."
“A fascinating, thought-provoking, and relevant study given the continuing ill-informed attacks on science and the resultant resistance to the use of science in determining public policy.”
— Midwest Book Review
“The book is well documented, with more than 500 references. If you have an open mind and an interest in science and public affairs, I'd say read it and draw your own conclusions.”
— The East Hampton Star