Glowing reports

REAL LIVES, HALF LIVES: Tales From the Atomic Wasteland by Jeremy Hall, Penguin pounds 6.99
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WHEN the radioactivity from Chernobyl was spewing out over Europe in April 1986, a man in a white coat was stopping passers-by in the West End and waving a Geiger counter over them. After listening to its clicks, he would solemnly assure the London office workers and foreign tourists that they had not received a lethal dose of radiation.

He was, unfortunately, a complete sham. The Geiger counter was borrowed from a university lab and his only scientific qualification was a failed O-Level in Chemistry. He, or rather I, was engaged in a magazine stunt to test the public's gullibility. It was very gullible. It still is. An annual 95,000 people patronise the visitor centre at Sellafield to learn how nuclear energy is bringing about a heaven upon earth. Doubtless a large display is devoted to the occasion in 1983 when its radioactive excretions caused miles of Cumbrian beaches to be cordoned off.

It turned out that I was not the only liar around when Chernobyl was putting out at least 100 times more radioactivity than the Hiroshima bomb. The Russian government was defiantly asserting that the situation was well in hand. Even British officials were poo-pooing fears about the radioactive rain splashing down on Welsh sheep farms. It wasn't their mistake, but they still felt obliged to play down the nuclear disaster.

If, like Jeremy Hall's Real Lives, Half Lives, you start the clock in 1896 when Becquerel (as in becquerels of radioactivity) noticed that a lump of uranium could fog a photographic plate, the world has had its first nuclear century. It has not been a good 100 years. Nuclear energy has turned out to be an expensive disaster. Nuclear power was supposed to produce electricity too cheap to meter; instead the privatisers are finding that you can't give the generators away.

The end of the Cold War has not meant that nuclear swords are being recycled into ploughshares. The ploughshares were swords all the time. The Calder Hall reactor at Windscale (as it was called before being born again as Sellafield) was designed to produce plutonium for warheads, with electricity for civilians merely a by-product. The Queen may not have mentioned this when she declared the place open in 1956.

Jeremy Hall did not manage to quiz Her Majesty, but he has interviewed many denizens of the nuclear jungle. He heard a Moscow biophysicist explaining that radiation sickness is a misdiagnosis for "radiophobia", and that it was the stress of being evacuated from Chernobyl, not the critical reactor, which did the damage. He met Joseph Geronimo, the Apache who understandably became a NIMHG (Not In My Hunting-Grounds) when faced with a local scheme for a nuclear dustbin. He saw a South London trainspotter who plots the atomic expresses trundling past his bedroom window.

He chronicles the debate on how to write "Keep Out" over radioactive rubbish tips in such a way that it will be comprehensible in 10,000 years time, which is not quite as silly as it sounds. Uranium 235 has a half- life of 700 million years; if it had been buried long before the first dinosaurs showed up, it would by now have lost only half its radioactivity.

One way of warning our descendants away from the ruins of Sellafield in 700,000,000AD is to leave a copy of Real Lives, Half Lives around the site. Its cautionary tales of disasters and deceits build up to a hilariously awful picture: the inmates have not only been running the nuclear asylum but they have set a match to it and forgotten to buy a fire extinguisher.

Astonishingly, Jeremy Hall has managed to keep his temper and his sanity. His book is accessible both in price (a paperback original) and in style (intelligible even to O-Level Chemistry failures). Every page produces a hollow laugh, from the church in a Washington State atom town whose T-shirts boast "We Glow for God", to Idaho's "temporary" storage facility which has been festering away since the Fifties. As for the world's most radioactive man, I'm only too thankful that I didn't run my geiger counter over him in 1986.