With the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, some people ask: can nuclear power be made safe? The answer is no. Nuclear power can never be made safe.
This was clearly explained by Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “father” of the U.S. nuclear navy and in charge of construction of the first nuclear power plant in the nation, Shippingport in Pennsylvania. Before a committee of Congress, as he retired from the navy in 1982, Rickover warned of the inherent lethality of nuclear power — and urged that “we outlaw nuclear reactors.”
The basic problem: radioactivity.
“I’ll be philosophical,” testified Rickover. “Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on Earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn’t have any life — fish or anything.” This was from naturally-occurring cosmic radiation when the Earth was in the process of formation. “Gradually,” said Rickover, “about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet … reduced and made it possible for some form of life to begin.”
“Now, when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible,” he said. “Every time you produce radiation” a ‘horrible force’ is unleashed. By splitting the atom, people are recreating the poisons that precluded life from existing. “And I think there the human race is going to wreck itself,” Rickover stated.
This was Rickover, a key figure in nuclear power history, not Greenpeace.
The problem is radioactivity — unleashed when the atom is split. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a General Electric boiling water reactor such as those that have erupted at Fukushima, or the Westinghouse pressurized water design, or Russian-designed plants like Chernobyl, or the “new, improved” nuclear plants being touted by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a nuclear scientist and zealous promoter of nuclear technology. All nuclear power plants produce radiation as well as radioactive poisons like the Cesium-137, Iodine-131 and Strontium-90 that have been — and continue to be — spewed from the Fukushima plants.
Upon contact with life, these toxins destroy life. So from the time they’re produced in a nuclear plant to when they’re taken out as hotly radioactive “nuclear waste,” they must be isolated from life — for thousands, for some millions of years.
In the nuclear process, mildly radioactive uranium is taken from the ground and bombarded by neutrons — and that part of the uranium which can split, “fissile,” Uranium-235, is transformed into radioactive twins of safe and stable elements in nature: There are hundreds of these “fission products.” The human body doesn’t know the difference between these lethal twins and safe and stable elements. Also produced are alpha and beta particles and gamma rays, all radioactive.
In addition, much of the larger part of uranium, Uranium-238, which cannot split, grabs on to neutrons and turns into Plutonium-239, the most radioactive substance known.
In this atom-splitting, too, heat is produced — which is used to boil water. Nuclear power plants are simply the most dangerous way to boil water ever conceived.
Why use this toxic process to boil water and generate electricity? It has far less to do with science than with politics and economics — from the aftermath of the Manhattan Project to today. During the World War II Manhattan Project, scientists working at laboratories secretly set up across the U.S. built atomic weapons. By 1945, it employed 600,000 people and billions of dollars were spent. Two bombs were dropped on Japan. And, with the war’s end, the Manhattan Project became the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and more nuclear weapons were built. But what else could be done with nuclear technology to perpetuate the nuclear undertaking?
Many of the scientists and government officials didn’t want to see their jobs end; corporations which were Manhattan Project contractors, notably General Electric and Westinghouse, didn’t want to see their contracts ended. As James Kunetka writes in his book City of Fire (about Los Alamos National Laboratory), with the war over there were problems of “job placement, work continuity… more free time than work… hardly enough to keep everyone busy.”
Nuclear weapons don’t lend themselves to commercial spinoff. What else could be done with atomic technology to keep the nuclear establishment going? Schemes advanced included using nuclear devices as substitutes for dynamite to blast huge holes in the ground — including stringing 125 atomic devices across the isthmus of Panama and setting them off to create the “Panatomic Canal,” utilizing radioactivity to zap food so it could seemingly be stored for years; building nuclear-powered airplanes (this didn’t go far because of the weight of the lead shielding needed to protect the pilots) — and using the heat built up by the nuclear reaction to boil water to produce electricity.
All along, the nuclear scientists — such as Chu now — attempted to minimize, indeed deny, the lethal danger of radioactivity and, like Nuclear Pinocchios, they pushed their technology.
Nuclear power plants — all 443 on the earth today — should be closed and no new ones built. As Rickover declared, nuclear reactors must be outlawed.
During the Bill Clinton campaign years ago, the slogan was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” With nuclear power plants, “It’s the radioactivity” — inherent in the process and deadly.
Instead we must fully implement the use of safe, clean, renewable energy technologies like solar, wind (now the fastest growing energy source and cheaper than nuclear) and geothermal and all the rest which, major studies have concluded, can provide all the energy the world needs — energy without lethal radioactivity, energy we can live with.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be holding a meeting this week to consider having nuclear power plants run 80 years—although they were never seen as running for more than 40 years because of radioactivity embrittling metal parts and otherwise causing safety problems.
“The idea of keeping these reactors going for 80 years is crazy!” declares Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy advisor at the U.S, Department of Energy and a U.S. Senate senior investigator. He is also an author of the book Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation. “To double the design life of these plants—which operate under high-pressure, high heat conditions and are subject to radiation fatigue—is an example of out-of-control hubris, of believing your own lies.”
“In a post-Fukushima world, the NRC has no case to renew life-spans of old, danger-prone nuke plants. Rather, they must be shut down,” says Priscilla Star, director of the Coalition Against Nukes.
“This is an absurdity and shows the extent to which the NRC is captured,” says Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst at Greenpeace. “Nuclear regulators know that embrittlement of the reactor vessels limits nuclear plant life but are willing to expose the public to greater risks from decrepit, old and leaking reactors. As we learned from Fukushima, the nuclear industry is willing to expose the public to catastrophic risks.”
Nevertheless, on Thursday at its headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, the NRC is to hold a meeting with the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute, which does studies for the nuclear industry, “to discuss and coordinate long-term operability research programs,” says the NRC, which could lead to it letting nuclear plants run for 80 years.
For more than a decade, the NRC has been extending the operating licenses of nuclear plants from 40 years to 60 years. And just as the NRC has never denied a construction or operating license for a nuclear plant anywhere, anytime in the U.S., it has rubber-stamped every application that has come before it for a 20-year extension of the plant’s original 40-year license. It has now approved 60-year operating licenses for 73 of the 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S.
When the NRC in 2009 OK’d extending the operating license to 60 years of the oldest nuclear plant in the U.S., Oyster Creek in New Jersey, Jeff Titel, president of the New Jersey Sierra Club, declared: “This decision is radioactive. To keep open the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant for another 20 years is just going to lead to a disaster. We could easily replace the plant with 200 windmills that will not pose a danger.” With the same General Electric design as the six Fukushima nuclear power plants, the plant is 60 miles south of New York City.
The first nuclear plants given permission by the NRC to operate for 60 years were the two Calvert Cliffs plants located on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay near Lusby, Maryland, 45 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. That came in 1999. The NRC license extension program is “blind to how these machines are breaking apart at the molecular level…they embrittle, crack and corrode,” said Paul Gunter, then with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and now director of the Reactor Oversight Project of the organization Beyond Nuclear. The NRC in its “rigged game” is driving the nation toward a nuclear disaster, said Gunter. “The term ‘nuclear safety’ is an oxymoron. It’s an inherently dangerous process and an inherently dangerous industry that has been aging.”
The Associated Press conducted “a yearlong investigation of aging issues at the nation’s nuclear power plants” and, in a report in June 2011 by Jeff Donn, declared: “Regulators now contend that the 40-year limit was chosen for economic reasons and to satisfy safety concerns, not for safety issues. They contend that a nuclear plant has no technical limit on its life. But an AP review of historical records, along with interviews with engineers who helped develop nuclear power, shows just the opposite: Reactors were made to last only 40 years. Period.”
Moreover, “the AP found that the relicensing process often lacks fully independent safety reviews. Records show that paperwork of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sometimes matches word-for-word the language used in a plant operator’s application.” Also, under the NRC’s “relicensing rules, tight standards are not required to compensate for decades of wear and tear.”
Getting operating license extensions “is a lucrative deal for operators,” said the AP.
With operating license extensions, operators of nuclear power plants can wring out as much profits as they can. And not only do they want their plants to operate beyond their 40-year design basis, but they have been asking—and getting approval from the NRC—to have their plants generate more electricity than they were designed to provide, to run hotter and harder. The NRC calls this “uprating”—and has obliged the industry on this, too, simultaneous with extending the operating licenses of nuclear plants.
Alvarez commented last week: “Would you want to drive around in an 80-year-old automobile souped-up to go twice as fast as it was supposed to?”
“They are pushing these machines at levels and for time periods for which they were not envisioned operating,” said Alvarez. Much of “this 80-year business,” he added, involves a concern by the nuclear industry that “they’re not going to build any new reactors anytime soon”—thus the push to keep existing plants running. And, a “root cause” is that those behind nuclear power “operate in isolation, secrecy and privilege and only talk to themselves. They form an echo chamber. They cast out those who do not agree. These are the prime ingredients of corruption of science and safety.”
By extending the operating licenses of nuclear plants , the NRC is inviting catastrophe. It’s asking for it. The gargantuan problem is that the “it” is atomic catastrophe which, as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster and last year’s Fukushima catastrophe have demonstrated, impacts on huge numbers of people and other forms of life.
It’s high time the NRC be abolished along with the toxic technology it promotes: nuclear power. And we fully embrace and implement safe, clean renewable energy technologies here today, led by solar and wind energy, rendering deadly dangerous nuclear power totally unnecessary.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.
Among the nuttiest theories about radiation is that it is good for you.
Yes, radiation is good for you – it exercises the immune system.
That’s what some nuclear scientists claim. They call it the “hormesis radiation” theory. These scientists don’t just want to minimize or even flatly deny the deadly impacts of radioactivity – they want people to think it’s healthy.
An advocate of the “hormesis radiation” theory was scheduled to peddle the theory tomorrow before the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site-Citizens Advisory Board.
The DOE’s Savannah River Site is a radioactive mess — 310 square miles in South Carolina — that includes the Savannah River National Laboratory and five now closed nuclear reactors. It’s been used through the years to produce plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons, plutonium-based MOX fuel for nuclear power plants and plutonium to power NASA space probes, and do other things nuclear. It is in an area of South Carolina which has a large minority population. It’s been designated a high-pollution Superfund site.
But Dr. Clinton R. Wolfe, executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, wasn’t planning to simply comfort the 25-person advisory board with the “hormesis radiation” theory as regarding the radioactive muddle where they reside.
The topic of his talk was; “A Perspective on Radiation Exposure and the Fukushima Disaster.” People in South Carolina indeed around the world have become more aware of and concerned about radioactivity because of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex disaster.
Wolfe, like many in his group, is a product of the system of DOE national nuclear laboratories. He was at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the atomic bomb was developed, specializing in work with plutonium, then worked for Westinghouse, a nuclear industry giant where he led research on nuclear power plant corrosion issues, according to his biography on his group’s website, and ended up at the Savannah River National Laboratory. After being deeply involved in nuclear technology both its military and civilian sides he took his position at Citizens for Nuclear Technology which, its website says, is committed “to being a credible, consistent voice on behalf of beneficial nuclear technologies and the Savannah River Site.” He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.
Wolfe telegraphed what he intended to talk about tomorrow in an op-ed piece in The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper.
Wolfe began by explaining, “‘Hormesis,’ a Greek word meaning ‘impel, urge on,’ refers to the phenomenon by which gradually adding a toxic substance to an organism produces an initial beneficial effect. The concept of small doses of radiation having beneficial effects on living organisms fits this model.” He said there “are considerable data on laboratory animals and selected populations of humans from epidemiological studies that show beneficial effects of low levels of radiation.”
He continued that “even if you don’t believe that some low levels of radiation are good for you, perhaps we can stop the hysteria about low levels causing harm. Based on what we know to date, there’s no reason to think that even the most highly irradiated workers at Fukushima will suffer harmful health effects.”
A grouping of safe-energy and environmental organizations took issue with Wolfe’s plan to pitch “hormesis radiation” to the Savannah River Site-Citizens Advisory Board.
They wrote a letter to the Department of Energy complaining that there would be “no accurate, science-based counterbalancing presentation that radiation at all doses can be harmful,” the agency’s “allowance for the presentation of a pseudo-scientific presentation to be irresponsible and believe that such a presentation may well give the false impression that hormesis is being endorsed by DOE.”
The letter discussed international and U.S. scientific bodies and reports that have concluded that there is “no threshold” for radiation exposure that any amount can harm a person and noted that the DOE itself “also affirms challenges to the hormesis theory.”
“Given that the hormesis theory does not comport with DOE policy and that a presentation about it is scheduled without equal time being given to an explanation of the linear no-threshold radiation dose model accepted by the scientific community, we request that you take steps to make sure that a presentation on the rejected hormesis theory does not remain on the Citizen Advisory Board’s agenda at its upcoming meeting.”
The letter also noted that Wolfe “does not appear to have requisite credentials in the medical or health physics fields.”
It was signed by: Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth, Michele Boyd of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Susan Corbett of the South Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club, Glenn Carroll of Nuclear Watch South, Mary Olson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Bobbie Paul of Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, David Kyle of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, Brett Bursey of the South Carolina Progressive Network and Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico.
The DOE then cancelled Wolfe’s talk.
“The public interest groups interested in the truth stopped the talk from going forward,” comments Clements of Friends of the Earth.
Wolfe is not the only nuclear scientist pushing the hormesis radiation-is-good-for-you-theory. A leader in promoting it has been Dr. T. D. Luckey, the author of Hormesis and Ionizing Radiation and Radiation Hormesis. He contends: “We need more, not less, exposure to ionizing radiation. The evidence that ionizing radiation is an essential agent has been reviewed? There is proven benefit.”
Luckey, whose Ph.D. is in biochemistry/nutrition, also states: “The trillions of dollars estimated for worldwide nuclear waste management can be reduced to billions to provide safe, low-dose irradiation to improve our health. The direction is obvious; the first step remains to be taken.”
Luckey did some of his research as a visiting scientist at another national nuclear laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory.
A medical expert on the impacts of radiation, Dr. Steven Wing of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, where he is a professor of epidemiology, comments that “Luckey and the others advocating hormesis are without foundation.”
Wing’s Ph.D. is in epidemiology, defined as the branch of medicine that deals with the study of the causes, distribution and control of diseases in populations.
He declares that the push for “radiation hormesis” is “related to the conflicts of interest” involving these individuals connected to “universities, government agencies, industry and government laboratories that profit from nuclear weapons and the nuclear power industry.”
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet (Common Courage Press) and wrote and presented the TV program Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (EnviroVideo).
The Obama administration is seeking to renew the use of nuclear power in space. It is calling for revived production by the U.S. of plutonium-238 for use in space devices—despite solar energy having become a substitute for plutonium power in space.
And the Obama administration appears to also want to revive the decades-old and long-discredited scheme of nuclear-powered rockets—despite strides made in new ways of propelling spacecraft. Last month, Japan launched what it called its “space yacht” which is now heading to Venus propelled by solar sails utilizing ionized particles emitted by the Sun. “Because of the frictionless environment, such a craft should be able to speed up until it is traveling many times faster than a conventional rocket-powered craft,” wrote Agence France-Presse about this spacecraft launched May 21.
But the Obama administration would return to using nuclear power in space—despite its enormous dangers.
A cheerleader for this is the space industry publication Space News. “Going Nuclear” was the headline of its editorial on March 1praising the administration for its space nuclear thrust. Space New declared that “for the second year in a row, the Obama administration is asking Congress for at least $30 million to begin a multiyear effort to restart domestic production of plutonium-238, the essential ingredient in long-lasting spacecraft batteries.”
The Space News editorial also noted that “President Obama’s NASA budget [for 2011] also includes support for nuclear thermal propulsion and nuclear electric propulsion research under a $650 million Exploration Technology and Demonstration funding line projected to triple by 2013.”
Space News declared: “Nuclear propulsion research experienced a brief revival seven years ago when then-NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe established Project Prometheus to design reactor-powered spacecraft. Mr. O’Keefe’s successor, Mike Griffin, wasted little time pulling the plug on NASA’s nuclear ambitions.”
Being referred to by Space News as “spacecraft batteries” are what are called radioisotope thermoelectric generators or RTGs, power systems using plutonium-238 to provide on board electricity on various space devices including, originally, on satellites.
But this came to an end when in 1964 a U.S. Navy navigational satellite with a SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) RTG on board failed to achieve orbit and fell to the Earth, disintegrating upon hitting the atmosphere. The 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel dispersed widely. A study by a group of European health and radiation protection agencies subsequently reported that “a worldwide soil sampling program carried out in 1970 showed SNAP-9A debris present at all continents and at all latitudes.” Long linking the SNAP-9A accident to an increase of lung cancer in people on Earth was Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, who was involved in isolating plutonium for the Manhattan Project.
The SNAP-9A accident caused NASA to turn to using solar photovoltaic panels on satellites. All U.S. satellites are now solar-powered.
But NASA persisted in using RTGs on space probes—claiming there was no choice. This was a false claim. Although NASA, for instance, insisted—including in sworn court depositions —that it had no alternative but to use RTGs on its Galileo mission to Jupiter launched in 1989, documents I subsequently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from NASA included a study done by its Jet Propulsion Laboratory stating that solar photovoltaic panels could have substituted for plutonium-fueled RTGs.
And right now, the Juno space probe—which will getting its on board electricity only from solar photovoltaic panels—is being readied by NASA for a launch next year to Jupiter. It’s to make 32 orbits around Jupiter and perform a variety of scientific missions.
Meanwhile, in recent years facilities in the U.S. to produce plutonium-238—hotspots for worker contamination and environmental pollution—have been closed and the U.S. has been obtaining the radionuclide from Russia. Under the Obama 2011 budget, U.S. production would be restarted. Last year, Congress refused to go along with this Obama request.
As for rocket propulsion with atomic energy, building such rockets was a major U.S. undertaking 50 and 60 years ago, under a program called NERVA (for Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) followed by Projects Pluto, Rover and Poodle. Billions of dollars were spent and ground-testing done, but no nuclear rocket ever got off the ground. There were concerns over a nuclear rocket blowing up on launch or crashing back to Earth. The effort ended in 1972 but was revived in the 1980s under President Reagan’s Star Wars program. The “Timberwind” nuclear-powered rocket was developed then to loft heavy Star Wars equipment into space and also for trips to Mars. Most recently, Project Prometheus to build nuclear-powered rockets was begun by NASA in 2003, but ended in 2006, the cancellation referred to in the Space News editorial.
Obama’s choice to head NASA, Charles Bolden, favors nuclear-powered rockets—but he acknowledges public resistance. In a recent presentation before the Council on Foreign Relations, he opened the door to having a nuclear-powered rocket launched conventionally and moving in space with nuclear power.
Bolden, a former astronaut and U.S. Marine Corps major general, spoke in the May 24th address, of work by another ex-astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, on a nuclear-propelled rocket. “Chang-Diaz is developing what’s called a VASIMIR rocket,” said Bolden. “It’s an ion engine, very gentle impulse that just pushes you forever, constantly accelerating. And this, theoretically, is something that would enable us to go from Earth to Mars in a matter of some time significantly less than it takes us now.”
But, he said, “most people…in the United States are never going to agree to allow nuclear rockets to launch things from Earth.” Yet “once you get into space, you know, if we can convince people that we can contain it and not put masses of people in jeopardy, nuclear propulsion for in-space propulsion” would enable a faster trip to Mars. He said, “You don’t want to have to take eight months to go from Earth orbit to Mars.”
Having nuclear power systems only activated once up in space was a system followed by the Soviet Union—because of it having suffered many launch pad explosions. Still, the scheme wasn’t accident-free. The worst Soviet space nuclear device accident involved its Cosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite. Its on board nuclear reactor was only activated after launch when the reactor was in orbit. But then there was a malfunction causing Cosmos 954 to tumble out of control and hurtle back to Earth, breaking up and spreading hotly radioactive debris over 124,000 square miles of the Northwest Territories of Canada.
President Obama, in a speech on “Space Exploration in the 2lst Century” given April 15 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, didn’t mention nuclear-powered rockets (not even those that would only be activated after launch). He did announce that “we will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced heavy lift rocket—a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it.”
“At the same time, after decades of neglect, we will increase investment—right away—in other groundbreaking technologies that will allow astronauts to reach space sooner and more often, to travel farther and faster,” he said.
“How do we supply spacecraft with energy needed for these far-reaching journeys? These are questions that we can answer and will answer. And these are the questions whose answers no doubt will reap untold benefits right here on Earth.”
“And by 2025,” Obama said, “we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start—we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars.”
“I want to repeat this,” Obama asserted. “Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies.”
With Obama on the platform was U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida—who he introduced at the start of his speech. Nelson in 1986 was a passenger on the space shuttle (before the 1986 Challenger disaster ended the shuttle passenger program) and he is a member of Senate Science and Transportation Committee. Although Obama was not specific on the kind of spacecraft he envisioned for trips to Mars, later that day on “Hardball With Chris Matthews” on MSNBC, Nelson was—and it was Chang-Diaz’s nuclear rocket. “One of my crewmates,” said Nelson, speaking of former astronaut Chang-Diaz who was with him on the 1986 shuttle flight, “is developing a plasma rocket that would take us to Mars in 39 days.”
The object of Administrator Bolden and Senator Nelson’s technical affections, Chang-Diaz, a Costa Rican-native, the first naturalized U.S. citizen to become a U.S. astronaut, founded the Ad Astra Rocket Company after retiring from NASA in 2005. He is its president and CEO. In an interview with Seed last year, he said the engine for his VASIMIR (for Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) could work with solar power. The engine uses plasma gas heated by electric current to extremely high temperatures.
But larger versions are needed for space travel and they require nuclear power, said Chang-Diaz. “What we really need is nuclear power to generate electricity in space. If we don’t develop it, we might as well quit, because we’re not going to go very far. Nuclear power is central to any robust and realistic human exploration of space. People don’t really talk about this at NASA. Everybody is still avoiding facing this because of widespread anti-nuclear sentiment.”
“People have fears of nuclear power in space,” continued Chang-Diaz, “but it’s a fear that isn’t really based on any organized and clear assessment of the true risks and costs.”
Comments Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space: “Despite claims that ‘new’ and innovative technologies are under development at NASA, the story remains much the same—push nuclear power applications for future space missions. Obama is proving to be a major proponent of expansion of nuclear power—both here on Earth and in space. His ‘trip to an asteroid and missions to Mars’ plan appears to be about reviving the role of nuclear power in space. The nuclear industry must be cheering.”
KARL GROSSMAN, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, has focused on investigative reporting on energy and environmental issues for more than 40 years. He is the host of the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up (EnviroVideo) and the author of numerous books.
Nuclear advocates in government and the nuclear industry are engaged in a massive, heavily financed drive to revive atomic power in the United States-with most of the mainstream media either not questioning or actually assisting in the promotion.
“With a very few notable exceptions, such as the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. media have turned the same sort of blind, uncritical eye on the nuclear industry’s claims that led an earlier generation of Americans to believe atomic energy would be too cheap to meter,” comments Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “The nuclear industry’s public relations effort has improved over the past 50 years, while the natural skepticism of reporters toward corporate claims seems to have disappeared.”
The New York Times continues to be, as it was a half-century ago when nuclear technology was first advanced, a media leader in pushing the technology, which collapsed in the U.S. with the 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant accidents. The Times has showered readers with a variety of pieces advocating a nuclear revival, all marbled with omissions and untruths. A lead editorial headlined “The Greening of Nuclear Power” (5/13/06) opened:
Not so many years ago, nuclear energy was a hobgoblin to environmentalists, who feared the potential for catastrophic accidents and long-term radiation contamination…But this is a new era, dominated by fears of tight energy supplies and global warming. Suddenly nuclear power is looking better.
Parroting a central atomic industry theme these days, the Times editors declared, “Nuclear energy can replace fossil-fuel power plants for generating electricity, reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute heavily to global warming.” As a TV commercial frequently aired by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry trade group, states: “Nuclear power plants don’t emit greenhouses gases, so they protect our environment.”
What is left unmentioned by the NEI, the Times and other mainstream media making this claim is that the overall nuclear cycle—which includes uranium mining and milling, enrichment, fuel fabrication and disposal of radioactive waste—has significant greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
As Michel Lee, chair of the Council on Intelligent Energy & Conservation Policy, wrote in an (unpublished) letter to the Times, the
dirty secret is that nuclear power makes a substantial contribution to global warming. Nuclear power is actually a chain of highly energy-intensive industrial processes. These include uranium mining, conversion, enrichment and fabrication of nuclear fuel; construction and deconstruction of the massive nuclear facility structures; and the disposition of high-level nuclear waste.
She included information on independent studies that document in detail the extent to which the entire nuclear cycle generates greenhouse emissions.
Separately, Lee wrote to a Times journalist stating that the “fiction” that nuclear power does not contribute to global warming has been a prime feature of the nuclear industry’s and Bush administration’s PR campaign that unfortunately . . . has been swallowed by a number of New York Times reporters, op-ed columnists and editors.”
In “The Greening of Nuclear Power,” the Times, like other mainstream media touting a nuclear restart, also spoke of environmentalists changing their stance on nuclear power. “Two new leaders have emerged to encourage the building of new nuclear reactors,” according to the editorial. They happen to be Christine Todd Whitman, George W. Bush’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and Patrick Moore, “a co-founder of Greenpeace.” The Times heralded this as “the latest sign that nuclear power is getting a more welcome reception from some environmentalists.”
However, “both Whitman and Moore . . . are being paid to do so by the Nuclear Energy Institute,” noted the Center for Media and Democracy’s Diane Farsetta (PR Watch, 3/14/07). In her piece “Moore Spin: Or, How Reporters Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Front Groups,” Farsetta also reported:
A Nexis news database search on March 1, 2007 identified 302 news items about nuclear power that cite Moore since April 2006. Only 37 of those pieces-12 percent of the total-mention his financial relationship with NEI.
Whitman and Moore were hired as part of NEI’s “Clean and Safe Energy Coalition” in 2006, which is “fully funded” by the institute, Farsetta noted. As for Moore and Greenpeace, his “association . . . ended in 1986, and he has now spent more time working as a PR consultant to the logging, mining, biotech, nuclear and other industries . . . than he did as an environmental activist.”
According to Harvey Wasserman, senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and co-author of Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience With Atomic Radiation (Brattleboro Reformer, 2/24/07), “Moore sailed on the first Greenpeace campaign, but he did not actually found the organization.” Wasserman went on to cite an actual founder of the organization, Bob Hunter, describing Moore as “the Judas of the ecology movement.”
Insisting that “there is good reason to give nuclear power a fresh look,” “The Greening of Nuclear Power “ further claimed, “It can diversify our sources of energy with a fuel-uranium—that is both abundant and inexpensive.”
This, too, was bogus. The uranium from which fuel used in nuclear power plants is made—so-called “high-grade” ore containing substantial amounts of fissionable uranium-235—is, in fact, not “abundant.” As Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation told BBC News (11/29/05), “another dirty little secret” of nuclear power is that “startlingly, there’s only a few decades left of the proven high-grade uranium ore it needs for fuel.” This has been the projection for years.
Indeed, this limit on “high-grade” uranium ore is why the industry projects that, in the long-term, nuclear power will need to be based on breeder reactors running on manmade plutonium. But use of plutonium-fueled reactors has been stymied because they can explode like atomic bombs-they contain tons of plutonium fuel, while the first bomb using plutonium, dropped on Nagasaki, contained 15 pounds. Because it takes only a few pounds of plutonium to make an atomic bomb, they also constitute an enormous proliferation risk.
“The Jane Fonda Effect” (9/16/07), a Times Magazine column by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, blamed nuclear power’s stall on the 1979 film The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, which opened days before the Three Mile Island partial meltdown. “Stoked by The China Syndrome, it caused widespread panic,” wrote Dubner and Levitt, even though, they maintained, “the accident did not produce any deaths, injuries or significant damage.”
In fact, the utility that owned Three Mile Island has for years been quietly paying people whose family members died, contracted cancer or were otherwise impacted by the accident. While settlements range up to $1 million, the utility company continues to insist this does not acknowledge fault. The toll of Three Mile Island is chronicled in my television documentary Three Mile Island Revisited (EnviroVideo, 1993) and Wasserman’s book Killing Our Own (which includes a devastating chapter, “People Died at Three Mile Island”), among other works.
But Dubner and Levitt continue undeterred, declaring, “The big news is that nuclear power may be making a comeback in the United States.” They acknowledge the Chernobyl accident, stating that it “killed at least a few dozen people directly.” They admit that it “exposed millions more to radiation,” but keep silent about the consequences of this in terms of illness and death. This atomic version of Holocaust denial flies in the face of voluminous research on the disaster that puts the number of dead in the hundreds of thousands.
At least 500,000 people—perhaps more—have already died out of the 2 million people who were officially classed as victims of Chernobyl in Ukraine, said Nikolai Omelyanets, deputy head of the National Commission for Radiation Protection in Ukraine (Guardian, 3/25/06). Dr. Alexey Yablokov, president of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, calculates a death toll of 300,000. In the book Chernobyl: 20 Years On, which he co-edited, Yablokov writes, “In 20 years it has become clear that not tens, hundreds of thousands, but millions of people in the Northern Hemisphere have suffered and will suffer from the Chernobyl catastrophe.”
The New York Times Magazine also published “Atomic Balm?” (7/16/06), by Jon Gertner; the subhead read, “For the first time in decades, increasing the role of nuclear power in the United States may be starting to make political, environmental and even economic sense.” Gertner used the term nuclear “renaissance,” and again forwarded the claim that “the supply [of uranium] is abundant.”
Gertner told of how the “lifespan” for nuclear plants was set at 40 years because this was considered “how long a large nuclear plant could safely operate.” This has” proved a conservative estimate,” he states—without providing a factual basis. So the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been “granting 20-year extensions” to the 103 U.S. nuclear plants so they “can run for a total of 60 years.” (Consider the safety and reliability of 60-year-old cars speeding down highways.)
“Even with such licensing renewals, though, it’s doubtful the current fleet of plants will run for, say, 80 years,” he continued, and “that means the industry, in a way, is in a race against time. It needs to build new plants because the absence of nuclear power would probably pose tremendous challenges for the United States.”
The New York Times also allows its nuclear advocacy to slip into its news stories. In an article (11/27/07) about the French nuclear power company Areva signing a deal with a Chinese atomic corporation, Times reporter John Tagliabue wrote of Areva chief executive Anne Lauvergeon’s “long path from dirty hands to clean energy.” The ““dirty hands referred to a youthful interest in archaeology; that nuclear power is “clean energy” appears to require no explanation.
Another story, datelined Fort Collins, Colorado (11/19/07), reported on two energy projects proposed for what the paper calls “a deeply green city.” Describing the plans as “exposing the hard place that communities like this across the country are likely to confront,” Times reporter Kirk Johnson wrote:
“Both projects would do exactly what the city proclaims it wants, helping to produce zero-carbon energy. But one involves crowd-pleasing, feel-good solar power, and the other is a uranium mine, which has a base of support here about as big as a pinkie. Environmentalism and local politics have collided with a broader ethical and moral debate about the good of the planet, and whether some places could or should be called upon to sacrifice for their high-minded goals.”
Other media promoting a nuclear revival-their words prominently featured on NEI’s website-include USA Today (3/5/06): “The facts are straightforward: Nuclear power . . . creates virtually none of the pollution that causes climate change and delivers electricity cheaper than other forms of generation do.” And the Augusta Chronicle (8/21/06): “Nuclear power—for decades perceived as an environmental scourge—is emerging as the cleanest and most cost-efficient source of energy available, a fact conceded even by environmentalists.” And Investors Business Daily (12/1/06): “We can worry about imaginary threats of nuclear energy or the real dangers of fossil fuel pollution.”
Glenn Beck of CNN Headline News also joined the chorus of support (5/2/07): “Look, America should embrace nuclear power, even if it’s [just] to get off the foreign oil bandwagon.” This is also common nuclear disinformation, that nuclear power is needed to displace foreign oil. The only energy produced by nuclear power is electricity—and only 3 percent of electricity in the U.S. is generated with oil.
There are a few exceptions in the mainstream media, notably the other Times, the Los Angeles Times. “The dream that nuclear power would turn atomic fission into a force for good rather than destruction unraveled with the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 and the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986,” the paper stated (7/23/07) in an editorial headlined: “No to Nukes: It’s Tempting to Turn to Nuclear Plants to Combat Climate Change, but Alternatives Are Safer and Cheaper.” Those who claim nuclear power “must be part of any solution” to global warming or climate change make a weak case, said the L.A. Times, citing
the enormous cost of building nuclear plants, the reluctance of investors to fund them, community opposition and an endless controversy over what to do with the waste…What’s more, there are cleaner, cheaper, faster alternatives that come with none of the risks.
As to the risks, the mainstream media’s handling—or non-handling—of the U.S. government’s most comprehensive study on the consequences of a nuclear plant accident is instructive. Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences 2 (known as CRAC-2) was done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the 1980s. Bill Smirnow, an anti-nuclear activist, has tried for years to interest media in reporting on it—sending out information about it continually.
The study estimates the impacts from a meltdown at each nuclear plant in the U.S. in categories of “peak early fatalities,” “peak early injuries,” “peak cancer deaths” and “costs [in] billions.” (“Peak” refers to the highest calculated value—not a worst case scenario, as worse assumptions could have been chosen.) For the Indian Point 3 plant north of New York City, for example, the projection is that a meltdown would cause 50,000 “peak early fatalities,” 141,000 “peak early injuries,” 13,000 “peak cancer deaths,” and $314 billion in property damage—and that’s based on the dollar’s value in 1980, so the cost today would be nearly $1 trillion. For the Salem 2 nuclear plant in New Jersey, the study projects 100,000 “peak early fatalities,” 70,000 “peak early injuries,” 40,000 “peak cancer deaths,” and $155 billion in property damage. The study provides similarly staggering numbers across the country.
“I’ve sent the CRAC-2 material out for years to media and have never heard a thing,” Smirnow told Extra!:
Not anyone in the media ever even asked me a question. There’s no excuse for this media inattention to such an important subject, and it shows how they’re falling flat on their faces in not performing their purported mission of educating and informing the public. Whatever their reason or reasons for not informing their readers and listeners, the effect is one of helping the nuclear power industry and hurting the public. If the public was informed, this new big pro-nuke push would never happen.
Also in the way of sins of omission is the media silence on “routine emissions”—the amount of radioactivity the U.S. government allows to be routinely released by nuclear plants. “It doesn’t take an accident for a nuclear power plant to release radioactivity into our air, water and soil,” says Kay Drey of Beyond Nuclear at the Nuclear Policy Research Institute. “All it takes is the plant’s everyday routine operation, and federal regulations permit these radioactive releases. Rarely, if ever, is this reported by media” The radioactive substances regularly emitted include tritium, krypton and xenon. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sets a “permissible” level for these “routine emissions,” but, as Drey states, “permissible does not mean safe.”
Another lonely voice amid the media nuclear cheerleaders is the Las Vegas Sun, which recently has been especially outraged by $50 billion in loan guarantees for the nuclear industry to build new nuclear plants included in the 2007 Energy Bill. The Sun demanded (8/1/07): “Pull the Plug Already.”
In reporting on the economics of nuclear power, mainstream media virtually never mention the many government subsidies for it, while continuing to claim that it’s “cost-effective” (Augusta Chronicle, 8/21/06). One such giveaway is the Price-Anderson Act, which shields the nuclear industry from liability for catastrophic accidents. Price-Anderson, supposed to be temporary when first enacted in 1957, has been extended repeatedly and now limits liability in the event of an accident to $10 billion, despite CRAC-2’s projections of consequences far worse than that.
Writing on Common Dreams (9/11/07), Ralph Nader explored the economic issue. “Taxpayers alert!” he declared:
The atomic power corporations are beating on the doors in Washington to make you guarantee their financing for more giant nuclear plants. They are pouring money and applying political muscle to Congress for up to $50 billion in loan guarantees to persuade an uninterested Wall Street that Uncle Sam will pay for any defaults on industry construction loans. . . . The atomic power industry does not give up. Not as long as Uncle Sam can be dragooned to be its subsidizing, immunizing partner. Ever since the first of 100 plants opened in 1957, corporate socialism has fed this insatiable atomic goliath with many types of subsidies.
Yet another claim by mainstream media in pushing for a nuclear revival is the success of the French nuclear program. 60 Minutes (4/8/07) did it in a segment called “Vive Les Nukes.” (See FAIR Action Alert, 4/18/07.) Correspondent Steve Kroft started with the nuclear-power-doesn’t-contribute-to-global-warming myth:
With power demands rising and concerns over global warming increasing, what the world needs now is an efficient means of producing carbon-free energy. And one of the few available options is nuclear, a technology whose time seemed to come and go, and may now be coming again. . . . With zero greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. government, public utilities and even some environmental groups are taking a second look at nuclear power, and one of the first places they’re looking to is France, where its been a resounding success.
In fact, wind power could supply more energy to the U.S. grid than nuclear does today, and when combined with a mix of energy efficiency and other renewable energy sources, could provide a continuous energy supply that would help us make dramatic reductions in global warming.
Dismissal of renewable energy forms is another major facet of mainstream medias drive for a nuclear power revival. As the St. Petersburg Times put it (12/08/06), “While renewable sources of energy such as solar power are still in the developmental stage, nuclear is the new green.” Renewables Are Ready was the title of a 1999 book written by two UCS staffers. Today, they are more than ready. “Wind is the cheapest form of new generation now being built,” wrote Greenpeace advisor Wasserman (Free Press, 4/10/07). He pointed to an array of wind, solar, bio-fuels, geothermal, ocean thermal and increased conservation and efficiency.
Wasserman has also written about another element ignored by most mainstream media (Free Press, 7/9/07): “The switch to renewables defunds global terrorism. Atomic reactors are pre-deployed weapons of radioactive mass destruction. Shutting them down ends the fear of apocalyptic disaster by both terror and error. He stressed, again, that safe, clean energy is here and we could replace everything with available technology that could easily supply all our needs while allowing a sustainable planet to survive and thrive.”
What are the causes of the media nuclear dysfunction? The obvious problem is media ownership. General Electric, for one, is both a leading nuclear plant manufacturer and a media mogul, owning NBC and other outlets. (For years, CBS was owned by Westinghouse; Westinghouse and GE are the Coke and Pepsi of nuclear power.) There have been board and financial interlocks between the media and nuclear industries. There is the long-held pro-nuclear faith at media such as the New York Times. (See Sidebar)
There is also the giant public relations operation—both corporate, led by the NEI, and government, involving the Department of Energy and its national nuclear laboratories. “You have the NEI and the nuclear industry propagandizing on nuclear power, and journalists taking down what the industry is saying and not looking at the veracity of their claims,” Greenpeace USA nuclear policy analyst Jim Riccio told Extra!.
And then there’s lots of money. FAIR recently exposed (Action Alert, 8/22/07) how National Public Radio, which broadcasts many pro-nuclear pieces, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from nuclear operator Sempra Energy and Constellation Energy, which belongs to Nustart Energy, a 10-company consortium pushing for new nuclear power plant construction.
The only thing green about nuclear power is the nuclear establishment’s dollars.
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. Books he has written about nuclear technology include Cover Up: What You ARE NOT Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power. He has hosted many television programs on nuclear technology on EnviroVideo.
The New York Times is not alone in promoting a revival of nuclear power. But as the U.S. paper of record, it sets the media tone. Its pro-nuclear editorial culture began decades ago when the Manhattan Project and its corporate contractors (notably General Electric and Westinghouse, which became the major manufacturers of nuclear power plants) sought to perpetuate what was established during World War II, by making other things atomic.
Because of the Times’ importance, Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves personally arranged for its reporter, William Laurence, to join the project. Laurence was responsible for the first piece of nuclear media disinformation; he wrote a press statement to cover up the first test of an atomic device, claiming there had been an ammunition dump explosion. Laurence later, as the only “journalist” that had been at the 1945 Trinity test, wrote that it was like being “present at the moment of creation when the Lord said ‘let there be light.’”
After atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the Times both ran and distributed free to the nation’s other newspapers a 10-part series written by Laurence glorifying the Manhattan Project, notes News Zero: The New York Times and The Bomb by Beverly Keever (Common Courage Press). Radioactivity was all but unmentioned in the series.
And the Times science reporter continued for years to wax poetic about atomic technology. “From the dawn of the atomic-bomb age, Laurence and the Times almost single-handedly shaped the news of this epoch and helped birth the acceptance of the most destructive force ever created,” writes Keever, professor of journalism at the University of Hawaii. Laurence would describe nuclear power as “making the dream of the Earth as a Promised Land come true.”
The last time anyone ordered a new nuclear power plant in the United States was in 1978, but if you think that means nukes are dead forever, guess again. The Bush Administration and the nuclear industry are making an intense push to rehabilitate nuclear power in the U.S. “It’s like reviving Frankenstein — this is the sequel,” says Robert Alvarez, executive director of the Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR) Foundation and co-author of Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation.
Diane D’Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) uses another word when describing the Administration’s work. Says D’Arrigo: “It’s the push to relapse.”
Ever since the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl shattered public trust in atomic power, advocates in government and industry have been laying the groundwork for a nuclear energy comeback. An unbridled drive has started under George W. Bush in what “may be the most ardently pro-nuclear power Presidency in U.S. history,” says Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based NIRS. The Bush Administration’s stance is aggressive, and it minimizes the dangers of nuclear power. As Bush’s Secretary of Treasury, Paul O’Neill, told The Wall Street Journal, “If you set aside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the safety record of nuclear power really is good.”
The Bush Administration struck a close working relationship with the nuclear industry well before taking office. The administration’s energy “transition” advisors included Joseph Colvin, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which describes itself as “the policy organization of the nuclear energy and technologies industry”; J. Bennett Johnston, who as a U.S. Senator was a leading pro-nuclear power figure in Congress and who now runs a consulting firm that assists the nuclear industry; Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, former head of the American Nuclear Energy Council (forerunner of NEI) and a reported “Bush buddy” going back to their days together at Yale; and representatives of four nuclear utilities. There were no advisors representing renewable energy or environmental organizations.
Two weeks after being sworn in, Bush set up a “National Energy Policy Development Group” and appointed as its chairman Vice President Dick Cheney. Its members included O’Neill and other top administration officials. Ten weeks after it was organized, the group issued a report declaring its support for “the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States as a major component of our national energy policy.” The plan would substantially increase the use of nuclear power both by building new nuclear power plants — many to be constructed on existing nuclear plant sites — and extending the 40-year licenses of currently operating plants each by another 20 years.
“Many U.S. nuclear plant sites were designed to host four to six reactors, and most operate only two or three; many sites across the country could host additional plants,” says the energy policy group’s report. “Building new generators on existing sites avoids many complex issues associated with building plants on new sites.” It could also greatly amplify the impacts of an accident, notes Paul Gunter, head of NIRS’ Reactor Watchdog Project. If one nuclear plant in a cluster of facilities undergoes a catastrophic accident, there is the potential, says Gunter, for a “cascading loss amplifying the release of radiation.”
According to the policy report, “the licensing of as many as 90 percent of the currently operating nuclear plants may be renewed.” There are 103 nuclear plants now in the U.S. They are, on average, 19 years old. Of the longevity of nuclear plants, “No one foresaw them running for more than 40 years,” says Alvarez of STAR, who was also senior policy advisor at the Department of Energy (DOE) from 1993 to 1999. The effects of intense radioactive bombardment, especially on metals, have been seen as limiting the operating life of nuclear plants. And then there’s the standard deterioration that occurs when any machine gets old. “These reactors are just like old machines, but they are ultra-hazardous,” says Alvarez. By pushing their operating span to 60 years, he says, “disaster is being invited.”
The Bush Administration’s policy also supports “advanced” nuclear power plants — supposedly new-and-improved nukes. “Advanced reactor technology promises to improve nuclear safety,” it says. One example the report provides is “the gas-cooled, pebble bed reactor, which has inherent safety features.” In fact, says Gunter, the pebble bed reactor is not new; it’s just “old wine in a new bottle.” It’s a hybrid of the gas-cooled, high-temperature design that “has appeared and been rejected in England, Germany and the U.S.” And far from being “inherently safe,” a reactor of similar design, a THTR300 in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, spewed out substantial amounts of radioactivity in a 1986 accident, leading to its permanent closure.
David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), says that the pebble bed reactor uses blocks of graphite to slow neutron action, although “graphite is a form of carbon, which can ignite in a reactor fire. It was the graphite that kept burning at Chernobyl for 10 days, releasing much of the radiation.”
Also, the pebble bed would produce 10 times more high-level waste per amount of electricity generated as compared to existing plants, says Lochbaum, who worked in the nuclear power industry for 17 years and became a whistleblower before coming to UCS. Further, Exelon, the builder of the pebble bed reactor, wants five such units operated from a single control room, which is a dubious proposition, says Lochbaum. He also notes that the pebble bed systems’ designers “reduced costs by eliminating a key safety feature — the reactor containment building.”
The Bush National Energy Policy, with its reliance on more nuclear power and greater fossil fuel generation, comes at a time when safe, clean, renewable energy sources have arrived. The need is for broad-scale implementation. Wind power, solar energy, hydrogen fuel technologies including fuel cells, among other renewable energy sources, are more than ready after years of dramatic advances. Coupled with energy efficiency, they can be tapped and widely used.
A coalition of renewable, safe-energy advocates — including the Safe Energy Communication Council, Greenpeace USA, Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, Global Resource Action Center for the Environment and NIRS — says of the National Energy Policy: “The Bush/Cheney Administration is recklessly promoting the building of new nuclear plants to address an energy crisis that in large part is being manufactured by the energy corporations that will benefit from building new power plants….We believe that instead of promoting dangerous and dirty forms of energy, the United States should be a world leader in promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency. Let us not sell our children’s future.”
But the Bush Administration is not to be turned around. As Cheney, in one speech, said of nuclear power: “If we are serious about environmental protection, then we must seriously question the wisdom of backing away from what is, as a matter of record, a safe, clean and very plentiful energy source.”
Or, as he declared in another speech, “We’re now at about 20 percent of our electricity being generated by nuclear. We’d like to increase that….If you’re really concerned about global warming and carbon dioxide emissions, then we need to…aggressively pursue the use of nuclear power, which we can do safely and sanely, but for 20 some years [it] has been a big no-no-politically.”
Not surprisingly, the nuclear power industry stands solidly alongside President Bush. Says NEI President Colvin, “The administration’s support for nuclear power as a proven energy technology that protects our air quality is a tremendously positive development for our nation….The industry looks forward to working with the White House and Congress to make this long-term vision a reality.”
To fast track its vision of our radioactive future, the Bush Administration advocates a “one-step” licensing process for nuclear plants. It was part of an Energy Policy Act bill overwhelmingly approved by Congress in 1992 and signed into law by the former President George Bush. “One-step” licensing allows the NRC to hold a single hearing for a “combined construction and operating license.” No longer can nuclear plant projects be slowed down or stopped at a separate operating license proceeding, at which evidence of construction defects can be revealed. As the New York Times described the passage of the 1992 Energy Policy Act, “Nuclear power lobbyists called the bill their biggest victory in Congress since the Three Mile Island accident.”
That Energy Policy Act was approved by a Democratic-controlled Congress. As NIRS reported in its Nuclear Monitor in 1992: “As the bill wound its way through the Senate and House, the nuclear industry won nearly every vote that mattered, proving that Congress remains captive to industry lobbying and political contributions over public opinion.”
That remains the situation today. Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program documents how the NEI regularly showers Congress — including members of both major parties — with political contributions. And when the nuclear industry gives, members of Congress act, notes Public Citizen, which charts the record of politicians on key nuclear issues. Likewise, nuclear industry money pours into Presidential campaigns.
The Republican Bush-Cheney posture on nuclear power is hard-line, but that doesn’t mean the Democratic alternative was (or is) much different. The NEI’s website includes a page of “Endorsements of Nuclear Energy,” and among those quoted are Al Gore: “Nuclear power, designed well, regulated properly, cared for meticulously, has a place in the world’s energy supply,” he reportedly said in a speech at the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev in 1998. And Gore’s former running mate, Senator Joseph Lieberman, is quoted as saying at a Senate hearing in 1998: “I am a supporter of nuclear energy. I believe it can be part of the solution to solving the world’s energy, environment and global warming problems.”
Basically, there is a difference in degrees and rhetoric between the politicians from the major parties, says Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. And “the Clinton Administration is by no means blameless” in the push to revive the moribund nuclear industry, she says, especially because of its support for development of “advanced” nuclear plants.
The Bush National Energy Policy says that because of “one-step” licensing, which it terms the “reformed licensing process,” getting new nuclear plants built and operating will now be streamlined. And, to make sure public involvement is minimal in the process, the NRC is now seeking to undo the public’s right to formal trial-type hearings on nuclear plant licensing. It plans to “deformalize” the hearings by eliminating due process procedures. Documents would be restricted to what the NRC staff and company deem relevant. Instead of cross-examining witnesses, interested parties will have to submit written questions as suggestions for the NRC’s presiding officers to ask at their discretion at a hearing. Says Mariotte, “The administration should learn from Seattle, Prague and Quebec that when people are shut out of public policy pro-cesses, the streets are their only alternative.”
Also to help in a nuclear power comeback is the effort to alter the standards for radiation exposure. As more has been learned about radioactivity, the realization has come that there is no “safe” level. This is called the “linear no-threshold theory,” and it has been adopted by the NRC and other U.S. government agencies.
Now nuclear advocates in government and industry want to alter the standards premised on a contention that low doses of radiation are not so bad after all. They are “engaged in an all-out assault on radiation protection standards,” says D’Arrigo. There is even interest in a long-rejected notion called “hormesis,” which claims that a little radiation is good for people and helps exercise the immune system. The instrument for this change is a new Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) panel of the National Academy of Sciences, which is to make recommendations to the federal government. “The only way to convince the public that additional radiation is acceptable is to put together a skewed panel,” says D’Arrigo. The new BEIR panel, she says, is thus stacked with high-level radiation advocates.
Nuclear waste is another obstacle the nuclear proponents in government and industry are seeking to get around. “If we don’t deal with the waste problem,” acknowledged Cheney in a speech, “then my guess is we won’t get the investment in new facilities in the nuclear arena…. It’s within our grasp as a government … to move forward, to get the issue addressed and get it off the table so that utilities are prepared to invest in nuclear.”
How is this being done? For high-level nuclear waste, there are drives to open Yucca Mountain in Nevada (100 miles northwest of Las Vegas) as a repository and also to use Utah’s Skull Valley Goshute Reservation and possibly other Native American reservations.
The huge problem with Yucca Mountain, which the government began exploring as a repository in the 1980s, is that it is on or near 32 earthquake faults and has a “history and prospects of volcanoes and a likelihood of flooding and leakage,” says D’Arrigo. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration is still seeking to “ram through” Yucca Mountain, says Mariotte. Resistance from people in Nevada and their elected representatives is so far blocking the scheme.
In 1997, tribal leaders of the Goshute Reservation “leased land to a private group of electrical utilities for the temporary storage of 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel,” according to the Goshute’s website. But some members of the tribe are fighting the deal in court, demanding to know who got what for what. Utah government officials are also challenging the arrangement. Governor Mike Leavitt says, “We intend to leave no stone unturned to make sure this waste does not come to Utah. The state’s authority and responsibility to protect its citizens and the environment is clear.”
But clear to advocates in government and the nuclear industry is that working with ostensibly sovereign American Indian reservations is a way to unload atomic garbage. Critics describe it as a new form of environmental racism — “nuclear racism” — seeking to take advantage of the poverty of Native Americans.
The drive to “recycle” low-level nuclear waste has been percolating for years. In 1980, the NRC first proposed that irradiated metal scrap could be converted, stressing that “radioactive waste burial costs could be avoided, [and] the resulting use of smelted scrap could be made into any number of consumer or capital equipment products such as automobiles, appliances, furniture, utensils, personal items and coins.” Some thought the push for radioactive quarters and hot Pontiacs was too crazy to be true.
But now the scheme is coming down the pike full-speed with the DOE, Department of Transportation and the NRC moving to facilitate the “recycling of contaminated metal and other radioactive wastes,” as the DOE recently announced. Says D’Arrigo: “Bush wants more nuclear power, and we are being told we’ll have to do our part by accepting atomic waste in our daily use items.”
Those behind the nuclear push are moving to extend a key piece of U.S. law that facilitated the nuclear power industry in the first place: the Price-Anderson Act. This law drastically limits the amount of money people can collect as a result of a nuclear power plant disaster. It was originally enacted in 1957 after nervous utilities and insurance companies balked at building nuclear power plants. “The potential for catastrophe is apparently many times as great as anything previously known in industry,” said Herbert W. Yount, vice president of Liberty Mutual Insurance, before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, from which Price-Anderson emerged. The committee was part of the earliest promotion for a nuclear establishment of government and corporations that had grown out of the World War II-era Manhattan Project. With the war over, nuclear scientists, government bureaucrats and corporate contractors involved in the Manhattan Project—like Westinghouse and GE—sought to perpetuate their nuclear activities through electricity generation.
In what was supposed to be a temporary measure to boost the nuclear power industry, the Price-Anderson Act passed, limiting liability in the event of a nuclear plant accident to $560 million, with the federal government paying the first $500 million. It was supposed to last for only 10 years, but Price-Anderson has been repeatedly extended. Now the Bush Administration and the atomic industry are seeking to use it as a financial umbrella for the push to revive nuclear power.
“The renewal of Price-Anderson is only to build new reactors,” says Mariotte.”That’s the issue. Existing nuclear plants are covered by the present law.”
The Bush Administration and nuclear industry are proposing that the current liability limit of $9 billion be extended for another 10 years. The initial $560 million cap rose to, in recent years, $9 billion. Still, notes Alvarez, this is all just a fraction of what the NRC itself has concluded would be the financial consequences of a nuclear plant accident. Those figures are contained in a 1982 report prepared for the NRC by the DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories entitled Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences for U.S. Nuclear Power Plants. It calculates (in 1980s dollars) costs as a result of a nuclear plant disaster as high as $314 billion at the Indian Point 3 nuclear plant north of New York City and $174 billion for the Millstone 3 nuclear plant in Connecticut. The report projects “early fatalities” with figures as high as 100,000 dead for the Salem 1 nuclear plant in New Jersey and 72,000 dead for the Peach Bottom 2 nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.
What are the chances of such a disaster occurring? In 1985, the NRC was asked by a House oversight committee chaired by Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) to determine the probability of a “severe core melt accident” for reactors now operating and those expected to operate during the next 20 years. The NRC concluded: “The crude cumulative probability of such an accident would be 45 percent.”
To that danger now has to be added the possibility of a World Trade Center-style airborne terrorist attack on American nuclear plants. Tom Clements, who heads the Nuclear Control Institute, says existing plants are vulnerable to such an attack, “which would be many times worse than what we’ve seen in New York because it could result in radiation and fallout over a vast area.” And so the nightmare of our affair with nuclear power continues.
KARL GROSSMAN, a George Polk Award-winning journalist, teaches investigative and environmental reporting at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury.
It was a seminal event: The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership summit held in Washington, DC in October 1991. More than 600 African, Latino, Asian, and Native Americans from every state, and people from other nations, too, struck out at “environmental racism” and launched a new movement — for “environmental justice.”
From the conference, sponsored by the Commission for Radical Justice (CRJ), came a “call to action,” charging that people of color face a disproportionately greater level of environmental pollution, and setting forth a platform for this new movement which “raises the life and death struggles of indigenous and grassroots communities of color to an unprecedented multinational integrated level.”
“We, the people of color, gathered together,” declared a 17-point statement adopted at the five-day gathering, “to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities…to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to insure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocides of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these principles.”
When this is realized and people of all classes and colors come together to fight pollution, says CRJ, the struggle for the environment will be far more winnable. And that is what the summit and the new energies it produced could be pivotal in bringing about.
“History was certainly made at the summit,” says the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Jr., CRJ’s executive director and a conference co-chair. At it, the notion was “shattered that a multi-racial movement is impossible in the U.S. because of the prevalence of racism which attempts to pit some people-of-color communities against (others).” He spoke of a “spiritual bond” he felt through the summit that “helped to engender mutual respect and unity.” “This country needs a multi-racial movement for a change,” said Chavis.
Chavis was the first person to use the term “environmental racism” with the 1987 issuance of a CRJ report entitled: Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States — A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. CRJ was founded in 1963 in response to the assassination of Black activist Medgar Evers, the Birmingham, Alabama church bombings and other tensions that gripped America as the modern civil rights movement began. As the civil rights arm of a major U.S. Protestant denomination (the United Church of Christ), it has focused on many issues, but its environmental involvement began in 1982 when residents of predominately black Warren County in North Carolina asked for help in their fight against the state’s siting there of a PCB dump. Civil disobedience followed. More than 500 were arrested, including Chavis.
“We began to ask why North Carolina chose a predominately black community to dump PCB’s,” recounted Chavis. He began considering the connection between that siting, the Savannah River nuclear facility (long a source of radioactive leaks, also sited in a largely black area in South Carolina), and the “largest landfill in the nation,” located in Emelle, Alabama, a community that is 80 percent black. “Evidence of a systematic pattern,” said Chavis, “led us to do a national study.”
CRJ correlated the location of thousands of what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deemed “commercial hazardous waste facilities” (places for treating, storing, or disposing of hazardous wastes) and “uncontrolled toxic waste sites” (closed and abandoned sites) and determined what was suspected: These places were often located in communities where non-whites are concentrated.
“We found it had to do with race,” said Chavis. Warren County’s blacks were largely poor, but Emelle, Alabama, he noted, is home to many middle-class blacks. Race, not income, is the prime determinant in siting polluting facilities. Their report also concluded:
For commercial facilities….
For uncontrolled toxic waste sites:
As Chavis prepared to present his report at the National Press Club, “I was trying to figure out how I could adequately describe what was going on,” he recalled. “It came to me — environmental racism.”
Chavis defines environmental racism as “racial discrimination in environmental policymaking and the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement.”
On the latter point, former New Mexico governor Toney Anaya, a Hispanic-American and co-chair of the summit, says: “Environmental groups are typically male-Anglo-dominated.” And at the gathering, minorities made it clear that “We’re going to be part of this process, too.” The aim was “empowerment.”
Getting that message at the meeting were Sierra Club executive director Michael Fisher, and John Adams, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Most such large, national environmental groups have had scant minorities in staff and leadership positions compared to their U.S. population numbers, and have paid inadequate attention to the relationship(s) between racism and the environment. “We know we’ve been conspicuously missing from battles of environmental justice,” said Fischer. “We’re here to reach across the table and build a bridge of partnership…or we risk becoming irrelevant.” Adams stated that the conference marked “a major turning point in the environmental movement…I can tell you, it’ll change NRDC.”
The tales of environmental racism, as told by people of color all across America, are horrific. Increasingly, they are now fighting back. Indeed, a CRJ paper issued at the summit stated: “There exists a prevalent perception among the general public that people of color have not expressed concern for the environment and have not been active in addressing environmental issues. This is a gross misconception…rooted in the narrow definition of environmental issues advanced by traditional environmentalists and the media. People of color have taken on environmental issues as community, labor, economic, self-determination, and civil and political rights issues.”
THERE ARE NO GARDENS IN ATGELD Gardens. Residents of this 10,000-person project in Southeast Chicago say they wouldn’t dare eat anything grown there — it is surrounded with the most toxic facilities in all of Chicago and, no surprise, has one of the highest cancer rates in the U.S. Hazel Johnson, mother of seven, tells of “lots of cancer, respiratory problems, birth deformities, babies born with brain tumors. My daughter was five months pregnant. The doctors found the baby had no behind, no head. It had to be aborted.” Mrs. Johnson is sure that problems are the result of a surrounding hazardous waste incinerator that gives off PCB’s; seven landfills, several chemical plants; a paint factory; lagoons filled with contaminants; and a sludge-drying facility which smells like “bodies decomposing.” Such facilities are concentrated here because it is largely inhabited by Blacks and Hispanics, says Mrs. Johnson, who’s been fighting back as head of People for Community Recovery. Working closely with Greenpeace, its tactics have included civil disobedience.
The African-American community of West Harlem in New York City has a sewage plant which regularly malfunctions as it processes 180 million gallons of sewage daily; two huge bus depots; a marine transfer station where garbage is collected for placement on barges; a six-lane highway; a commuter rail line where last year a young boy was killed; a highway that serves as a major route for hazardous waste through the city; and a crematorium. “The stereotype of what environmentalism means is wildlife and open space preservation,” says Peggy Shepard, a leader of West Harlem Environmental Action. “But urban environmental problems have existed for years.” Harlem has gotten these “exploitative” facilities because of its residents’ color, she charges. Her group fights back through litigation and political organizing, and seeks assistance from “larger environmental groups. But when you don’t have an integrated staff, organizational priorities aren’t necessarily the priorities of communities of color,” she says. “There has not been sufficient movement on urban environmental problems: incinerators, sewage treatment plants, polluting factories, devastating occupational exposure.”
More than 100 oil refineries and petrochemical plants line an 80-mile strip along the lower Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They have so poisoned the land, air, and water that the area Blacks who predominate it call it “Cancer Alley,” noted Pat Bryant, executive director of the Gulf Coast Tenant’s Association (GTCA), at the summit. A quarter of America’s petrochemicals are produced in a corridor which is essentially a “national sacrifice area,” he said. The placement of toxic facilities in Black areas of the south goes back “hundreds of years,” says Darryl Malek-Wiley, GTCA’s research director. The “industrial age” has given such sitings new and more terrible forms. GTCA provides environmental courses and assists people fighting environmental hazards in their communities. In 1989, it organized the “Great Louisiana Toxics March,” and is presently organizing to block siting of a new plastics plant.
Richard Moore is co-director of the Southwest Organization Project and was on the summit’s national planning committee. In his largely Hispanic neighborhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico, there is a a landfill, a pig farm, a dog food plant, a sewage treatment plant, and industrial facilities for Texaco, Chevron, and GE. “We have many people with cancer and leukemia in this neighborhood,” he says, “sick children, many with blue baby syndrome. We shouldn’t have to live in these conditions, amid these poisonous chemicals.”
Says Moore: “We don’t have the complexion for protection.” His organization is multi-ethnic, and covers all of New Mexico. It stresses door-to-door activity to build “strong organizations,” and helps people exercise political muscle by doing non-partisan voter registration. “We not only register people, we turn them out to vote. We also hold candidate accountability sessions, demonstrations, marches, petition drives, community meetings, and meetings with public officials. You name it, we’ve done it, and it’s borne fruit.” The group co-founded the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, which encompasses seven states.
Native Americans get dumped on, too. Those concentrated in northeast Oklahoma are heavily impacted by a Seyquoyah Fuel Corporation facility that produces nuclear plant fuel. Seyquoyah has a long record of accidentally releasing radioactive waste. And, with U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval, it deliberately channels out 8 million gallons annually of its radioactive waste as a liquid fertilizer it calls “raffinate.” The company sells the fertilizer, and also uses it on 10,000 surrounding acres where cattle graze and where hay and corn are grown for feed. Lance Hughes, director of Native Americans for a Clean Environment (NACE) in Talequah, Oklahoma, tells of the “unusual cancers” and birth defects from “genetic mutation” in the area. “It’s pretty sad —- babies born without eyes, with brain cancers.” Wildlife is also born deformed: “We found a nine-legged frog, a two-headed fish and a four-legged chicken,” says Hughes. “The name of the game has been changed, but I would call it the same —- genocide.” NACE has been fighting back with litigation, education, and political action.
There are tens of thousands of Asian women employed in Silicon Valley, California. Immigrant Asian women are sought for this work because of a stereotypical view that they will be submissive, “won’t rock the boat,” says Young Shin, director of Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA), based in Oakland. Meanwhile, the women —- mainly from Hong Kong, China, Korea, and Vietnam —- are desperate for work. “They work in an environment using highly toxic chemicals,” said Ms. Shin. She tells of one woman who, after years in an electronics plant, came home one night, “collapsed and was paralyzed. She’s been bedridden ever since.” A connection to working conditions is suspected.
AIWA also assists the many Asian garment workers in the San Francisco area. They labor in 1990’s versions of turn-of-the-century “sweatshops,” said Ms. Shin. “The lighting is poor, eyesight suffers, many women have back problems.” Here, too, employers seeking a “vulnerable” segment of the population target Asian women to labor under such conditions. “It’s environmental racism,” says Ms. Shin. For nine years, her group has educated Asian women about the poisons in their work places and helped them to “exercise their rights.”
“IT’S NOT A POVERTY THING. IT’S NOT a class thing,” said Dr. Robert D. Bullard, a leading thinker on race and the environment, at the summit. “It’s racism, pure and simple.”
Bullard, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside, is the author of the 1990 book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, which corroborates the CRJ report.
He began researching environmental racism in 1978, while assisting his wife, an attorney, in a lawsuit to challenge the planned siting of a municipal landfill in Northwood Manor, a Black “solid middle class” Houston, Texas neighborhood. He quickly discovered that, since the 1920’s, all five of Houston’s landfills and six of its eight incinerators were sited in Black neighborhoods.
In a 1987 article in the Mid-American Review of Sociology, Bullard said: “Many industrial firms, especially (companies) that have a long history of pollution violations, have come to view the Black community as pushovers, lacking community organization and environmental consciousness.” Further, “Black and lower-income neighborhoods often occupy the ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ and subsequently receive different treatment when it comes to enforcement of environmental regulations.” But, “Black communities, especially in the South, are just beginning to integrate environmental issues into traditional civil rights agendas…Black organizations (are broadening) their definitions of civil rights to include air and water quality, hazardous wastes, and other environmental issues.”
Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie concludes: “Limited housing and residential options, combined with discriminatory facility practices, have contributed to the imposition of all types of toxins on Black communities…Industries have generally followed the path of least resistance, which has been in economically poor and politically powerless Black communities.” And because of housing bias, “increased income has not enabled many Blacks to escape the threat of unwanted land use.”
Bullard also tells of how Blacks in Houston, and Dallas; Alsen, Louisana; Institute, West Virgina; and Emelle, Alabama “have taken on corporate giants who would turn their area into toxic wastelands.” He is enthused by the emergence of “literally hundreds of environmental justice groups made up of people of color.”
ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM HAS BEEN going on a long time, says Charles Lee, CRJ’s research director and an Asian American. Lee tells the story of the “worst recorded occupational disaster in U.S. history,” at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. “During the 1930’s, hundreds of African-American workers from the South were brought in by the New Kanawha Power Company, a subsidiary of Union Carbide, to dig the Hawk’s Nest tunnel. Over two years, 500 workers died and 1,500 were disabled from silicosis, a disease similar to Black Lung. Men literally dropped dead on their feet breathing air so thick with microscopic silica that they could not see more than a yard in front of them. Those who came out for air were beaten back with ax handles. At subsequent congressional hearings, New Kanawha’s contractor revealed, ‘I knew I was going to kill these niggers, but I didn’t know it was going to be this soon.’”
Lee says environmental racism is best seen in such historical contexts: “Exploitation of people of color has taken the form of genocide, chattel slavery, indentured servitude and racial discrimination —- in employment, housing, and practically all aspects of life. Today we suffer from the remnants of this sordid history, as well as from new and institutionalized forms of racism, facilitated by the massive post-World War II expansion of the petrochemical industry.”
Another way of committing environmental murder is nuclear technology.
Gregory Johnson is co-director of the Washington DC-based Blacks Against Nukes, an educational center of environmental safety information. Johnson speaks of the nuclear industry’s drive to co-opt and exploit African-Americans. It routinely contributes to Black organizations and puts Blacks on its boards while claiming nuclear power creates jobs in Black communities. “They speak nothing of radiation hazards and nuclear waste which, like chemical waste, is disproportionately dumped in communities of color.” As for jobs, many are for “nuclear jumpers”—- people who “go into plants and are paid to expose themselves to radioactive substances. They will be paid $100 to twist a screw. But these jobs don’t last long. One is allowed only so much exposure to nuclear materials.”
CRJ five years ago demanded change. Their report firmly concludes that ”hazardous wastes in Black, Hispanic, and other racial and ethnic communities should be made a priority issue at all levels of government. This issue is not currently at the forefront of the nation’s attention. Concerned citizens and policymakers who are cognizant of this problem must make this a priority.” It called for the U.S. president “to mandate federal agencies to consider the impact of current policies and regulations on racial and ethnic communities”; state governments “to evaluate and make appropriate revisions in their criteria for the siting of new hazardous waste facilities, to adequately take into account the racial and socio-economic characteristics of potential host communities”; the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Conference of Black Mayors and the National League of Cities “to convene a national conference to address these issues from a municipal perspective”; and civil rights and political organizations to “gear up voter registration campaigns as a means to further empower racial and ethnic communities to effectively respond to hazardous waste issues…”
Government has been moving at a snail’s pace. EPA director William Reilly did not even appear at the summit —- a spokesperson said his schedule was “prohibitive.” The EPA has “utter disrespect for what is happening in our communities,” declared Rev. Chavis, after sending Reilly a “blistering letter.”
The EPA, however, four months afterwards, in January 1992, announced it was researching to see whether there was a concentration of toxic facilities in minority communities —- a fact CRJ had long ago established —- as part of its new emphasis on “environmental equity.” That came with press disclosure of an EPA draft report which said, “Although there are clear differences between ethnic groups for disease and death rates, there are virtually no data to document the environmental contributions to these diseases.” George Colling of the Sierra Club commented, “No new data is needed, just a political will and commitment in the face of intensive lobbying by companies that are making money.”
Indeed, Robert Wolcott, the EPA official heading the committee, asked, “How many times does a tree have to fall before you admit you heard it.”
SOME MAJOR ENVIRONMENTAL groups are moving to clean up their racial and ethnic acts, jointly setting up an “Environmental Consortium for Minority Outreach” in Washington, DC. Says Frederick P. Sutherland, executive director of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund: “We’re very sensitive to this issue, and we’re moving heaven and Earth to bring minorities into staff and leadership positions.”
In 1990, coalitions of minority activists —- led by Moore and Chavis —- sent letters to national environmental organizations protesting the lack of minority representation on their staffs.
Some notable groups, Greenpeace, the National Toxics Campaign (NTC) and Earth Island Institute (EII), have stressed minority involvement and environmental racism all along. John O’Conner, NTC’s founder and executive director, says: “For the environmental movement to be successful…it must include all races, ethnic groups, rich and poor, Black and White, and young and old. Once our movement to clean up the nation is truly a reflection of all people in the country, we will succeed.”
For two years, EII’s president has been Carl Anthony, a Black architect long interested in environmental issues. He is a professor at the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley where he teaches a course in Race, Poverty, and the Environment.
Most environmental groups have had an “elitist perspective,” says Anthony. But now he sees change because of a “grassroots constituency which is challenging them. EII is very interested in issues at two ends of the spectrum: global warming, ozone, global resource depletion; and the negative environmental impacts on communities of poor people and people of color. To bring these two concerns together,” says Anthony, “we have to develop a new kind of leadership in communities of color, to address the needs of our communities…in making a transition to more sustainable urban patterns.”
Anthony, present at the summit, described as “really incredible” its diversity. “I think it has set the stage for the 1990’s,” he said. “It has set out the challenges and opportunities for communities of color and the nation as a whole.”
George T. Frampton, Jr., president of The Wilderness Society, a major environmental group which is attempting to become more inclusive, says: “One inescapable truth about the degradation of our environment has received very little attention: those least able to get out of harms’s way are people of color. A monochromatic movement cannot ultimately mobilize the broad-based political support required for the radical environmental policies that our society so urgently needs.”
THERE ARE SOME IN WHITE AMERICA who would deny environmental racism exists. The Houston Post editorialized: “Environmental Racism? Crying Wolf Will Hurt Real Discrimination Charges.” The newspaper claimed that “if examined closely, it appears that toxic dumps follow cheap land. White people also have been victims…Just look at Brio, Love Canal, and Times Beach.” As for the conference, “These folks are crying wolf. That’s too bad —- because pretty soon, legitimate charges of racism may be at risk of going unheeded, simply because so many people claim racism around every corner. It often isn’t there.”
Leading up to the summit were other important events tackling environmental racism. At the National Minority Health Conference in 1990, in Atlanta, the Washington, DC-based Panos Institute issued a report, We Speak for Ourselves: Social Justice, Race, and Environment. “Organizing for environmental justice among people of color,” said the report, “has grown from a small group of activists in the 1970’s to a movement involving thousands of people in neighborhoods throughout the U.S. Although these groups might not be identified as ‘environmental,’ they have nevertheless made environmental issues a priority in their work…”
At that gathering, sponsored by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and others, and attended by 300 community leaders, physicians, and government officials, Dr. Aubrey F. Manley, deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said, “Poor and minority people should not have to bear the responsibility for a mess they haven’t made.”
In 1990, CRJ organized a workshop on race and environment for the Congressional Black Caucus whose members, incidentally, area rated by the League of Conservation Voters as having among the best pro-environmental voting records.
Also in 1990, Jesse Jackson, along with NTC’s John O’Conner and Earth Day organizer Dennis Hayes, made a week-long tour of environmental racism hotspots, ending in “Cancer Alley.” “There is a relationship between environment and empowerment,” declared Jackson on that tour. “Corporations must not be allowed to use job blackmail to poison poor people, be they black, brown, yellow, red, or white. We demand that all corporate poisoners stop the poisoning of our communities. We can have safe jobs without pollution if we organize.”
AIWA’s Young Shin declared during the summit that the “racist policies of industry” must be changed in order to “achieve environmental justice. We need the support of a progressive, all-inclusive environmental movement.”
That course has now been set.
(KARL GROSSMAN is a journalism professor at the State University of New York, Old Westbury.)
For years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said it couldn’t be done. Beyond the orbit of Mars, NASA said, solar energy could not be used to generate electricity for onboard power on space missions.
So the agency used the extremely dangerous nuclear substance, plutonium, as fuel in electric generating systems—and people on Earth were put at great risk in the event of an accident.
For instance, in 1997, NASA launched its Cassini plutonium-fueled space probe and in 1999 had Cassini hurtle back at Earth in a “slingshot maneuver” to increase its velocity so it could get to Saturn. If there was what NASA called an “inadvertent reentry” of Cassini into the Earth’s atmosphere during the “slingshot maneuver” just a few hundred miles up, it would disintegrate and “5 billion…of the world population…could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure,” NASA admitted in its “Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission.”
Premature deaths from a Cassini accident were put by Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, at 20 million to 40 million.
And this is not a sky-is-falling story. Of 28 U.S. space missions using plutonium, there have been three accidents, the worst in 1964 in which a plutonium-powered satellite fell back to Earth, breaking up and spreading the toxic radioactive substance widely. Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, has long connected that accident to a lung cancer increase on earth.
That caused NASA to develop solar power for satellites—and today all satellites (and the International Space Station) are energized by solar panels. But insisted NASA, in deep space, sunlight is too weak and solar energy could not work; only plutonium could.
Now the leading space industry trade magazine, “Aviation Week & Space Technology,” reveals that solar energy is to be used by NASA to substitute for nuclear power in deep space. The recent article began:
“Budget and technical realities have led NASA to put its once-ambitious space nuclear power plans on a slow track, but development in solar power generation should allow new scientific probes beyond Mars to operate without nuclear energy. The U.S. space agency is already planning a solar-powered mission to study the atmosphere of Jupiter, and has looked at sending probes as deep into space as Neptune using only the Sun’s energy for spacecraft and instrument power…It is all but certain the next U.S. deep-space missions will be solar-powered.”
The piece went on describe the new giant solar energy systems that will be used to harvest solar energy at record efficiencies vast distances from the Sun.
Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, comments that “for years NASA said that the Global Network didn’t know what we were talking about when it came to solar power working in deep space. Now NASA is planning to do what we’ve been saying all along it could do. It just goes to show that if you are willing to stay on-top of an issue for a long time that something good can come from your hard work.”
Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Snake River Alliance, an Idaho group that’s been challenging the use of Idaho National Laboratory to produce plutonium for space power systems, says, “It’s good to see plutonium space batteries following in the steps of the now demoted planet Pluto. We’ve said since day one that plutonium is unnecessary and dangerous, and that we can do the same job a better way, and now we’re seeing what that better way is—solar.”
What’s to happen in space is what should also happen on Earth. The Bush administration and nuclear industry are pushing for a “revival” of nuclear power.
We don’t need to take the enormous risk of building new nuclear plants—or having nuclear poisons over our heads. Safe energy technologies are here.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of “The Wrong Stuff” (Common Courage Press) and narrator of the TV documentary “Nukes In Space” (EnviroVideo).
Last month, nuclear industry executives and U.S. government officials got together in Washington, D.C. for a conference called “The Nuclear Renaissance”— a gathering boosting a comeback of commercial nuclear power in the U.S.
“Renaissance” has replaced “revival” as the word being used by nuclear proponents in the U.S. and around the world to describe their desired recovery of the nuclear industry. There has not been an order of a new nuclear power plant in the U.S. since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident shattered public trust in nuclear technology. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster damaged confidence in atomic energy worldwide. But the nuclear industry and its allies in government are back for a “renaissance.”
In March 2003 there will be a Nuclear Renaissance Forum in Chicago sponsored by the nuclear plant manufacturers Framatome and Westinghouse. A few days before last month’s Washington meeting, the World Nuclear Association Annual Symposium in London featured a session on “Nuclear Renaissance.”
At the session, Dr. Andrei Gagarinski, director of international affairs at Russias Kurchatov Institute, said his atomic research facility had teamed with the U.S. Department of Energy-owned Sandia National Laboratories to put together “a new Atoms for Peace and Prosperity Program.” The program was considered at President George Bushs summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in May, according to Gagarinski.
Russia and the US have teamed up to launch a new ‘Atoms for Peace and Prosperity’ Program.
— Dr. Andrei Gagarinski, Kurchatov Institute, Russia
In the U.K. in August, Robin Jeffrey, chairman of British Energy, called for a “nuclear renaissance” telling the British Nuclear Engineering Society that “working in partnership [we can] create a financial and commercial framework for a programme of new build.”
Meanwhile, as it prepares for its hoped-for “renaissance,” the nuclear industry has globalized:
A handful of giant multinational energy corporations are positioning themselves to become “the robber barons of the 2lst Century,” says Michael Mariotte, Executive Director of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service/World Information Service on Energy-Amsterdam (NIRS-WISE Amsterdam). Mariotte added that “perhaps no industry is embracing globalization quite so fervently,” in a field “where the stakes are highest, where the threats to all life are most at risk.”
Paul Gunter, head of the organizations Reactor Watchdog Project, who attended the “Nuclear Renaissance” conference in Washington, said rather than a renaissance, what is involved is “a relapse into the failed nuclear energy policy” of the past.
The “renaissance” also now comes with what Mariotte says “may be the most ardently pro-nuclear power presidency in U.S. history.” The Bush administrations stance on nuclear power is aggressive and minimizes the dangers of atomic technology. As Bushs Secretary of Treasury Paul ONeill has told The Wall Street Journal, “If you set aside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the safety record of nuclear is really is good.”
The administration struck a close working relationship with the nuclear industry well before taking office. Its energy “transition” advisors included:
Two weeks after being sworn in, Bush set up a “National Energy Policy Development Group” and appointed Vice President Dick Cheney as its chairman. Its members included ONeill and Andrew Lundquist, who also coordinated the energy “transition” team was named executive director.
“The National Energy Policy Development Group supports the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States as a major component of our National Energy Policy,” declared the group’s report, issued ten weeks later.
“America,” said Bush in unveiling the plan, should “expand a clean and unlimited source of energy: nuclear power.”
This National Energy Policy whose recommendations were discussed at length at the Nuclear Renaissance conference – would substantially increase the use of nuclear power in the U.S. both by building new nuclear power plants many on existing nuclear plant sites, and extending the 40-year licenses of currently operating plants by another 20 years each.
Some observers might think the September 11th terrorist attacks — and the reported plans by Al Qaeda to strike at U.S. nuclear plants — might hold up plans for a “nuclear renaissance.”
But Richard A. Meserve, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), struck positive notes at the Nuclear Renaissance conference at which he was a keynote speaker. The NRC was created in 1975 to impartially regulate nuclear power replacing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which Congress deemed to be in conflict of interest being set up to both promote and regulate nuclear power.
“First, the physical protection at nuclear power plants was strong before September 11th. I am aware of no other industry that has had to satisfy the tough requirements that the NRC has had in place for a quarter of a century,” stated Meserve.
“Secondly, there have been no specific credible threats of a terrorist attack on nuclear power plants since September 11th,” he added.
“Third” Meserve concluded, “in light of the events of September 11th, the NRC has recognized the need to reexamine past security strategies to ensure that we have the right protections in place for the long term.”
“The agency could not have presented the situation farther from the truth,” noted Gunter of the Reactor Watchdog Project. “Before September 11th, the industry and NRC were mired in an endless dialogue on security deficiencies and the rising cost of safeguarding nuclear power place for the long term.”
“The agency could not have presented the situation farther from the truth,” noted Gunter of the Reactor Watchdog Project. “Before September 11th, the industry and NRC were mired in an endless dialogue on security deficiencies and the rising cost of safeguarding nuclear power plants” he said. And federal security exercises conducted since 1991 led to “failing grades” half the time, according to Gunter.
Gunter said that after the September 11th attacks, the NRC closed down its formal security exercise program. “The vulnerability of attacks from the air and the water were never evaluated,” he explained.
“Contrary to Dr. Meserves remarks, nuclear power plants remain both structurally and programmatically vulnerable to sophisticated and premeditated acts of terrorism,” according to the head of the watchdog group.
Also making a presentation at the “Nuclear Renaissance” conference was Westinghouse Vice President for New Plants Ernie H. Kennedy who described “the post-TMI phase” for the nuclear industry as a “collapse of new plant orders, cancellation of existing orders” and “sharply increasing O&M [operation and maintenance] costs.” But, he said, the nuclear industry in the 1990s had been busy “getting the house in order” and “preparing for the renaissance 2000s.” Now, said Mr. Kennedy, there is “slow but sustained improvement in public acceptance” and “improved political support.”
Gail H. Marcus, Bush administration appointee as principal deputy director of the U.S. Department of Energy, who is also president of the pro-industry American Nuclear Society, began her presentation by quoting from report of the National Energy Policy Development Group. She said new nuclear power plants would be built under a “cost-shared” arrangement between the federal government and utilities. This will be combined, she said, with the Department of Energys “Early Site Permit” or expedited nuclear plant process on three projects soon to be advanced.
The “cost-shared” and “Early Site Permit” arrangements will be initially used in construction by:
Marcus said the new plants were expected to come on line by 2005 and some, or all, of the “advanced” nuclear plant would be deployed by 2010.
The sponsors of The Nuclear Renaissance Conference — Framatome, Canadian reactor manufacturer AECL Technologies, Winston & Strawn, a Washington law firm that represents clients involved with nuclear power, and EXCEL, a provider of services for U.S. and international commercial nuclear power facilities — allowed one anti-nuclear advocate to make a presentation.
“The real question is: How should the nuclear industry be held responsible for the health and environmental disasters that it has created?”
— Winonah Hauter, Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, Public Citizen
Winonah Hauter, director of the Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program at Ralph Naders Public Citizen, spoke as part of a panel discussion titled “How Should the Environmental Benefits of Nuclear Assets Be Valued?”
“The answer to the question about valuing the benefits of nuclear assets is simple. There are none,” Hauter stated. Then she fired off questions of her own.
“The real questions that should have been asked at this conference is: How should the nuclear industry be held responsible for and required to bear the full cost of the health and environmental disasters that it has created? Why are our government agencies lapdogs for the industry? How has the industry bought public policy?”
As to the claim of nuclear proponents at the conference that atomic plants assist in offsetting global warming, Hauter pointed out that the nuclear fuel cycle creates a vast amount of greenhouse gases.
“An elaborate energy-intensive process of uranium mining, milling and enrichment must take place before the fuel rods can even be fabricated. All of these processes use massive quantities of fossil fuels. The manufacture and construction of reactors require more fossil fuels. And [as to] the back end of the fuel cycleif the industry is successful in dumping waste on the unwilling citizens of Nevadait will take more fossil fuel to move thousands of shipments.”
“And even if nuclear energy didnt use fossil fuel,” she went on “the regular radiation releases from plants would way offset any benefit.”
Hauter challenged the industry public relations campaign promoting nuclear energy as a “clean” alternative to fossil fuels. “Nuclear power plants are not cost-effective, which means they can only be built if nuclear corporations are allowed special dispensation from the government. Let me put that more clearly: the industry has to feed at the trough of taxpayer money to survive. So the industry is looking for new ways to justify its existence.”
The Nuclear Renaissance Conference received uninvited guests, too. Activists from Greenpeace crashed the conference with a 200-pound ice sculpture depicting a nuclear plant melting. Carved into the ice statue were the words No New Nukes.
“Greeenpeace is putting plans for any nuclear renaissance on ice” said Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace. “Despite benefiting from millions of dollars of government subsidies, nuclear power plants are still too expensive to build, too dangerous to operate and too vulnerable to potential terrorist attacks.”
The activists also distributed a broadside at the conference called The No New Nukes Times. A New York Times-like front page featured stories with headlines such as, “Once Touted As Too Cheap To Meter Now Too Costly to Matter” and “Dr. Strangelove Hands Plutonium Over to Homer Simpson.”
Conference attendee Gunter of NIRS/WISE Amsterdam commented that in order to bring about a “renaissance” the nuclear industry faces a number of obstacles. Chief among them he cited “increased public mistrust and growing opposition to a proliferation of new nukes.”
“The meltdown of the industry plans hatched in the early 1970s to build a thousand reactors by the year 2000 was in large part the result of a public unwilling to swallow the lies of nuclear industrialists and their political cronies,” said Gunter.
“New construction on the enormous scale the industry must contemplate will provide the anti-nuclear movement with the opportunity to raise concerns over the vulnerability and costs of security, the proliferation of an already unmanageable nuclear waste problem and the inherent risk of an accident associated with the most expensive and dangerous process conceivable for boiling water to make electricity” according to the head of the watchdog group.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of books on nuclear technology including Cover Up: What You ARE NOT Supposed To Know About Nuclear Power and host of numerous television programs on atomic energy available from EnviroVideo.
An investigative series on the Los Alamos National Laboratory by the Santa Fe New Mexican resulted in the sacking of the daily newspaper’s managing editor who edited the series, and a moratorium on nuclear technology stories by the newspaper.
The editor, David N. Mitchell told EXTRA! that due to the legal settlement reached after his dismissal, he was “constrained” from saying that he was fired because of “the publisher’s concern that the series this paper did at my direction on the disposal of radioactive and chemical wastes by Los Alamos National Laboratory was unbalanced.” But the sequence of events is clear.
The Santa Fe New Mexican conducted a three-month investigation of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)a huge facility created during World War II to develop the atom bomb, now owned by the U.S. Department of Energy. The findings of the investigation ran in 30 articles over six days, in a series entitled “Fouling the Nest” beginning Feb. 17, 1991. “The $2 Billion Mess” was the headline of the first account of the series, subheaded ‘Daunting Task to Clean Up 48 Years of Neglect, Accidents Just Beginning.’
The series, written by Thom Coler.Kelly Richmond described contamination of the community and increased leukemia risk. The series said that more than 1,000 Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) workers were exposed to radiation last year, including seven who inhaled or ingested plutonium. Follow-up editorials criticized “business-as-usual” officials and scientists.
Unfortunately for Mitchell, Robert McKinney, the New Mexican’s Virginia-based publisher, has long been involved in promoting nuclear technology. McKinney chaired a congressional panel on the “Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy”, and represented the U.S. at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Robert McKinney is also known for meddling in news content. A story on affordable housing problems was killed by the out-of-town publisher (Washington Post, 10/5/91), who allegedly told Mitchell there were no such problems in Santa Fe, just “people trying to live beyond their means.”
Shortly after the Los Alamos nuclear series ran, an angry McKinney met with laboratory director Siegfried S. Heckler, who had already written a guest column for the paper charging that the “negative tone of this series portrayed an inaccurate view of the laboratory.”
This meeting resulted in the inclusion of a 27-page supplement in the New Mexican, prepared by the laboratory, the Sunday after the series ran. “Los Alamos National Laboratory pursues its environmental, safety, health and security responsibilities with the same spirit it applies to its scientific work,” it began. The same day, McKinney ran a “publisher’s note” explaining that he had “devoted much of his life to ‘The Peaceful Atom.’” He called nuclear power “a vast, clean and safe alternative source of energy for our country’s future.”
Further, a former director of the laboratory, Dr. Harold Agnew, was given another guest column to attack the series, saying he “never realized to what depth reporters would stoop to misrepresent facts in order to promote their own prejudices.” He criticized the journalists for using “as references such known anti-nuclear activists as John Gofman, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with other unnamed local self-proclaimed experts. These individuals have made a career out of nuclear-bashing.”
As for nuclear contamination, “any activity creates wastes,” argued Agnew. “Making a dinner salad, baking a pie, burning coal, cleaning bed pans in a hospital and handling nuclear materials. Nuclear wastes are no more dangerous than many other wastes.”
On May 31, the Albuquerque Journal North broke the story of Mitchell’s firing. The Santa Fe Reporter (6/5/91), an alternative weekly, uncovered other changes in the wake of the Los Alamos series: “New Mexican reporters have been forbidden to cover stories about the nuclear industry, Los Alamos and even the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad,” a hotly controversial proposed nuclear waste depository.
Six months after the series ran, according to the Washington Post (10/5/91), an internal Los Alamos report criticized its own safety record and “essentially confirmed much of what had been in the paper’s February series.”
In Crosswinds, a monthly New Mexican journal (6/91), Stephen Kress wrote that Mitchell’s firing “illustrates the hazards of promoting independent reporting that runs counter to the owner’s philosophy.” Special projects reporter Thom Cole was shifted to desk duties; co-author Kelly Richmond resigned. At age 55, veteran journalist Mitchell is out of work. “I’m searching for employment,” he told EXTRA! If Mitchell or the two investigative reporters hoped to get any formal recognition for their efforts, they’re out of luck. Publisher McKinney has ordered that the series not be nominated for any journalism prizes.
The Columbia shuttle disaster came just as NASA was pushing to greatly broaden its program to use nuclear power in space. This includes the development of a nuclear-propelled rocket—a project that NASA spent billions of dollars on in the 1950s and 1960s until it was canceled because of concerns that such a nuclear rocket crashing to earth. The new space nuclear power scheme, called Project Prometheus, is a broadening of the NASA Nuclear Systems Initiative—on which $1 billion is to be spent over five years—that began last year. In addition to a nuclear- powered rocket, NASA is planning an additional plutonium-energized space probe and to put atomic power to other space uses including the launching of planetary rovers with nuclear systems.
This May and June NASA is planning to launch two rockets from Florida carrying rovers to be landed on Mars equipped with heaters powered by plutonium. The Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power In Space has been conducting demonstrations to protest these launches.
NASA’s Environmental Impact Statement for the Mars Exploration Rover-2003 Project says, “the overall chance of an accident occurring” for each launch “is about 1 in 30” and “the overall chance of any accident that releases radioactive materials to the environment is about 1 in 230.” People “offsite in the downwind direction…could inhale small quantities of radionuclides,” says NASA’s statement. An area as far as 60 kilometers from the launch site could be impacted, says NASA.
“These and other NASA space shots involving materials must be canceled in the wake of the Columbia disaster and safe space energy systems be used instead,” declares Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network.
The Nuclear Systems Initiative was described as “a new element” in NASA’s “space science program by O’Keefe in testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Science last February.
“Nuclear propulsion greatly increases mission flexibility, enabling new science missions, more in-depth investigations, and greater flexibility in reaching and exploring distant objects,” he told the committee.
In the weeks before the Columbia disaster, O’Keefe was stepping up the promotion of nukes in space. “We’re talking about doing something on a very aggressive schedule to not only develop the capabilities for nuclear propulsion and power generation but to have a mission using the new technology within this decade,” he told the Los Angeles Times of January 17.
Last month, ESA got set to launch a solar-powered space probe called Rosetta with all its on-board electricity coming from solar cells with record-high 25 percent efficiency. It was to fly beyond Jupiter to rendezvous with a comet called Wirtanen.
Problems with an ESA rocket caused the mission to be scrubbed. Rosetta is to be, notes ESA, “the first space mission to journey beyond the main asteroid belt and rely solely on solar cells for power generation, rather than traditional radioisotope thermal generators” (the plutonium systems NASA favors for its space probes). It would gather sunlight way out in space. “After a 5.3 billion km space odyssey, Rosetta will make first contact with Wirtanen about 675 million km from the sun,” explained ESA. “At this distance, sunlight is 20 times weaker than on earth.” NASA has a division—its Photovoltaics and Space Environment Branch headquartered at the John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland—which, like ESA, has been working on space solar energy development. There is no “edge” or limit to solar power, says a scientist at the branch, Dr. Geoffrey A. Landis, on its website. “In the long term, solar arrays won’t have to rely on the sun. We’re investigating the concept of using lasers to beam photons to solar arrays. If you make a powerful-enough laser and can aim the beam, there really isn’t any edge of sunshine.”
Solar energy technologies are being used now to propel spacecraft. NASA’s Deep Space 1 probe, launched in 1998, is the first space probe to be propelled with solar electric propulsion, a system through which electricity collected by panels is concentrated and used to accelerate the movement of propellant out a thrust chamber.
There are “solar sails” utilizing ionized particles emitted by the sun, which constitute a force in space. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is considering a launch, at the end of the decade, of a space probe to Pluto using either solar sails or solar electric propulsion. A space device with solar sails built in Russia for the International Planetary Society was launched in 2001.
In contrast, NASA’s renewed emphasis on nuclear power in space “is not only dangerous, but politically unwise,” says Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York. “The only thing that can kill the U.S. space program is a nuclear disaster. The American people will not tolerate a Chernobyl in the sky. That would doom the space program.”
“NASA hasn’t learned its lesson from its history involving space nuclear power,” says Kaku, “and a hallmark of science is that you learn from previous mistakes. NASA doggedly pursues its fantasy of nuclear power in space. We have to save NASA from itself.” He cites “alternatives” space nuclear power. “Some of these alternatives may delay the space program a bit. But the planets are not going to go away. What’s the rush? I’d rather explore the universe slower than not at all if there is a nuclear disaster.”
Dr. Ross McCluney, a former NASA scientist now principal research scientist at the Florida Solar Energy Center, says NASA’s push for the use of nuclear power in space is “an example of tunnel vision, focusing too narrowly on what appears to be a good engineering solution, but not on the longer-term human and environmental risks and the law of unintended consequences. You think you’re in control of everything and then things happen beyond your control. If your project is inherently benign, an unexpected error can be tolerated. But when you have at your project’s core something inherently dangerous, then the consequences of unexpected failures can be great.” Jack Dixon, for 30 years an aerospace engineer in the U.S., takes issue with those against nuclear power in space for being critical of it for “politically correct,” anti-nuclear reasons. His criticism is cost—what he says is an enormous cost. The solar sail system “may be implemented at about 10% of the cost of nuclear and quickly.” It is “simple and relatively low tech.”
Yet despite the costs, dangers, and the advances in solar energy technologies and other safe forms of power for use in space, NASA would stress nuclear power. The situation is not so different from how the Bush administration has been pushing to “revive” nuclear power on earth despite the availability today of safe, clean, economic, renewable energy technologies. Like terrestrial atomic power, space nuclear power has a problematic past.
Early U.S. space satellites were powered by plutonium. The first nuclear satellite was Transit 4A, a navigational satellite launched on June 29, 1961. It was a time when space and nuclear power were seen by some as coupled. Space exploration “in large measure depends upon the common destiny of space and the atom,” former U.S. Senator Albert Gore—a parent of the former U.S. vice president—declared in a 1962 Senate speech. Importantly, Oak Ridge National Laboratory is in Gore’s home state. Oak Ridge and the other U.S. nuclear laboratories then and to this day have promoted the development of space atomic power as a means of expanding their activities, to bring in more work. Gore, a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, advocated nuclear-powered rockets and atomic power “for a wide variety of miscellaneous functions in space…. Nuclear energy is essential for leadership in space.”
Along with the national nuclear laboratories—set up during the World War II atom bomb-building Manhattan Project and thereafter run by the Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy—the corporations involved in building space nuclear systems have also been active in promoting their use. The Transit 4A’s plutonium system was manufactured by General Electric.
Then there was a serious accident involving a plutonium-energized satellite. On April 24, 1964, the GE-built Transit 5BN with a SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) system on-board failed to achieve orbit and fell from the sky, disintegrating as it burned in the atmosphere. The 2.1 pounds of Plutonium-238 (an isotope of plutonium 280 times “hotter” with radioactivity than the Plutonium-239 used in atomic and hydrogen bombs) in the SNAP-9A dispersed widely over the earth. A study titled “Emergency Preparedness for Nuclear-Powered Satellites” done by a grouping of European health and radiation protection agencies later reported, “a worldwide soil sampling program carried out in 1970 showed SNAP-9A debris present at all continents and at all latitudes.”
Long connecting the SNAP-9A accident and an increase of lung cancer on earth has been Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, who was involved in isolating plutonium for the Manhattan Project and co-discovered several radioisotopes.
The SNAP-9A accident caused NASA to become a pioneer in developing solar photovoltaic energy technology. In recent decades, all U.S. satellites have been solar-powered. So is the International Space Station. But NASA continued to use plutonium-powered systems for a series of space probe missions claiming solar power could not be effectively gathered by space probes beyond the orbit of Mars.
The ill-fated shuttle Challenger was to launch a plutonium-fueled space probe in its next planned mission in 1986. The Ulysses space probe, with 24.2 pounds of plutonium fuel, was to be sent off from Challenger, once it achieved orbit for a survey of the sun.
The most recent NASA nuclear space probe mission was called Cassini. It was launched in 1997 with more plutonium fuel—72.3 pounds—than on any previous space device. NASA conceded the dangers of a Cassini accident in its “Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission.” Although its destination was Saturn, Cassini did not have enough power to get it directly there, so NASA devised a “flyby” or “slingshot maneuver” using the earth. Cassini was to be sent from space hurtling back at Earth and then, just several hundred miles high, whip around Earth to pick up the additional velocity so it could make it to Saturn. The NASA EIS for Cassini said that on this “flyby” if an “inadvertent reentry occurred” and Cassini fell back to earth, it would break up in the earth’s 75-mile high atmosphere (it had no heat shield) and “5 billion of the…world population…could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure” from the plutonium dust that would rain down. In areas seriously contaminated, NASA said actions would include: “Remove and dispose all vegetation, Remove and dispose topsoil. Relocate animals. Bn future agricultural land uses.” For urban environments, “Demolish some or all structures. Relocate affected population permanently.” Dr. Gofman estimated the toll from cancer from such a Cassini accident as 950,000 people dead. Although Cassini did get past the earth successfully on its 1999 “flyby,” six weeks later NASA’s Mars Climate Observer, on a pass over Mars, crashed into the Martian atmosphere and disintegrated. NASA attributed the mishap to human error—one of its teams calculated the planned altitude of the spacecraft in feet, the other in meters, and it came in too low. The U.S. nuclear-propelled rocket program began at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1950s with building of the Kiwi reactor for what became known as the NERVA— for Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application—program. Projects Pluto, Rover, Poodle and Orion to build nuclear-powered rockets followed.
Westinghouse was a major contractor in these nuclear rocket efforts. A former Westinghouse president, John W. Simpson, acknowledged in his 1994 book on the history of the company (Nuclear Power from Underseas to Outer Space) how to get the government contracts, “believe me, we pulled out all the stops—not only technical effort but also marketing and political savvy.”
Ground tests of nuclear rocket components were conducted. But no nuclear-propelled rocket ever flew and because of the catastrophe that could result if a nuclear-powered rocket crashed to earth, the government ended the program. Now in 2003 we would rocket back to the past.
Gagnon says: “Serious questions need to be asked: Where will they test the nuclear rocket? How much will it cost? What would be the impacts of a launch accident? These nuclearization of space plans are getting dangerous and out of control.” Also, Gagnon sees a military connection, describing the use of nuclear power in space as “the foot in the door, the Trojan horse, for the militarization of space.” Space weapons sought by the military— space-based lasers, hyper-velocity guns and particle beams —would require large amounts of power which the military sees as coming from on-board nuclear power systems, thus the close cooperation between the Pentagon and NASA in space nuclear efforts. Said Gagnon: “We’re not saying there shouldn’t be any space program. It’s a question of what kind of seed do we carry with us out into space.”
Dr. Dave Webb, who had been a scientist in the British space program and is now principal lecturer at the United Kingdom’s Leeds Metropolitan University’s School of Engineering, and is also Global Network secretary, says, “Star Wars projects like the Space- Based Laser require significant sources of power and it is very useful for the U.S. government to be able to bury some of the costs for the development work in ‘civilian’ or ‘dual use’ programs.”
“Why on Earth,” asks Alice Slater, president of the New York-based Global Resource Action Center for the Environment and a Global Network board member, “would any sane person propose to take nuclear poisons to a whole new level?”
“Nuclear power whether in space or on Earth is a risky business,” says Sally Light, long-time executive director of the anti-nuclear Nevada Desert Experience and also a Global Board member, “whether in space or on earth is a risky business. Why is the U.S. blindly plunging ahead with such a potentially disastrous and outmoded concept? We should use solar-powered technologies as they are clean, safe and feasible.” The commitment of huge amounts of money to the Nuclear Systems Initiative, now Project Prometheus, “is unconscionable. Did the people of Earth have a voice in this? One of the basic principles of democracy is that those affected have a determinative role in the decision-making process. We in the U.S. and people worldwide are faced with a dangerous, high-risk situation being forced on us and on our descendants.”
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet (Common Courage Press).