[News] How the “Peaceful Atom” Became a Serial Killer

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Thu Mar 24 11:06:10 EDT 2011

How the “Peaceful Atom” Became a Serial Killer
Nuclear Power Loses its Alibi

By <http://www.tomdispatch.com/authors/chipward>Chip Ward

When nuclear reactors blow, the first thing that 
melts down is the truth.  Just as in the 
Chernobyl catastrophe almost 25 years ago when 
Soviet authorities denied the extent of radiation 
and downplayed the dire situation that was 
spiraling out of control, Japanese authorities 
spent the first week of the Fukushima crisis 
issuing conflicting and confusing reports.  We 
were told that radiation levels were up, then 
down, then up, but nobody aside from those 
Japanese bureaucrats could verify the levels and 
few trusted their accuracy.  The situation is 
under control, they told us, but workers are 
being evacuated.  There is no danger of 
contamination, but stay inside and seal your doors.

The First Atomic Snow Job

The bureaucratization of horror into bland and 
reassuring pronouncements was to be expected, 
especially from an industry where misinformation 
is the rule.  Although you might suppose that the 
nuclear industry’s outstanding characteristic 
would be its expertise, since it’s loaded with 
junior Einsteins who grasp the math and physics 
required to master the most awesomely 
sophisticated technology humans have ever 
created, think again.  Based on the record, it’s 
most outstanding characteristic is a fundamental 
dishonesty.  I learned that the hard way as a 
grassroots activist organizing opposition to a 
hatched by a consortium of nuclear utilities to 
park thousands of tons of highly radioactive fuel 
rods, like the ones now burning at Fukushima, in my Utah backyard.

Here’s what I took away from that experience: the 
nuclear industry is a snake-oil culture of 
habitual misrepresentation, pervasive wishful 
thinking, deep denial, and occasional outright 
deception.  For more than 50 years, it has 
habitually lied about risks and costs while 
covering up every violation and failure it 
could.  Whether or not its proponents and 
spokespeople are dishonest or merely deluded can 
be debated, but the outcome -- dangerous 
misinformation and the meltdown of honest civic 
discourse -- remains the same, as we once again see at Fukushima.

Established at the dawn of the nuclear age, the 
pattern of dissemblance had become a well-worn 
rut long before the Japanese reactors spun out of 
control.  In the early 1950s, the disciples of 
nuclear power, or the “peaceful atom” as it was 
then called, insisted that nuclear power would 
soon become so cheap and efficient that it would 
be offered to consumers for free.  Visionaries 
that they were, they suggested that cities would 
be constructed with building materials 
impregnated with uranium so that snow removal 
would be unnecessary.  Atomic bombs, they urged, 
should be used to carve out new coastal harbors 
for ships.  In low doses, they swore, radiation 
was actually beneficial to one’s health.

Such notions and outright fantasies, as well as 
propaganda for a new industry and a new way of 
war -- even if laughable today -- had tragic 
results back then.  Thousands of American GIs, 
for instance, were <http://www.naav.com/>marched 
into ground zero just after above-ground nuclear 
tests had been set off to observe their responses 
to what military planners assumed would be the 
atomic battlefield of the future.  Ignorance, it 
turns out, is not bliss, and thousands of those 
soldiers later became ill.  Many died young.

Unwary civilians who 
downwind of America’s western testing grounds 
were also exposed to nuclear fallout and they, 
too, suffered horribly from a variety of cancers 
and other illnesses.  Uranium miners 
<http://www.hcn.org/issues/329/16520>exposed to 
radiation in the tunnels where they wrestled from 
the earth the raw materials for the nuclear age 
also became ill and died too soon, as did workers 
processing that uranium into weapons and 
fuel.  Many of those miners were poor Navajos 
from my backyard in Utah where a new uranium 
boom, part of the so-called nuclear renaissance, 
was -- before Fukushima -- set to take shape.

How Unlikely Risks Become Inevitable

In the future, today’s low-risk claims from 
industry advocates will undoubtedly seem as 
tragically naïve as yesterday’s false 
claims.  Yes, the likelihood that any specific 
nuclear power plant reactor will melt down may be 
slim indeed -- which hardly means inconceivable 
-- but to act as though nuclear risks are limited 
to the operation of power plants is misleading in 
fuel” from reactors (the kind burning in Japan as 
I write) is produced as a plant operates, and 
that fuel remains super hot and dangerous for 
hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  As we are 
learning to our sorrow at the Fukushima complex, 
such used fuel is hardly “spent.”  In fact, it 
can be even 
radioactive and dangerous than reactor cores.

Spent fuel continues to pile up in a nuclear 
waste stream that will have to be closely managed 
and monitored for eons, so long that those 
designing nuclear-waste repositories struggle 
with the problem of signage that might be 
intelligible in a future so distant today’s 
languages may not be understood.  You might think 
that a danger virulent enough to outlast human 
languages would be a danger to avoid, but the 
hubris of the nuclear establishment is equal to its willingness to deceive.

A natural disaster, accident, or terrorist attack 
that might be statistically unlikely in any year 
or decade becomes ever more likely at the 
half-century, century, or half-millennium 
mark.  Given enough time, in fact, the unlikely 
becomes almost inevitable.  Even if you and I are 
not the victims of some future apocalyptic 
disturbance of that lethal residue, to consign 
our children, grandchildren, or 
great-grandchildren to such peril is plainly and profoundly immoral.

Nuclear proponents have long wanted to limit the 
discussion of risk to plant operation alone, not 
to the storage of dangerous wastes, and they 
remain eager to ignore altogether the risks 
inherent in transporting nuclear waste (often 
Chernobyl” by nuclear critics).  Moving those 
spent fuel rods to future repositories represents 
a rarely acknowledged category of potential 
catastrophe.  Just imagine a trainload of hot 
nuclear waste derailing catastrophically along a 
major urban corridor with the ensuing evacuations 
of nearby inhabitants. It means, in essence, that 
one of those Fukushima “pools” of out-of-control 
waste could “go nuclear” anywhere in our landscape.

Risk is about more than likelihood; it’s also 
about impact.  If I tell you that your chances of 
being bitten by a mosquito as you cross my yard 
are one in a hundred, you’ll think of that risk 
differently than if I give you the same odds on a 
deadly pit viper.  As events unfold in Japan, 
it’s ever clearer that we’re talking pit viper, 
not mosquito.  You wouldn’t know it though if you 
were to debate nuclear industry representatives, 
who consistently downplay both odds and impact, 
and dismiss those who claim otherwise as 
hysterical doomsayers.  Fukushima will assumedly 
make their task somewhat more difficult.

Hidden Costs and Wasted Subsidies

The true costs of nuclear power are another 
subject carefully fudged and obscured by nuclear 
power advocates.  From its inception in federally 
funded labs, nuclear power has been highly 
subsidized.  A recent 
by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 
“more than 30 subsidies have supported every 
stage of the nuclear fuel cycle from uranium 
mining to long-term waste storage.  Added 
together, these subsidies have often exceeded the 
average market price for the power 
produced.”  When it comes to producing 
electricity, these subsidies are so extensive, 
the report concludes, that “in some cases it 
would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy the 
kilowatts on the open market and give them away.”

If the nuclear club in Congress, led by Senate 
Republican leader Mitch McConnell, gets its way, 
billions more in subsidies will be forthcoming, 
including massive federal loan guarantees to 
build the next generation of nuclear 
plants.  These are particularly important to the 
industry, since bankers won’t otherwise touch 
projects that are notorious for mammoth cost 
overruns, lengthy delays, and abrupt cancellations.

The Obama administration has already proposed 
additional $36 billion in such guarantees to 
underwrite new plant construction.  That includes 
$4 billion for the construction of two new 
nuclear reactors on the Gulf Coast that are to be 
in partnership with Tokyo Electric Power Company 
-- that’s right, the very outfit that runs the 
Fukushima complex.  Yet when I debate nuclear 
advocates, they always claim that, in cost terms, 
nuclear power outcompetes alternative sources of energy like wind and solar.

That government gravy train doesn’t just stop at 
new power plants either.  The feds have long 
assumed the epic costs of waste management and 
storage.  If another multi-billion dollar project 
like the now-abandoned Yucca Mountain 
in Nevada is built, it will be with dollars from 
taxpayers and captive ratepayers (the free market 
be damned).  Industry spokesmen insist that 
subsidizing such projects will be well worth it, 
since they will create thousands of new 
jobs.  Unfortunately for them, a definitive 2009 
of Massachusetts study that analyzed various 
infrastructure investments including wind, solar, 
and retrofitting buildings to conserve energy 
placed nuclear dead last in job creation.

Finally, the recently renewed 
Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act limits the 
liability of nuclear utilities should a 
catastrophe like the one in Japan happen here in 
the United States.  The costs of recovery from 
the Fukushima catastrophe will be 
astronomical.  In the U.S., nuclear utilities 
would be off the hook for any of those costs and 
you, the citizen, would foot the bill.  Despite 
their assurances that nothing can go wrong here, 
nuclear industry officials have made sure that in 
their business risk and reward are carefully 
separated.  It’s a scenario we should all know 
well: private corporations take away profits when 
things go well, and taxpayers assume responsibility when shit happens.

Finally, nuclear power boosters like to proclaim 
themselves “green” and to claim that their 
industry is the ideal antidote to global warming 
since it produces no greenhouse gas 
emissions.  In doing so, they hide the 
environmental footprint of nuclear energy.

It’s quite true that no carbon dioxide comes out 
of power-plant smokestacks.  However, maintaining 
any future infrastructure to handle the 
industry’s toxic waste is guaranteed to produce 
lots of carbon dioxide.  So does mining uranium 
and processing it into fuel rods, building 
massive reactors from concrete and steel, and 
then behemoth repositories capable of holding 
waste for 1,000 years.  Radiation from the 
Fukushima meltdown is now 
the Japanese 
chain.  How green is that?

The Watchdogs Play Dead

Over the course of nuclear power’s history, there 
have been scores of mishaps, accidents, 
violations, and problems that, chances are, 
you’ve never heard about.  Beyond the unavoidable 
bad PR over the partial meltdown at Three Mile 
Island in 1979, the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, 
and now the Japanese catastrophe, the industry 
has an excellent record -- of covering up its failures.

The co-dependent relationship between the nuclear 
corporations and the Nuclear Regulatory 
Commission (NRC), the federal agency charged with 
licensing and monitoring them, resembles the cozy 
relationship between the Securities Exchange 
Commission and Wall Street before the global 
economic meltdown of 2008.  The NRC relies 
heavily on the industry’s own reports since only 
a small fraction of its activities can be inspected yearly.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 
“The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant 
in 2010,” which highlights the NRC’s haphazard 
record of inspection and enforcement, makes clear 
just why the honor system that assumes utilities 
will honestly report problems has never 
worked.  It describes 14 recent serious “near 
miss” violations that initially went 
unreported.  At the Indian Point Nuclear Power 
Plant, only 38 miles north of the New York 
metropolitan area, for instance, NRC inspectors 
ignored a leaking water containment system for 15 years.

After a leaking roof forced the shutdown of two 
reactors at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility 
in Maryland, plant managers admitted that it had 
been leaking for eight years. When Honeywell 
hired temporary workers to replace striking union 
members at its uranium refinery in Illinois, they 
were slipped the correct answers to a test 
required for those allowed to work at nuclear 
plants, because otherwise they had neither the 
knowledge nor experience to pass.

The regulation of Japan’s nuclear industry 
mirrors the American model.  Japan’s 
of regulatory scandals, falsified safety records, 
underestimated risks, and cover-ups includes an 
incident in 1999 when workers mixed uranium in 
open buckets and exposed hundreds of coworkers to 
radiation.  Two later died.  Other scandals 
involved hiding cracks in steam pipes from 
regulators in 1989, lying about a fire and 
explosion at a plant near Tokyo in 1997, and 
covering up damage to a plant from an earthquake in 2007.

In the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, we will 
no doubt discover how there, too, so-called 
over and played dead.  In recent years, in fact, 
the Fukushima complex had 
highest accident rate of any of the big Japanese 
nuclear plants.  We’ve already learned that an 
engineer who helped design and supervise the 
construction of the steel pressure vessel that 
holds the melting fuel rods in Reactor No. 4 
warned that it was damaged during production.  He 
had himself initially orchestrated a cover-up of 
this fact, but revealed it a decade later -- only 
to be ignored.  During the complex’s construction 
by General Electric some 35 years ago, Dale 
Bridenbaugh, a GE employee, 
after becoming convinced that the reactors being 
built were seriously flawed.  He, too, was 
ignored.  The Vermont Yankee reactor in Vermont 
and 23 others around the U.S. 
that design.

Stay tuned, since more examples of reckless 
management will surely come to light...

Risk Is Not a Math Problem

That culture of secrecy is a logical fit for an 
industry that is authoritarian by nature.  Unlike 
solar or wind power, nuclear power requires 
massive investments of capital, highly 
specialized expertise, robust security, and 
centralized control.  Any local citizen facing 
the impact of a uranium mine, a power plant, or a 
proposed waste depository will attest that the 
owners, operators, and regulators of the industry 
are remote, unresponsive, and inaccessible.  They 
misinform because they have the power to get away 
with it.  The absence of meaningful checks and balances enables them.

Risk, antinuclear advocates quickly learn, is not 
simply some complicated math problem to be 
resolved by experts.  Risk is, above all, a 
question of who is put at risk for whose benefit, 
of how the rewards, costs, and liabilities of an 
activity are distributed and whether that 
distribution is fair.  Those are political 
questions that citizens directly affected should 
be answering for themselves.  When it comes to 
nuclear power, that doesn’t happen because the 
industry is undemocratic to its core.  Corporate 
officers treat downwind stakeholders with the 
same contempt they reserve for honest accountings 
of the industry’s costs and dangers.

It may be difficult for the average citizen to 
unpack the technicalities of nuclear power, or 
understand the complex physics and engineering 
involved in splitting atoms to make steam to 
produce electricity.  But most of us are good at 
detecting bullshit.  We know when something like 
the nuclear industry doesn’t pass the smell test.

There is a growing realization that our 
carbon-based energy system is warming and 
endangering this planet, but replacing coal and 
oil with nuclear power is like trading heroin for 
crack -- different addictions, but no less 
unhealthy or risky.  The “nuclear renaissance,” 
like the “peaceful atom” before it, is the energy 
equivalent of a three-card monte game, involving 
the same capitalist crooks who gave us oil 
spills, bank bailouts, and so many of the other 
rip-offs and scams that have plagued our lives in this new century.

They are serial killers.  Stop them before they 
kill again.  Credibility counts and you don’t 
need a PhD or a Geiger counter to detect it.

Chip Ward was a founder of HEAL Utah, a 
grassroots group that has led the opposition to 
the disposal of nuclear waste in Utah and the 
construction of a new reactor next to Green 
River.  A 
regular, he is the author of 
on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and 
Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American 
Land. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest 
TomCast audio interview in which Ward discusses 
the endless legacy of nuclear power, click 
or download it to your iPod 

Copyright 2011 Chip Ward

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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