The Price of Power

In 1952 the Paley Commission, appointed by the Truman Administration to study the energy situation, recommended that the U.S. build itself a solar future, predicting 15 million sun-heated homes by 1975. The Commission specifically warned against going nuclear, asserting the promise of renewable energy sources to be greater than that of nuclear power for meeting energy needs and preventing economic dislocations due to disruptions in foreign oil supply. Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program intervened the next year with its propaganda promises of energy “too cheap to meter.” The program aimed to distract a population uneasy with nuclear weapons, providing a shield of commercial nuclear power behind which Dr. Strangelove could amass unhindered megatonnage.

Nuclear spectators.More than a trillion dollars has since been squandered, for which we now receive a paltry 20% of our electricity and the dubious “security” of thousands of nuclear devices. Each nuclear power plant, and its cooling pond (spent fuel exposed to air bursts into flames), is a pre-placed nuclear bomb to any determined terrorist wishing us harm.

If this were the whole story we could move on, an expensive lesson learned, a dangerous historical moment passed, its irrationality attributable to reckless youth. Unfortunately there is a legacy, in the form of radioactive waste already released into the environment, more waste in questionable containment with no where to go, warheads out the gazoo and the ever-youthful Dr. Strangelove and friends in the wings, forget wings – on stage!, panting for another trillion dollar go-round.

Let’s look a little closer at some of the costs of ignoring the Paley Commission’s findings:

  • A report released by Renewable Energy Policy Project (REPP) examines U.S. government spending on energy technologies. According to “Federal Energy Subsidies: Not All Technologies Are Created Equal” the U.S. government has spent approximately $150 billion on energy subsidies for wind, solar and nuclear power–96.3% of which has gone to nuclear power. There are 108 nuclear reactors currently operating in the U.S. To demonstrate just howNo modern and up-to-date they are, Japan has gone and built 51 while France did them several better, at 60. The nuclear industry promotes itself to third world nations by playing on modern vs. backwater self images.
  • The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) estimates 430,000 “excess” cancer fatalities from atmospheric nuclear testing 1940 – 2000. Extrapolated to the entire period of time that global fall-out from atmospheric testing will remain results in a figure of 2.4 million excess cancer fatalities with incidence many times higher (p.110 Critical Condition: Human Health and the Environment MIT Press 1993).
  • It’s not clear what impact on Soviet policies Paley’s recommendations might have had but in 1957 an explosion in the Soviet Union made Chelyabinsk (Mayak) the most polluted place on earth. Chelyabinsk was the heart of the Soviet nuclear weapons production system throughout the Cold War. Three disasters with its nuclear waste–in 1946, 1957 and 1967-have caused cumulative damages comparable to, and probably worse than, the Chernobyl meltdown. Even today, some 100 million curies of radioactivity remain in Mayak’s Lake Karachay. Scientists from the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council say, ” The groundwater is already contaminated, and the area is subject to Cyclones and earthquakes that could further spread the radioactivity.”
  • Rivaling Chelyabinsk is the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia, near the border with Norway. During the Cold War, the harbors of Kola were home to the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet, which dumped used submarine reactors, spent fuel and other nuclear debris into the sea with abandon. The waters now contain two-thirds of all the nuclear waste dumped into the world’s oceans.
  • The Department of Energy (DOE) is proud possessor of 700,000 metric tons of nuclear materials, mostly depleted Uranium. This is perhaps 5% of the total when commercial reactor materials are added. In the 40s & 50s – 440 billion gallons of contaminated liquids were discharged into the ground at Hanford site in Washington State (enough for a lake 80′ deep the size of Manhattan). There are 189 metric tons of HEU (highly enriched Uranium – 9,450 Hiroshima-sized bombs) at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, some sitting for 40 years, in facilities vulnerable to fire, in containers of questionable integrity, according to Robert Alvarez, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2000, Alvarez is a former DOE employee. He claims that the Rio Grande could have become a Chernobyl-sized disaster if the rains had come and washed contaminants into its waters after the May 2000 Los Alamos fire denuded vegetation retaining the waste.
  • Within a month of the Los Alamos fire another fire scorched nearly half the Hanford nuclear reservation and 20 homes as it crept within two miles of some of the most lethal nuclear waste on Earth, in 177 storage tanks buried six feet underground that could explode if a spark were introduced inside. In August 1984, 300,000 acres of the Hanford site was scorched in another fire.
  • Cleanup of the uranium enrichment plant at Paducah, Kentucky will take a decade and is expected to cost $1.3 billion, according to a report issued by DOE.
  • Nuclear facilities in La Hague, France and Sellafield in Scotland spill hundreds of millions of liters of radioactive waste into the sea annually. Contamination has been detected in sea life around the coasts of Scandinavia, Iceland and the Arctic. Sellafield officials seem to be reneging on a promise to stop the discharges by 2020.
  • Thousands of radioactive waste barrels are rusting away on the seabed in UK waters, environmentalists have warned. Greenpeace has released a film of the legacy of radioactive waste dumping at sea. It shows corroding, broken and disintegrated barrels of radioactive waste, remnants of some 28,500 barrels dumped by the UK between 1950 and 1963. Mike Townley of Greenpeace said: “Although dumping radioactive wastes at sea from ships is now banned, paradoxically the discharge of radioactive wastes into the sea via pipelines from land is not. “Such double standards are not maintained for technical or scientific reasons, but only because the operators of the nuclear reprocessing facilities in La Hague and Sellafield want to save money.”
  • Forty countries have pledged $370 million to clean up the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which killed an estimated 30,000 people during the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. Five months after the Chernobyl catastrophe, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s true believer, Dr. Morris Rosen said, “Even if there was this type of accident every year, I would consider nuclear power to be a valid source of energy”. The New York Academy of Science has estimated one million deaths world-wide from Chernobyl. Fukushima, our latest on-going “consequence” seems to be going Chernobyl one-better in all categories.
  • A recent study shows infant death rates near five U.S. nuclear plants dropped immediately and dramatically after the reactors closed (Study by New York based Radiation and Public Health Project published in the spring 2000 issue of the scientific journal Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology).
  • Smugglers, aiming to transport nearly nine pounds of uranium-containing metal rods into Afghanistan, were blocked by authorities in Kazakstan. Such rods are produced in Kazakstan, Russia and Ukraine.
  • The federal government announced in January 2000 that many workers who built U. S. nuclear weapons during the Cold War years are likely to become ill (if they haven’t already) due to exposure to radiation or toxic chemicals. This marked a historic reversal by the government, which had always maintained there were no connections between work at the weapons plants and later illnesses. This belated, if limited, fessing up, occurred under the Clinton administration. Under Bush we have reinstituted a rigorous denial-as-usual.
  • Delays in the 30-year, $50 billion effort to clean up hazardous wastes at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are increasing risks at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, said an audit from the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general. Tank leaks, plus billions of gallons of more diluted contaminants poured into the ground since 1945, “could reach the Columbia River in as little as 20 years and continue for the next 5,000 years,” the report said. At least 25 tanks are estimated to be generating enough hydrogen gas to cause a devastating, radiation-spreading fire if ignited.
  • The suicide of the director of Chelyabinsk-70, one of Russia’s leading nuclear labs, reportedly because lab personnel had not been paid their meager $50 salaries for months, raises serious questions regarding the proliferation of nuclear materials. At the Chelyabinsk nuclear weapons industrial facility more than 60,000 pounds of plutonium are stored in 12,000 stainless steel containers the size of thermos bottles. Two or three of them contain enough plutonium to make a nuclear bomb.
  • Thirty years ago, Alaska’s Amchitka Island was the site of three large underground nuclear tests. Despite claims by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Pentagon that the test sites would safely contain the radiation released by the blasts for thousands of years, newly released documents from the DOE show that the Amchitka tests began to leak almost immediately. Highly radioactive elements and gasses poured out of the collapsed test shafts, leached into the groundwater and worked their way into ponds, creeks and the Bering Sea. At the same time, thousands of Amchitka laborers and Aleuts living on nearby islands were put in harm’s way. Dozens have died of radiation-linked cancers. The response of the federal government to these disturbing findings has been almost as troublesome as the circumstances surrounding the tests themselves: a consistent pattern of indifference, denial and cover-up.
  • Russia has offered the US, in negotiations on START-III, warhead numbers as low as 1,500. However, the US in response has actually tried to persuade Russia to go for higher numbers of nuclear warheads. This again violates the legal commitment to the total and unequivocal elimination of nuclear arsenals required by the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).
  • Startling findings involving economic impacts of a severe accident: DOE, in one of its Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) on Yucca Mountain (a nuclear waste repository in Nevada, canceled under Obama, which failed to meet DOE’s own minimal requirements which DOE creatively met by constantly downgrading standards), mentions categories of economic impacts that could result from a severe nuclear transport accident but does not provide dollar amounts. Researchers Resnikoff and Lamb, using DOE’s own model, did perform such calculations. What they found was shocking. A severe truck cask accident could result in $20 billion to $36 billion in cleanup costs for an accident in an urban area. A severe rail accident in an urban area could result in costs from $145 billion to $270 billion.
  • Several years ago, DOE estimated that a severe transport accident in a rural setting that released only a miniscule fraction of the cask’s radioactive cargo would contaminate a 42 square mile area of land. The cleanup would cost $620 million and take one year and three months. The totally unlikely accident that recently closed part of Atlanta’s I-285 for four weeks was a serious inconvenience. Consider the repercussions if that cargo had been nuclear waste instead of gasoline.

Fun Quotes

“Just one of our relatively invulnerable Poseidon submarines-less than 2% of our total nuclear force of submarines, aircraft, and land-based missiles – carries enough warheads to destroy every large and medium-sized city in the Soviet Union.” – U.S. President Jimmy Carter, 1977.

“You have survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, and you have a capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict on you. That’s the way you can have a winner.” – U.S. Vice President George Bush, on how to win a nuclear war.

“Military strategists can claim that an intelligent U.S. offensive strategy, wedded to homeland defenses, should reduce U.S. casualties to approximately 20 million . . . a level compatible with national survival and recovery.” – Colin Gray, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

“Dig a hole, cover it with a couple doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top. It’s the dirt that does it. If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.” – Thomas K. Jones, U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces, on surviving a nuclear war.

“If no new weapons are going to be built, what am I going to be doing?” – John Immele, Associate Director for Nuclear Weapons Technology at Los Alamos, 1993.

This mini-tour of a grimy and terrifying terrain, might lead a citizen to conclude that nuclear facilities, weapons and their deadly by-products are not good for young children, parents, old or young pets, pet owners (all ages), nor old mother earth. The credibility of those who have conducted this charade is, to be kind, poor in the extreme. They have plans. They would like to build more nuclear power plants, “safe” of course. They expect the public to be responsible for the liability in case of an accident via the Price-Anderson Act. They would like to burn plutonium as fuel in some of these plants and they are just itching to reprocess nuclear waste, one of the dirtiest aspects of the whole business. They want to build more bombs and allocate lots of money for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) so as to maintain an old and cultivate a new generation of weapons designers. They want to build weapons in space under the guise of missile defense and, to demonstrate their profound regard for future generations, they are willing to divert funds earmarked for cleaning up the mess they’ve made over to their exciting new projects. What this situation calls for is a little, actually a lot, of citizen intervention. A good place to start:

Nuclear spectators photo: public domain, a work of the United States Federal Government via Wikimedia Commons. Cartoon by author.
Tom Ferguson

Tom Ferguson

Tom is a painter, a cartoonist, a musician, a thinker and more. View some of his web sites:

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