The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant resulting from the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11 has once again focused attention on the dangers of nuclear power.
With Congress set to vote later this summer on a new energy bill that promotes building new nuclear plants, the timing couldn’t be more crucial. Nuclear industry fat cats and the politicians of both parties who serve them are eager to peddle nuclear energy using a refurbished image. Our job is to stop them cold.
An awakening monster. No nuclear power plants have been built in the U.S. since a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. It was the worst nuclear generator accident in U.S. history. A pump failure led to overheating, a release of radioactive steam, and 40,000 gallons of contaminated water in the Susquehanna River.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Fukushima Daiichi plant design is similar. The tsunami knocked out power, causing pump failure in all six reactors. At least one melted down and another leaked highly radioactive water into the ocean. Stateside, about a third of the 104 nuclear facilities are also boiling-water reactors that depend on pumps to keep the core from catastrophic overheating.
After Three Mile Island, the people delivered a resounding “No!” to the nuclear industry that lasted for 32 years. While opposition staved off new construction in the U.S., however, the industry hardly disappeared. It was busy selling nuclear power around the globe, most notably in developing countries.
Now the industry is staging a comeback here. In the last ten years, it spent $600 million lobbying Congress and another $63 million on federal campaign contributions.
History of lies and cover-ups. Since the 1950s, when the U.S. conducted nuclear weapons tests above ground in Nevada and New Mexico, government and industry types have arrogantly derided the public’s “irrational fear” of radiation. But just how rational is the effort to revive nuclear power when so much is at risk?
The safety of nuclear facilities has long been questionable. As with the “regulators” of Wall Street and Big Oil, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a cozy relationship with the industry it is supposed to supervise. Lately, the NRC’s efforts have been devoted to limiting public debate on new plants under the guise of the “War on Terror”! A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, however, counted fourteen preventable near-misses at nuclear installations in the U.S. last year alone that could have resulted in the escape of radioactive material.
As if that weren’t enough to worry about, radioactive waste remains toxic to all life forms for 250,000 years. There is no surefire way to quarantine it safely for that long. Plans to bury it inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada are currently on hold due to massive voter resistance. With no solution in sight, spent fuel rods are being left longer in above-ground cooling pools, resulting in an increased threat of spills. The U.S. also plans to import nuclear waste from other countries!
Meanwhile, the military is “disposing” of so-called “depleted” uranium in munitions it has used in every combat operation since the First Iraq War. This has spread poison dust and birth defects across the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Of all the claims in defense of nuclear energy, none is more dishonest than the contention that it is “green.” From uranium mining and extraction to reprocessing spent fuel rods and disposal of waste, nuclear energy is a dangerous and dirty business. Just ask the Navajo uranium miners who are sick and dying of lung cancer — a health effect that was concealed from the workers by their nuclear bosses and the U.S. Public Health Service for 40 years.
Nuclear profits and politics. The renewed pursuit of nuclear energy in the face of overwhelming risk and at immense cost to taxpayers is driven by one thing — greed. Where there are astronomical costs, there are astronomical profits to be had. With huge government subsidies sweetening the pot, nuclear energy plants are regular ATM’s, dispensing megabucks to the energy barons. There is plenty of cash left over to line the campaign coffers of Republican and Democrat politicians, most notably President Obama.
Obama claimed during the 2008 election that he was opposed to the construction of new nuclear power plants. But since 2003, one of his biggest campaign contributors has been the Exelon Corporation, which operates 17 nuclear reactors and is based in the president’s home town of Chicago. Both his former chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, architect of his re-election campaign, have ties to Exelon.
No surprise then that in February, Obama called for more than $54 billion in government assistance to finance new nuclear plants. So much for campaign promises.
The supposed trade-off between having enough electric power and the safety of present and future generations is false.
Today, nuclear power generates about 20% of U.S. electricity needs. Few people realize that drought-stricken California was able to reduce consumption by the same amount just through conservation — a word rarely uttered by most politicians.
One thing is for sure. If working people want to shut down the nuclear industry, we will have to do it on our own. We need to reinvigorate the anti-nuke movement by connecting the issues of jobs and environmental protection, and build coalitions of workers, students, women and community people to fight the nuclear business.
Our first priorities must be ending construction of new plants and safely phasing out nuclear energy.
Truly alternative, safe and renewable forms of energy like wind, solar and tidal action are available. But they need government support to advance, a valid use of federal subsidies.
The only way to ultimately bury nukes is to nationalize the whole energy industry and run it for the good of people, not for profit. That will mean going after the capitalist system, which is built on the degradation of the environment and the enslavement of many so that a few can live in opulence.
Send feedback to Sukey Wolf at email@example.com.
Also see: The view from Japan: Anatomy of a nuclear disaster