The great nuclear reaction

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The near-disaster at Three Mile Island on March 28 riveted world attention onto the hornet’s nest of nuclear energy production.

As a reactor in the plant spilled 250,000 gallons of radioactive effluent and vented unknown quantities of lethal steam over the surrounding countryside, the world press descended nearby Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Reversing its 20-year disparagement of antinuclear protest, the media unearthed information that sounded a shrill alarm and oriented the populace to even greater dangers than technological failure.

In-depth investigative news reporting produced an indictment of the entire nuclear industry as well as the corrupt system that supports it: monopoly-domination by Big Oil; profiteering at public expense; an underdeveloped and unrefined technology; sell-out by the government “regulators”; cover-up of research evidence that even low-level radiation from nuclear waste increases the cancer risk to workers; planned genocide of Native American uranium miners; the collusion of government and business in discouraging safer modes of energy production; and so on, ad infinitum.

Stirred by the reality, working people are becoming increasingly receptive to the program for change offered by Marxists. It remains only for the internally contradictory antinuclear movement, conceived in the middle class, to take the distinct turn to the left necessary for it to become a broad-based movement tied to the working class and the unions.

Who Profits?

Unshaken by the Three Mile Island meltdown emergency, the nuclear industry callously proposed that the ratepayers assume the cleanup cost. With the price of building plants now in the billions, cost overruns are absorbed by raising electricity bills and increasing taxes which the government uses to subsidize and cushion industry errors ($18 billion to date has been handed over to the nuclear capitalists by the government).

The 50 giant companies that dominate the building, equipment, fueling, and operation of nuclear reactors, for either energy or weapons use, are reaping astronomical profits. The 10 biggest companies hold more than half the nation’s uranium resources and own 40% of the milling capacity.

Major oil companies — Kerr-McGee, Atlantic Richfield, Exxon, Mobil, and Gulf — are big investors in nukes, as are General Electric, Anaconda, and Rockwell International. Moguls sitting on each other’s Boards of Directors arrange unlimited benefits for themselves, including price-fixing at every step of the production process. These financial maneuverings extend to private or public utilities, the rate-collectors who usually contract out the building and operating of plants.

And the government, the supposed watchdog, expedites this extortion of the public.

Consumer Rip-off

The public pays dearly for nuclear energy because electric utilities are regulated monopolies.

State commissions set rates at a level designed to cover operating costs and provide a profit on the investment. But the profits are determined by the size of the investment, not by the ratio of costs and sales; hence, the more capital invested, the larger the profit! Utilities are encouraged by the cost-plus, rate-fixing system to adopt expensive, capital-intensive technologies like nuclear reactors.

Utilities are also allowed to raise rates for money to invest in new plants and equipment, generating more profit for private companies.

Since 1957, the federal Price-Anderson Act limits company liability to $560 million, yet Three Mile Island lawsuits already exceed that figure, and the companies running the plant will pay little of the cost. One provision of the act diffuses the impact over the rest of the industry and their ratepayers, and government subsidy picks up the rest. The ratepayer pays extra when reactors fail and when construction and production are delayed.

Companies cut corners on equipment or design, then can’t meet safety regulations. But since profits, not safety, rule the industry, plants such as Three Mile Island are rushed prematurely into production to qualify for $40 million in tax write-offs and a rate increase worth $49 million.

Technology Fiasco

The whole rush to produce nuclear energy is far ahead of the invention of a safe and workable technology.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the industry has never adequately tested the emergency equipment that failed at Three Mile Island — a circulating water system that must continually cool the fissionable reactor core to prevent a meltdown and an explosion of huge quantities of radioactive steam into the atmosphere.

The industry has been plagued with the results of bad planning.

Five of the 72 U.S. nuclear plants are closed because their engineering did not compensate for earthquake stresses. Other plants are shut down for repairs about 40% of the time.

A fire nearly destroyed the plant at Brown’s Ferry, Alabama, and the partial meltdown of the Enrico Fermi reactor almost wiped out Detroit.

The Three Mile Island failure revealed that the technical underpinnings of nuclear energy production are a matter of guesswork.

Unsafe at Any Site

Additional hazards occur as large quantities of deadly radioactive material are transported without proper safety precautions.

Between 1971 and 1977, lethal radioactivity was released in 36 of 144 accidents. The victims are often unwary baggage handlers, truckers, or dockworkers involved in the shipment of components or waste. Construction workers, welders, or pipefitters may be unwittingly exposed to radiation from leaks and spills. Longshoremen in Spain recently refused to handle cargo for a nuclear plant being built at Lemoniz.

Plutonium, the deadliest radioactive substance — one pound could poison the world — has been carried in vest pockets and suitcases onto planes, cars, trains, and buses. And 1½ tons of this essential ingredient for nuclear weapons are unaccounted for!!!

Let ‘Em Eat Strontium 90

Tons of radioactive tailings, sludge and spent fuel rods are piling up, with no solution to the waste storage problem in sight.

Concurrently, 75 million gallons of high-level nuclear waste has accumulated in the U.S., and 90,000 tons of used reactor fuel will collect by 2000.

Nobody wants the waste in their territory and nobody knows what to do with it. Energy Czar James Schlesinger proposes we rocket the waste into the sun. Washington State Governor Dixy Lee Ray, former Atomic Energy Commission czar, suggests we redefine it as a resource for sterilizing sewage and making fertilizer, and then we could eat it.

Waste is stored in temporary containers. At Hanford, Washington, low-level waste is kept in open trenches, more lethal materials in ceramic tanks. One such tank leaked unnoticed for 49 days and spilled 115,000 gallons of waste into the ground, where it will emit radioactivity for tens of thousands of years.

The government is now making expensive test drills in the natural basalt of the Hanford area, hoping to build permanent storage vaults five thousand feet or more below the earth’s surface. But no one can say that earthquake or ground water flow will not dislodge the deadly substances before a quarter of a million years pass, and the waste’s radioactivity is spent and its capacity to kill, maim, and deform is exhausted.

Nuclear Family Incest

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) openly promoted nuclear energy development and altered, misrepresented, or concealed the facts. The AEC convinced the public that nuclear power was safe and clean, and expedited legislation limiting industry liability.

In 1974, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) replaced the old AEC (in response to charges of conflict-of-interest). But 85% of NRC employees had worked for AEC. According to a 1976 Common Cause study, 65% of 429 top-level NRC employees came from companies that held licenses from or contracted with NRC.

With only 250 inspectors for the entire industry, NRC regulators rarely check safety conditions. But last year, 3000 safety inspections were made and a 40% violation rate was discovered. Only 6 minimal fines were assessed as penalties.

On January 8, 1979, an NRC safety inspector questioned the safety of Three Mile Island and seven similar plants. NRC higher-ups ignored him. Tapes of NRC proceedings revealed that when the accident happened, NRC knew nothing and relied on self-serving company officials for information.

The NRC has a gentleman’s agreement on self-regulation with the energy profiteers.

None of this is strange, given the fact that most politicians are owned outright by the energy interests.

Public press has produced some action in the NRC. They shut down five plants near geological faults and repudiated the Rasmussen Report, which greatly underestimated the dangers from nuclear accidents.

But the complicity of government in the nuclear nightmare cannot be hidden.


The NRC’s shabby attempt to make the world think everything was under control at Three Mile Island was a typical reflex by typical nuclear liars.

In the early 1950s, when the AEC knew full well (after Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that nuclear weapon test sites were unsafe, it deliberately stifled protest against testing. The AEC called the cover-up “judicious handling of the public information system,” or, in Eisenhower’s words, “keepin’ ’em confused about fusion and fission.”

When sheep near test sites in Utah and Nevada started to die and people began contracting leukemia and cancer of the thyroid, fears about radiation were dubbed “Communist-inspired scare stories.”

In the heyday of atomic testing, in the early ’50s, 200,000 soldiers were marched into test areas and exposed to lethal radiation. Today, they contract cancer at a rate of 2 to 4 times that of the general population.

The AEC promoted nuclear energy with the same disregard for public safety it showed in weapons development, repeatedly suppressing studies of the effects of radiation.

As a result of the plot to silence public fears of radiation danger, exact data on radiation-linked cancer is unclear. But cancer deaths increase dramatically — as much as 400% — in direct relation to infinitesimal increases of radioactivity in the environment.

Nuclear waste escapes into the air, leaks into the water, lodges in the beef and milk of cattle drinking from streams, and enters humans to appear as cancer 10 to 40 years later, to cause birth defects in fetuses, and to engender genetic mutations.

Low Energy Level?

Allied with the cover-up of nuclear power’s inherent dangers is the bald-faced lie that all other energy sources are exhausted or impractical. There are alternatives, and a rational, humane, workers government would instantly explore them. Investigations into solar power must be bolstered, and geothermal and wind energy research and production expedited. Currently, the money spent on solar energy development is less than the price of one nuclear plant.

Moreover, the 12% of electricity now produced in nuclear reactors could easily be replaced by reconstructing the coal-fueled power plants on the basis of a technology oriented toward worker-safety and pollution control.

And extensive reserves of oil and natural gas still exist.

Alternative energy would furnish cleaner air, reasonable safety, and reusable and renewable resources. Basic changes in energy priorities are necessary and possible.

Nuclear Genocide

Before Harrisburg, the industry’s disregard for human life was best known to a few antinuclear activists and a growing group of direct victims, the workers who faced daily exposure to dangerous radiation levels.

It was not well known that Native American uranium miners are among the most abused.

Impoverished, they provide cheap labor for the 55% of U.S. uranium mining located on Indian lands, and their mortality rate is astounding.

Among 100 Navajos who haul uranium ore in Shiprock, New Mexico, 18 have died of cancer, and more are dying. Mine operators are supporting research to prove the high cancer rate is due to cigarettes! Uranium mines are surrounded by heaps of refuse which emit low-level radiation. The dust blows into the lungs of Navajos living perilously close by, and children playing in the tailings develop burning sores.

Union Carbide and other companies plan large scale strip and solution mining on Lakota lands in the Black Hills. The company claims were filed while the Lakotas’ attention was absorbed by the savage FBI attack at Wounded Knee and the aftermath of frame-ups and imprisonments. Lorelei Means, Native American activist speaking at a Seattle antinuclear rally on June 3, said that nationwide resistance to the Black Hills mining operation is growing. The struggle there this summer is crucial for Native American survival and for the defeat of the corporations.

The Voice of Unionism

Last fall, nuclear corporations gave major support to “right-to-work,” anti-union legislation and candidates.

Unionists are increasingly speaking out about company abuses that endanger both the public and employees.

After a Willow Island, West Virginia cooling tower accident killed 51 workers at Research-Cottrell, a union steward on another company project protested the pouring of concrete onto steel reinforcing rods caked with mud. It took a wildcat walkout by 90 workers to save his job. Workers have charged that contractors allow serious construction defects, inflate costs by rebuilding certain components, and then blame the resulting rate-base increase on worker incompetence.

(The NRC ignores such complaints, and shoddy construction projects and worker accidents proliferate.)

The death of Karen Silkwood was no accident. An activist in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, she worked in a Kerr-McGee plutonium production plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma. When she started collecting evidence that company negligence was endangering workers and the public, plutonium was planted in her home refrigerator. She was contaminated with deadly radiation.

Frightened and ill, Silkwood took her evidence and drove to a meeting with a union official and a New York Times reporter. Her car was forced off the road and she was killed.

The papers scattered in her car documented Kerr-McGee’s safety violations, its falsification of safety check records and illegal arrangement with the AEC to be alerted prior to inspections. The papers were removed from the car and destroyed — by agreement between state police and Kerr-McGee officials.

In a civil suit on behalf of her survivors, a federal jury found Kerr-McGee negligent in handling the plutonium that contaminated Silkwood, and awarded her estate $10.5 million in damages.

Feminists, as well as the union, rallied to the Silkwood case, which dramatized the heroism and struggle of working women in energy production jobs. Management refuses to make the workplace safe and clean, and forces women of childbearing age to quit or move to traditional, lower-paid work once they’ve reached the “minimum acceptable” level of exposure.

Men are “spared” this sex discrimination and are privileged to die sooner. Men are also subject to sterility from radiation, or to passing on genetic defects to their offspring.

But now the voice of those for whom human life is a preeminent value is rising to counter the commitments of money and ego that have poured into the nuclear rathole for 30 years. Women who have everything to gain and little to lose are risking their very lives, like Silkwood, to defy the pleading of nuclear apologists who cite the size of the public investment as cause for “not pulling out now.”

Silkwood’s martyrdom must be avenged.

Sane Energy for a Sane Society

Although the face of the antinuclear movement has been predominantly white and middleclass, its complexion is changing.

Radicalized by the urgency and enormity of their task, activists have begun to find common ground with workers. And many labor unions which were pro-nuclear are beginning to join what promises to become a vast movement.

This upsurge gained spectacular credibility May 6 when a Washington, D.C. antinuclear demonstration attracted 110,000 people.

Although Ralph Nader’s reformists and the Socialist Workers Party tried to narrow the focus of the demonstration to the one-note, one-issue of nuclear energy, a wide spectrum of ideologies was represented by the crowd. Thousands were ready for a more incisive critique of the system than was provided. The SWP, as usual, will try to dampen the revolutionary potential and education of the vast, loose network of antinuke fighters, but the movement will see the same inevitable radicalization that suffused the antiwar movement.

The Left has to learn the bitter lessons of the past, and accept the historical mandate to address all the issues linked by the thread of the heinous crimes of the nuclear establishment. Without determined radical leadership, the anti-Nuke people, like the New Left, will fade into reformist unreality and deserved obscurity.

Serious environmentalists, nuclear opponents, afflicted workers, and concerned trade unionists, minorities, women, gays, and radicals must not only promote the immediate demand to halt the imminent nuclear holocaust but educate the movement and the working class by raising all the connected transitional and long-range demands.

A Graduated Program for Today

• Shut down nuclear plants.

• Eliminate health and safety hazards that maim and kill energy workers, from coal miners to electrical lineworkers.

• Stop uranium mining on Native American lands.

• Halt the construction of nuclear weapons, which will be used to enforce imperialism.

• Health care for all nuclear victims, and close monitoring of the health of succeeding generations.

• Emergency research, at industry expense, into safe disposal of existing nuclear wastes.

• Safe energy AND full protection of the environment — no compromises.

• Conduct the necessary research to develop safe energy production; step up the study of solar energy feasibility.

• Empower the workers involved to determine, maintain and inspect all energy production and distribution systems.

• For nationwide, federally funded retraining and vocational training of all displaced workers in energy-related industries.

• Affirmative action training programs for minorities, women, the handicapped, and other specially afflicted workers to prepare them for jobs in the energy field.

• Open the books and records of the energy moguls and government energy agencies.

• Take the vast profits of the energy business. Nationalize the industry. Energy for people, not for super-profits.

• For the building of a Labor Party. Only a workers government can insure economic and human rights for all.

• Replace capitalism, and its imperialist adventures, with a socialist democracy that will end the exploitation of life and the rape of the earth. Install a new revolutionary society fit for human habitation.

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