May 2010

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The Return of Nuclear Power

by Toni Seger

 

There's nothing ethical about it. Nuclear power is something akin to a repetitive nightmare like The Thing that wouldn't leave... I'm a little amazed to see its resurrection, but the return of nuclear power says a lot about how very important decisions (like granting toxic mortgages) often manage to escape serious scrutiny.

 

Nuclear power has always been considered an awful weapon of warfare. It's such overkill (every pun intended), it forever debases the user of it; scorched unrecognizable terrain, vaporized populations and the lingering effects of deadly radioactivity. Before the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Leo Szilard who had previously led atomic bomb research in 1939 tried to block it. He circulated a petition against using the bomb which he intended for President Truman now that the threat of a German bomb had passed. When General Leslie Groves learned of the petition, he polled Met Lab scientists where Szilard worked and learned only 15 percent wanted the bomb used "in the most effective military manner" while 46 percent voted for a "military demonstration in Japan to be followed by a new opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed." Instead, the figures were manipulated to suggest 87 percent of Met Lab scientists favored military use. Ultimately, Groves sat on both Szilard's petition and the poll. President Truman never saw either.

 

The Hiroshima bomb weighed almost 5 tons with the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT. (Today, having constructed bombs that are considerably larger, the Hiroshima bomb would be considered a 'strategic' nuclear weapon, as in capable of a surgical slice...) The bomb instantly killed between 80,000 and 140,000 people while seriously injuring 100,000 more. The temperature at burst was estimated to be in excess of a million degrees Celsius. This fierce heat literally ignited the air and formed a fireball 840 feet in diameter. Eyewitnesses over 5 miles away said its brightness exceeded the sun tenfold.

 

In less than a second, the fireball appeared and expanded. The blast shattered windows as far as 10 miles and was felt as far as 37 miles. Over two-thirds of Hiroshima's buildings were immediately demolished. Hundreds of fires, ignited by the thermal pulse, produced a firestorm that incinerated everything within four and a half miles of ground zero. From the air, Hiroshima disappeared under a thick layer of flames and smoke. Co-pilot, Captain Robert Lewis said, "My God, what have we done?"

 

About 30 minutes after the explosion, a heavy rain started. Labeled "black rain", it was filled with dirt, dust, soot and highly radioactive particles carried on the air that spread contamination to areas remote from the explosion. With 90 percent of medical personnel killed or disabled, remaining medical supplies were quickly used and survivors began to witness the deadly effects of radiation exposure; nausea, bleeding, loss of hair, death. Massive burns, susceptibility to leukemia, cataracts and malignant tumors were some of the later effects. Two years after the bombing plants growing at ground zero presaged the even more frightening genetic aberrations that would be displayed in humans: sesame stalks produced 33 percent more seeds, but 90 percent of them were sterile. For decades abnormally high amounts of cancer, birth defects and tumors haunted survivors.

 

Dropping the bomb proved to be such a horrifying event, it was a subject that was hard to comprehend. The bomb was the spoiler threat that hung over smooth exterior of the 1950's like a dark cloak. Witness the Ingmar Bergman film, Winter Light, where Max Von Sydow's character is clinically depressed and, ultimately, suicidal simply because he can't stop thinking about the fact that China had gotten the bomb. The subject was so heavy it needed to be satirized, as it was in Stanley Kubrick's brilliant and totally contemporary; Doctor Strangelove or How I Stopped Worrying and Got to Love the Bomb.

 

Today, it's been 65 years since we ended World War II by leveling two Japanese cities and poisoning the surrounding area, and though the US and other countries taunt each other by periodically 'testing' these weapons, no one's actually used them during a war since,... yet. Obviously, the United States hates these weapons. We consider them so awful that, in 2003, we made a pre-emptive attack on a sovereign country based on the lie that it possessed them. Our media didn't investigate or probe the issue either. Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons was its own justification for invading Iraq.

 

During the 1950's, as the world recovered from war, the government conducted a public relations campaign about "The Peaceful Use of the Atom". Our government didn't want to use these bombs in war anymore but, apparently, it was unwilling to admit that developing an inconceivably awful weapon was an equally awful idea, so now it needed to justify the existence of this terrible power in peace time. i.e. Now that we'd convinced ourselves we were brilliant because we 'harnessed' the atom, we had to prove we were brilliant by finding something else to do with it.

 

Thus dawned the age of nuclear power plants. We already knew that whether intended for peace or for war, splitting the atom produced a waste product that was forever dangerous and for which we had no solution, but we ignored that as something that would get solved, eventually. We've never solved it, but it's never stopped us which is sort of like trading Credit Default Swaps until the economy collapses. The first nuclear plant was built in Wiscasset Maine, an exquisitely beautiful coastal town except for the plant. It's closed now. Nuclear power plants have a relatively short life span considering how expensive and dangerous they are. After a couple of decades there is a process called embrittlement which means the odds of their instability become too high. That doesn't mean you can get rid of them or eliminate their negative effects. It just means they don't produce electricity anymore. Dead nuclear plants are an ugly reminder that the most important aspects of this awful technology remain completely unresolved. Maine Yankee, the Wiscasset plant, remains the storage site for the nuclear waste it produced. It wasn't supposed to be, but nothing about this technology is the way it's billed. When the film, The China Syndrome, about an accident at a nuclear power plant, came out, it was condemned by the nuclear industry as completely outlandish and grossly unfair, etc. etc. Then, in a wonderful piece of timing, the almost identical accident happened in the real world at Three Mile Island.

 

Nuclear waste can't be decontaminated and there's no means of storage that's completely safe for the endless numbers of years (far far longer than all of recorded history), required for the material's deadly power to be rendered inactive. Radioactive waste contaminates everything it comes in contact with and, despite the fact we've never come up with a means of decontaminating it, nuclear power plants continue to produce deadly waste every day. Everything that comes in contact with the daily processing work done at these plants becomes contaminated with radioactivity as well; protective clothing, gloves, booties, etc. Years ago, the government made the marketing decision to label this stuff  'Low Level Nuclear Waste' in order to calm people's fears about it because the half life of the radioactive isotopes in low level waste is relatively short compared to the control rods in the reactor's core. Waste produced in the core includes uranium, plutonium, and other highly radioactive elements created through the fission process much of which has extremely long half-lives, some longer than 100,000 years! Thus, in comparison, the 10 to 50 years recommended for the safe storage of 'low level waste' seems short, but is it? Fifty years is still a long period in the lives of human beings. No one can guarantee any country will have responsible government 50 years from now, let alone 100,000... No one can guarantee stable geological structures for long term storage either.  In case you missed it, Iceland just had a dormant volcano erupt twice in one month for the first time in over 200 years. Whether on the surface or underneath it, our earth is in continual motion. 

 

In 1986, the federal government chose Nevada and Maine, where I live, as locations to build permanent repositories for High Level Nuclear Waste. Two sites in Maine were chosen; one was underneath Sebago Lake, not only a major tourist attraction surrounded by seasonal homes, but the drinking water supply for the state's largest city, Portland. The second site was an Indian Reservation which happened to be located over a fault line. The government made the announcement in January when it assumed the state was asleep under a pile of snow. Their reasoning couldn't have been more cynical; a sparsely populated, largely rural state wouldn't have the strength to oppose the federal government, but Maine rose up like a lion defending her cubs and sent the government packing. The state was so ferocious in its rejection, for a brief instant it managed to draw the nation's attention to the consistent lack of planning or realism exhibited by government during the entire history of nuclear waste. Fast Forward to 2010 and the other proposed location, Yucca Mountain in Nevada appears to be finally getting dropped. After over 25 years of trying to construct a repository for nuclear waste, the government appears to be throwing in the towel even as it plans to subsidize the building of new plants...

 

When you live in denial, the weirdness just gets weirder. The government appears to be giving up on dealing with the deadly waste (which is not going away) and, at the same time, proposing taxpayer subsidies for insanely expensive nuclear power plants while labeling them 'green' technology. I agree we've been ignoring the threat of climate change for too long and its effects can't be ignored any longer, but the idea that nuclear power could play a role in saving the planet from climate change has the logic of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland. At the least, the government is completely disingenuous in its amnesia about Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and nuclear waste (high or low) Just because nuclear power doesn't produce carbon doesn't make it 'green'. The government has just negotiated a reduction in nuclear missiles, but nuclear missiles also produce radioactive waste which means even when you decommission them, they're still capable of killing vast numbers of people.

 

Of course we're being told that the new plants are built so-o-o-o-o-o-o much better than those nasty old plants that continue to leak like Vermont's aging plant or notorious Indian Point in New York which was recently denied a water permit because it was finally unacceptable that its long since, obsolete cooling system sucks in 2.5 billion gallons a day and pumps it out 20 to 30 degrees hotter! Thanks to a program of nuclear submarines produced by the Soviet Union during the 1970's, reactor cores weighing hundred of tons litter the Artic; an area of the globe most people mistakenly perceive as pristine. These are just a sample of this technology's unresolved legacy which we continue to ignore as Big Money prepares to jump into the burgeoning marketplace, newly created by government subsidy, for nuclear power.

 

Unfortunately, this country has often opted for the easier, more expedient band aid over the pursuit of a genuine solution, but even given that tendency our adoption of nuclear power as the green item of the month strains credulity. If this were a satire, that would be fine, but it's real. Nuclear power is not a solution to climate change and the last time I heard an idea that bad was when we invaded Iraq in order to protect ourselves from weapons of mass destruction...


Co-owner of a media/communications firm, ProseWorks(tm) Associates since 1992, Toni Seger has been a professional writer for four decades. Seger is the author of "The Telefax Box", the first in a satiric trilogy about our overly mechanized lives available at https://www.CreateSpace.com/3335778. She has produced and directed original plays for stage and television and is an award winning film maker with endorsements from Maine Public Broadcasting. Her film, "The Force of Poetry" is available at https://www.CreateSpace.com/260202.