The nuclear gang rides again

20 August 2009
A group of scientists, military officials and government bureaucrats signed an informal pact with the devil. The contract became public in August 1945, when U.S. bombers nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then, no other nation has used a nuclear weapon, but thousands of radiation-emitting tests have occurred and nuclear energy plants mushroomed, with promises of cheap, safe and clean power. Over the decades, however, “the nuclear industry” has faced repeated cost over-runs, and serious “accidents.” Thousands died at the Chernobyl power plant (Ukraine) and a near catastrophe occurred at the Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania) facility. Air Force planes dropped H bombs in the ocean off the Spanish coast and innumerable leaks, fires and “mishaps” occurred routinely at military and civilian nuclear installations. In 1980, Jack Willis and I produced “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” for public television. Our documentary showed government officials and nuclear mavens colluding to obfuscate their failure to keep their “cheap, safe and clean” promise. In 1977, Jacobs, a reporter (and non-smoker) covered the nuclear issue since the 1950s. He developed lung cancer, his doctors speculated, after he had inhaled a plutonium particle while covering U.S. government atomic tests. He also looked skeptically at U.S. claims of benign radiation levels near the Nevada test site. In a 1957 story, Jacobs reported his Geiger counter jumping scale in a “safe” area. In his story (The Reporter), he revealed the lies told by Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) spokesmen about actual levels of radiation. Jacobs had surreptitiously acquired from a Public Health office in Las Vegas a classified document revealing AEC knowledge that so-called low level radiation constituted serious health hazards. Indeed, from later de-classified internal memos, Jacobs discovered the AEC had classified the health report not to keep it from Soviet officials, who knew about radiation’s perils, but to keep the U.S. public sedated so people wouldn’t think about choosing between nuclear tests and getting cancer. In 1977, Willis and I returned with Jacobs to the “down wind” area he had investigated 20 years earlier. In southern Utah, Jacobs found those he had previously interviewed were dead or had cancer. In St. George, Utah, directly in line of the fall-out path from Nevada nuclear tests, he found a near epidemic of cancer and a public that had endured years of nuclear nervousness. Before he died, he added up costs and liabilities: damage done by bombs dropped on Japan, and too many thousands of civilians and U.S. service men who served as guinea pigs during the 1950s. The Pentagon, seeking to test soldiers’ responses to nuclear battlefield conditions, positioned men near the blast, had them cover their eyes and then measured their ability to fight. We interviewed Sergeant Bates, one of the GIs ordered to “dig a trench and crawl in.” The blast, he said, “threw me fifteen feet into the air. It made all of us sick.” In 1977, he had terminal cancer. Hot hailstones pelted the “downwinder” civilians, accompanied by bare-faced lies from the Atomic Energy Commission and agencies that later replaced it, assuring them of the benign nature of the blasts’ radiation levels. Death and disease, however, did not deter the gang -- which included major companies that made nuclear generating plants. Over the decades, various facilities accumulated “hot waste” with a half life of thousands of years, but without secure burial places. Nevadans don’t want it in their backyard (Yucca Mountain). Nor do Indians or poor African nations. In 1995, Russian sailors poured a thousand tons of radioactive liquid into the Sea of Japan. The current energy crisis atmosphere seems to have induced amnesia about past nuclear “mishaps.” Nuclear lobbyists have even induced some Greens to convince Obama officials to subsidize its energy plans. But, reported Jim Snyder in The Hill, even the $18.5 billion the nuclear industry will receive in government financing won’t suffice to cover unexpected costs of “the next generation of plants.” The Nuclear Energy Institute -- euphemism for industry trade group -- demands $20 billion more in loan-guarantees “to kick-start the long-awaited industry revival.” (June 21, 2009) Before funding the nuclear gang, Members of Congress should read from the long list of accident reports. Here are two of many: 1. For two decades, from the 1950s on, “thousands of workers were unwittingly exposed to plutonium and other highly radioactive metals at the Department of Energy’s Paducah Kentucky Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Workers …inhaled radioactive dust while processing the materials as part of a government experiment to recycle used nuclear reactor fuel.” (Washington Post, August 22, 1999) 2. In July 2000, wildfires near the Hanford facility hit highly radioactive waste disposal trenches, raising airborne plutonium radiation levels in nearby cities to 1,000 above normal. ( In 64 years, those who promised to perfect nuclear power still plead (over many dead bodies): “Give us time!”
Saul Landau is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a senior fellow of the Transnational Institute. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World. His latest film is We don't play golf here! And other stories of globalisation .