Friday, March 18, 2011

240. End Nuclear Power Before It Ends Us

By Harvey Wasserman, BuzzFlash, March 16, 2011

The Japanese people are now paying a horrific price for the 
impossible dream of the "Peaceful Atom." For a half-century they have 
been told that what's happening now at Fukushima would never occur.

Our hearts and souls must first and foremost go out to them. As 
fellow humans, we must do everything in our power to ease their 
wounds, their terrible losses and their unimaginable grief.

We are also obliged -- for all our sakes -- to make sure this never 
happens again.

In 1980, I reported from central Pennsylvania on what happened to 
people there after the accident at Three Mile Island a year before. I 
interviewed scores of conservative middle Americans who were 
suffering and dying from a wide range of radiation-related diseases. 
Lives and families were destroyed in an awful plague of unimaginable 
cruelty. The phrase "no one died at Three Mile Island" is one of the 
worst lies human beings have ever told.

In 1996, ten years after Chernobyl, I attended a conference in Kiev 
commemorating the tenth anniversary of that disaster. Now, another 
fifteen years later, a definitive study has been published indicating 
a death toll as high as 985,000 . . . so far.


Today we are in the midst of a disaster with no end in sight. At 
least four reactors are on fire. The utility has pulled all workers 
from the site, but may now be sending some back in.


The workers who do this are incomparably brave. They remind us, 
tragically, of some 800,000 Chernobyl "Liquidators." These were 
Soviet draftees who were sent into that seething ruin for 60 or 90 
seconds each to quickly perform some menial task and then run out.

When I first read that number -- 800,000 -- I thought it was a 
typographical error. But after attending that 1996 conference in 
Kiev, I spoke in the Russian city of Kaliningrad and met with dozens 
of these Chernobyl veterans.  They tearfully assured me it was 
accurate. They were angry beyond all measure. They had been promised 
they would not encounter health problems. But now they were dying in droves.

How many will die at Fukushima we will never know. Never have we 
faced the prospect of multiple meltdowns, four or more, each with its 
own potential for gargantuan emissions beyond measure.

If this were happening at just one reactor, it would be cause for 
worldwide alarm.

One of the units has been powered by Mixed Oxide Fuel. This MOX brew 
has been heralded as a "swords into ploughshares" breakthrough. It 
took radioactive materials from old nuclear bombs and turned them 
into "peaceful" fuel.

It seemed like a neat idea. The benefits to the industry's image 
were obvious. But they were warned repeatedly that this would 
introduce plutonium into the burn chain, with a wide range of serious 
repercussions. Among them was the fact that an accident would spew 
the deadliest substance ever known into the atmosphere. If breathed 
in, the tiniest unseen, untasted particle of plutonium can cause a 
lethal case of lung cancer.

But like so many other warnings, the industry ignored its grassroots 
critics. Now we all pay the price.


For 25 years the nuclear industry has told us Chernobyl wasn't 
relevant because it was Soviet technology. Such an accident "could 
not happen here."

But today it's the Japanese. If anything, they are better at 
operating nuclear reactors than the Americans.  Japanese companies own 
the Westinghouse nuclear division, whose basic design is in place 
throughout France. Japanese companies also own the GE nuclear 
division in Japan. Among others, 23 of the US reactors are extremely 
close or virtually identical in design to Fukushima I, now on fire.


Jeffrey Immelt, head of GE, is one of the many heavy corporate 
hitters now advising Barack Obama. Obama says (so far) that he has no 
intention of changing course in nuclear policy. That apparently 
includes a $36 billion new reactor loan guarantee giveaway in the 
2012 budget. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has made clear he considers 
the situation at US reactors very different from those in Japan. 
Essentially, he says, "it can't happen here."

Chu and others keep saying that our choice is between nukes and coal, 
that atomic energy somehow mitigates global warming. This is an 
important sticking point for millions of concerned citizens, and an 
important and righteous legion of great activists, who see climate 
chaos as the ultimate threat.

But especially in light of what's happening now, it's based on a 
non-choice. Nukes are slow to build, soaring in cost and clearly have 
their own emissions, waste and safety problems. The ancillary costs 
of coal and oil are soaring out of reach in terms of environmental, 
health and other negative economic impacts. The "bridging fuel" of 
gas also faces ever-higher hurdles, especially when it comes to 
fracking and other unsustainable extraction technologies.

The real choice we face is between all fossil and nuclear fuels, 
which must be done away with, as opposed to a true green mix of clean 
alternatives. These safe, sustainable technologies now, in fact, 
occupy the mainstream. By all serious calculation, solar is 
demonstrably cheaper, cleaner, quicker to build and infinitely safer 
than nukes. Wind, tidal, ocean thermal, geothermal, wave, sustainable 
bio-fuels (NOT from corn or soy), increased efficiency, revived mass 
transit all have their drawbacks here and there. But as a carefully 
engineered whole, they promise the balanced Solartopian supply we 
need to move into a future that can be both prosperous and 
appropriate to our survival on this planet.

As we see now all too clearly, atomic technology is at war with our 
Earth's eco-systems. Its centralized, heavily capitalized corporate 
nature puts democracy itself on the brink. In the long run, it 
contradicts the human imperative to survive.

Today we have four reactors on the coast of California that could 
easily have been ripped apart by a 9.0 Richter earthquake. Had this 
last seismic hit been taken on this side of the Pacific, we would be 
watching nightly reports about the horrific death toll in San Luis 
Obispo, the catastrophic loss of the irreplaceable food supply from 
the Central Valley, and learned calculations about the forced 
evacuations of Los Angeles and San Diego.

There are nearly 450 atomic reactors worldwide. There are 104 here in the US.

Faced with enormous public demonstrations, the Prime Minister of 
Germany has ordered their older reactors shut. At very least this 
administration should follow suit.

The Chinese and Indians, the biggest potential buyers of new 
reactors, are said to be "rethinking" their energy choices.

As a species, we are crying in agony, to the depths of our souls, 
from compassion and from fear.

But above all, the most devastating thing about the catastrophe at 
Fukushima is not what's happening there now.

It's that until all the world's reactors are shut, even worse is 
virtually certain to happen again. All too soon.

Harevy Wasserman edits the Website.

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