Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons: A Deadly Legacy
Nuclear weapons and nuclear power were born in the deep secrecy of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bombs used to annihilate the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Hanford reactors that produced the plutonium for the bomb used against Nagasaki, were crude precursors of the modern power reactor. The nuclear power program had its inception with Admiral Hyman Rickover’s nuclear submarine propulsion program, and President Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations. Rickover himself oversaw construction of the first commercial power reactor in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.
Although electric utilities were uninterested initially in pursuing nuclear power, the government persuaded them to invest heavily in nuclear power with an orchestrated campaign of “carrots”(limited liability laws, subsidized uranium enrichment, discounted early reactors) and “sticks”(principally the threat to create a government owned and operated nuclear monopoly). The high level political decision to force the development of nuclear power was of particular benefit to the major nuclear weapons producing corporations. Today, many of the largest nuclear power contractors, such as General Electric, Westinghouse, Bechtel and Babcock and Wilcox , are among the primary nuclear weapons manufacturers.
The nuclear power and nuclear weapons programs share many parallels. The front and back end of the nuclear “fuel cycle” are virtually identical, generating vast quantities of deadly radioactive wastes in the form of mountains of radioactive tailings, millions of gallons of highly radioactive sludge, tens of thousands of tons of radiated fuel rods and vast quantities of so called “low level” radioactive waste. Both operate in darkest secrecy, often exempt from meaningful oversight and free from civil or criminal liability. Both operate on a ‘Cost plus’ basis where the more a project goes over budget, the greater the corporate profits. Executives from the nuclear industry hold positions of inordinate power within the federal government and exercise extraordinary influence over Congress, thus ensuring that the generous government largess for nuclear programs continues.
Nuclear power shares one more disturbing parallel with nuclear weapons; nuclear power reactors serve as potential “bomb factories” for any nation or political organization wishing to manufacture a nuclear device. Plutonium, a deadly poison with a radioactive half-life of 28,000 years, is a principal by-product of power reactors and “reactor grade” plutonium can be used to make a crude bomb. International trade in plutonium(primarily by Japan, ostensibly for power production) raises serious unresolved security questions, while the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the dissipation of its nuclear complex has created fears of an international black market in plutonium and nuclear weapons expertise. All attempts to limit nuclear weapons proliferation will remain futile so long as the international community continues to promote nuclear power, and the nuclear weapons states are allowed to maintain their deadly arsenals, .
Presently, there are on the order of 50,000 nuclear materials licenses issued for everything from medical and academic use, to manufacturing and research and development. The handful of NRC, EPA and Agreement States inspectors must rely increasingly on the good will and competence of the licensees, a dubious proposition at best. While no one would dispute that nuclear technology has benefited society, especially in the medical arena, the price to be paid is high indeed. Given increasing evidence of the health dangers of low level radiation such as those detailed in the BEIR 5 (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) by the National Academy of Science, we must insist that all aspects of nuclear technology be much more tightly scrutinized and regulated.
Since the end of the 19th century, millions of people have become the victims of radioactivity. Czechoslovakian uranium miners were among the first victims, followed by many of the early experimental physicists like Irene Curie. In the early twentieth century hundreds of radium watch dial painters suffered horrible deaths. The death toll mounted with the advent of the nuclear age in the 1940s: The Congolese, Navajo and Dine(Saskatchewan Indians) uranium miners; the nuclear plant workers; the Pacific Islanders; “down winders” in Utah, Kazakstan, Australia, Algeria; the Atomic Veterans; The human radiation experiment victims; people living near nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons factories… by the millions they suffered and died. The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki(Hibakusha) have a saying; “We Are All Hibakusha” and in a real sense we are all radiation victims/survivors.
The split atom is deadly to all life for many millennia and if we continue down the nuclear path, even if we avoid nuclear war and further Chernobyls(an unlikelihood according to the NRCs own documents), our future prospects are grim. As activists and educators, we must challenge the scandalous squandering of enormous physical and human resources, which for the past fifty years have come at the expense of the society, the environment and the world’s children. It is time to begin the process of shutting down the power reactors, eliminating the the nuclear weapons, and dismantling the major nuclear facilities, so that the environmental cleanup tasks can begin in earnest. We must demand that our deadly radioactive legacy be isolated permanently based on sound science, and that the public be permitted to participate meaningfully in the entire decision making process. The future of humanity may well depend on our ability to translate into reality the slogan of “A Nuclear Free World.”