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How the “Peaceful Atom” Became a Serial Killer

The nuclear myth melts down.

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 1:36 PM PDT

The Watchdogs Play Dead

Over the course of nuclear power's history, there have been scores of mishaps, accidents, violations, and problems that, chances are, you've never heard about. Beyond the unavoidable bad PR over the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, and now the Japanese catastrophe, the industry has an excellent record—of covering up its failures.

The co-dependent relationship between the nuclear corporations and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency charged with licensing and monitoring them, resembles the cozy relationship between the Securities Exchange Commission and Wall Street before the global economic meltdown of 2008. The NRC relies heavily on the industry's own reports since only a small fraction of its activities can be inspected yearly.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, "The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010," which highlights the NRC's haphazard record of inspection and enforcement, makes clear just why the honor system that assumes utilities will honestly report problems has never worked. It describes 14 recent serious "near miss" violations that initially went unreported. At the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, only 38 miles north of the New York metropolitan area, for instance, NRC inspectors ignored a leaking water containment system for 15 years.

After a leaking roof forced the shutdown of two reactors at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland, plant managers admitted that it had been leaking for eight years. When Honeywell hired temporary workers to replace striking union members at its uranium refinery in Illinois, they were slipped the correct answers to a test required for those allowed to work at nuclear plants, because otherwise they had neither the knowledge nor experience to pass.

The regulation of Japan's nuclear industry mirrors the American model. Japan's legacy of regulatory scandals, falsified safety records, underestimated risks, and cover-ups includes an incident in 1999 when workers mixed uranium in open buckets and exposed hundreds of coworkers to radiation. Two later died. Other scandals involved hiding cracks in steam pipes from regulators in 1989, lying about a fire and explosion at a plant near Tokyo in 1997, and covering up damage to a plant from an earthquake in 2007.

In the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, we will no doubt discover how there, too, so-called watchdogs rolled over and played dead. In recent years, in fact, the Fukushima complex had the highest accident rate of any of the big Japanese nuclear plants. We've already learned that an engineer who helped design and supervise the construction of the steel pressure vessel that holds the melting fuel rods in Reactor No. 4 warned that it was damaged during production. He had himself initially orchestrated a cover-up of this fact, but revealed it a decade later—only to be ignored. During the complex's construction by General Electric some 35 years ago, Dale Bridenbaugh, a GE employee, resigned after becoming convinced that the reactors being built were seriously flawed. He, too, was ignored. The Vermont Yankee reactor in Vermont and 23 others around the US replicate that design.

Stay tuned, since more examples of reckless management will surely come to light...
 

Risk Is Not a Math Problem

That culture of secrecy is a logical fit for an industry that is authoritarian by nature. Unlike solar or wind power, nuclear power requires massive investments of capital, highly specialized expertise, robust security, and centralized control. Any local citizen facing the impact of a uranium mine, a power plant, or a proposed waste depository will attest that the owners, operators, and regulators of the industry are remote, unresponsive, and inaccessible. They misinform because they have the power to get away with it. The absence of meaningful checks and balances enables them.

Risk, antinuclear advocates quickly learn, is not simply some complicated math problem to be resolved by experts. Risk is, above all, a question of who is put at risk for whose benefit, of how the rewards, costs, and liabilities of an activity are distributed and whether that distribution is fair. Those are political questions that citizens directly affected should be answering for themselves. When it comes to nuclear power, that doesn't happen because the industry is undemocratic to its core. Corporate officers treat downwind stakeholders with the same contempt they reserve for honest accountings of the industry's costs and dangers.

It may be difficult for the average citizen to unpack the technicalities of nuclear power, or understand the complex physics and engineering involved in splitting atoms to make steam to produce electricity. But most of us are good at detecting bullshit. We know when something like the nuclear industry doesn't pass the smell test.

There is a growing realization that our carbon-based energy system is warming and endangering this planet, but replacing coal and oil with nuclear power is like trading heroin for crack—different addictions, but no less unhealthy or risky. The "nuclear renaissance," like the "peaceful atom" before it, is the energy equivalent of a three-card monte game, involving the same capitalist crooks who gave us oil spills, bank bailouts, and so many of the other rip-offs and scams that have plagued our lives in this new century.

They are serial killers. Stop them before they kill again. Credibility counts and you don't need a PhD or a Geiger counter to detect it.

Chip Ward was a founder of HEAL Utah, a grassroots group that has led the opposition to the disposal of nuclear waste in Utah and the construction of a new reactor next to Green River. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Ward discusses the endless legacy of nuclear power, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

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