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 initially electric utilities were uninterested in pursuing nuclear power, the government persuaded them to invest heavily, using 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). This 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 also 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 irradiated 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 24,000 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.

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 to mid 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 workers; the Pacific Islanders; "down winders" from nuclear test sites in Utah, Kazakstan, Australia and 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, given global fallout and the ubiquitous presence of nuclear technology, we are indeed all radiation victims/survivors.

Presently, there are over 22,000 nuclear materials licenses issued for everything from medical and academic use, to manufacturing and research and development. Overworked NRC, EPA and Agreement Stares inspectors make only 7,200 inspections annually, and 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) report by the National Academy of Science, we must insist that all aspects of nuclear technology be much more tightly scrutinized and regulated.

Nuclear power reactors and the nuclear weapons production complex contain the vast majority of the radiation generated in the U.S.A. For now, irradiated fuel rods are stored on site, but current plans are to remove this "high-level" waste to a central location at the Nevada Test Site. Transporting this nuclear waste will involve tens of thousands of shipments by truck and train, each one representing a potential Chernobyl. These shipments do not include the waste generated when the power reactors are shutdown. The major nuclear weapons complex facilities will take hundreds of billions of dollars and decades to "cleanup," and for practical purposes can be described as "national sacrifice areas." Unfortunately, the government plans to continue to operate much of the complex including Lawrence Livermore, Sandia the Nevada Test Site, Los Alamos, and Savannah River to maintain a nuclear arsenal of thousands of warheads. Such shortsightedness will only add to the estimated four trillion dollar cost of the nuclear arms buildup. Environmentalists, and Peace and Justice activists will certainly have their work cut out for them over the next several decades working to mitigate the effects of this "Nuclear Madness."

Nuclear radiation from the split atom remains deadly 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 NRC's 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 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 rest on our ability to turn the slogan of "A Nuclear-Free Future" into reality.

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copyright Louise Franklin-Ramirez

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