Non-Nuclear America

by Lorna Salzman

Across the U.S., anti-nuclear mood has changed from one of quiet desperation to militant opposition in the streets and on the site of reactors. What took the U.S. so long to come to direct action? A chronology of some important events in the nuclear power controversy in America will show how, for a brief moment, anti-nuclear activists thought they could win the battle on the government's own terms.

European and American anti-nuclear protests have taken strikingly divergent paths in the most recent years of the nuclear power controversy. While Europeans took to direct action and protested, Americans were for the most part fighting the battle in the uniquely American adversary process (the only process available to them) called intervention, where experts and lawyers jousted for points in a stacked-deck proceeding that always ended in nuclear reactor licensing no matter how persuasive the arguments to the contrary. Such interventions swelled the reputations of environmental lawyers and kept them and their citizen-clients busy for six years or more at a total cost often running into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Interventions did serve some purposes. They extended the licensing process so that costs of building reactors increased and led to many postponements and cancellations, and often introduced new evidence which then had to be considered in other license application hearings.

But it is only in the past five years that the public in the true sense of the word entered the nuclear debate outside the courtroom, a rather dismal commentary since this uniquely hazardous form of energy made its commercial debut twenty years ago without public knowledge or a public mandate. Nonetheless, it is a fact that in these few short years the ball game has passed out of the proponents' park into that of the opponents. Until very recently the entire burden of proof lay with citizens (it still does in the Federal hearings for licensing reactors) who often tried to convince themselves that the elaborate process of intervention was impartial, objective and a potential way to stop nuclear power plants.

In this five-year period most of the vital issues inherently associated with nuclear power were raised by underfunded, understaffed citizen groups lacking the technical and financial resources possessed by the nuclear industry and government. Out of desperation and also out of hope that interventions represented a vital part of the American democratic process, citizens raised issues of waste transport and disposal, nuclear terrorism, evacuation plans, reactor safety, nuclear economics and reliability, proliferation, design and human error, risk of catastrophe accidents, the need for power and alternatives to fission. All these issues were introduced in the face of a hearing process and government- industry collusion which citizens long ignored or thought they could overcome: a kangaroo-court hearing process where licensing of reactors is assured. Deliberate lying and suppression of information by government regulators; intimidation of dissenters; media arm-twisting; arbitrary and capricious rule-making and non-enforcement of safety and engineering standards were all part of the court hearing process.

As the face of government deceit became clearer, new concerns arose over the social and civil liberties aspects of nuclear power, when the government released a report suggesting wiretapping, surveillance and infiltration of dissident groups and even torture in some circumstances. Thus the implications of a centralized, hazardous, high-technology energy source became clear: the necessity for immaculate and indefinite supervision and control bordering on what has been termed 'friendly fascism'. The resignation of half a dozen nuclear engineers from industry and government highlighted the fact that not only were there vast unresolved safety problems with reactors but that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was licensing reactors such as Indian Point II and III 25 miles north of New York City, and the North Anna plant built over an earthquake fault in Virginia, with the full knowledge that they do not meet the NRC's own safety criteria for licensing.

In 1971-72, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Intervenors, a national coalition, aided by leaked government documents showing internal dissent on the efficacy of emergency core cooling systems (ECCS) (the reactor's main backup safety system – tested so far only by computer) opened up the discussion of nuclear safety for all to see. These hearings, lengthy, dry, complex, were the first inkling of trouble for the industry and for government. They showed that not only were catastrophic accidents possible, but in fact quite likely since the ECCS worked only on paper and had never been actually tested under appropriate or near-scale conditions. But the government's response was predictable: it merely implemented some 'purely cosmetic' changes.

In 1957, Brookhaven National Laboratories, in response to the insurance companies' refusal to provide sufficient liability for nuclear power plants, had conducted a study to assess the consequences of a serious nuclear accident. They estimated that for a 50% release of the radioactive contents of a 500 MW(e) reactor (half the size of those being built now) located 30 miles away from a large city, 3,400 would die immediately, 43,000 would be irradiated, and property damages of $7 billion would result. In 1965, two years before the Price- Anderson Act was due to expire, Brookhaven was asked to do an update of their study. They did so and the findings shocked even the research team. This time prompt deaths totaled 45,000, with 100,000 radiation injuries, $17 billion in property damage at the minimum, and radioactive contamination of an area of 150,000 square miles.

Significantly, Brookhaven refused to assess the likelihood of a catastrophic accident. The study director. Dr. Clifford Beck, stated that . . . "there is no objective, quantitative means of assuring that all possible paths leading to catastrophe have been recognized . . ." and added that. . ."there is not even in principle an objective and quantitative method of calculating probability or improbability of accidents. . ."

The revelations of the ECCS hearings and the shocking findings of the Brookhaven report left only one alternative to the government: to show that catastrophic accidents were extremely unlikely to occur. This led to the commissioning of the now totally discredited Rasmussen Reactor Safety Study. The study was headed by Dr. Norman Rasmussen, a director of Northeast Utilities and of the Nuclear Property Liability Insurance Co., and an industry consultant, who himself lacked credentials in nuclear engineering or risk assessment. The team he put together consisted largely of nuclear engineers and physicists employed by the Atomic Energy Commission and was actually conducted out of AEC headquarters in Maryland. Although the study was widely touted as a brilliant and impartial methodology to assess accident probabilities and consequences, subsequent events proved otherwise. The Union of Concerned Scientists obtained, under the Freedom of Information Act, tens of thousands of pages of internal memoranda, reports and letters showing that the study was intended to shore up industry claims of safety, and that the findings of safety were pre-determined by the study team with data and events selected to support these a priori assumptions, and finally, that internal criticism from within the government itself was suppressed and excluded from the final report. (The main criticisms reiterated throughout were that it was impossible both in theory and practice to identify all possible causes of accidents, and that human error and acts of sabotage could not be predicted or quantified as to their likelihood). The UCS findings revealed the total bias of the report that many had suspected but had been unable to prove.

Suppression of information is not the only avenue of defense traveled by nuclear proponents. In addition to twisting the arm of the media (NBC's superb documentary: "Danger: Radioactive Waste" so enraged the industry that it pressured the entire NBC board of directors hard enough to prevent the film from ever being shown again on the network), scientists, industry and government now take a new tack, led by such "techno-twits" as Alvin Weinberg, former director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and plutonium enthusiast Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh, that radioactivity isn't really so bad for you, it's just another risk we have to live with, and that public concern over radioactivity is due entirely to ignorance and emotionalism. They and others go to great lengths to prove this (Cohen says sexual intercourse is more dangerous than plutonium ingestion) and to prove that coal-fired plants create greater health hazards than nuclear, neglecting to point out that they assume no pollution controls on the coal plants and perfect, permanent reactor operation and containment of all radioactive products until the end of time.

When one totals up the record and finds such unmitigated deceit, distortion and lies perpetrated by the government that is supposed to be regulating nuclear power in the public interest, the obvious question is: what are they trying to hide? If nuclear power is as benign and beneficent as they say, why go to such lengths to stifle dissent and conceal the facts and prevent a full honest airing with democratic public participation? Why are testimony and cross-examination in licensing hearings limited only to those subjects which the government deems permissible? Why are accidents more serious than core meltdowns not permitted in license hearings even though internal (and suppressed) government reports show they are theoretically possible? Why does the government forbid challenges to radiological standards? Why are states and municipalities not permitted a veto over nuclear plant construction and operation? Why are they prevented from setting higher radiation standards than the Federal government? Why are citizen groups not given equal funding and technical help for interventions? Why are citizens unable to file suit against nuclear plants until they have gone through the entire costly and time-consuming intervention process? Why does the government continue to play the role of judge, jury and prosecutor? Why does the NRC select a licensing board that consists entirely of people with direct ties to the nuclear industry? Why is the burden of proof put on opponents rather than on the utility seeking to build a reactor? Why is the utility not forced to show a need for power or prove availability of alternatives such as co-generation, energy conservation, rate restructuring, or renewable energy sources? Why does the industry still demand and get heavy subsidies such as cheap uranium enrichment, a 22% uranium depletion allowance (coal gets 10%), fuel adjustment costs, accelerated plant depreciation, investment tax credit, insurance subsidy, waste disposal, and government research and development funding? And finally, if nuclear power sparks such deception and requires such oppressive political and economic conditions, is it not inherently incompatible with democracy?

The record is clear. Despite the apparatus of the adversary hearing process, American citizens have no voice in or control over those political institutions affecting energy policy and no administrative or legal recourse. It is a small wonder that 1,400 people non-violently occupied the site of the proposed Seabrook, New Hampshire reactor on April 30,1977. They knew, as did other groups who had spent long years and many dollars, that the traditional channels for input to government decision were in the end blocked and that it had finally come down to 'the last resort' of disenfranchised citizens. They had learned that not only was nuclear power the greatest threat to individual safety and survival but that it offered to industry and government the best opportunity to control citizens' lives – their civil liberties, energy supply, capital investment, social policy and goals, land use, and end uses of energy. For that is, after all, the key question. Energy is not an end in itself but a means, and the end uses of nuclear energy are not feeding, housing or educating the poor but insuring that private financial interests and economic expansion take precedence over public health and safety.

In contrast, the solar society is not an imposition on the rights of others. It is an act of cooperation, community and conscience. It does not impose radioactivity over the protests of minority dissidents. It does not monopolize capital or deprive other sectors of their proper needs. It does not create a technocratic elite to guard us from nuclear disaster. It does not necessitate an international paramilitary order to minimize nuclear theft and terrorism. It does not impose radioactive wastes and genetic disorders on future generations. It does not concentrate economic power in the hands of utilities, investors, stockbrokers, banks and multinational energy conglomerates. It is not precariously doled out at a high price by centralized corporations beholden to their stockholders, but is freely available to and controlled by local communities and nations to use appropriately in their decentralized agrarian economies. It does not replace jobs with capital and energy as does construction of electric generation facilities but creates them in the form of plumbers, sheet metal workers, carpenters, architects, electricians, etc. – skilled and semi-skilled jobs that can be developed in and for the community.

These are the social and political realities which persuaded 1,400 people to occupy the Seabrook site and spend weeks in jail – the reality of the failure of the American political and legal system to protect the individual from physical harm and corporate arrogance, and the awareness that an alternative energy source leading to an alternative society exists. There are few remaining illusions about the ability of the American system to make decisions that implement the will of the majority while protecting the minority. Decision making will no longer be left to lawyers or power delegated to hearing boards. "The last resort" of direct citizen action is upon us.

Source: Resurgence, Summer 1977.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.