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Conclusion: Surviving the New Fire

Soon after Dr. Gordon MacLeod was fired as Pennsylvania's secretary of health, he warned that "if another Three Mile Island were to happen tomorrow, we still would not be ready to deal with the health concerns involved in a nuclear accident."[1] And one year later he told an audience at Columbia University that in terms of preparation for a nuclear emergency, "the people of Pennsylvania are not better off today, and are perhaps worse off, than they were the day before the radiation release at TMI."[2]

By April of 1981 he informed the American College of Physicians that there was still "no radiation health unit anywhere in Pennsylvania," and thus "no way to manage the medical aspects of any future accident." And, he added, "we shall almost surely have one."[3]

That inevitability was underscored the following July when a high-level DOE study group concluded that two years after the accident the safety lessons of TMI had not been applied to the thirty-five reactors being operated by the DOE. Nor warned the panel, did the department have adequate personnel to operate them safely in the future.[4] The same charge was made about the nation's commercial plants when the Presidential Nuclear Safety and Oversight Committee told Ronald Reagan it doubted the NRC or any other federal agency "has the experience or the competence to manage atomic power plants."[5] Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) added that the majority of the nation's seventy-odd operating commercial power reactors still did not have federally approved evacuation plans in place.[6] And the staff of the House Interior Committee concluded in February of 1981 that the managers of TMI had withheld information on the severity of the accident and had made misleading statements to state and federal officials. Victor Stello, director of the NRC's Office of Inspections and Enforcement, had already called for Metropolitan Edison to be cited for failing to issue proper reports.[7]

Met Ed in turn was suing the NRC for four billion dollars in damages, charging the commission had failed to inform them of an accident at a reactor similar to TMI, thus depriving them of vital knowledge. The NRC was also attacked by President Carter's Kemeny Commission on TMI. Their final report concluded, "The evidence suggests that the NRC has sometimes erred on the side of the industry's convenience rather than carrying out its primary mission of assuring safety."[8]

Inherent in that mission has been the responsibility to protect Americans from radiation. In December of 1979 the NRC lowered the allowable dose for populations around atomic reactors from 170 millirem per year to 25 millirem. The regulatory change came nine months after the TMI accident and a full decade after John Gofman and Arthur Tamplin were viciously attacked and then forced from their jobs for urging a similar action.

But the new standard may have been just academic. As the GAO reported in December of 1979, a review of radiation monitoring programs in eight key states indicated that "many sources of radiation were not regulated, the coverage of regulated sources was limited, and there was limited assurance that identified hazards were corrected."[9] And as the budget-cutting Reagan administration took office in 1981, the NRC and industry backers moved to speed the licensing process and gut the monitoring programs around atomic reactors.

Similar trends were evident in the study of public health. Despite the findings of Gofman, Tamplin, Pauling, Sakharov, Caldwell, Knapp, Lyon, Weiss, Martell, Livingston, Pendleton, Sternglass, Caldicott, Rimland, Larson, Dyson, Morgan, Stewart, Kneale, Bross, Blumenson, Bertell, Abrams, Kushner, Matanowski, Mancuso, Cobb, Najarian, Drinker, Flinn, Martland, Wagoner, Archer, Eisenbud, Johnson, Radford, Winterer, Gottleib, Odin, Goodman, Franke, Steinhilber-Schwab, Talbott, Jordan, Kepford, Pohl, Lochstet, Resnikoff, Medvedev, MacLeod, Takeshi, and a host of other "dissident" scientists, doctors, and researchers in the radiation field, no major systematic steps had been taken to survey public-health trends around America's nuclear facilities.

By attacking these experts on an ad hominum basis, by ignoring the findings of "nonprofessional" farmers and private citizens, and by failing to provide independent studies of their own, the nuclear industry and public-health authorities have denied thousands of victims of radiation poisoning access to speedy treatment, and millions of Americans the right to make an informed decision on this nation's nuclear policies. Official statistics have been uniformly sketchy or nonexistent. Nine years after Pennsylvania's Shapp Commission made its recommendations for modernizing radiation and health monitoring around nuclear facilities, and more than two years after TMI, none of the high-level recommendations had been put into law. "Regrettably," George Tokuhata told us in early 1981, "the legislature simply has not voted the money."[10]

Nor does the problem end with atomic reactors. Two decades after it was commissioned by the Atomic Energy Commission, the largest systematic study of the health of nuclear workers--the Mancuso Report--remains shrouded in bitter controversy and attempts at outright suppression. Three decades after the first GIs were marched up to nuclear bomb testing sites, the military steadfastly refuses to allow public access to the names of those involuntary "guinea pigs."

Thus the soldiers remain uninformed about the health risks they incurred, and the public has no knowledge of what the radiation really did to the 300,000 Americans deliberately exposed in those blasts. Thirty-five years after the first "tests" of massive radiation releases on the human populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of the health statistics surrounding those bombings remain cloaked in secrecy and prone to consistent revisions that indicate that the damage was far worse than the global community has been led to believe.

In fact all signs indicate that radiation from bomb tests, power reactors, uranium mines, mills and tailings piles, bomb production factories, "rear-end" waste dumps, commercial production facilities, and X-ray machines are far more dangerous than previously expected. Soon after the TMI accident, for example, a team of fourteen West German scientists from Heidelberg University estimated that official judgments by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on how much plutonium, cesium, and strontium are picked up by plant vegetation may be as much as one thousand times too low. Thus the doses coming from production plants, power reactors, bomb tests, and a possible nuclear war may be far deadlier than previously believed.[11]

The danger is to all living creatures. But perhaps the most significant toll is levied on the unborn, whose fetal size and vulnerability make them infinitely susceptible to even the tiniest doses of radiation. And since all humans must go through the fetal stage, the whole species is at risk--even to doses heretofore considered "low."

These dangers have not been lost on the American public. Since the mid-1970s a movement to stop construction of atomic power reactors has made a marked impact on American energy planning. Years of costly legal interventions, hundreds of demonstrations, and thousands of arrests at nuclear sites around the country have transformed the peaceful atom from a quiet miracle into a bitter political issue. Had those demonstrations not taken place, it is unlikely TMI would have elicited much more than a few passing paragraphs in the national press.

Now atomic power plants seem very much on the decline. The reasons are partly financial, partly political. With soaring construction costs and a stabilizing level of energy demand atomic power is simply no longer a reasonable investment--if it ever was. Since energy costs have skyrocketed in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the American public has found it can conserve large quantities of energy and still survive quite nicely. Utilities that were essentially coerced into going nuclear at the outset now find that conservation can ultimately increase profits and cause fewer headaches than the wonders of atomic fission.[12]

In 1976 there were 219 reactors on line, on order, or under construction in the U.S. Four years later, after fierce combat in the neighborhoods, courts, banks, legislatures, and at the plant sites, the number has slipped to less than 180. In 1980 alone, 16 reactors were canceled--against no new orders--and 69 plants under construction were postponed.[13] Several plants have already been permanently shut at great expense, including Michigan's Fermi I, which suffered a major accident in 1966; New York's Indian Point I, which lacked a basic emergency core cooling system; and California's Humboldt reactor, which was found to be operating directly on top of an earthquake fault.

In 1981 the builders of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, on the California coast, were forced to admit the facility had been built with the wrong set of plans, and that it might not be as earthquake-resistant as promised. Major questions also arose over the viability of reactor pressure vessels and cooling systems at plants nationwide, raising the specter of mass shutdowns and abandonments across the board. Also in 1981 an Israeli air raid against an Iraqi reactor raised serious new questions about the wisdom of exporting nuclear technology.

Nonetheless, the Reagan administration moved to allow spent fuel reprocessing and to slash basic safety requirements to allow quick reactor licensing. The move raised concern that even minimum design and construction standards in domestic and exported plants were being abandoned.

Doubts were also raised as to whether the lax regulations could save atomic power. With high interest rates, slumping demand, and growing skepticism over reactor performance, the administration's regulatory carte blanche offered no guaranteed rescue from the industry's economic morass.

Ultimately the "peaceful atom" may be remembered less for its ability to generate electricity than for its function as a radioactive warning beacon. If the health indicators at Three Mile Island and other nuclear facilities are correct, it may take far less radiation to damage human and animal health than anyone ever imagined. And that, in turn, may have basic implications for atomic energy's most visible application--as a tool of war.

For as British historian E. P. Thompson has argued, a hostile nuclear exchange could "make the worst possible outcome of Three Mile Island appear as no more than a pistol shot." Not only would entire cities be destroyed, but the lingering effects of radioactive fallout would be incalculable, almost beyond our imagination.[14]

The threat of such a holocaust has become increasingly real. In 1980 George Bush, once the U.S. ambassador to China and head of the CIA, at this writing Vice-president of the United States, was asked by Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer: "How do you win a nuclear war?" Bush replied: "You have a survivability of command in control, survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, and you have a capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict upon you."[15]

Bush later protested that his assessment applied to the minds of Soviet, not American, war planners. But whosesoever's mind it came from, the assessment overlooked one all-encompassing factor: though there may be temporary survivability of some top generals and politicians, industrial potential, and a few other random survivors, there will almost certainly be no children or grandchildren left on this planet to tell about it. A human embryo in its second month of development weighs 0.1 gram, one 600,000th the weight of its mother. Radiation doses received by the mother can have enormous impact on the unborn fetus. Few, if any, could survive the shock of an atmosphere laden with the amounts of radiation likely to be released in a nuclear war. And those that did survive might be so thoroughly mutated as to scarcely warrant the label "human."[16]

In that respect TMI, Kyshtym, Windscale, American Atomics, Church Rock, Rocky Flats, the radiation industry, the X-ray controversy--they all serve as vital warning signs. And the hundreds of American bomb tests in the 1950s and early 1960s offered indicators not originally intended by the military. If those explosions--now considered relatively "small" in light of the power of today's warheads--harmed thousands of GIs and nearby residents, killed thousands of infants and impaired the growth of thousands more, one can only shudder at what any atomic exchange--"limited" or otherwise--would do to life on earth.

Nor would it make much difference where the bombs landed. Four days after the Chinese exploded a bomb on their own soil in September of 1976, dangerous levels of radiation were recorded in milk throughout New England. The radioactive cloud then circled the globe and was monitored as it passed over the East Coast of the United States a second time, several days later.[17] An American attack on the Soviet Union or a Soviet attack on America would ultimately have the same basic impact on future generations in each country. And bombs manufactured and used, or reactors blown up in smaller countries, will ultimately kill and maim the children of the nation that sold them the technology.

This catalogue of radioactive disaster has been neither happy reading nor pleasant writing. Its conclusion is inescapable--except for a far more prudent application of medical X rays and other health aids, the vast bulk of nuclear technology is simply too dangerous for safe use. There is no "peaceful atom"--only a failed, expensive experiment that has become far too hot to handle. There is also no such thing as nuclear war--only radioactive suicide. One nation might emerge from the holocaust a temporary victor, with those who conspired to push the button hidden deep in their special shelters. But ultimately the human race as a whole would not survive.

Citizen action has already drastically changed the course of atomic planning. Energy conservation and political organizing have led to the cancellation of scores of atomic reactors. Numerous attempts to mine and mill uranium in the U.S., Canada, and Australia have been stopped by public protest. The transportation of nuclear materials and storage of radioactive waste have been forcefully resisted all over North America. And despite fierce military pressure, an atmospheric test ban treaty was signed in 1963--an act that saved millions of human lives, American and otherwise.

At the dawn of the 1980s, continued underground testing and talk by the Reagan/Bush regime of "limited" nuclear war and the "winnability" of a global confrontation sparked major protests in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. A worldwide campaign to do away with nuclear weapons altogether rapidly gained steam.

That campaign may become the most vital social force of the 1980s, and it may also hold the key to all of human history. When Albert Einstein, in 1947, compared the discovery of nuclear fission to the discovery of fire, he did not note how long it took primitive human society to learn to keep that fire from destroying it, or what kinds of conscious changes were required of the species.

Nor did he calculate how long it would take, or what changes in consciousness would be necessary, for modern society to survive the splitting of the atom. He clearly suspected the time allowed for this second job was short, and that the future of the human race was at stake. But he also believed that given an informed populace, it could be done.

1. York Daily Record, November 5, 1979.

2. Gordon MacLeod, "Politics."

3. Gordon MacLeod, "Reflections on Three Mile Island--Two Years Later," prepared for presentation at the American College of Physicians Sixty-second Annual Meeting, Kansas City, Missouri, April 7, 1981.

4. Irwin Molotsky, "Study of Energy Department's 35 Reactors Finds Safety Deficiencies," New York Times, July 7, 1981, p. A-14.

5. James Foster, "Presidential Task Force Claims Utility Executives Lack Nuclear Knowledge," Columbus Citizen-Journal, May 11, 1981, p. 10.

6. Edward J. Markey, "One Year After TMI, And Danger Remains," Boston Globe, March 28, 1980.

7. Philip Shabecoff, "Reactor Data Said Withheld," New York Times News Service, February 10, 1981.

8. Kemeny Report, p. 19.

9. GAO, Radiation Control Programs Provide Limited Protection, HRD-80-25 (Washington, D.C.: GAO, December 4, 1979).

10. Tokuhata, interview, February 1981.

11. Dick Brukenfeld, "A New German Study Challenges the NRC's Assurances," Washington Post, November 11, 1979.

12. Jay Mathews, "A New Energy Strategy--Conservation," Washington Post, June 2, 1981, p. 1.

13. AIF, "A Rocky Road to Recovery."

14. E. P. Thompson, "A Letter to America," Nation, January 24, 1981.

15. Bill Stahl, "Bush Explains Views on `Winning' A-War," Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1980.

16. Griffiths and Ballantine, Silent Slaughter, p. 147.

17. Wasserman, Energy War.

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