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THE REGISTER- GUARD OPINION TUESDAY, DECEMBER 2, 1997
Nuclear energy proves neither clean nor safe
By A. STANLEY THOMPSON
It is my belief, based on a professional lifetime of study, that further development of nuclear power presents an unacceptable radioactive curse on all future generations. Aside from the risks of accidents worse than we have so far seen, there is no suitable place in our environment to dispose of either present or future nuclear waste.
Now massive public-relations efforts are being launched to retrain the public to trust the "experts." Damaged gene pools and cancers, and a ruined environment, will be our legacy to future generations if we continue to build nuclear reactors and nuclear armaments. How many of our grandchildren are we willing to sacrifice for the continuation of nuclear electric power and nuclear war?
The "peacetime" nuclear business in the United States is in bad shape. The hard fact is that nuclear power is the most subsidized of all industries, kept alive by taxpayer, ratepayer, and bondholder financed welfare, and by world wide military support. Abandoned reactors include Rancho Seco in California, Trojan in Oregon, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Shoreham on Long Island. All new reactors ordered since 1973 have been canceled. Estimates of the cost of disposal rise fantastically above $500 million per reactor, and no one knows what to do with the radioactive stuff stored within and around them.
The United States Department of Energy has expressed a desire for tritium to replenish the dwindling supply in its thermonuclear bomb stockpile. In order to survive, some electric utilities have expressed willingness to produce wartime tritium as a government-subsidized by-product of their nuclear electrical power.
Nuclear construction companies would like to build nuclear power plants, but it is unlikely that any unsubsidized nuclear power plant will be ordered by a US utility. The United States has proposed to provide reactors to North Korea to replace their "unsafe" nuclear plants. American, French, and Canadian nuclear companies are considering joint ventures to build power reactors in Indonesia and elsewhere, I presume with financial aid from US taxpayers.
Now it is proposed that US nuclear corporations sell $60 billion of nuclear products to China, trusting that they will not use their ability to produce plutonium for bombs.
The US Atomic Energy Commission used its enormous diffusion plants to separate uranium-235 from natural uranium for the purpose of making nuclear bombs, like the one dropped on Hiroshima. The tons of depleted uranium (mostly uranium-238) left over from the diffusion process were to be a valuable material for conversion to plutonium fuel for breeder reactors. Because our breeder program has lost its support, depleted uranium is now a "waste" material in need of "recycling." Its value for "peace" has been replaced by its value for waging nuclear war. In the Persian Gulf the US military recycled hundreds of tons of depleted uranium into armor piercing shells and protective armor for tanks. After piercing a tank wall the depleted uranium burned, forming a radioactive and chemically lethal aerosol, incinerating everyone inside the tank, then spreading unseen over Iraq. Sickness and death for all future time were spread indiscriminately among Iraqi soldiers and civilians (including children). American soldiers and their children became victims as part of the Gulf War Syndrome.
Now US military suppliers plan to sell this "free" government bonanza on the profitable world military market.
The public has been conditioned by both corporate and government proponents of nuclear power to believe in the necessity for their inherently "safe" nuclear reactors to avert a coming energy crisis. The nuclear establishment advertises itself as the producer of "green" energy, completely ignoring the non-green effects of the manufacture and eventual disposal of reactors, their fuels, and their radioactive products. They claim that they are now ready to produce "safe" reactors. Extension of the analyses by which the experts support their claim of safety shows, I believe, that there is no possibility of a guaranteed safe reactor. There is certainly no way safely to dispose of nuclear waste into the environment.
Reactors are bound occasionally to fail. They are complicated mechanical devices designed, built, and operated by fallible human beings, some of whom may be vindictive. Our reactors may be "weapons in the hands of our enemies," susceptible to sabotage. Despite attempts at secrecy, the list of reactor accidents fills whole books.
In 1986 the Chernobyl reactor exploded, blowing off its two-thousand-ton lid, polluting the northern hemisphere with radioactivity, casting radiation sickness and death into the far future, leaving a million acres of land ruined "forever" by radioactive contamination. Radioactive reindeer meat was discarded in Lapland, and milk in Italy. It is reported that half of the 10 million people in Belorussia live in contaminated areas. Some estimates of adults and children doomed to be killed and maimed by cancer and mutations run in the millions. If nuclear power continues, there will be other "Chernobyls" scattered around the world, perhaps more devastating. The Chernobyl accident demonstrates the devastation which could happen with a nuclear accident near a large city.
The nuclear business, here and abroad, has a record of willful and careless radiation exposure and killing of unaware people since the beginning: its miners from radon gas, its Hanford "down-winders", victims of Chernobyl in the Ukraine, the SL-1 reactor in Idaho.
Even "successful" reactors are intolerable. Reactors produce radioactive pollution. They use uranium and make plutonium. Both are radioactive, chemically poisonous heavy metals. Plutonium, a nuclear bomb material, is also the world's most radioactively lethal material. A power reactor at the end of its life has manufactured lethal radioactive products equivalent to those from several thousand nuclear bombs. We as a society cannot afford, even if we knew how, the cleanup of these radioactive messes. Nuclear power, with its lethal radioactive poisons, pollutes "forever", in new, more insidious, more intransigent ways than any other form of energy.
A. Stanley Thompson of Eugene is a retired mechanical engineer who worked in the nuclear power industry.