Left Justified: From neighborhood nukes to Cuba

Two things, please

Finding tritium in the wastewater of the Byron nuclear power plant scares the heck out of me. In the 1980s, I was part of a legal intervention to deny an operating license to those two Westinghouse reactors 17 miles southwest of Rockford. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was shaken by the accident at Three Mile Island, where a reactor core had been reduced to “hamburger.” Commonwealth Edison was on a nuke building binge and had ordered four Westinghouse reactors, two for Byron and two for Braidwood, Ill. They were supposed to save money with twin plants.

We few environmentalists joined the Rockford League of Women Voters, found an attorney, filed tons of paperwork and won the first denial of an operating license on Friday the 13th, January, 1984. Worker complaints of faulty construction, particularly in plumbing and electrical, were cited. ComEd’s defense: “We’re the greatest utility in the world.” Three judges from the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board made the historic ruling, which forced ComEd to at least improve its inspections and training.

The Byron Plant, under ComEd’s tutelage, was one of the best atomic power plants in the country, according to Ralph Nader. On the other hand, its sister nuke, Braidwood, was having consistent problems, faulty equipment and poor training for its employees. There was a connection between our environmental yammering and the operation of those nukes. ComEd (or Uncommonly Wealthy Edison, as we used to call it) sold all its generating stations to Exelon Corporation. (I think they set up a dummy corporation to bid up the electrical rates.)

Anyway, it looks like Exelon has a poor attitude about radiation, one that usually infests utility boardrooms: “Radiation can’t kill us,” “nukes have too many regulations and too much redundancy,” and “profits are more important than protection of people.”

Nuclear reactors have redundant systems because we don’t want radiation leaking to the environment. Finding tritium leaks at one plant could be caused by any number of problems (poor workmanship, faulty equipment). Finding tritium at two plants is a systemic problem that could grow. If there’s a leak, even with all these “redundancies,” then it’s the fault of management. Fix it now before it gets worse.

I want to go to Cuba!

I was startled four years ago when our congressman, Don Manzullo, told me he changed his mind and wanted to open trade with Cuba. Don is not a fan of Fidel Castro. For years, Manzullo supported the embargo against Cuba. But after heavy lobbying by Illinois farmers (they wanna sell corn and soybeans to hungry Cubans), Don relented. (I think former Gov. George Ryan led him down this path as well.)

I’ve been to Cuba four times, mainly through the good graces of the United Methodist Church. There are still Methodist churches in Cuba. And the Rev. Jesse Jackson went to Havana in 1984 and spoke from the First Baptist Church. He said, “You have nothing to fear from the churches.” Fidel Castro relented and allowed congregations to get some of their buildings back and to reopen.

I took cash to support a United Methodist missionary in Cuba. Phil and Dianna Wingeier-Rayo (living with their lovely two children) worked in a suburb of Havana for six years and opened five churches. Then, the United States Treasury Department told them to come home. The United Methodist Church could not use American currency to pay a missionary to work in Cuba. My reason for going to Cuba left.

I still visit that beleaguered land with other religious organizations, but now, thanks to the tightening of the U.S. embargo (which never worked anyway), religious people will not be allowed to travel to Cuba. Isn’t that what we want: more religion in Cuba?

I wasn’t surprised when my congressman, Don Manzullo, was reluctant to work for exemptions for religious groups going to Cuba. He’s beginning to flip-flop on this issue worse than the worst Democrats flip-flop on war!

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the March 8-14, 2006, issue

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