Left Justified: Pull the plug on nuclear power

Global warming is heating up the energy debates, and there’s a monster waiting in the wings to jump out and save us: atomic energy (ta-da)!

Remember the Walt Disney cartoon, Our Friend the Atom? It is really a genie in a bottle that, once released, may cause more harm than good. But utilities were encouraged to bank on the “peaceful atom” (as opposed to the one that destroyed Hiroshima), and profitability was promised through government monies for research and insurance.

But a number of screw-ups in the ’80s, and a strong public outcry scared Reddy Kilowatt away from nuclear power. Until now. The government is giving millions to encourage their return. And guess where? Pick from the worst of the 100-plus atomic reactors now operating. Clinton, Ill. is where the next one is proposed!

Exelon now owns most of the nukes (formerly ComEd, but they set up this shell game so we can pay them more). Exelon owns Clinton Nuke Unit 1, and they want another reactor there.

There’s a difference between the industry’s PR facade of nuclear power (“home-grown,” “emissions-free,” “smiley-faced”) versus the reality—closer to the Wizard of Oz pleading with Dorothy to “pay no attention to what’s behind that curtain!” With nuclear power, the devil exists in the arcane, techno-babble details.

The government regulates the nuclear industry. That’s why they call it the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who for 20 years has deferred to industry and ignored public concerns. The NRC “assumes” rather than "verifies" nuclear safety. The problems have not been for lack of “regulations” (the noun), but of “regulation” (the verb).

“Profit margins against safety margins” maximizes shareholder profits in a deregulated electric industry. The nuclear industry squeezes more profit out of overworked and aging machines and staff.

While absentee-slumlord-shareholders living elsewhere will suck profits out of Illinois reactors, Illinois residents are left with the negative consequences of accidents, radiation releases (planned and accidental), terrorist threats and nuclear waste disposal. Shareholder risks are minimized because nuclear-neighbor risks are maximized.

While there is some truth to Exelon’s Christopher Crain saying, “It is not to our benefit to run any of these billion-dollar assets into the dirt,” Ken Lay said the same thing about Enron’s assets. When Ken was wrong, 50,000 people lost their pensions. If Chris is wrong, Illinois gets irradiated.

“Let it fail, then re-act” behavior by NRC and Exelon (nee ComEd) occured during the 1990’s “Reign of Error,” when nine of 13 reactors ended up on some kind of “watch list” for poor performance. Betty Johnson, League of Women Voters member extraordinaire, must be rolling in her Florida grave.

“Preventive maintenance” does not bring shareholder profits. It’s “anticipate the unexpected” versus the “let it fail” approach of the nuke industry. They should expect the unexpected from complex systems. But the NRC and Exelon failed to deal with Braidwood Nuke tritium leaks (“we didn’t think the water was radioactive…”), as well as other little “issues.”

None of these lapses is ever “safety-related.” Not to the overworked staff, not the public, not ever. Unless someone dies on the spot, it’s “no problemo.”

“Yes, this happened, but no one got hurt,” sounds like the rationalization kids give when taking batteries from the smoke detector for their iPod. We know how to handle the teens, what do we do with trained engineers?

There is nothing inherently safe about a machine storing 1,000 Hiroshimas worth of radiation inside, with a poor track record operating next to unsuspecting communities. Every aspect of nuclear operations results in radioactive pollution and negative health effects. Its handlers demonstrate a sociopathic tendency to muzzle conscientious whistleblowers, and minimize or cover up nuclear risks, unless they are exposed.

Society cannot afford this kind of oblivious, recalcitrant behavior. After 50 years of failing to get it right, maybe it’s time to pull the plug on nuclear power.

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

from the July 11-17, 2007, issue

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