Nuclear Repercussions

2 04 2011

It’s so easy to make a mistake.  Or not believe that a tsunami big enough to damage a nuclear energy facility will ever wash ashore.  Or forget all the collateral damage that the race for nuclear weapons during the Cold War caused—and is still causing in our grassroots communities.  Let’s remember, while we watch with horror what’s happening in Japan today.

At the Peace Development Fund, we are committed to making this message heard.  Let’s hope that the lesson will finally get through.

from Peace Developments, Summer 1989

“The Human Cost of Nuclear Weapons Production”

The chances are good that you’ve passed them, unknowingly, while driving on the highways in your own state: a seemingly unremarkable convoy of one truck and two or more escort vehicles.  You probably didn’t event realize they were together – the escorts might have been Chevy Suburbans, or Beechcraft Motor Homes, or even a 40-passenger bus.  And the truck would have been unmarked, nothing to indicate its contents or attract attention.  A perfectly ordinary truck: why should you notice?

In fact, hundreds of trucks like these are under contract to the Department of Energy (DOE), a misnamed bureaucracy which spends more than 65% of its funds to make nuclear weapons.  Every day of the year they travel our public roads hauling refined uranium, plutonium, and tritium gas between the widespread reactor facilities and assembly plants that make up our H-bomb production network.  From 1976 through 1987, these trucks were involved in over 170 accidents on highways from New York to California.  At least once, torpedoes tipped with nuclear warheads have rolled off the bed of a speeding truck onto a metropolitan interstate highway.

Alarming though it may be, the transportation of highly radioactive materials is only a small part of the process of making nuclear weapons.  Some of the most serious environmental threats come from pollution at the facilities themselves.  Recent news reports have focused attention on problems at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina and the Hanford Reservation in Washington, where production reactors make plutonium and tritium.  But these are only two of the thirteen DOE production sites, each of which has an ample record of mismanagement and disregard for the health of workers and townspeople.  In Tennessee, the Oak Ridge facility has released over 23,000 pounds of uranium into the air; at Fernald, in Ohio, six open pits contain a deadly tea of 11 million pound of uranium and other radioactive substances; in Ohio, plutonium from the Mound Laboratory has contaminated local ponds and a public park where children swim and play; and the list could go on.  Epidemiological surveys of surrounding populations are beginning to turn up hard evidence of the hazards that researchers long suspected: high cancer rates, infant leukemia, and genetically-associated deformities.

These problems won’t go away soon: plutonium-239, for example, the substance which initiates a nuclear explosion, has a half-life of 24,000 years.  If you care to figure it, it generally takes eleven half-lives for a substance to decay to “safe levels.”

In response to the health and environmental threat pose by weapons production, anti-nuclear citizen’s campaigns are turning toward new ways of organizing.  Bill Mitchell of the Nuclear Safety Campaign in Seattle sees an increasing sophistication among community-based organizations working in areas surrounding weapons production facilities.

“We’re seeing more and more emphasis on the research, litigation, and advocacy aspects of anti-nuclear activism,” says Mitchell.  “Many groups continue to sponsor civil disobedience actions, but they’re blending that with a commitment to outreach through public exposure of the issue.  Activists are learning the benefits of careful research through Freedom of Information Act requests and the like.”

While large national organizations such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council have been instrumental in providing technical and lobbying support, equally important is the grassroots organizing in neighborhoods surrounding weapons facilities.

These efforts are often complicated: offending facilities are also frequently the main source of livelihood for local residents.  Citizens who speak out for closing bomb factories are often met with suspicion, or worse, by their neighbors.  Management at the private facilities – and the Department of Energy – try to reinforce such suspicions by blaming activists and the media when plants are closed, even when financial problems and gross health risks are the cause.

In many ways, the problems at our nation’s nuclear weapons facilities represent deeper issues at the heart of our national infatuation with “the nuclear deterrent,” as policy makers call our immense arsenal.  For fifty years, civilian control over the military has been eroded by a special relationship between contractors and the Pentagon, and by the secrecy of nominally independent agencies like the Department of Energy.  The energy and sophistication of groups like the Nuclear Safety Campaign and Colorado Peace Network are helping to reestablish a measure of control over the contractors’ unsupervised conduct.  The impressive research and legal challenges being used alongside more traditional organizing activities is a measure of how far the peace movement has come.  Our alliance and environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, and our dialogue with trade union groups concerned for the health of employees indicates the way toward a more secure future – a future when the need for a national defense no longer gives cover to those who poison our water and air.

It’s a lesson in their perfect evil: weapons of mass destruction need not be detonated to bring suffering and death.  If we are going to teach that to the DOE and the profiteers who run its facilities, we have to start at the grassroots.  Thanks to organizers and activist in the peace and environmental movements, the lesson may finally be getting through.