By Roger Johnson
The nuclear disaster at Fukushima caused a reexamination of attitudes about nuclear power all over the world. Two weeks after the meltdown, 100,000 protestors took to the streets in Berlin to demand an end to nuclear power. In a major election soon after, opposition to nuclear power helped the environmental Green Party defeat Angela Merkel’s conservative party. This caused a sea change in German politics and months later Germany decided to phase out all nuclear power.
The Fukushima disaster also rocked Japan and eventually forced the resignation of Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The new prime minister Yoshihiko Noda promised to follow Germany’s lead to phase out all nuclear power. Everyone from local politicians to world leaders are now scrambling to reposition themselves. In San Clemente, only four miles from the troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant, some residents are organizing to close the plant. Even in quiet San Clemente there is a realization that Orange County could become the next Fukushima. The City Council scheduled two special town meetings so everyone can digest the lessons learned from Fukushima. What can people in California learn from what happened in Japan?
It is not surprising that nuclear power is a divisive issue. Many politicians and businessmen built their careers by promoting nuclear energy. The nuclear energy business is a powerful, well-organized and well-connected business with well-funded lobbying and public relations forces behind them. A few countries such as France, Belgium and Slovakia get most of their energy from nuclear power but Mexico, Brazil, the Netherlands, China and India depend on it for less than 5 percent. Here in southern California, we get less than 6.5 percent of our electricity from the nuclear power plant at San Onofre. Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, New Zealand and Norway have already banned nuclear power. Germany and Japan are the most recent countries that want to end nuclear power.
The American public has long accepted what officials told them about all things nuclear. Most people accepted the government’s claim that the atomic bombs ended World War II and that the nuclear tests after the war were necessary and harmless. The nuclear industry today tells us that nuclear power is the only solution to energy demands. In Japan, officials have been telling citizens for decades that nuclear power is the solution to the nation’s energy needs. Any suggestions that nuclear power might be dangerous were brushed aside. Today, the Japanese are furious that the government and the nuclear industry lied to them. Such feelings are summed up in a somber haiku by Tadashi Nishimura:
It’s safe, but
They say over and over
The Lessons of Nuclear Disasters
It was only a matter of hours before the lessons of Fukushima became apparent. Officials went into overdrive to calm the public but were unwilling to inform the public. Their first priorities were to suppress information and to spin the disaster rather than to help the victims. One of the first lessons for those of us in California happened when American and Japanese officials sharply disagreed over the true zone of danger that needed to be evacuated. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had always pushed for an arbitrary 10-mile danger zone but suddenly it switched to a 50-mile danger zone. The United States ordered all Americans within 50 miles to be evacuated, and the Japanese wondered why areas within 50 miles were safe for Japanese but dangerous for Americans. When nuclear experts disagree, who should the public believe?
For years, those of us in Southern California have been told that the evacuation zone is only 10 miles. Emergency evacuation plans are all based on the 10-mile zone of danger. This plan calls for everyone within 10 miles to calmly jump in their car, get on Interestate-5 and then reassemble at the Orange County Fairground where they would be decontaminated. Now, we are faced with a more realistic 50-mile radius which means everyone between San Diego and Los Angeles is in danger. Where are 8.4 million people going to go, and how will we get 50 miles away? And what good would that do since we would be driving right into the prevailing wind pattern, thus further exposing ourselves?
As the public becomes alarmed about the dangers of nuclear power, the nuclear industry struggles to control the narrative. One of the main lobbying groups representing the nuclear industry is the Nuclear Energy Institute, which spends over a $1 million per year lobbying Congress, the NRC and the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Defense. Scott Peterson, NEI senior vice president, recently insisted that American power plants are perfectly safe because of the lessons learned from various nuclear disasters. Following the Three Mile Island meltdown, everyone was told that the world was now safer because of the lessons learned in Pennsylvania. After the Chernobyl disaster, the nuclear industry again claimed that we are now safer because of the lessons learned at Chernobyl. Now, we are being told the same thing again after Fukushima: Each nuclear disaster somehow makes us safer. By admitting that nuclear power is still on a learning curve, the nuclear industry essentially admits that the previous experts were wrong. The previous experts, like the present experts, insist that they have all the answers. Unfortunately, their solutions are only good until the next disaster, at which time we can be reassured again. The bottom line is that nuclear power plants can never be 100 percent safe. A 1982 NRC study asserted that a nuclear accident in the United States could cause 50,000 fatalities and cost $300 billion in property damage. We can survive most industrial accidents but a nuclear accident at San Onofre could destroy Southern California forever.
Is Nuclear Power Clean and Green?
With 439 operating nuclear power plants in the world, there is plenty to worry about. The accident at Chernobyl in 1986 contaminated 1,200 square miles and exposed about a half-million people in the Kiev area to dangerous levels of radiation. All told, 450,000 people had to be relocated, losses totaled hundreds of billions of dollars, and thousands were killed. Some experts predict that eventually up to a million people all over Europe will die prematurely because of the radiation released at Chernobyl. Soon after Chernobyl, medical abnormalities began to show up all over Europe. These included premature cataracts, tooth and mouth deformities, abnormalities in blood, lymphatic, heart, lung, gastrointestinal, urologic, bone and skin diseases, endocrine dysfunction, thyroid disease, birth defects, and numerous fetal and childhood abnormalities. Abnormally low birth weights were discovered in Wales, Norway had a 10-fold increase in chromosomal aberrations and neural tube defects in Turkey increased between two- and five-fold.
With all these dangers, why are there so many people pushing for yet more nuclear power? Those in the nuclear business don’t want to admit that their primary interest is profit. Many will therefore try to convince the public that nuclear power is “clean” and “green.” The truth is that radioactive particles do so much damage to water supplies, clean air, food supplies and public health that no one should consider nuclear power to be either clean or green. When ads depict nuclear power as a pristine energy alternative, you know there is a serious image problem with nuclear energy.
Any perceived economic advantage is completely offset by a single major accident. It is also wiped out if you factor in the huge costs of waste disposal. Dangerous and radioactive fuel rods are crammed in vulnerable and exposed storage facilities at every nuclear power plant in the world. These could be encapsulated and hauled away to less populated waste storage facilities but that is expensive and investors do not want safety issues to eat into their profits. In addition, it is dangerous to haul this radioactive waste through populated areas. Most importantly, there is nowhere to go because no one else wants the waste. By default, each reactor site is also a hazardous nuclear waste storage facility
Because of Fukushima, safety standards for new nuclear reactors will be much more stringent. The old reactors were fortified only against the most recent and typically smaller earthquakes and tsunamis. The earthquake that destroyed Fukushima was over 10 times more powerful than what the reactor was engineered to withstand. The more recent earthquake in Virginia led to the shocking realization that 27 nuclear reactors on the East Coast are under-designed for earthquake protection. The tsunami waves at Fukushima were as high as 46 feet but the sea wall at San Onofre is only 14 feet high. And both of California’s nuclear power stations – San Onofre and Diablo Canyon – were not designed to withstand the types of earthquakes that California had before the 20th century and will probably have in the future.
Because the construction of newer and safer nuclear power plants may reduce investor profitability, current plant operators are scrambling to renew the licenses of the older, cheaper and less-safe models that we live with today. They were designed with a life expectancy of only 40 years and now the operators of both San Onofre and Diablo Canyon want to extend their licenses for an additional 20 years. How many people would buy a 1971 car today and drive it for another 20 years? Of the three nuclear reactors built in San Onofre, one troubled reactor was closed 20 years ago. The other two have already been renewed once and Southern California Edison now wants yet another renewal when their license runs out in 2022.
There are major profitability issues, which explain why Southern California Edison wants to renew its license to operate San Onofre. Because the plant is so old, it is grandfathered and technically exempt from some of the newer safety standards that apply to the construction of new reactors. When the California reactors at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre were built, less was known about our earthquake fault zones. We now know that both power plants sit on fault zones capable of much larger earthquakes than those for which they were designed. New reactors would have to be built to higher standards which could withstand the larger quakes. The California Energy Commission formally requested that a license renewal of San Onofre should be contingent upon the findings of new seismic studies. The operators of San Onofre reject this and take the position that first they get the license, then they consider doing further seismic studies. How can anyone trust SCE when they take positions like this?
In the event of an accident, the operators of nuclear power plants are not liable, largely due to laws they got passed to protect themselves but not the public. Instead, the astronomical costs will be passed on to taxpayers. If businesses are destroyed by a nuclear accident, their losses will be unrecoverable. Homeowners will lose their homes and insurance will not cover losses. Many homes will be a total loss, yet big banks are likely to continue to demanding mortgage payments.
How to Advance Your Political Career
Just who promotes nuclear power? The promotion often comes from politicians who advanced their career by cozying up to the nuclear power industry. Remember back in 1973 when President Nixon called for the United States to build 1,000 nuclear reactors? Eyes lit up, and soon there were many champions of nuclear causes. A good example is former Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico. In 1997, Domenici was shopping around for an issue to promote his faltering political career. Pete Lyons, a former scientist from Los Alamos National Lab, which designed and built the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, recommended that he latch onto nuclear power. Domenici soon became one of the driving forces dedicated to advancing behind nuclear power and Lyons became an adviser. In return, Domenici received $1.25 million in campaign contributions from the nuclear industry. Lyons also able to advance his career and went on to serve on the board of the NRC. Another Domenici aide, Alex Flint, advanced his career by becoming the chief federal lobbyist for the NEI.
It is no surprise that the nuclear energy lobby is well-financed and well-connected politically. Physicist Frank N. von Hipple of Princeton recently pointed out that the NRC is a textbook example of “regulatory capture” in which an industry takes control of an agency, which is supposed to regulate the industry. It has become customary for the government not to nominate or confirm anyone to the NRC who has reservations about nuclear power. Despite its charge to protect the public, the NRC often ignores the public and takes actions which promote the industry. In the current dispute with the Vermont Yankee nuclear power facility, the NRC has ignored the public, the governor and the legislature and sided with the nuclear industry against everyone else. This comes as no great surprise since 90 percent of the funding of the NRC comes from the industry it is supposed to regulate.
The cheerleaders of nuclear power like to brag that American reactors are better built than those in Japan. But the Fukushima Daiichi reactors were built by General Electric, and there are 30 nearly identical reactors now operating in the United States. It came as a great embarrassment to GE when it was recently revealed that when GE was designing this reactor. Some of the scientists involved resigned to protest what they felt was an unsafe design. GE hushed up the incident.
By some measures, American reactors are less safe than those at Fukushima Daiichi. The Japanese power plant had eight-hour back up batteries while 90 out of 104 American reactors have batteries good for only four hours. The NRC does not require American installations to have significant battery backup because they assume that power will not go out or will be restored quickly. Apparently many nuclear reactors are designed with the assumption that earthquakes and tsunamis will not cause serious disruptions in power. This proved to be a blunder during the record earthquake in Virginia. The nuclear reactor had a sophisticated earthquake monitoring system, but the earthquake knocked out the power, which ran the earthquake detector.
Another example of unexpected failure comes from the special vents that were fitted to the Fukushima reactors. They were designed to prevent explosions by releasing buildups within the reactors. Engineers proved on paper that the complicated venting system would work but they were wrong. The vents failed and explosions took place inside the reactors, something we were told could not happen. Even if the vents worked, the net result would be to vent dangerous radioactivity into the atmosphere.
Does Distance Make you Safe?
Many would have you believe that there is safety in distance and that radiation will go away if you just wait a few days. The fact is that radiation accidents anywhere can affect everyone no matter where they live. Experts say that some of the highly contaminated areas around Fukushima may remain dangerous for the next two to 300 years. Ask Saichi Sata, a 17th generation family farmer in the town of Towa, 25 miles from Fukushima Daiichi. The government banned his produce indefinitely. For his farm, Fukushima was the worst disaster in 400 years. Ask the crew members of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan out in the Pacific. They spent days hosing down the flight deck to get rid of radioactive contamination. The radiation from Japan took only a few days to reach California, and in another few days it was detected in Boston. Radioactive Iodine 131 from Fukushima was soon detected in cow milk in Washington.
When radiation first spewed into the air, the plant operators at Tokyo Electric Power stated that only 4,700 terabecquerels of radioactive substances were released into the atmosphere. Scientists later discovered that it was actually three times as much, closer to 15,000 terabecquerels. The Japanese quickly learned not to trust anything that officials said about radiation levels. Instead, many went out and purchased their own Geiger counters. Perhaps this is another lesson from Fukushima: Go out and buy your very own Geiger counter so you don’t have to depend on officials to know true radiation readings. In one of the more tragic episodes in the disaster, weather specialists in Japan knew exactly where the radiation was headed but withheld the information. Because of this, many were evacuated to a shelter center, which turned out to be right under the heaviest radiation.
One of the scary things about radiation is that it can travel vast distances and endanger people far from any reactor. By some accounts, the radiation released at Fukushima was the equivalent of 2,000 nuclear bombs. Since radiation follows prevailing wind patterns and goes from west to east, radiation from San Onofre could travel across the country. While there are many isotopes to worry about, those far away will be thankful that some of the most deadly ones like plutonium 239 will be more likely to fall in California because they are heavier. Plutonium 239 takes 200,000 years to decay, and only a millionth of a gram can be lethal. Cesium 137 takes several hundred years to decay, which is why Chernobyl remains an uninhabitable ghost city.
Fuel Fleas and Hot Particles
Fukushima spread microscopic hot particles – sometimes called “fuel fleas”-all over the world. These intensely radioactive microscopic particles come from spent nuclear fuel and contain uranium 238 and other fission products. They emit beta, gamma and alpha radiation. Invisible particles can quickly jump from surface to surface and be carried airborne for long distances. If one of these invisible particles becomes inhaled or lodged in your eye, it can be fatal. Such deadly hot particles were detected in the Seattle area last April. A month earlier, Fukushima radioactive fallout was carefully measured at the Nuclear Engineering Department rooftop monitors at the University of California in Berkeley. They were calculated to be 181 times safe levels. Why quibble about 10-mile versus 50-mile danger zones when dangerous fallout can travel 5,000 miles?
Radiation cannot be seen, heard, tasted or smelled. It can silently penetrate all materials. Microscopic particles can contaminate food and water, clothing, furniture and can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Large doses will quickly have severe and possibly lethal impacts. Smaller doses will not be noticed immediately but can lead to severe medical problems weeks, months or years later. When China was conducting nuclear weapons tests, radioactive particles from these tests were detected in the thyroid glands of deer in Colorado. Half the mercury in the atmosphere over the United States originates in China, 5,000 miles away. And cesium 137 from Chernobyl is still detectable in reindeer in Norway. When your dentist jokes that a little radiation is harmless and an X-ray is just like a plane trip to New York, get a new dentist. Remember that experts do not agree on what is safe, and they frequently adjust their standards for political reasons as they did in Fukushima. Remember that many subgroups such as children, pregnant women and people with cancer are much more vulnerable.
Cherry Picking Earthquakes
Like Japan, California is prone to earthquakes and many say we are overdue for a really big one. Before the Virginia quake, the two California nuclear plants were the only ones in the United States that were known to be built in “high seismicity zones.” Because of the Virginia quake, many who live near East Coast reactors now have to worry about the same problem.
The nuclear industry asks us to take comfort in the fact that both San Onofre and Diablo Canyon were carefully engineered to withstand earthquakes. So were the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. No country is more aware of the dangers of earthquakes and tsunamis than Japan, but all their knowledge and planning failed. When the Fukushima Daiichi plant was designed, scientists calculated that that the highest probable earthquake would be 7.9 not 9.0, which is what actually happened. Remember that an 8.0 quake is ten times more powerful than a 7.0. It turns out that the Japanese ignored 3,000 years of geological history and restricted their analysis only to earthquakes since 1896. Perhaps they knew that if they factored in older and more powerful earthquakes it would have cost much more to build the plant, thus reducing profits. When the Indian Point reactor 35 miles from NYC was designed, it took into account known earthquake zones. But in 2008, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University discovered previously unknown active faults very near the reactor. The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo was designed in the ’70s but in 2008 a new fault, the Shoreline Fault, was discovered a half-mile from the front entrance of the plant.
We now know that the San Onofre reactors are built right on the South Coast Offshore Fault Zone. The San Onofre designers made the same mistake as the Japanese designers: they cherry picked earthquakes and ignored larger and more powerful quakes from previous centuries. The San Onofre plant is engineered to withstand a 7.0 quake, but the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco was much larger -an estimated 7.7-8.3. Other larger California quakes include the 1857 Fort Tejon quake, estimated to be 7.9, and the 1812 Wrightwood quake, about a 7.5. The really big one was the 1700 Cascadia quake, which was estimated to be between 8.7 and 9.2. If you go back thousands of years, there are many that were probably even larger. And if you want to put more emphasis on recent quakes (not very wise), don’t forget the 7.2 Baja earthquake last April that shook Southern California. Cynics will quickly point out a pattern to deliberately underestimating earthquakes in order to reduce construction costs and increase profitability. It is now pretty obvious to everyone that the assumptions about faults when the reactors were built are no longer valid. Faults about faults are dangerous.
Falsifying Safety Records
Perhaps one of the main lessons learned from Fukushima is that the government and the nuclear industry colluded for decades to promote nuclear power. The Japanese are now furious with officials who lied to the public. In 2002, Tokyo Electric Power or TEPCO admitted that it falsified inspection reports and covered up serious flaws for 16 years. The Shika nuclear power plant had a critical accident in 1999, which was covered up until 2007. Yasushi Furukawa, governor of Saga Prefecture, conspired with Kyushu Electric Power to manipulate public opinion in favor of the Genkai Nuclear Power Plant. Employees were told to pose as citizens and send phony emails in order to influence town hall meetings. Another lawmaker, Hobun Kihara, admitted taking bribes from Kyushu Electric. “They told us it was safe and they lied!” cried one Japanese. The lies became so serious and so commonplace that one of the negotiating points for workers in Japanese nuclear power plants was an assurance that management would stop lying and falsifying safety records.
What about San Onofre? Many consider the San Onofre reactor to be the second most dangerous in the country. (The first is Indian Point near New York City). This is due not only to seismic dangers but also because of a long documented history of safety violations and maintenance problems. There are allegations that the plant operators punished employees who reported safety violations and that the plant has long suffered from a “culture of cover-up.” Paul Diaz, a former plant manager at San Onofre, recently sued the plant operators and claimed that he was fired for reporting safety violations. Evidence of concealed or falsified safety violations are particularly unsettling because the NRC safety reports rely heavily on voluntary self-disclosures by plant operators. Only about 5 percent of operational and maintenance issues are actually examined by the NRC.
The Dirty Little Secret
One of the main reasons why San Onofre is so dangerous is because of its many vulnerable and highly radioactive exposed fuel rods. One dirty little secret is that American power plants pack cooling pools with five times as many radioactive rods than they were designed for. These relatively unprotected pools are a disaster waiting to happen. Scientists tell us that 80 percent of our spent fuel rods are cool enough to be moved to safer storage areas far from population areas. The problem is that no one wants nuclear waste in their backyard, which is why even the Yucca Mountain, Nev. facility is now a dead issue. And which towns are willing to agree to have such material transported by train and truck right through their streets?
It is obviously cheaper and more profitable to pile up spent fuel rods on site. San Onofre stores 1,677 spent fuel rods in two ponds and 775 rods are stored in 31 dry canisters. A single fuel rod can hold more cesium 137 than was depleted by all the atmospheric nuclear weapons tests combined. An explosion in one of those pools could release three to nine times as much dangerous radioactive material as what happened at Chernobyl. So San Clemente now has its very own nuclear waste storage facility. Let’s be fair, it also belongs to every town from San Diego to Los Angeles, even the folks up in Riverside.
All of this debate about engineering takes our focus off the real soft underbelly of nuclear power: Human error. You can engineer concrete but you can’t engineer against mistakes, incompetence, greed, dishonesty and mismanagement. It turns out that the managers of the Japanese plant knew about some of the flaws but in an effort to save money they covered them up and lied to the public. In the minutes and hours after the earthquake, costly errors were made because plant officials were concerned that sea water might damage the investment value of the reactor. Had they acted more responsibly, some of the meltdown might have been reduced or even prevented. And it is no secret that both the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters were caused by human error.
The dangers of human error were on full display recently when Southern California suffered the largest power blackout in history. The cause? A single maintenance worker in Yuma, Ariz. made a mistake that resulted in 6 million people in California and Mexico losing their power. Are we to believe that serious mistakes by electric company employees are confined only to those who work outside nuclear reactors? By the way, it did not go unnoticed that the electricity eventually returned to everyone without the help of the nuclear power.
How many serious accidents have there been at nuclear power plants? The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported 960 accidents at nuclear power plants since 1960 If you look at nuclear power plant accidents involving multiple fatalities and over $100 million in damage, 19 incidents make the list. If you broaden the definition of serious accidents, the list is over 100. Most experts agree that there have been at least 30 very serious accidents. It is not possible to build a nuclear power plant that is completely safe, as these accidents clearly show. With 439 reactors in the world, it is just a matter of time before more accidents occur. These could range from small accidents in remote areas to large accidents in highly populated areas like our own. The only way to enjoy complete safety from such accidents is to stop relying on nuclear power. This will mean that the public has to do more to conserve energy, work harder to stop wasting energy and to be more vigorous in exploring alternative energy sources. Such adjustments are a small price to pay for the safety everyone would enjoy in return.
Probabilistic Risk Assessment
How do safety experts back up their claims that we have nothing to worry about? One of their main tools is a mathematical modeling method called probabilistic risk assessment. According to one such assessment, it can be demonstrated on paper that the simultaneous failure of both emergency shutdown systems in a reactor would happen only once every 17,000 years. It was a considerable embarrassment to the geniuses who make these safety claims that double emergency backup system failures actually happened twice within four days in 1983 at two reactors at the Salem, N.J. nuclear power plant. The large earthquake that hit Virginia was supposed to occur only once every 1,000 years so it was a rude surprise when a thousand year event took only 30 years to happen.
The truth is that we have psychological biases and profit motives that make it attractive to ignore rare events. In addition, our track record on predicting epic events is not very good. How good were the experts in predicting the fall of the Soviet Union, 911, Hurricane Katrina, the financial collapse, the British Petroleum oil spill or the recent Arab uprisings? Beware of anyone who says they know what the future will bring. It is not uncommon that those in power will make self-serving predictions if they can profit from such predictions, and if they do not suffer if the predictions are wrong.
If worrying about natural disasters, equipment failure and human error is not scary enough, then factor in sabotage, terrorist attacks and the lucrative world market for stolen enriched uranium. And let’s not forget that many countries that want to develop nuclear weapons start with nuclear power plants, which they insist are only for peaceful uses. While most countries went straight to nuclear weapons (United States, Russia, France, Israel, for example), others (such as India and Pakistan) started with civilian reactors that opened the door for nuclear weapons production. Iran and North Korea are now trying to do the same thing.
San Onofre is an unusually enticing target for terrorism or sabotage. From James Bond (License Renewed) to James Huston (Fallout), writers have had fun plotting scenarios in which San Onofre is attacked by terrorists. Anyone who thinks that terrorist attacks are far-fetched should take a trip to lower Manhattan. As for the plant at San Onofre, it is easily accessible from an interstate highway, a public beach and from the ocean. Feel free to walk right up to it from the beach. (Take a tape measure with you and check out the height of the 14-feet wall which protects it from a tsunami. Airplanes can penetrate the six feet of reinforced concrete that house many reactors, and airplanes brought down the World Trade Center. But why bother when all that is needed is pipe breakage, pump failures or ruptures in the exposed fuel rod storage tanks. No nuclear power plant can be hardened against all possibilities, and this alone provides an excellent reason to close San Onofre as quickly as possible.
The Truth about Emergency Evacuation Plans
Can we be safe if there really is a nuclear incident? The government and the nuclear industry have another way to comfort you: mandatory evacuation plans. All we have to do is listen for sirens, obey bullhorns, and get out of town. To protect you, every nuclear plant is required to have an emergency evacuation plan. These plans remind everyone of the old government plan for how to survive nuclear war: “duck and cover.” The plans are there because the bureaucracies require plans. There is no requirement that these plans would actually work. Among bureaucrats, it is common to have a box-checking mentality where the purpose of a “plan” is to meet a paperwork policy requirement. The purpose of nuclear emergency evacuation plans is to comply with regulations rather than to protect the public. The most dangerous aspect of a bad plan is that it falsely reassures the public. Officials delight in plans no matter how bad because officials can look like they are in charge, and they can claim that their only thought it your safety.
Examine the emergency evacuation plan in the case of an incident at San Onofre. If you want to get away from the spread of radiation, this would dictate that everyone go upwind into the ocean. Instead, the plan calls for everyone to stay under the radiation by going downwind. Everyone is supposed to get on Interstate-5 and head north. (You can’t go south because it will be closed.) The plan calls for the incident to happen in the middle of the night, and if everything works perfectly it will take only 17 hours to reassemble everyone at the Orange County Fairground. There they will be checked for contamination. If contaminated, they will be hosed down, separated from their clothing, belongings and car. There will be lots of cots, blankets, and water. Depending on the severity of the incident, people – or their ancestors – might be allowed to return home in days, weeks, months, years or centuries. Besides, this is the plan for the 10-mile danger zone. There is no plan for a 50-mile evacuation zone.
We can learn from Fukushima, but we can also learn from the folks in Long Island who faced the same dilemma back in 1983. Studies showed that there was no possible way to evacuate. The residents were fortunate to have an enlightened governing body and in the end the legislators of Suffolk County voted 15-1 to close the Shoreham nuclear power plant. End of story. That is exactly what needs to happen here in Southern California: Close San Onofre.
Military Nuclear Accidents
What about other types of nuclear devices, are they safe? Within the last year, the United States launched two Minuteman III ICBM missiles from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. These routine tests both failed. The missile launched on July 27 had to be destroyed in mid-air. A few months later, an attempt was made to resupply the International Space Station. This also exploded in failure. Anyone who thinks modern technology is fool proof better think again, especially if you imagine that nuclear devices have an extra margin of error.
Anyone can Google “military nuclear accidents” and learn about hundreds of accidents involving nuclear weapons. Some of the worst incidents are still clouded in secrecy but enough is known about near disasters to make anyone’s hair stand on end. Ask the folks in Tybee Island, Ga. where an Air Force bomber jettisoned a Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb just off shore after a mid-air collision. The bomb has never been found. Many in Yuba City, Calif. will remember that a B-52 crashed there with two nuclear bombs on board. Four Mark 28 hydrogen bombs were dropped on the fishing village of Palomares, Spain after a B-52 collided with a refueling tanker. In 2007, a B-52 bomber flew six nuclear weapons from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana by mistake. The crew was unaware that they were transporting nuclear weapons. With tens of thousands of nuclear weapons located, stored and transported all over the world it is a wonder that there have not been more accidents.
Radioactive Fallout and More Lies to the Public
It is not surprising that the simple matter of trust is why many oppose the nuclear power. The more one looks into our checkered history of nuclear adventures, the more we are convinced that officials cannot be trusted. We now know that the Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, nuclear power plant operators and a long list of elected officials engaged in decades of lies, denials and cover-ups. Between 1951 and 1992, the United States conducted 1,021 announced nuclear detonations at the Nevada Test Site, and the 126 nuclear explosions at the Pacific Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands. Most of the early tests in Nevada were airborne explosions that dumped radioactive fallout throughout the United States and all over the world. Documents released years later revealed that government privately already knew that this fallout was deadly. Publicly, the government said the opposite. Officials went to great lengths to suppress, coverup and deny damaging evidence. Lying to the public was standard operating procedure, and efforts were made to silence critics.
In the spring of 1953, thousands of sheep in southwest Utah died with mysterious blisters and gruesome deformities. Those who checked the sheep pens with Geiger counters said the readings went off the chart. The government quickly moved in, disposed of all the carcasses and denied it had anything to do with the fact that the sheep grazed just downwind of a recent nuclear test. The Atomic Energy Commission ordered its scientists to delete any mention of radiation poisoning. In 1955, the sheep ranchers sued the government in Bullock v. the United States. The government successfully pressured the court not to allow any technical data regarding radiation measurements. The government also successfully pressured witnesses not to testify. Judge Sherman Christiensen ended up ruling in favor of the government and against the ranchers.
More than two decades later, Christiensen reopened the case after finding considerable evidence of government fraud. He concluded that government lawyers acted in an “intentionally false and deceptive manner” and concealed crucial evidence. He reversed his decision, but the U.S. 10th Circuit Court overturned him. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court continued the coverup by refusing to hear the case.
The public slowly began to realize that it was not just sheep but also humans who were guinea pigs. In order to protect residents of Las Vegas and Southern California, tests were conducted only when the wind was blowing east. Those to the east became known as “downwinders.” Many towns began to notice clusters of childhood leukemia and unusual cancer deaths. Numerous lawsuits were brought against the government by Navaho Indians, uranium miners, soldiers forced to watch nuclear tests and even test site personnel. Any cases that were won on the local level were overturned and the Supreme Court refused to review them.
Scientists from academia demonstrated that the 90 air borne nuclear weapons tests produced up to 75,000 cases of thyroid cancer with especially alarming numbers for children. The strontium 90 found in cow milk and children’s teeth was found to correlate directly with wind patterns across the country. The government continued to lie and launched into decades of new underground testing. Atmospheric testing ceased in 1963, but France continued atmospheric testing until 1974, and China continued until 1980. Over 500 anti-nuclear test demonstrations involving tens of thousands were held at the Nevada Test Site between 1987 and 1994. The government responded with massive arrests officially totaling 15,740 people.
The government’s determination to experiment with radioactive fallout included positioning 210,000 American troops a few miles from a nuclear detonation after which some were ordered to march to ground zero. They were told it was a training exercise for nuclear war, but the real purpose was to study the health effects of radioactive fallout. Some experiments involved flashblinding subjects to test how distant fireballs damage the retina. Even worse experiments were conducted in Marshall Islands with native islanders used as guinea pigs. In March of 1954, Operation Bravo detonated a hydrogen bomb 1,000 times more powerful than Hiroshima in the Bikini and Rongelap atolls. Native south Pacific Islanders were placed in experimental and control groups (families were separated to test for possible genetic differences) to examine death rates and the severity of radioactive poisoning at precise distances from ground zero. Children who played in the fallout were told it was snow. In the following decades, many agonizing deaths took place. The United States government employed teams of grave robbers to bring the bodies back to the country for medical testing. Some of the islands were declared uninhabitable “dead zones” where humans could not live.
The Human Radiation Experiments
It gets worse. In 1995, President Clinton ordered the release of documents by the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. This 1,000-page volume details grisly Nazi doctor-like experiments conducted on people without their knowledge or consent. There were so many experiments conducted that the commission decided to examine only 125 studies. The evidence for some of the most damaging studies was destroyed by the Department of Energy before it could be examined. The commission also interviewed 1,900 people who were intentionally irradiated.
One series of experiments consisted of injecting subjects, without their knowledge or consent, with strontium, radium, uranium, lead and polonium. One of the first to be injected was Ebb Cade, a 53-year old “colored male” who was in a hospital recovering from an automobile accident. The Los Alamos Labs Health Division ordered that the patient be injected with 5 micrograms of plutonium. Later subjects got 95 micrograms. They extracted 15 of his teeth to sample for plutonium. Like most of the human radiation experiments, procedures were sloppy and details were not preserved. Ebbs died eight years later. Pregnant women, again without their knowledge or consent, were injected with strontium 90 to see if the deadly substance would find its way into the fetus. Radioactive food was given to disabled children. Prisoners had their testicles irradiated and some experiments secretly released radioactive materials over American cities.
Some say that the biggest human radiation experiment of all was the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In March of 1944, Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, privately told physicist Joseph Rotblat that the real purpose of the atomic bomb was not to defeat Germany or Japan but rather to intimidate the Soviet Union and show Joseph Stalin how ruthless we could be. Rotblat promptly quit the Manhattan project, the only senior scientist to do so.
A long list of top scholars, military historians, American admirals and generals and top government officials later wrote that the bombs, especially the second one in Nagasaki, were totally unnecessary since the conflict was basically over once the Russians declared war. After the huge diversion of war effort into the Manhattan Project, there was enormous pressure on Groves to use the weapons to justify the expense. Scientists were terrified that the war would end before they got a chance to test the “gadget,” as Truman called it, on a live human population. In the extensive carpet bombing of Japan, certain target cities were spared so that the atomic bombs could be tested on an intact city, not on a city already destroyed. In particular, the United States military wanted to compare the gun-type uranium bomb of Hiroshima with the implosion-triggered plutonium bomb of Nagasaki. Officials naturally were eager to push the cover story that the bombs ended the war even though they already knew from secret cables that the Japanese were already preparing to surrender.
Suffering from atomic bombs did not end in 1945. Over 2,000 Japanese continue to die every year from medical problems directly related to when they were irradiated as children. While the suffering from Hiroshima and Nagasaki lingers, the suffering from Fukushima is just beginning. Some nuclear engineers predict that as many as 500,000 Japanese may eventually die from Fukushima radiation poisoning. The radiation from Fukushima spread thousands of miles. We can only hope that the lessons learned will spread just as far.
The writer served on the faculty of Amherst College, Tufts University and Ramapo College and is now professor emeritus residing in San Clemente.