Nun’s Jail Sentence Indicts
Risky Bet on Nuclear Power
How much of a threat is an 84-year old nun to a multi-billion dollar facility that’s been enriching weapons-grade uranium since WW2? Why, a lot if it’s run by a join venture of two government defense contractors that are embroiled in a $22 billion award dispute.
Enough also to sentence Megan Rice last Tuesday to nearly three years in prison, allegedly for breaking and vandalizing the facility, but most likely for her long and distinguished career as a pacifist, critical of the U.S.’s production of weapons of mass destruction.
It was only the latest scuffle between an anti-nuke activist group, in this case, Rice and two other peace protesters, and powerful recipients of fat government defense contracts, Babcock & Wilcox Co. and Bechtel Group Inc., that’s been the currency of the American option for nuclear power.
The disproportional sentence was slapped on the fearsome threesome after they exposed serious security flaws at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Y-12 National Security Complex, by staging a two-hour occupation of a $500 million storage bunker, which they splattered with red paint and scribbled with anti-war slogans.
Such scandalous ‘crime’ of trespassing seemed more important to U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar than what the act was supposed to call attention to: that a plant producing a lethal compound, capable of wipe out a small country if ignited, would be so poorly guarded that an elderly person could easily gain entry.
Thus, the recent tradition of shooting the messenger, never mind the message, that the Obama administration has been particularly keen in pursuing, got another notch up the yardstick. And for now, let’s not even get started with how unsafe uranium processing has been since, well, Hiroshima.
BIRTHPLACE OF THE FAT MAN
Y-12 was part of the Manhattan Project, and thus, its history arc can be traced back to the bombing of the Japanese city, that effectively ended the war but also opened a scary can of radioactive worms, all the way back to Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Between those two brackets, there was Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, plus a dozen frightening misses. Although we haven’t yet reached critical mass, at least in number of casualties, there’s been one constant related to nukes since their inception: the world holds its breath whenever they malfunction.
In fact, behind all the spin and justification those with invested interests in nuclear power are always ready to invoke, there’s a consensus that such technology remains a monster that, once unleashed, we can hardly contain, and once out of control, can indeed doom our kind. In some way, it’s already doing it.
Just consider what’s not even misses, but some realistic statistical probabilities, and what you’ve got is a menu of unspeakable nightmares, from a simple accident caused by natural causes, such as the earthquake in Japan, to a deliberate act of terrorism, by some batshit group getting a hold of a nuclear weapon.
And the fact is, we don’t need it. For all the fallacy of ‘clean technology,’ the diminished returns nuclear power has provided to modern societies, compared with the enormous costs of risk-prevention and a constantly game of technological catching up, so to at least manage it, should suffice to scare us all out of nukes for good.
It has not just proven what it’s capable of, rendering entire regions prone to cancer-inducing radiation, but it’s shown how inadequate and outdated are our current means to harness energy from uranium, since even its by-product can’t be decomposed before the year, say, 2000 and never.
GIVING IT UP OR NOT AT ALL
People tend to rationalize the two common ‘excuses’ for using nuclear power: first, and foremost, to decimate enemies, or at least, to threaten them to, and secondly, for ‘peaceful purposes,’ which means putting whole urban areas under the threat of a meltdown, so they can have a source of energy slightly cheaper than oil.
Right after Fukushima, there was a natural movement around the world to reject nukes altogether. The leadership role in this new wave of thinking came from, as it’s becoming usual, not from the U.S., but Germany, which ordered a shutdown of eight units, a de facto step to get the country out of such business.
Well, guess what, under pressure from the global nuclear lobby, there’s been talk that the decision was too ‘extreme,’ for after all, the likelihood for an accident was too weak an argument to disable a whole segment of the national economy. Or something, equally ridiculous, to that effect.
There’s, of course, the Iranian program, perceived as a threat to Israel if it’d be used to produce weapons. That threat has considerably subsided recently, even though the Israeli government apparently hasn’t got the memo, as Iran insists that it’s enriching uranium only for energy purposes.
Whether to believe it or not, it’s up to diplomacy and international vigilance. Then again, much more explosive regions, such as Kashmir, at the border of active nuclear-program running India and Pakistan, don’t always get the same scrutiny, and one hopes, lucky has been on everyone’s side, so far.
A NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
Another characteristic of nukes is that it tends to be pursued by the poorest countries in the world (see Kashmir, India and Pakistan border). The newest entry, or prospective contestant to this radiation club, is Bolivia, which plans to start building a nuclear reactor, ‘soon.’
Even if it’s doubtful that it’ll be allowed by world’s powers, the announcement shows that that old belief, – if you can’t feed your people, or give them higher standards of living, then you may as well give them arms, or the illusion that they possess one, so they can be just as happy, – is still alive and well.
But even if these impoverished nations with big guns constitute a threat to world security, and all the rhetoric those that already have weapons of mass destruction usually invoke to prevent others from having them, it’s exactly those that have them that are the biggest threat.
Take the Carolinas, in the U.S., for instance. Just the two states’ seven nuclear plans represent a $20-billion a year industry, producing more than half of their electricity needs, according to a Clemson University study. Technically, this is the smiling side of nukes, with benefits far exceeding risks, right?
Well, not really. Besides preventing any other alternative energy industry to flourish, while providing a false sense of safety to citizens, what all this money can’t guarantee is that at some point someone, not as idealistic as Ms. Rice and probably half her age, won’t have access to one of these plants with way more malignant intent than the good old nun.
After all, even when not producing weapons, nukes are technically weapons, bombs really, with incalculable potency to destroy and devastate. And many of them are still being built with a technology heavily dependent on the electrical power grid. As it happened in Japan, when that fails, the whole plant fails too.
That kind of danger was the 800,000-pound reactor in the middle of the court that Judge Thapar chose not to acknowledge. But sometimes, the person who blows the whistle, always at an enormous risk to their life, career and reputation, is not necessarily a peace activist. Or operates from the outside.
Consider Donna Busche, for example, a URS Corp. Environmental and Nuclear Safety manager, in charge of cleaning up a former nuclear weapons site in Hanford, Washington. She’s been vocal for months now about dangerous conditions and lack of safety of the 53 tons of highly radioactive nuclear sludge that URS is contracted to clean.
Her concerns were ignored as her employer chose to call her ‘unprofessional’ and fired her, without so much as sharing them with the government, or the Hanford community. Incidentally, the area was also part of the war effort, and the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb in the 1940s was enriched there.
A more experienced side of the anti-nuke movement, Greenpeace, chose another way in its ongoing battle against dangerous sources of energy: it delivered on Wednesday a truckload of nuclear waste and five tons of coal to the doorstep of French President François Hollande, as he prepared to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
FOR THE SAKE OF SUN & WIND
Thus not everyone is keen in chanting hymns and offering to break bread with their captors, as the sister in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and her friends did in Tennessee, and paid dearly for. In fact, it’s almost surprising that, given the potential, not many corporations have been formed behind alternative sources of energy.
Or haven’t them? Just last week, the world’s largest solar plant started operating in California, using an array of multiple mirrors instead of photovoltaic cells, the usual technique to capture, store and process energy from the sun. It’s run by a join venture of Google, NRG Energy and BrightSource Energy.
And throughout the U.S. and Europe, the increasing presence of wind turbines are quickly becoming a common sight. Most of them are far into the pragmatic business of producing cheap and renewable energy, without having to dig miles-deep holes with chemicals into the earth or literally risk blowing up the world in order to work.
Not all is chants and breaking bread in this corner of the fuel producing universe, though. Despite their countless benefits and lower costs, solar and wind energy-producing technologies have something else, far more troubling, in common: they’ve been massively killing birds.
The array of mirrors is simply too much of an attraction to them, and something has to be done, and fast, for birds are being melted on contact. As for the turbines, their wingspan is so vast and operate so silently that often large avian species are terminally sliced midair and it’s not a pretty sight, according to everyone.
Then again, tall, highly anti-environment glass towers have been killing birds that collide with them for years, and no one has raised the possibility of doing away with them, buildings, yet, ever. So, it’s just a matter of finding a way to prevent that from happening, through will and sheer ingenuity.
After all, it’s not that carbon fuel production, uses and emissions are innocent in the killing of birds, or humans, for that matter. Which hasn’t prevented us from investing billions annually just to keep it going, avian beings be damned. It’s something that not even Greenpeace has ever invoked, in order to turn the tide against our oil dependency.
* Nuking the Future
* The Miyagi We Can Avoid
* Hot Spot