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Enigma Issue 7: Nuclear Madness

by Helen Caldicot | Autumn 1995

Most early developers of nuclear energy explored its potential fifty years ago to produce bombs that would inflict unprecedented damage.

Seven years after the United States tested two such weapons on the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the collective guilt generated by the deaths of some 350,000 Japanese civilians prompted the American government to advocate a new policy: the "peaceful use of atomic energy" to produce "safe, clean electricity," a form of power touted as being "too cheap to meter."

Nuclear power production and the processes employed in the manufacture of nuclear weapons are responsible for generating billions of NEW radioactive atoms and molecules, and these are the second most prevalent sources of public exposure today.

The difference is that you can turn X rays off, but radioactive waste lasts forever the vast bulk of the POTENTIAL exposure for humans emanates from nuclear fission.

No Such Thing As Safe?

Whether natural or man-made, all radiation is dangerous. There is no "safe" amount of radioactive material or dose of radiation. Why? Because by virtue of the nature of the biological damage done by radiation, it takes only one radioactive atom, one cell, and one gene to initiate the cancer or mutation cycle. Any exposure at all, therefore, constitutes a serious gamble with the mechanisms of life.

Today's safety standards have already been shown by several studies to be dangerously high. When investigators of low-dose ionizing radiation revealed that levels of radiation lower than those permitted were causing cancer, government agencies attempted to suppress their findings.

Increased Risk of Cancer

The increasing exposure to radiation of workers and the general public by the Nuclear industries implies tragedy for many human beings. Increasing numbers of people will have to deal with cancer, or, perhaps more painful still, deformed or diseased offspring.

Of all the creatures on Earth, human beings have been found to be one of the most susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of radiation (because their cells are rapidly dividing, fetuses, infants, and young children are the most sensitive to radiation's effects.)

Radiation is insidious, because it cannot be detected by the senses. We are not biologically equipped to feel its power, or see, hear, touch, or smell it. Yet gamma radiation can penetrate our bodies if we are exposed to radioactive substances. Beta particles can pass through the skin to damage living cells, although, like alpha particles, which are unable to penetrate this barrier, their most serious and irreparable damage is done when we ingest food or water-or inhale air-contaminated with particles of radioactive matter. Radiation harms us by ionizing, that is, altering the electric charge of-the atoms and molecules composing our body cells.

Nuclear Rain

When an atomic bomb explodes near the Earth's surface, the mushroom cloud that billows into the sky carries particles of radioactive dust. Blown from west to east by stratospheric winds, these particles descend to the earth in rainfall and work their way through the soil and water into the food chain, eventually posing a serious threat to human life.

The world's major military powers have built tens of thousands of atomic bombs powerful enough to kill the world's inhabitants several times over, and, despite the fact that nuclear disarmament is occurring between the super powers, it is a very slow process.

It is difficult to predict how many mutated children will be born in the world as a result of nuclear power and weapons production, or what the nature of their defects will be. But it is indisputable that the mutation rate will rise-perhaps far higher than we would care to contemplate.

The Growth of Nuclear Power

As of 1994, nuclear power has metastasized around the globe, with a total of 422 nuclear power plants worldwide and forty-five under construction. There are forty-four reactors in Japan with ten in production; fifty-six in France, with five in production (many are aging and need expensive repairs); and thirty-seven in the United Kingdom, with one to be completed. The United States has 108 operating reactors, 20 are closed and 2 are under active construction; its nuclear industry plans to build 175 more over the next thirty-six years, if it can obtain the necessary funding. The nuclear facilities stand to inherit the Earth.

It is important that we keep in mind the fact that the nuclear industries are relatively young. Nuclear power has been in commercial production in the United States for only thirty-three years; arms production for forty-eight. Since the latency period of cancer is twelve to sixty years and genetic mutations do not manifest for generations, we have just begun to experience effects radiation can have upon us. Nuclear power plants and military facilities will continue to release radioactive materials into the environment, until public pressure becomes great enough to bring such releases to a halt.

Irreversible Effect

Because the effects of these materials on us, our children, and our planet will be irreversible, we must take action now. What we have discovered so far should serve as ample warning that our future as a species is imperilled: we have entered a danger zone-an uncharted territory-from which we may never return. But we can reverse some of the environmental damage if we take immediate action an d close down all nuclear reactors. Survival of our species depends upon each individual. The controversy surrounding nuclear fission is the most important issue that all societies and the world at large have ever faced.

Nuclear power plants operate under many untested theoretical principles. Certain safety systems are built on the shaky test results of computer models. Many components are made of metals susceptible to failure from contact with the nuclear environment. As a result, corrosion causes cracks and subsequent leaks that are often difficult to remedy in certain sections of the plant, because localized intense radioactivity prevents entrance.

Dangerous Time Bomb?

Each 1000-megawatt nuclear reactor contains as much long lived radioactive material ("fall out") as would be produced by one thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs. A "meltdown" (in which fissioning nuclear fuel overheats and melts, penetrating the steel and concrete structures that encase it) could release a reactor's radioactive contents into the atmosphere killing hundreds of thousands of people, depending upon the wind direction and population density, and contaminating thousands of square miles..

Each operating reactor daily releases carcinogenic and mutagenic effluent. These radioactive materials raise the level of background radiation to which we are constantly exposed, increasing our risk of developing cancer and genetic disease.

Tons of Waste

Each reactor annually produces tons of radioactive waste, some of which remains dangerous for more than 5,000,000 years. No permanent fail safe method of containment or storage has yet been found for them.

Each reactor annually produces approximately five hundred pounds of plutonium. Dangerous for at least 500,000 years, this toxic substance poses a threat to public health that cannot be over emphasized.

Once created, some of these nuclear by-products will remain in our biosphere for tens and hundreds of thousands of years, wreaking irreversible damage on plant, animal, and human life, unless successfully contained. What moral right do we have to leave such a legacy to our descendants?

Radwaste

The term nuclear waste (radwaste) refers to all the unusable, radioactively contaminated by-products of the nuclear fuel cycle and the weapons program. Intensely radioactive, "high-level" waste consists of fission products of uranium in the form of either intensely radioactive irradiated fuel or as a concentrated liquid or solid.

Inefficient

Because hundreds of radioactive elements are produced when uranium is consumed in the fission process, they gradually build up in the fuel rods and begin to hinder its efficiency. Because of the inefficiency factor, each year reactors are shut down so that technicians can replace one-quarter to one-third of the contaminated fuel rods.

Since there is no way to dispose of the highly radioactive irradiated fuel rods permanently, they are currently managed on site at each of the operating and formally operational reactor sites in the United States. The rods are also extremely hot and must be stored for five years or more in a pool of water usually located near the reactor. The water cools the rods, preventing them from spontaneously melting and releasing their poisonous contents into the atmosphere, and permitting their radioactivity to decline. The swimming-pool-like structures are designed to hold the spent fuel for one to ten years. These temporary storage pools often leak radioactive water into the environment. The water has to be filtered and the resultant sludges comprise some of the hottest "low-level" radioactive waste.

Government Activities

Between 1946 and 1970, the U.S. military encased 47,000 55-gallon drums of low level waste in concrete-lined steel drums and dumped them into the Pacific Ocean about thirty miles outside the San Francisco Bay. Over one third of these drums have now leaked radioactivity into the Bay area's major fishing grounds.

Today there are more than 92 million gallons of this high-level liquid waste in storage tanks in the United States; many of these liquids are so hot that they boil spontaneously and continually. Most can be found at the Hanford Military Reservation in Washington and the Savannah River facility in South Carolina.

Dangers with Storage Methods

The major portion of these wastes lie in huge carbon steel tanks that cannot withstand the waste's corrosive properties for more than twenty-five years; newer stainless steel tanks can last for fifty. But what is half a century compared to the thousands of years that this radioactive material must be kept isolated from the environment?

Moreover, many of these tanks have already sprung deadly leaks. From 1958 to 1975, twenty of Hanford's older, single-walled carbon steel tanks developed cracks through which 430,000 gallons of high-level waste leaked into the soil.

Military Waste

Savannah River stores an even greater quantity of high-level liquid radioactivity than Hanford, measured in curies; together they account for 90 percent of the nation's military waste, as measured by volume and radioactivity. Fifty-one subsurface, carbon steel, high-level waste tanks hold thirty-five million gallons of high level waste; some of these tanks have sprung leaks from rust holes, while others, like the tanks at Hanford, are in danger of exploding.

Power Plant Shelf Life

Every nuclear power plant will eventually end up on the radioactive garbage heap, because a plant can operate for only twenty to forty years even when things go well, before it becomes too radioactive to repair or maintain. When the time comes for a plant's demise, it must be shut down and "decommissioned." It must be either disassembled by remote control (because it is simply too radioactive to handle manually) and its constituent parts buried, or the entire plant could be buried under tons of earth or concrete to become a radioactive mausoleum for hundreds of thousands of years. In either case, the remains must be guarded virtually forever. Alternatively, it is probably wiser to leave the reactor above ground, where it can be continuously monitored and removable if necessary and where it will remain a constant ugly reminder of the obsolete stupid and dangerous folly of the nuclear age.

What Can We Do?

Can we do anything to protect ourselves and future generations from the lethal legacy of nuclear sewage? At present, the answer is no. Nor can technology alone ever provide the answers we seek. For even if unbreakable, corrosion-resistant containers could be designed, any storage site would need to be kept under constant surveillance by incorruptible guards, administered by moral politicians living in a stable warless society, and left undisturbed by earthquakes, natural disasters, or other acts of God for no less than half a million years - a tall order, which science cannot fill.

Only if we abolish nuclear weapons and permanently halt the nuclear power industry and contain radioactive waste inventories from entering the biosphere, can we hope to survive.

Carrying the Facts of Atomic Energy

To achieve these ends, it is vital that people be presented with the facts. Today more than ever, we need what Einstein referred to as a "chain reaction of awareness"; "To the village square," he wrote in 1946, "we must carry the facts of atomic energy." Once presented the facts will speak for themselves.

First and perhaps most important, we can no longer afford to entrust our lives, and the lives and health of future generations, to politicians, bureaucrats, "experts," or scientific specialists, because all too often their objectivity is compromised. Most government officials are shockingly uninformed about the medical implications of nuclear power and atomic warfare, and yet they daily make life and death decisions in regard to these issues.

Unacceptable Risks to Health

From a purely medical point of view, there really is no controversy: the commercial and military technologies we have developed to release the energy of the nucleus impose unacceptable risks to health and life. As a physician, I consider it my responsibility to preserve and further life. Thus, as a doctor, as well as a mother and a world citizen, I wish to practice the ultimate form of preventive medicine by ridding the earth of these technologies that propagate disease, suffering, and death.

Out of the growing number of organizations opposed to nuclear power and nuclear arms must come a grass roots movement of unprecedented power and determination. Its momentum alone, will determine whether we and our children, and all future generations of humankind, and perhaps even life itself, will survive.

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