Nuclear Energy, Senator Hillary Clinton and
To the dismay of the Bush administration this disastrous legislation crafted in secret committee meetings by Senators Pete Domenici and Congressman "Billy" Tauzin was at the last minute knocked out by a Democrat-led filibuster. As Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Energy Service says, the bill's supporters "were bitterly disappointed not to have this turkey for Thanksgiving."
The bill - long coveted by huge donors to the Republican Party -- is not dead. It will be back to haunt us in 2004.
Come the New Year the US Congress will be poised to pass the bill and dole out taxpayer money to needy corporations. Each section of the bill is more egregious than the last, but the insanity of Section 45L that calls for a first-ever $6 billion tax break for operating NEW nuclear reactors takes one's breath away.
The lunacy is stunning. As the US government supports policies that are generating more and more terrorists, it also wants to build more nukes, one of the forms of energy most vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Just how vulnerable is embodied in the three words: spent fuel pool. These are the virtually unprotected pools in which tons and tons of unimaginably toxic irradiated fuel sits at reactors across the land.
Yet our politicians remain blithely oblivious to the terrorist threat to spent fuel pools. Or they support weak, half-measures to address the threat.
An example: On November 12th Senator Hillary Clinton asked the Federal Government to consider flying air patrols over New York State's nuclear power plants. In a letter to Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, Clinton listed Indian Point (the reactors only 24 miles north of New York City), Nine Mile Point and Ginna as the plants that need protection.
Along with many legislators, Senator Clinton is guilty of ostrichism.
Ostrichism. This word was coined by the military theorist and Rand think tanker, Herman Kahn, when he, in 1962, wrote the book, Thinking about the Unthinkable. At the time the unthinkable was the actual use (as opposed to threatened use) of nuclear weapons in a war. Thinking about the Unthinkable was vigorously attacked, as had been Kahn's earlier book, On Thermonuclear War.
In his books Kahn dared to open and examine the Pandora's box of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear warfare. At the time many critics claimed that plumbing this unpleasant topic was callous and would breed indifference. They argued only military strategists should focus on the topic -- in secret.
For those critics who opposed his books, Kahn counter-attacked saying they suffered from ostrichism.
Whatever one thought of Kahn's original work he broke through an information barrier. Soon subsequent studies by Jonathan Schell and Helen Caldicott spread the word about such depressing topics as nuclear winter and radiation poisoning. These studies - and the activist movements they helped to spawn -- generated support for nuclear test moratoriums and opposition to the use of nuclear bombs. These, in turn, have helped to control hawks in the Pentagon who ever since the murderous quagmire of Vietnam have yearned to use nukes.
Today much of the American public is too terrified to think about another unthinkable: a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant. The notion of a nuke going up in flames sends shivers down our spines. It's almost unbearable to imagine a radiation-drenched cloud rising up into the sky and then blowing contamination towards nearby cities, towns, water reservoirs, rivers and farms.
The reaction of a lot of folks: "Don't tell me about it. There's only so much bad news I can handle."
This proverbial ostrich head-in-the-sand technique is very dangerous. It leaves policy decisions up to the uninformed or to those unwilling to confront powerful electrical utilities. It leaves us with the absurdity of a few extra flights by the US Air Force over nuclear power plants.
Kyle Rabin, Senior Policy Analyst for the Riverkeeper, an environmental organization fighting to close down Indian Point politely says over flights represents "an important first step." He quickly adds, "It should be coupled with hardening of the spent fuel pools."
Why "harden" a pool? Here's the problem: Spent fuel pools are virtually unprotected against a ground attack. Why? Because the pools are not located inside those reassuringly thick concrete containment domes we've all seen pictures of. Only simple corrugated metal roofs cover the pools. (Some reactors have pools located inside the reactor containment building, but this construction poses a separate set of risks.)
In the case where spent fuel pools are outside the reactor domes, they were built as temporary and therefore quite shoddy structures. In fact, according to one expert, the roofs on these pools are a "step above a metal shack."
Hold it. Wait a minute. "A step above a metal shack"? Let this phrase sink in. "A step above a metal shack."
We're talking about a pool that contains a massive inventory of radioactivity, an inventory that, if released, would make Chernobyl look like a picnic. At Indian Point we're speaking of an inventory that could permanently contaminate - depending which way the wind was blowing - three-quarters of New York State.
Alarmingly, these highly vulnerable "metal shacks," sometimes also described as Butler-type, Quonset-hut type buildings dot our fair country from coast to coast.
Over flights may reassure some citizens, but let's face the brutal facts: the pilots of said planes would not be able to spot the terrorist who creeps towards a spent fuel pool with a deadly weapon.
Thus far Senator Hillary Clinton has opted for the ostrichism of over flights. Although she has raised serious questions regarding the viability of evacuation plans at Indian Point, she has failed to advocate the only responsible action: shut down Indian Point and the 102 other nuclear power plants scattered throughout New York State and the US.
Only after shutdown will the nukes stop churning out more and more irradiated fuel. Only then can the already-accumulated fuel sitting in vulnerable pools be shifted into sturdy casks made terrorist-proof by underground burial and/or berms.
Senator Clinton is not alone in her ostrichism. Of the 100 Senators in the US Senate, not one has had the courage to call for the shutdown of any one particularly unsafe reactor or for the shutdown of all reactors in the US.
Over Congress's Christmas recess, I, for one, am headed to the local offices of my US Senators to have a little chat about this matter.
Mina Hamilton is a writer in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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