2013/05/30

Disparate Views of the Closure of a Uranium Enrichment Facility

I’ve begun to wonder if the nuclear industry is its own worst enemy. Its public relations operations continually insist on downplaying the dangers of nuclear energy and on refusing to acknowledge the horrific environmental problems that have been created by seventy years of nuclear fuel production and spent nuclear fuel accumulation. Some hazards may be debatable, but the toxic legacy left by uranium enrichment facilities like the one in Paducah, Kentucky, are beyond deniability.
The alarming dangers posed by such facilities have been described by government agencies, environmental groups, journalists and writers, and by the citizens who have to live next to them. The nuclear industry, if it has any hope of being taken seriously as an energy alternative, and gaining any public trust, has to come clean and cut the evasions, omissions and obfuscating glosses on the real extent of the damage and risks.
An excellent case in point is the news released this week by World Nuclear News regarding the closure of the USEC uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Kentucky. This is contrasted below, side by side, with a report from Ecowatch on the same topic.
It is notable that WNN claims to employ “experienced journalists,” given no byline (I suspect they are probably grateful to have their names left off the reports), who have, apparently, access to the top experts of the global nuclear industry. These “experienced journalists” exhausted the topic of the Paducah plant closure by writing a whopping 463 words, while the writer from Ecowatch wrote 2,500 words describing in much more detail the alarming state of the Paducah facility.
The “experienced journalists” of WNN say the Paducah enrichment facility was built when “the USA's nuclear naval and power programs grew from wartime research and development.” I couldn’t think of a more evasive and dishonest way to describe the billion-dollar project to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is cosmetology, not journalism.
They go on to say the plant had to close because the Department of Energy “concluded there were not sufficient benefits to taxpayers.” The plant “will now be prepared for closure.” A remaining workforce will “perform transition activities and meet regulatory requirements… in a cost-effective manner.”
The Ecowatch report reveals exactly what these pleasantries refer to: another story of a corporate termites feeding on a privatized asset, then leaving taxpayers and citizens with the toxic excrement (in this case, crystallized uranium hexafluoride). This business behavior is well-known, most famously because of the leveraged buyouts led by Mitt Romney when he worked for Bain Capital. As David Stockman put it, “The whole business was about maximizing debt, extracting cash, cutting head counts, skimping on capital spending, outsourcing production, and dressing up the deal for the earliest, highest-profit exit possible.” It’s bad enough when it’s a matter of office supply retailers, but in this case we are talking about a large-scale contamination of the land with some of the longest-lived and most toxic materials known.
The two reports are below, with the most notable sections in bold print.

From World Nuclear News
From Ecowatch
From the WNN website: The goal of WNN is use plain English to place comprehensive coverage of nuclear power in context using background information, expert commentary and links to relevant authoritative sources. Because they are researched from original source and written in-house by experienced journalists… The WNN service … draws on the WNA's global network of contacts in industry, academia, research institutes and intergovernmental agencies that includes key personnel in enterprises that account for virtually all of the world's uranium mining, nuclear fuel manufacture, equipment production and nuclear power generation.
From the Ecowatch website: EcoWatch is a cutting-edge news service promoting the work of more than 1,000 grassroots environmental organizations and activists worldwide, and showcasing the insights of world-renowned environmental leaders.
EcoWatch focuses on the issues of water, air, food, energy and biodiversity, and promotes ongoing environmental campaigns including climate change, fracking, mountaintop removal, factory farming, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. News is provided on a global and local scale.
May 28, 2013
[463 words]


USEC is to wind up operations this month at the Paducah plant it leases from the US Department of Energy (DoE). The 1950s facility is the last remaining gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plant in the world.
Paducah was built between 1950 and 1952 at a cost of around $800 million as the USA's nuclear naval and power programs grew from wartime research and development
Given that USEC's American Centrifuge project is only at the stage of pilot operation, the closure of Paducah will leave the company without any enrichment capacity of its own. USEC said it would meet its commitments from existing inventory and purchases from Russia - from the downblending of decommissioned weapons or Russia's nuclear fuel export firm Tenex via a deal signed in 2011 to cover USEC's orders in the timeframe of 2013-2022.

Bob Van Namen is USEC's senior vice president and chief operating officer. He said the company had looked at possible ways to continue enrichment at Paducah, but the DoE "concluded there were not sufficient benefits to taxpayers." The government department owns the facility which it leases to USEC to operate.
The Paducah site will now be prepared for closure. Van Namen said USEC anticipates maintaining a workforce at Paducah "into next year to support ongoing operations, perform transition activities and meet regulatory requirements." He added that USEC wanted to make the transition to a shut-down state in a cost-effective manner: "The company and our workforce have unparalleled experience that should be drawn on."
Vice president of enrichment operations Steve Penrod said: "We want to thank our employees and the entire Paducah community for their efforts to support continued enrichment at the plant. Although the community has known about this possibility for a number of years, we recognize that the Paducah area will soon feel the real impact of this decision and its effects on many individuals and families."

US legacy infrastructure

In western Kentucky, Paducah has operated since September 1952 and has capacity of 8 million SWU per year, compared to US reactor needs of 12.7 million SWU per year. The plant was built in less than two years, at a cost of around $800 million as the USA's nuclear naval and power programs grew from wartime research and development. It is located across the Ohio River from the Metropolis conversion plant in southern Illinois, which turns uranium from solid to gaseous forms for the enrichment process. That plant is owned by Honeywell and General Atomics and operated by their joint venture ConverDyn.
Paducah is the world's only remaining gaseous diffusion enrichment plant, and the only US-owned enrichment facility in the USA (the other being Urenco's LES facility, which was inaugurated in 2012). Metropolis is the USA's only conversion plant.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News




May 22, 2013
By Geoffrey Sea
[2,571 words]

Disaster is about to strike in western Kentucky, a full-blown nuclear catastrophe involving hundreds of tons of enriched uranium tainted with plutonium, technetium, arsenic, beryllium and a toxic chemical brew. But this nuke calamity will be no fluke. It’s been foreseen, planned, even programmed, the result of an atomic extortion game played out between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the most failed American experiment in privatization, the company that has run the Paducah plant into the poisoned ground, USEC Inc .
As now scheduled, main power to the gargantuan gaseous diffusion uranium plant at Paducah, Kentucky, will be cut at midnight on May 31, just nine days from now—cut because USEC has terminated its power contract with TVA as of that time [“USEC Ceases Buying Power,” Paducah Sun, April 19, page 1] and because DOE can’t pick up the bill.
DOE is five months away from the start of 2014 spending authority, needed to fund clean power-down at Paducah. Meanwhile, USEC’s total market capitalization has declined to about $45 million, not enough to meet minimum listing requirements for the New York Stock Exchange, pay off the company’s staggering debts or retain its operating licenses under financial capacity requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Paducah plant cannot legally stay open, and it can’t safely be shut down—a lovely metaphor for the end of the Atomic Age and a perfect nightmare for the people of Kentucky.

Dirty Power-Down
If the main power to the diffusion cascade is cut as now may be unavoidable, the uranium hexafluoride gas inside thousands of miles of piping and process equipment will crystallize, creating a very costly gigantic hunk of junk as a bequest to future generations, delaying site cleanup for many decades and risking nuclear criticality problems that remain unstudied. Unlike gaseous uranium that can be flushed from pipes with relative ease, crystallized uranium may need to be chiseled out manually, adding greatly to occupational hazards.
The gaseous diffusion plant at Oak Ridge, TN, was powered-down dirty in 1985, in a safer situation because the Oak Ridge plant did not have near the level of transuranic contaminants found at Paducah. The Oak Ridge catastrophe left a poisonous site that still awaits cleanup a quarter-century later, and an echo chamber of political promises that such a stupid move would never be made again. But that was before the privatization of USEC.
Could a dirty power-down at Paducah—where recycled and reprocessed uranium contaminated with plutonium and other transuranic elements was added in massive quantities—result in “slow-cooker” critical mass formations inside the process equipment? No one really knows.
Everybody does know that the Paducah plant is about to close . Its technology is Jurassic, requiring about ten times the energy of competing uranium enrichment methods around the world. The Paducah plant has been the largest single-meter consumer of electric power on the planet, requiring two TVA coal plants just to keep it operating, and it’s the largest single-source emitter of the very worst atmospheric gasses—chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
The plant narrowly escaped the selection process that shuttered its sister plants in Tennessee and Ohio long ago. A 2012 apocalypse for Paducah workers was averted only by a last-second, five-party raid on the U.S. Treasury involving four federal entities pitching together to bail out USEC financially, a deal so arcane that knowledge of Mayan astrological codices would be required to grasp its basic principles. The plot would make for a great super-crime Hollywood movie in which Kentucky’s own George Clooney and Ashley Judd could star, if only the crafting lawyers and bureaucrats had made the Code of Federal Regulations as easy to decipher as bible code, or half as interesting.
“The deal” that saved Paducah operations for a year, past one crucial election non-coincidentally, probably consumed more net energy than it produced by stupidly paying USEC to run depleted uranium waste back through the inefficient Paducah plant—like a massive government program paying citizens to drink their own pee as a way to cut sewerage costs and keep medics employed prior to a Presidential contest. The deal never would have passed muster if it had been subjected to environmental or economic reviews of any kind, but it wasn’t. The “jobs” mantra was chanted, and all applicable laws from local noise-control ordinances to the Geneva Conventions were waived.
But the deal expires on May 31, in nine days. USEC and DOE have both said that discussions for a new extension deal continue, but rumors of a new deal were dashed on May 7, sending USEC stock into a flip-flop, when in an investor conference call , the company announced that no extension had been agreed, with very pessimistic notes about even a “short-term” postponement. That accompanied news that USEC had suffered a $2 million loss in the first quarter of 2013, largely attributable to the power bill at Paducah, which USEC says it’s under no obligation to keep paying.
Showing no enthusiasm whatsoever, USEC CEO John Welch said on May 7:
“While we continue to pursue options for a short-term extension of enrichment at Paducah beyond May 31, we also continue to prepare to cease enrichment in early June.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky DOE field office in charge, managed by William A. Murphie, has advertised a host of companies “expressing interest” in future use of the Paducah site, with no explanation of how the existing edifice of egregiousness will be made to disappear. “Off the record,” the Kentucky field office has floated dates like 2060 for the completion of Paducah cleanup.
That’s two generations from now and kind of a long time for the skilled workforce and other interested parties to hang around. Even the 2060 date assumes that costs can be minimized by evacuating the diffusion cells before power-down—the scenario that seems certain not to happen because no one has the funding for it. Flushing the cells of uranium hexafluoride gas is the only sensible way to power-down, but it’s costly and time-consuming. At the Piketon, Ohio, plant a semi-clean power-down has cost billions of dollars and has taken twelve years and counting to accomplish. (Murphie will have to explain why he paid USEC so much money for the extended power-down at Piketon, while simultaneously asserting that a Paducah power-down can be accomplished swiftly and cheaply). Clean power-down also requires that workers and supplies be available on demand, and in the Paducah case, there simply isn’t time.
According to reliable sources, contracts are being prepared for the work of placing the plant into what Murphie calls “cold storage”—a term of his invention. But those contracts won’t take effect until October when fiscal 2014 funds are available. “Cold storage” at that point means closing the doors, posting guards outside, and otherwise walking away.
Can there yet be an extension deal to hold over the plant until 2014 funds are available? Probably not, because USEC may not last that long, the equipment in the plant has been run to decrepitude with no attention to maintenance, there isn’t sufficient time to make the arrangements, and a second end-run around environmental compliance would likely generate lawsuits.

Captains Log: A Heck of a Long Time
As to when the site might be cleaned up for “future use” under a “cold storage” scenario, nothing has even been rumored. I think we are talking Star Trek dates. Or consider the half-life of natural uranium, which is about four and a half billion years.
Until such time, the Paducah plant will either sit like a massive metallic boil on the planet, or be demolished and scavenged for semi-precious metals like the Oak Ridge facility. But the plutonium, americium and neptunium at Paducah may nix the latter possibility. The dirty power-down arranged by Murphie would make it impossible to prevent transuranic atmospheric release during demolition.
I propose a bronze encasement for the whole fandango, with a plaque that reads: WRECK OF THE U.S. USEC GREATEST FAILURE OF GOVERNMENT PRIVATIZATION IN WORLD HISTORY  IN MEMORIUM

At least that would help Murphie comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. Call it a learning experience.
Interested observers are still awaiting some rabbit to be pulled from Murphie’s hat, as he produced one year ago in 2012. To gauge that possibility I sent Murphie an e-mail on May 10, asking him where he was going to get the money to pay for clean power-down with the cut-off date only weeks away as reported by USEC. Specifically, I wrote: “What’s up with that?”
And, within hours I received a reply, probably because I had copied Mitch McConnel’s chief of staff on my correspondence. Murphie wrote:
“As you are likely aware, the Paducah procurement process has begun involving the USEC facilities. I suggest you look at the DOE CBC home page regarding the proposed IDIQ business opportunities and keep an eye on it for updates. As for the funding question, the DOE did submit a request to Congress that includes language regarding the potential USEC facilities return [a fiscal year 2014 request].
That’s a very interesting reply because, aside from the vacuous PR about fantastic “business opportunities” at a site of nuclear catastrophe (maybe a lollipop factory!), it confirms that DOE does not have some secret stash of funds to evacuate the diffusion cells at Paducah, at least until fiscal year 2014, at least five months too late. Murphie is still calling the certain closure of the Paducah monstrosity “potential,” meaning he can’t yet pay for it. I asked Murphie to resolve that dilemma in a follow-up e-mail, but alas I had used up my entitlement to one response per five years and so got none.
I admit that some pretty cool proposals for Paducah “future use” have been cooked up by Murphie and his PR people. In mid-2012, Kentucky state legislators sought an exemption from the state’s moratorium on nuclear power (a giveaway to coal interests), so that Paducah could become a research center exploring the use of nuclear explosives in fracking for oil and gas. Hot diggity!
“Discussions” between DOE and USEC about extension may indeed be ongoing. But I imagine they are like the proverbial separation negotiations between the gold-miner and the gold-digger. The gold-digger demands maintenance for the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed, or she’ll walk. The gold-miner looks at the lump of iron pyrite he’s been left with and says: “You already got everything I had.

Murphie’s Law
So how did it come to this? Since the plant was originally scheduled to cease operations on May 31, 2012, why didn’t USEC and DOE have plenty of time to plan for orderly and funded clean power-down, which was precisely what the sleazy one-year extension deal was supposed to give time to accomplish.
The answer is that the entire uranium enrichment enterprise of the U.S. has become a sham operation, a sham designed to funnel U.S. Treasury funds to private companies including USEC and its partners, a sham designed to convert any problem or scandal into additional contractor award fees, a sham designed to keep the fig-leaf of a privatized USEC Inc. from blowing away and exposing all the naughty bits.
Those became the goals of the operation, not enriching uranium, developing new technology or achieving safe operations or cleanup of the sites. Murphie’s Law is that if anything can go wrong, it will boost contractor award fees, for a select group of companies hand-picked by Murphie himself. Thus, the principal “cleanup” contractors at Piketon are Fluor and Babcock & Wilcox (B&W), both of which are suppliers to USEC’s fake “American Centrifuge Project,” and B&W is a strategic partner of USEC with a large share of USEC preferred stock, poised to take over USEC’s operations if the latter goes under.
And USEC is going under, by design, leaving its bondholders, pensioners and U.S. taxpayers holding one very empty bag. USEC stock has now lost 99% of value since its bubble peak in 2007. USEC’s auditors issued a “going concern” letter in March of this year, warning that the company appears to have no viable business plan moving forward. The New York Stock Exchange issued a delisting warning to USEC in May of 2012, and a second warning on a separate deficiency in May of 2013.
If USEC is delisted, about half a billion dollars of debt to bondholders becomes due immediately, and at least $100 million in pension obligations are owed in Ohio and Kentucky each. But the entire company is only worth about a twentieth of its debts, or about 1 percent of the cost of the new commercial plant it pretends it will build. USEC’s 2013 shareholders meeting, at which the crisis might come to a precipitous conclusion, was postponed from April to June, presumably to give the company a chance to depart from Paducah without adding a nuclear crisis to its public liabilities. USEC is now an empty shell about to be shucked: the company’s dissolution and the Paducah plant’s decommissioning have been timed to coincide.
Once USEC has departed Paducah, it will no longer be in the uranium enrichment business, as it will operate no enrichment facilities. The company, which was created by statute for the sole purposes of enriching uranium and developing new technology, will be doing neither. It will only be an international uranium broker, ironically a front for Russian uranium interests. Imagine if the U.S. Postal Service decided to hoard its U.S. government subsidies, exit the mail delivery business and become only a marketing agent for Russian stamps. That analogy precisely applies to what USEC is doing, in stark violation of the USEC Privatization Act.
But USEC has had two quite powerful politicians in its service, from the states in which it has operated, men who control the Republican caucuses in both chambers of Congress—John Boehner of southern Ohio and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. If Congress had appropriated the funds to pay for Paducah power-down in a timely fashion, for fiscal year 2013, then the USEC house of cards would have come down one year earlier. There could not have been rumors of federally-financed extension deals, or stock speculation runs premised on talk of a USEC buyout, or shipments of “spare parts” from Piketon to Paducah just to make it look like USEC is a going concern.
In short, if Bill Muphie’s office had secured the funds and let the contracts to do a clean power-down of Paducah starting June 1, then the jig would have been up for USEC months ago, the company might already be in liquidation, and hundreds of millions of dollars in continuing federal subsidies to USEC might not have been wasted. For its part, USEC has even now failed to announce a date certain for Paducah closure, although cancellation of its power contract was an effective extortion tactic for wheedling additional dollars from federal coffers.
So Murphie didn’t secure the funds and didn’t issue the contracts, and kept right on doing federally-paid PR work to falsely suggest there could be a smooth economic conversion at Paducah. Boehner and McConnell ate it all up while chanting the “jobs” mantra, for it reinforced their narrative that USEC Inc. is the best thing since sliced atoms. To keep a large campaign contributor out of bankruptcy court for a few more months, the Paducah plant was permitted to reach the current crisis state. And the people of Kentucky were sent straight to nuclear hell.
Nine days.

Sources:

Geoffrey Sea, “Countdown to Nuclear Ruin at Paducah,” Ecowatch, May 22, 2013.

Geoffrey Sea, "Slow Cooker Comes to a Boil," Ecowatch, May 28, 2013.

David Stockman, “Mitt Romney: The Great Deformer,” The Daily Beast, October 15, 2012.

Paducah enrichment plant to be closed,” World Nuclear News, May 28, 2013.

2013/05/26

Review of "The Dragon's Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age"

Review:
The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age, by Robert A. Jacobs, University of Massachusetts Press, 2010, 176 pages

There’s nothing new or original left to be said about nuclear weapons… [but] I am prepared to grovel, to humiliate myself abjectly, because, in the circumstances, silence would be indefensible. So those of you who are willing: let’s pick our parts, put on these discarded costumes and speak our second-hand lines in this sad second-hand play.”
- Arundhati Roy, 1998

In 1998, the year Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapon, and a quarter century after India's first test, the novelist Arundhati Roy wrote the passage above in her essay Pokharan: The End of Imagination.[i] After this humble introduction, she proceeded to write something highly original - an additional 5,000 words that must be one of the most articulate and moving essays ever written against the possession of nuclear weapons. She demonstrated that while the message may be old, there are always new ways to express it and a new generation that has to learn what their elders may feel has become too tiresome to revisit.
These thoughts about Roy’s essay came to mind as I read The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age,[ii] by American historian Robert Jacobs. Nuclear threats are arguably as dangerous now as they were at any time in the past, so silence is still indefensible, and Jacobs too has found a way to make a fresh contribution to the history of the atomic age for a new generation.
Older people who remember the early Cold War may find this book covers familiar ground, but they must know that this book is not written for them. Knowledge of this era will die on the shelves if it is not kept alive in the minds of successive contemporary scholars and reinterpreted for each new generation. It is easy to forget that freshman university students in 2013 were born in 1995. They have no living memory of the first Gulf War, Apartheid, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Vietnam War. They were just starting to learn how to read when airliners crashed into the World Trade Center. People over the age of forty tend to assume these events are common knowledge, and they don’t realize how difficult it is for young people to grasp how there could have been such deep animosities across ideological lines during the Cold War.
Jacobs limits his coverage to the time between Hiroshima and the end of atmospheric weapons testing in the 1960s. The analysis of the historical events and their impact on culture is so good that readers will be left hoping for one or two sequels about the late Cold War period of the 70s and 80s, and the contemporary age consisting of threats by loose nukes, non-state entities building a bomb, aspiring nuclear states, Fukushima, and cell phones with built-in Geiger counters crowd-sourcing fallout data.
People coming of age in the 21st century are not likely to have much awareness of nuclear history because they have no link to a pre-nuclear world. They didn’t live through a time when everyone was talking about this new frontier in the history of humanity, about this new danger that could destroy civilization, and much of the ecosystem, in the span of a few hours.
Nowadays, the person on the street is unlikely to know how many nuclear weapons there are in the world and who owns them. From now on, all generations will have to be consciously taught nuclear history if they are to understand the implications of the weapons (functional or not) and the waste we are leaving behind for them. 50,000 years from now, when the future inhabitants of the earth are trying to understand the implications of their local nuclear waste dump, no one will be speaking 21st century English, or any other language now spoken. The Dragon’s Tail and other such chronicles of these times will have to be passed down like Greek myths, translated by successive generations of scholars.
The Dragon’s Tail begins with an explanation of how the atomic bomb was understood as a profound break with the past. Whereas we used to be in the hands of God, or a fate beyond our control, we now had the power to decide if Armageddon would occur today. In the social sciences, the first reaction to this problem was to dwell on the sorry, violent nature of man rather than to build the political structures that might constrain it.
From these early conceptions, the bomb soon took on mythical and magical properties. Because radiation was intangible yet so destructive, it took a role in popular culture whenever there was a need to display something transformative, awesome and powerful. The Nevada desert, home of weapons testing, came to represent the magical, other-worldliness of everything connected to the new technology (think of alien landings mythology associated with Area 51,[iii] The X-Files,[iv] and the two places where the Freudian id was given free reign – Las Vegas and the Nevada Test Site).
Films, comic books, novels and consumer goods all picked up the atomic motif (the 1982 documentary Atomic Cafe[v] was a chronicle of this era for the previous generation). Godzilla  and Spiderman are two of the familiar fictional supernatural beings created by radiation, but Jacobs describes many more examples − some well-known, others obscure and forgotten. Some are fantasies that portray radiation as having transformative powers unrelated to its real effects, while others are grounded in accurate representations of the effects of radioactivity and the implications of nuclear warfare. There are so many examples described in The Dragon’s Tail that readers come to see the essential role that nuclear physics played in modern realistic and fantasy science fiction. These genres wouldn’t exist without it, and they pushed aside traditional fantasy genres because, when writers had radiation to work with, they didn’t need wizards and magic spells. The arrival of Harry Potter in 1997 might be taken as a sign that the novelty of radiation had run its course in the public imagination.
The trivia about atomic monsters is interesting enough, but this book excels in its analysis of the role that fiction came to play in real-world conceptions and understandings of the atomic era. There were official attempts to get the public to take up roles as citizen-soldiers who could survive a nuclear attack, and the public was initially receptive. For a while, a Los Angeles television station actually live-broadcasted nuclear tests in Nevada. But eventually the absurdity of public information programs became apparent, and the official appeals were weakened by their own contradictions. The hydrogen bomb tests that began in 1954 made it ridiculous to suggest that there would be anything worth living for after a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange. Children wouldn’t be able to just duck and cover then get back outdoors to “clean this place up” (as one famous government film reel declared). Jacobs makes it clear that it was popular culture that helped the public process their fears and honestly confront reality. Fiction gave more honest and informative depictions of the nuclear dilemma than non-fiction reporting.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove[vi] (1964) is a well-known example of such fiction, but Jacobs wisely steers clear of it and digs up the more obscure, and arguably more important, creations that came before it. Others have written about Dr. Strangelove, but who remembers a 1954 episode of the television series Medic?[vii] We can thank Jacobs for reminding us that the information available wasn’t all just ridiculous Department of Energy newsreels deceiving a gullible population. In this era, the American public was exposed to a diverse range of information which might compare favorably with the quality of what we presently get from twenty-four-hour cable television news.
In the episode of Medic, (recently issued on DVD) the prime time audience was shown the suburban aftermath of a nuclear attack on a large city some distance away. Nothing in the story is sugarcoated like the information in government leaflets. The hospital is visited by irradiated, blinded children, and other children who need to be told that mommy is “still in the city.” Morphine has to be denied to people with grotesque injuries so that there will be some for those patients who still have a chance of being alive in a few days.
In an episode of another television series, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone,[viii] a group of superficially friendly neighbors are confronted with the news that nuclear war has started. As they fight over scarce resources and a place to shelter, bitter resentments emerge, and by the time the false alarm has been confirmed, their once-peaceful relations have been destroyed. Rod Serling appears at the end to remind the audience, “For civilization to survive, civilization has to remain civilized.”
Such simple truths were nowhere to be found in the official line about nuclear weapons, which focused instead on concerns such as how to defend one’s fallout shelter from the unprepared victims who might want to fight their way in. Jacobs comes to the strongest point of his thesis when he identifies the origins of the counter-culture movement in the way children of the fifties noticed the gap between propaganda and reality. Fiction shed light on a truth that the government and the older generation wanted to look away from, and this was the origin of the baby boomers’ rejection of their parents’ values. The counter-culture movement might seem to have stemmed from the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, but it was the “duck and cover” safety drills of the 1950s that made the post-war generation doubt that adults could be trusted. The official pamphlets and newsreels had the opposite effect of making children feel safe. The hypocrisies and contradictions of nuclear defense drills planted the seed of the rebellion that would come in the sixties.
Jacobs illustrates this point effectively with an analysis of a piece of sci-fi schlock that less astute observers would dismiss as an unimportant B-grade movie. Who would have thought that The Blob[ix] (1958) could really be about so much more than a small town terrified by an expanding mass of jelly? The film revealed the emerging cultural shift triggered by a totally new kind of existential threat, and the adults who were incapable of recognizing it. While the fifties are famous for television shows like Father Knows Best[x] (1954-60), it was also the era of James Dean and the Beat Generation, precursors of the sixties counter-culture. Millions of people were tuning out of the square society being handed to them. In The Blob, a new genre emerges – that of the youth who must save themselves and the world while authority figures snooze and fumble in the face of a new threat they can’t even recognize.
Jacobs’ coverage is limited in this short book to the first two phases of the Cold War – the period of testing fission bombs, and the next period of testing massive hydrogen bombs. The analysis stops at the time when atmospheric testing ended, almost entirely, in 1963. Of course, the Cold War didn’t end then. Weapons testing moved underground, both literally, and figuratively in the collective subconscious. It was out of sight and out of mind, but the existential threat never went away. There would be a shortcoming in Jacobs’ book only if it left some readers with the impression that the story was over when the baby boomers grew up and the Cold War came to its conclusion in 1991. In future studies, we can hope that Jacobs will apply his talents to a book about the culture of more recent nuclear history.
In the present age we are preoccupied with the ecological crisis, and we’ve grown complacent about the threat of nuclear war. It didn’t happen during the worst crisis in 1962, so we have mistakenly assumed that we’ve figured out a way to avoid the worst in every scenario that might arise. As the Cold War heated up in the 1980s, there were new films about nuclear threats such as War Games[xi] (1983), The Day After[xii] (1983, which is credited with changing President Reagan’s thinking about nuclear deterrence, which led to drastic reductions in Soviet and American stockpiles[xiii]), Special Bulletin[xiv] (1983), and Threads[xv] (1984). These confronted mass audiences (after a two-decade lull) again with serious messages about the futility of possessing nuclear weapons. Since then the message seems to have stalled. Nuclear weapons in subsequent films showed the planet-saving meteor-buster of Armageddon[xvi] (1998), or the terrorist’s ticking time bomb defused by agent Jack Bauer in 24[xvii] (2001-2010). This is the most that popular culture can come up with while we live with the aftermath of Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear waste that has nowhere to go, and proliferation risks that are inextricably linked to an energy industry believed by some to be the solution to global warming.
Another false impression that readers might get from The Dragon’s Tail is an understanding that nuclear catastrophe was avoided only because of bottom-up resistance that drew its inspiration from popular culture. Jacobs cannot be blamed for choosing this focus for his book, but there are questions to be asked about how much it was bottom-up pressures that prevented worse outcomes. What influenced Soviet and American leaders to make them realize they had to step back from the brink? When they managed to agree on a moratorium on testing from 1959-60, then on the end of atmospheric testing three years later, they might have been influenced by films like The Blob and The Day the Earth Stood Still[xviii] (1951), or by citizens who had been moved to action by such stories. Another possibility is that it was initiatives by elite intellectuals that opened up East-West dialog and changed thinking in both Washington and Moscow. The Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1955[xix] led to the Pugwash Conferences (in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, Canada) where top Western and Soviet scientists met for the first time. It’s also possible that the enormous expense and danger of the nuclear buildup was so obvious that Khrushchev and Kennedy didn’t need rocket scientists or science fiction writers to tell them it couldn’t go on. Then again, it’s just as likely that the worst was averted only because of luck and chance decisions like the one made by the captain of a Soviet submarine who decided in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis that, despite the pressure on him to press the button, he didn’t want to start World War III.[xx]
None of this quibbling is to take away from what Robert Jacobs has achieved with his study of the culture of the early Cold War era. The Dragon’s Tail serves as an excellent point of entry for anyone who wants to learn about this field and related aspects of the nuclear age.

Endnotes



[i] Arundhati Roy, Pokharan: The End of Imagination, Dianuke.org, May 2013. Originally published elsewhere in 1998. http://www.dianuke.org/pokharan-the-end-of-imagination-arundhati-roy/.

[ii] Robert A. Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010). Japanese publication: Robert Jacobs (author),Takahashi, Hiroko (editor), Nitta, Jun (translator), Kaku no Anzen Shinwa to Amerika no Taishu Bunka (Gaifusha, 2013). ロバート・A・ジェイコブズ (), 高橋 博子 (監修), 新田  (翻訳)ドラゴン・テール――核の安全神話とアメリカの大衆文化. 凱風社 (2013/4/22).

[iii] Annie Jacobsen, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base (Back Bay Books, 2012).

[iv] Chris Carter (producer), The X-Files, 20th Century Fox Television, 1993-2002.

[v] Jane Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty (directors), The Atomic Cafe, Libra Films, 1982.

[vi] Stanley Kubrick (director), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Columbia Pictures,1964.

[vii] John Meredyth Lucas, James E. Moser (directors), Flash of Darkness (episode title, aired February 1955) in Medic, (television series, aired 1954-1956), NBC Television, Timeless Media Group DVD release: 2011.

[viii] Rod Serling (creator and director), The Shelter (episode title, aired September 1961) The Twilight Zone, CBS Television, 1959-1964. Nuclear holocaust was a recurring theme of the series in other episodes such as A Little Peace and Quiet and Shelter Skelter (from the 1985 series of the same name).

[ix] Irvin Yeaworth (director), The Blob, Paramount Pictures, 1958.

[x] Peter Tewksbury (director), Father Knows Best, CBC Television, 1954-1960.

[xi] John Badham (director), War Games, United Artists, 1983.

[xii] Nicholas Meyer (director) The Day After, ABC Television and Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1983.

[xiii] Eric Schlosser, Command and Control (Penguin Random House, 2013), p. 451.

[xiv] Edward Zwick (director), Special Bulletin, NBC Television, 1983.

[xv] Mick Jackson (director) Threads, BBC, 1983.

[xvi] Michael Bay (director), Armageddon, Touchstone Pictures, 1998.

[xvii] Joel Surnow, Robert Cochrane (creators), 24, 20th Century Fox, 2001-2010.

[xviii] Robert Wise (director), The Day the Earth Stood Still, 20th Century Fox, 1951.

[xix] Josehph Rotblat, “The 50-Year Shadow,” The New York Times, May 17, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/17/opinion/17Rotblat.html?ex=1270785600&en=37bef79604f97228&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&_r=2&

[xx] Edward Wilson, “Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war,” The Guardian, October 27, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/27/vasili-arkhipov-stopped-nuclear-war.



2013/05/19

Ontario's Nuclear Village

When the story of the Fukushima catastrophe was told, one of the evident lessons learned was that the “nuclear village” of Japan was an insular rats’ nest of incestuous relations between power utilities, workers’ unions, professional organizations, advertising agencies, media, academics, journalists, bureaucrats and political parties. Even the judiciary was on board, having sided with the nuclear industry and national energy policy in numerous lawsuits brought by citizens’ groups that tried to raise the alarm about the potential for an unprecedented earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome.
In 2009 the opposition Democratic Party of Japan came to power, but they too were pro-nuclear because of the support they had from power plant workers’ unions. Japan Press Weekly reported,

“Donations to the DPJ and its lawmakers come not only from nuclear-related corporations but also from pro-business labor unions. The pro-business Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) affiliated-Federation of Electric Power Related Industry Workers’ Unions of Japan (Denryoku Soren) and its member unions give donations to the DPJ.” 

It was only after the meltdowns that Prime Minister Naoto Kan made his conversion to being anti-nuclear, while his successor from the same party remained pro-nuclear.
I use the word “union” above loosely because nuclear workers in Japan seem to have never had anything resembling a healthy oppositional relationship with management. None of these worker unions threatened action over safety issues, or fought for equal benefits for sub-contracted labor that was always stuck with the dirty and dangerous jobs. The unions and professional organizations recognized that they had common interests with their employers, and when disaster struck, they had been playing along obediently for a long time. It was common knowledge to everyone working in the Fukushima Daiichi plant that the sea wall wasn’t high enough, yet management didn’t have to worry that there would ever be job action over the issue.
These considerations make me wonder why Bruce Power Limited Partnership (Ontario, Canada), operator of the world’s largest nuclear power station on the shores of Lake Huron, needs to have the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System as a major partner, and The Society of Energy Professionals and the Power Workers’ Union as minor partners. The former has a 1.2% share, and the latter has a 4% share. If regulators and politicians aren't allowed to have investments in the industries that they oversee, why is it all right for staff in a power plant to have a similar conflict of interest?
It is easy to predict the answer given by the company. This investment should create an incentive for workers to care about the long-term viability and safety of the power plant. They would never dare overlook a safety issue that might later lead to scandal or a regulator shutting down operations, would they?
In spite of this theoretical positive incentive, there is another one working to negate it. Because of the workers’ investment in the company, anyone who might otherwise be tempted to blow the whistle on a safety concern now has a reason to hesitate. Speaking up might cause the plant to close down for a while and have a bad quarter, or if it’s a serious problem, it might lead to a permanent shutdown.
It’s bad enough that one’s job security is often the reason to ignore safety concerns, so it is difficult to understand why an additional conflict has to be added to the organizational structure. The history of industrial accidents and scandals shows that the person who brings problems to public attention is often the whistleblower who had knowledge of day-to-day operations. The people who have the official responsibility for guaranteeing safety are more famous for the hazards they overlooked.
The above criticism of a weakness in the organizational structure is not a criticism of the many individuals in the nuclear industry and regulatory bodies who work very diligently and ensure safety.  Nothing horrible has happened (in Ontario), so they must be doing many things right that the public never notices. In places with a good safety culture workers are taught to question a superior’s orders if they seem to be violations of safety, and they are explicitly trained not to give in to the temptation of letting mishaps go unreported, or altering records in the hope that regulators won’t find out. In light of how much has been done to improve institutional safety culture in recent years, it is just strange that the partnership arrangement at Bruce is not considered a problem.
The entities that have the larger interests in the Bruce Power Limited Partnership (Cameco Corporation, TransCanada Corporation* and BPC Generation Infrastructure Trust,** each with 31.6%) have obvious incentives to get the workers’ groups on board. It’s not as if they were utterly incapable of finding investors to buy the last 5.2% share of ownership. The important thing was to make sure that everyone working at the plant was co-opted.
This blog has pointed to no evidence of safety lapses at Bruce Power, but it does pose an important hypothetical question. If a senior engineer came to feel that management was refusing to address serious safety concerns, would he speak out, or would he worry about the consequences a shutdown would have on his retirement plan?

* Bruce Power proudly boasts of its contribution to reducing carbon emissions, but the major partner, Transcanada Corporation, is primarily involved in the oil industry, most notoriously the Keystone XL pipeline that will send tar sands oil from Alberta to the American refineries. If the company had a principled stance that nuclear was a solution to global warming, it would not accept members of the oil industry as partners.

** BPC Generation Infrastructure Trust was established by the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System specifically as a way to hold a major stake in Bruce Power. This partnership establishes grassroots support for nuclear power, but such support can only be in the form of financial interest. The partnership also guarantees that the support is a political issue. The sudden devaluation of civil servants’ retirement funds can quickly become a political crisis, thus support for nuclear energy has been woven into the social fabric of the province. Like Japan, Ontario has its own nuclear village. Support has been constructed so that it is not based on a rational or principled evaluation by the public of nuclear energy’s merits and demerits.

Sources:


Roger Pulvers, “Citizens’ lack of resolve leaves nuclear door wide open for next disaster,” The Japan Times, February 3, 2103.