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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/25/11

Deconstructing America's Nuclear Cult

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The August 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki both ended World War II and precipitated the United States' 65-year-long addiction to nuclear power.  In the light of the catastrophe at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi facility, it's time to reconsider America's lethal habit and our cult of atomic energy.


The first US nuclear reactor surreptitiously powered up on December 2, 1942, as part of the "Manhattan Project" that tested the first Atomic bomb July 16,1945.  On that momentous occasion, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the project scientific director, famously mused, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. 


After the end of World War II, the US scrambled to justify its awesome destroyer and, in 1953, launched "Atoms for Peace."  Our first commercial nuclear generator became operational in December 2, 1957.  America is now the world's largest producer of nuclear power; our 104 reactors provide slightly more than 19 percent of our electricity.


Notwithstanding our extensive deployment of nuclear reactors, and the billions of dollars expended, the US atomic energy program has been cloaked in lies and disinformation since its inception.  In addition to standard complaints about behemoth federal programs -- wildly unreasonable expectations followed by repeated missed deadlines and enormous cost overruns -- the US nuclear power industry has been dogged by three persistent problems, issues that also surfaced at the troubled Fukushima Daiichi site.


First, government officials responsible for atomic energy seem incapable of candor.  We saw this at Fukushima Daiichi where the Japanese government has consistently understated the gravity of the situation.  (On March 16 th ,  US  Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Gregory Jaczko told Congress that the situation at Fukushima was worse than the Japanese government had admitted.)  This contributed to the low level of panic that infected the US West Coast, where many Americans did not believe what the government was telling them.


The second problem is that Nuclear Engineers consistently make gross errors that jeopardize site safety and the lives of the unfortunates in surrounding communities.  At the Fukushima Daiichi site there were at least three such errors.  First, the site was not designed to survive worst-case conditions, a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami that knocked out power to the cooling systems.  Second, Fukushima Daiichi clustered reactors in clumps with four in one contiguous group and two side-by-side a quarter of a mile away.  Third, in addition to housing six reactors, the Fukushima Daiichi site is a repository for forty years of spent fuel rods, an estimated 1914 tons including active fuel.


The third problem is that, despite having had 65 years to consider the problem, Nuclear Engineers have yet to come up with a common-sense solution for spent fuel.  (The spent nuclear fuel, no longer capable of sustaining a nuclear reaction, remains dangerously lethal for thousands of years and no reasonable person wants it stored in their neighborhood.) This had led to the great Yucca Mountain storage debate in the US and similar sagas throughout the world.  At Fukushima Daiichi they "solved" the problem by keeping the spent fuel on site.


The US has accepted these problems because we've been indoctrinated by a cult that's facilitated our atomic energy addiction.  America's nuclear cult is ruled by what Admiral Hyman Rickover once called "the nuclear priesthood." 


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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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