End the nuclear renaissance now

March 24, 2011

Dan Russell examines why the calls for "safe" nuclear power remain an oxymoron.

ED MARKEY, a House Democrat from Massachusetts, thinks that Wall Street is going to save us from nuclear disasters like the ongoing one in Japan. On CBS's Face the Nation, he said, "It won't be protesters...It will be Wall Street investors that are going to be raising real questions about [nuclear power's] viability going forward."

Where does one start deciphering the absurdities of such a notion? Perhaps with the fact that Wall Street destroyed the global economy and continues to drive global hunger with its rampant speculation. Or the fact that it hasn't stopped the coal industry from operating dangerous mines, destroying pristine landscapes or pouring greenhouse gases and poisons into our air. Perhaps that it hasn't stopped the oil industry from continuing to drill in deeper and deeper waters, threatening a repeat of this summer's catastrophe in the Gulf.

However, Markey couldn't have been more correct when he said about the safety of nuclear plants, "You can never have 100 percent confidence--especially where there is an electric utility involved, because they're always trying to look at their own long-term financial well-being."

The logic of capitalism drives the nuclear industry, like all others, to avoid or ignore regulation that would cut into their profits. A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists listed 14 "near misses"--where a combination of human error and negligence led to situations that could have spiraled into meltdowns.

The satirical Onion newspaper was spot-on again with its recent headline, "Nuclear Energy Advocates Insist U.S. Reactors Completely Safe Unless Something Bad Happens."

It isn't just natural disasters--tornadoes, earthquakes or hurricanes--that threaten the 104 nuclear plants spread across the United States, although this is a real concern. It is also the inevitability of a combination of human error driven by cost cutting. Neither Three Mile Island nor Chernobyl were caused by natural disasters, nor were the near-misses at South Carolina's HB Robinson nuclear plant last year. Poor training, equipment failures and other preventable factors were to blame in both cases.

We need a moratorium on all new nuclear plants, not just those deemed to be the most vulnerable to natural disasters. Illinois, home to more nuclear reactors than any other state, has had a moratorium in place since 1987. Last year, a repeal was pushed through the Senate. While the current disaster has forced the sponsor of that legislation in the Illinois House to balk, there is no guarantee that the moratorium will not be back on the chopping block as soon as the situation in Japan is under control.

Protest will be necessary and must start now in order to take advantage of the sentiment stirred up by Japan. After an outcry from environmental and consumer rights groups, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed a bill that would have put consumers on the hook for new coal gasification plants. We can expect the coal industry to push back, as the nuclear industry will.

OBAMA AND his energy secretary have already stated that planned nuclear plants in Georgia and elsewhere will not be derailed by the situation in Japan. The nuclear industry has already been guaranteed millions in federal loans to build these plants, and the notion that Wall Street will stand up to them is absurd. Rather, we need to be organizing ourselves--students and workers--in order to keep these plants from being built.

We should take the example from workers at a nuclear fuel processing plant in southern Illinois who have been locked out for nearly a year. They were forced to strike because of attempts to roll back safety provisions and health care benefits. Many of their fellow workers have already died of cancers that cannot be separate from working in an environment where it is impossible to completely avoid the hazards of nuclear waste.

Protests, like the quarter-million-strong "No Nukes" rally in Manhattan, were vital in halting the construction of new U.S. nuclear plants in 1979. That movement needs to be resurrected today in order to prevent a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. Such a movement would be a huge step in creating a broader environmental movement that could link the struggles against nuclear power, mountaintop coal removal, natural gas fracking, the Alberta tar sands, oil drilling in fragile ecosystems--and the list goes on and on.

Such a movement could be pushing for a "green" bailout that could ease both the effects of climate change, pollution and the economic crisis. The idea that the very investors who have long profited from these destructive industries can be counted on to stop them is absurd. Rather, those of us that suffer from the ill-effects of nuclear, coal, gas and oil--whether in our communities or at work--are going to have to organize in our millions in order to demand a clean energy economy that can serve us all.

We have a long way to go, but Cairo and Madison have demonstrated beyond any doubt the potential power of youth and the working class. Now is the time to start working to organize protests to demand a moratorium on nuclear energy and to talk with environmental activists about how we can mobilize our forces for Earth Day.

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