Atomic Treason in the House

by Harvey Wasserman

If terrorists turn a US nuclear plant into a radioactive holocaust, the House of Representatives wants you to pay for it. But the Senate can still say otherwise.

The House voted November 28 in virtual secret to shield new reactor builders from normal insurance liability, even if they lack safety domes to contain radioactive releases.

Only a handful of Representatives were present for the vote. Led by Texas Republican Joe Barton and Michigan Democrat John Dingell, HR 2983 sailed through under a “suspension of rules,” traditionally used for unanimous resolutions to rename government buildings, proclaim heroes and commemorate holidays. Facing a barrage of grassroots opposition, a very cynical nuke caucus used the loophole to avoid full debate and hide their votes on the free insurance ride for a new generation of reactors.

Barton received more than $131,590 in utility contributions leading up to the 2000 election. Dingell got $109,679. Dingell is also related by marriage to major partners in Detroit Edison, which built the Fermi nuclear plant at Monroe Michigan. Fermi Unit I, a breeder reactor, nearly exploded in 1966.

That near-catastrophe was memorialized in John G. Fuller’s WE ALMOST LOST DETROIT, from the Readers Digest Press. By official 1982 estimates, such an explosion could have killed tens of thousands of US citizens and done $592 billion in damage.

But since 1957, the atomic power industry has been shielded from such consequences. Utility presidents considered the reactors too risky. So a pro-nuke Congress passed the Price-Anderson Act, limiting the industry’s liability. The Act’s current version allows public indemnification only up to roughly $9 billion. Private citizens who lose their health, families or property would have to beg Congress for any more. To this day, all US homeowner insurance policies claim exemption from damage caused by a nuclear accident.

But the public was originally told Price-Anderson was just a “temporary” fix until private insurers gained confidence in reactor safety. The initial exemption was to last just ten years.

That was 44 years ago. A re-re-re-renewed Price-Anderson is now slated to expire in August, 2002. The 103 US reactors now licensed are grandfathered under the law. But the industry wants a new generation of reactors which it says will be perfectly safe, even though some of the heavily subsidized designs are almost entirely untested. Vice President Dick Cheney, among others, has made it clear none will be built without this public-funded insurance safety net.

The renewal’s grassroots opposition has been deeply embittered by the terrorist attacks of September 11. The London Sunday Times has reported that the fourth hijacked jet, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field, may have been headed for a nuke. Regulators and the industry concede that no US reactor containment is designed to withstand the crash of a large fuel-laden airplane. But incredibly enough, the new Pebble Bed design promoted by HR2983 has no containment at all!

Multiple lawsuits filed in New York and elsewhere now demand operating nukes be shut. Reactors over the years have routinely flunked a wide range of “anti-terrorist” tests even though operators in many cases had six months warning and the tests were essentially rigged. Severe operating and structural problems still plague the industry, as at Ohio’s Davis-Besse, now in line for a rare official inspection. And as of today, 2400 central Pennsylvanians who can document harm from radioactive releases at the 1979 Three Mile Island accident still can’t get their cases heard in federal court. Thus the industry’s infamous assertion that “no one died at Three Mile Island,” with which the plaintiffs vehemently disagree, remains untested in a public jury trial. The whole debate is overshadowed by the escalating success of wind power, the world’s fastest growing new source of electricity, now a $5 billion industry leaping ahead at 25% per year. Wind-driven kilowatt costs are plumetting, as are those from solar power and fuel cells. Conservation and efficiency measures are already far cheaper than reactor output. None are subject to terrorist attack. None threaten a radioactive holocaust. None require Congressional insurance immunity.

This latest Price-Anderson renewal must still pass the Senate, where the Bush-Cheney Administration may attach it to its larger pro-nuclear energy bill.

But building new reactors would give future terrorists yet more chances to perpetrate a nuclear holocaust at public expense. And mandating a design without even a simple containment dome raises questions of basic sanity.

After nearly a half-century of atomic failure, the House and the White House seem intent on handing our avowed enemies ever more dangerous versions of the uninsurable ultimate weapon.

What could be more treasonous?

Harvey Wasserman is author of THE LAST ENERGY WAR (Seven Stories Press).

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