When Greed Goes Radioactive

Recently, Duke Energy and Progress Energy, two of the largest energy corporations in the world, merged and became the largest energy company in the United States.  With this action, the power of this corporation more than doubled, perhaps making it the most powerful lobbying influence in legislatures throughout the southeastern US and in the US Congress.  Not too many weeks after this merger, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant No. 1 in Japan exploded on March 12, 2011, causing at least a partial meltdown.  Not long after the explosion in Plant No. 1, other nuclear plants in the Fukushima Complex began experiencing emergencies, leading to at least one other partial meltdown a probable breach of at least one caontainment vessel and the release of large amounts of radioactive material as of March 15, 2011.

These seemingly disparate events are more connected than the reader might think.  Duke Energy has been trying to convince the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), legislators in North and South Carolina and other agencies that it should build another nuclear power in the region.  By becoming the largest energy corporation in the United States, the likelihood of this plant being built increased concomitant to the exponentially greater lobbying power the Duke-Progress energy monolith created for itself.  Simultaneously, there are several hundred people actively engaged on a variety of fronts–legal, citizen lobbying, and direct action–opposing the approval of the plant’s construction.  Their already uphill battle has become even steeper with the election of a GOP-dominated North Carolina legislature composed of men and women whose allegiances to big business make the previous Democratic legislature look like Naderites.  Add to that the ongoing concern about peak oil, energy costs related to foreign fuels and the environmental problems associated with petroleum/coal energy sources and the shameless lobbyists for nuclear power have never had an easier task getting their product online.

That may have changed in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.  With the event at that plant, the world was once again graphically reminded of the dangers of nuclear power.  The question is, can we the citizens of the planet, successfully mobilize against a corporate effort to impose this expensive, inefficient, dangerous and ultimately deadly form of power generation?  The anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s was partially successful in this regard, albeit considerably more so in Europe than in the United States.  The varying levels of success can be attributed to a variety of factors.  Foremost among them were the nature of the organizing and protests in different countries.  For example, in France and West Germany, the movement was quite broad, including farmers, students, environmentalists, and local residents while in the United States, the bulk of the movement consisted of students, environmentalists and antiwar activists.  In Germany, the overall mood of the nation, as exemplified by the early Green movement there, was concerned about the environmental costs to their country, the relationship of nuclear power to nuclear war, and the corporate control of human lives that nuclear power represents.  In France, the movement was similarly broad-based but existed without the support of any political party and was not nearly as successful.  In the United States, the movement was almost completely extra-parliamentary, although various liberal politicians (like Jerry Brown) attempted to ride the movement’s coattails, pretending to be its ally but ultimately allowing the energy industry to construct its plants.

In terms of the protests themselves, the most militant of them took place in Germany.  Perhaps the most famous were the protests at a site near the town of Whyl. On February 18, 1975  local people spontaneously occupied the site and police removed two days later. Media coverage showing police dragging away farmers and their wives helped to turn nuclear power into a major national issue.
Support came from the nearby university town of Freiburg. Five days later 30,000 people re-occupied the Wyhl site and plans to remove them were abandoned . The plant was never built and the land eventually became a nature reserve.  This success and the success of protests against other German plants inspired the anti-nuclear movements in the US and elsewhere.

Most protests in the US were organized by loose-knit alliances committed to nonviolence.  The police protecting the plants were not equally committed to this principle and at protests in Seabrook, New Hampshire, numbers of protesters were hurt.  The overall emphasis on the practice of nonviolence, while laudable, often took precedence over the goal of actually preventing the plant from going online.

Nuclear power is the perfect metaphor for the current phase of monopoly capitalism–neoliberalism.  It involves a concentration of power (literal and corporate) to effect its goal and depends on the government to provide military security to protect that power from getting into the “wrong hands.”  Furthermore, thanks to laws pushed through by the energy industry, if a disaster should happen  because of some kind of nuclear accident, the government limits the corporation’s liability for any damage and loss of life that might occur.  As the “Declaration of Nuclear Resistance” of the New England antinuke group the Clamshell Alliance wrote in 1977: “Nuclear power is dangerous to all living creatures and to their natural environment. The nuclear industry is designed to concentrate profits and the control of energy resources in the hands of a powerful few, undermining basic principles of human liberty.  A nuclear power plant at Seabrook, New Hampshire, could lock our region into a suicidal path.” (DECLARATION OF NUCLEAR RESISTANCE Revised version, adopted November, 1977, at the Clamshell Congress http://www.clamshellalliance.org/legacy/?p=314).  This statement, in all its direct simplicity, remains true today.

Despite the claims by such former antinuclear activists like Stewart Brand, nuclear power is a dangerous form of energy production.  It is also incredibly inefficient if one contrasts the construction and security costs and the problems with waste disposal with the relatively brief life of nuclear power plants and the increase in energy costs to the consumer such plants entail in a profit-driven industry.  Nuclear power is not green energy, no matter what the industry’s spokespeople or the likes of Stewart Brand say.  The daily operation of nuclear power plants change the ecology in their immediate vicinity, heating water near the discharge facilities and releasing various waste elements of the process into the air.  If an accident occurs, the ecological devastation is incalculable and continues for generations.  In addition, a 1000-MWe nuclear power plant produces about 27 tons of spent nuclear fuel (unreprocessed) every year.  The problems associated with the spent fuels disposal and storage are costly and dangerous (for centuries).

The environmental and safety reasons barely touched on here are reason enough to oppose nuclear power.  So are the costs associated with this form of energy production.  It seems likely that other safer alternative forms of power production that don’t involve fossil fuels could be developed and produced for less than the overall costs of nuclear power.  Yet, these forms, such as solar and wind are not given the same emphasis as nuclear energy.  Why?  Could it be that the energy industry fears the loss of extraordinary profits and centralized control those forms might create?  If one does not oppose nuclear energy for health and safety reasons, yet opposes war and the nature of neoliberal capitalism, then the fact that the energy industry’s love affair with nuclear power development is based on corporate efforts to maximize profits and recoup past investments rather than on meeting our real energy needs provides another reason to oppose it.  So does the direct relationship between nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. Where do you think all that depleted uranium (DU) ammunition came from?  That’s right, the waste product of nuclear power–the gift that keeps on giving.  Pretending that nuclear power is not dangerous, inefficient and ridiculously expensive is no longer viable.  The events in Japan once again make that perfectly clear.

In the past several months, the German antinuclear movement has again gathered steam.  This came in the wake of an announcement by Chancellor Angela Merkel that she was going to ignore a long time agreement that all nuclear plants would be decommissioned by 2022.  This agreement was the result of the aforementioned movement of the 1970s and 1980s in Germany against nuclear power and was considered inviolable.  Merkel, however, has connections to the nuclear industry and has even gone so far as to suggest removing government subsidies that are paid to Germans that move to green energy sources like solar panels and wind.  Several large protests have been held since Merkel began pushing her plan to build keep nuclear power plants for at least another fifteen years beyond the 2022 cutoff.

Apparently, however, even she can read the writing appearing on the wall in the wake of the Japanese disaster.  She backed off her plans on March 12, 2011, saying that the safety concerns are too great with nuclear power.  Meanwhile over 40,000 people protested her plan in Stuttgart, Germany.  Despite Merkel’s apparent turnaround,  a grassroots moment against nuclear power is needed more than ever in Germany and every other nation.  As the mainstream media continues to prove in its coverage of the disaster in Japan, the industry has more than enough spokespeople and experts in its pocket who will do whatever they can to convince you that a meltdown is not that bad and nuclear power is safe.  They will tell you this in spite of what you see on the television and know in your own heart.  This isn’t because it nuclear power is safe.  It’s because the energy industry is driven by profits and greed.




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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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