As efforts are made in Washington to trim the federal government, one group is pointing to an area of the government that, it says, “must be cut back”—the string of national nuclear laboratories. These facilities, it charges, are “spending billions upon billions in taxpayer money annually while developing deadly nuclear technology.”
The organization is the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space based in Maine and for 25 years active in challenging nuclear technology.
In a statement it issued last week in connection with the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Global Network declared that the U.S. national nuclear laboratories have been “breeding grounds for developing lethal atomic energy.” The laboratories are Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico, Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley in California, Brookhaven in New York, Argonne in Illinois, Pacific Northwest in Washington, Savannah River in South Carolina and Idaho National Laboratory.
The U.S. national nuclear laboratory system grew out of the Manhattan Project, the World War II crash program to build atomic bombs. Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Argonne were original Manhattan Project laboratories. Later other laboratories were set up, all owned by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, with the mission of developing nuclear technology.
The laboratories have worked on a wide range of projects—from more powerful nuclear weapons, notably the hydrogen bomb, to nuclear-powered airplanes and rockets, food irradiation, the use of nuclear devices as a substitute for TNT to excavate the earth, and development of commercial nuclear power.
They’ve served as a taxpayer-supported research-and-development base for the nuclear industry. Further, their directors and many of their personnel have been deeply engaged in the promotion of nuclear technology.
With their products and focus nuclear, the laboratories have minimized the dangers of radioactivity. This has resulted in many of the laboratories being designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as high-pollution due to radioactive contamination at them.
Ownership of the national nuclear laboratory system was transferred to a new Department of Energy after the Atomic Energy Commission was disbanded by Congress in 1974 because its dual roles of promoting and regulating nuclear technology were deemed a conflict of interest.
The current secretary of Department of Energy is Steven Chu, formerly director of one of the laboratories, Lawrence Berkeley, and a major booster of nuclear power. Indeed, before becoming secretary he joined with the other national nuclear laboratory directors in signing a statement titled:“The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy.” He and the others directors declared: “We believe that nuclear energy must play a significant role in our nation’s—and the world’s electricity portfolio for the next 100+ years.”
Chu has been a major influence on Barack Obama as Obama as president has come to embrace nuclear power, and even after the nuclear disaster in Japan insisting on the construction of more U.S. nuclear power plants. As a candidate, Obama had been critical of nuclear power.
The Global Network in its statement called for “the closure of all national nuclear laboratories” as enablers of nuclear technology, and it also called for ending the use of nuclear power on earth and in space devices.
“The issue of switching to safe, clean energy is not technological—it’s political,” said the Global Network. “The problem involves vested interests: the government agencies which push nuclear power, notably in the United States the national nuclear laboratories and the entity that owns them, the Department of Energy headed currently by a former national nuclear laboratory director, and the nuclear industry as it seeks to profit from selling nuclear technology despite the cost in people’s lives.”
The Global Network was established after the disclosure that the next mission of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle in 1986 was to loft a plutonium-fueled space probe. The national laboratories at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos developed the plutonium device then manufactured by General Electric (also the manufacturer of the Fukushima nuclear plants).
The Global Network noted that through the years it “has emphasized that there are safe alternatives to energize space devices. In recent times, NASA, at long last, has begun substituting solar energy for nuclear power in space. Indeed, in coming months NASA’s solar-powered Juno spacecraft will be launched on a five-year mission to Jupiter. It was not long ago that NASA emphatically insisted that solar power could not substitute for nuclear beyond the orbit of Mars. Suddenly, it now can be done.”
“Likewise,” said the statement, as “numerous studies have documented, safe, clean, renewable energy technologies now here can provide all the power we need on earth. Nuclear power and its deadly dangers are unnecessary” It cited a Scientific American 2009 cover story, “A Plan for A Sustainable future,” which concluded: “Wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy needs.”
The Global Network charged that “a disgrace in demanding nuclear power on earth and space has been President Barack Obama. As president, he has reversed the critical position he espoused as a candidate and now, even in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, is seeking to ‘revive’ the nuclear industry with the building of new nuclear plants using billions of taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, his administration has been pushing to also ‘revive’ the use of nuclear power in space by restarting U.S. production of Plutonium-238 for use on space devices.”
As to ending nuclear power on earth, the statement said “although the nuclear establishment claims this is impractical, it is not. In the U.S. where nuclear power provides 20% of the electricity, there’s a 20% reserve capacity in the electrical system. All 104 U.S. nuclear plants could—and must—be immediately shut down. The reserve capacity can deal with their absence.” Meanwhile, it said “a concentrated effort could—and must—be made to swiftly bring the safe, clean energy technologies on line.”
As to eliminating nuclear power on space devices, it said that “accidents such as the 1964 SNAP-9A disaster in which a plutonium-powered satellite fell from orbit, disintegrating and spreading the plutonium widely—a plutonium release long seen as causing an increase in lung cancer on earth—have demonstrated the folly of using nuclear power overhead.”
The Fukushima nuclear disaster “tragically demonstrates, again, the dangers of nuclear power, an energy source that must be abandoned–as a clear and present threat to life. Instead there must be full implementation of safe, clean energy technologies — which are here today.”
“Sadly,” said the Global Network, “Japan is now the victim of three gargantuan nuclear disasters: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima,” said the Global Network. “Unless the nuclear juggernaut is stopped, we all live in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima.”
There has been virtually no Congressional oversight of the national nuclear laboratories. Members of the House of Representatives with a laboratory in their district consider their role as being an advocate for it and seek to get as much federal money for the laboratory as possible. U.S. senators have also been great advocates of the laboratories in their states. In recent years, this Congressional support has included sending hundreds of millions of dollars of federal “stimulus” funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to the national nuclear laboratories.
When, on rare occasions, a member of Congress challenges a national nuclear laboratory, it can be perilous. For instance, after Representative Michael Forbes took on Brookhaven National Laboratory over the radioactive tritium its two nuclear reactors were leaking into Long Island’s groundwater, the wife of a former laboratory scientist challenged him in a primary and by 35 votes deprived him of the Democratic Party nomination. In that 2000 contest, laboratory scientists manned telephone banks in support of their candidate. She lost, but Forbes was out of Congress.
Similarly, scrutiny by media of a national nuclear laboratory has met with intense attacks. After the Santa Fe New Mexican for example, ran an investigative series on Los Alamos National Laboratory and the radioactive contamination it caused and the increased risk of cancer to area residents as a result, the laboratory complained and the paper’s editor was fired and the two reporters who wrote the 1991 series—“Fouling the Nest”—were transferred to other beats. Also, following discussions between the newspaper’s publisher and Los Alamos Director Siegfried Hecker, the New Mexican provided a 27-page supplement prepared by the laboratory that began: “Los Alamos National Laboratory pursues its environmental, safety, health and security responsibilities with the same spirit it applies to its scientific work.”
The laboratories routinely try to cloak their activities with the assertion they are environmentally concerned—indeed sometimes they claim environmental leadership. This week, Brookhaven National Laboratory, a Superfund site, its reactors forced to close because of the radioactivity they were discharging into Long Island’s aquifer, the sole source of potable water for the island, is holding an “Environmental Education Summit.” It has invited “teachers and environmental educators from various Long Island and New York State agencies” to “discuss issues, trends, and ideas about environmental education.”
KARL GROSSMAN, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, has focused on investigative reporting on energy and environmental issues for more than 40 years. He is the host of the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up (www.envirovideo.com) and the author of numerous books.