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Riding the Wild Bull of Nuclear Power

From atomic theory to nukes

I am proud the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus invented the Atomic Theory, which says that everything in the cosmos is atoms and void. But who could have foreseen that, 2,500 years later, American “physicists” would turn such a glorious insight on the structure of matter into apocalyptic weapons?

The violence and hatred of WWII fueled and speeded the development of the atomic bomb. But why drop such a hideous weapon over Japan and, just as bad, create another giant monstrosity dubbed nuclear bomb?

Nuclear experts say any nuclear war would doomed humanity. Exploding nuclear weapons would darkened the Sun, triggering global winter and famine. Humans, and probably most other life forms, would become extinct.

There are thousands of nuclear weapons in the world — the vast majority in the armories of the United States, Russia and China, lesser amounts in the UK, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

But why arming for apocalypse? Have world leaders and their advisers become barbarians?

And why do we need to use nuclear fuel to boil water for steam for the production of electricity? Those nuclear bomb-like factories go by the deceptive name of nuclear power plants.

Accidents bedevil both nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants. We have been extremely lucky so far. But with nuclear electricity factories, our luck seems to be less tenuous than that with the original monster of the nuclear bombs.

Nuclear accidents

In 1979, the breakdown of a water pump precipitated the disaster of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In 1986, the nuclear power plant meltdown in Chernobyl, near Kiev, Ukraine, shook Europe and the world as never before.

In 1986, I was visiting Athens, about 1,485 kilometers or 925 miles distance from Kiev, and I was astonished seeing university students with Geiger devices measuring radiation among volunteers. I also remember the US EPA news bulletins citing the measurable amounts of Chernobyl radiation in north America.

Nevertheless, business as usual buried Chernobyl. Nothing of substance affecting the nuclear industry took place. Nukes remained sacred cows. Eisenhower’s 1950s delusion of “atoms for peace” still clouded the vision of world leaders. The Cold War was on and the nukes — military and civilian — provided, in theory at least, some kind of justification  for pathological security.

In 1989, the United States and the collapsing Soviet Union (Russia) did diminish their stockpiles of nuclear bombs, but failed to reach agreement on nuclear disarmament because nuclear war industry enthusiasts had filled the brain of president Ronald Reagan with lies about shielding the country from incoming nuclear missiles.

So, accidents continue.

In 2011, a nuclear calamity struck Japan. The Fukushima meltdown in Japan was the work of a tsunami. Yet the Japanese government and industry repeated the deception, betrayal, and extreme danger of all previous nuclear power accidents.

No cowboy can ride safely a wild bull, especially when that bull is a sibling technology to nuclear weapons.

The nuclear disaster in Japan was an opportunity for America: the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was Gregory Jaczko.

Jaczko goes to Washington

A series of accidents had brought to Washington, DC, Jaczko, a theoretical physicist burnt out with particle physics but burning with desire to see good come out of science. His technical education made it easy for him to understand the science and technology of nuclear power plants. He thought they served some kind of a useful purpose, though he was cautious about their “safety.”

He came to Washington because he wanted to do good. He knew next to nothing about Congress or its cutthroat politics.

He was fortunate in serving on the staff of the Democrat Congressman Edward Markey from Massachusetts and Democrat Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. In both cases, his cautious approach to nuclear power served him well with these two powerful politicians.

Markey wanted to increase the regulation of nuclear power and to strengthen international arms control. Reid wanted to dismantle the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump next to America’s gambling capital, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Reid was so impressed by the virtues of Jaczko (his neutral attitude towards the industry and its opponents and his commitment to public safety above all) he successfully nominated him, in 2005, to become one of the commissioners of NRC. Then with Obama becoming president, Reid insisted that Jaczko should be appointed to be the chairman of NRC.

In the belly of the nuclear beast

In his book, Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (Simon and Schuster, 2019), Jaczko describes a brief meeting he had with Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel went straight to the point. He was brutal:

“You are a fucking asshole and nobody likes you. If we make you chairman, everyone at the NRC is going to quit… Being chairman is a very important job. I don’t expect you to make problems for the president. Do you understand that? You work for the president and you better not fuck this up.”

Jaczko was shocked by the “ferocity” of the attack on his character. “I am not an asshole,” he said to Emanuel.

This humiliation, however, convinced Jaczko that Obama did not want him in the NRC, much less its chairman. But Obama gave in to Reid, who was the Senate majority leader.

Jaczko’s three-and-a-half years tenure as the chairman of NRC was stormy. The nuclear industry and its supporters in Congress could not stand him. The idea of reform or regulation was an anathema. In fact, the industry was so successful in its propaganda it had convinced Americans nuclear power was safe: don’t expect any accident at the nuclear power plants.

The other commissioners and senior staff looked at Jaczko with suspicion and mistrust. Here was a young man, younger than most of them, being their boss and constantly probing them to protect public health and the environment.

Running Jaczko out of town

Even the Fukushima tragedy made no difference. Jaczko was convinced NRC was a hopeless case, being a subsidiary of the nuclear industry.

“I eventually got run out of town because I saw things up close that I was not meant to see: an agency overwhelmed by the industry it is supposed to regulate and a political system determined to keep it that way,” he wrote.

The Fukushima “cataclysm” finally convinced him that “nuclear power is a failed technology.” Keep using it and it will bring “catastrophe in this country or somewhere else in the world,” he wrote.

I sympathize with the mental anguish and humiliations Jaczko suffered for trying to improve the safety of a dangerous technology. And shame on the Obama administration for missing a rare opportunity to get the country out of the nightmare embedded in nuclear power.

Jaczko had the courage to insist things  had to improve at NRC and the nuclear power plants. He knows what he is talking about. Like other dangerous technologies, nukes have no place in a civilized society.

I love Jaczko’s book: Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator. It’s a passionate and personal account of what happens to honest bureaucrats trying to use science and the government in the public interest. It’s also a riveting true story, well-written, insightful, very timely, and extremely important. In addition, the book is a warning from the horse’s mouth: nuclear power plants will continue melting down; they are ticking time bombs. And in the words of Jaczko: “Nuclear power… is large and bulky and will lumber into extinction.”

More articles by:

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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