story: Valley Advocate Newspapers, July 6-12, 1995.
(Note that some of the
facts in this story, about corporations, who owns which nukes, and the nature
of the nuclear beast, have changed, but the basic premise is more true than
ever. April 2007)
keith harmon snow
Trained as a technologist,
I once believed in nuclear power.
certainly heard stories about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, but the
technologist in me denied them. I took it for granted that nuclear power was
cleaner, better, safer -- just as they’d told me. Until July of last year
(1994), I never considered it further. And then I began my travels on the
Even as a child I loved crunching numbers, working with equations. When I got older, I went on to earn an advanced degree in electrical engineering from the University of Massachusetts, where some of the top scientists in the country were working on electromagnetic wave theory, microwave radiation and materials science. General Electric Aerospace Electronics Laboratories paid for my master’s degree.
many in my field, I had faith in nuclear power. The advertisements in National
Geographic, paid for by the U.S. Council on Energy Awareness, bought with
taxpayers’ money, told me: “Nuclear Power Means Cleaner Air! Reduces U.S.
Dependence on Middle East Oil! A cheap, clean, renewable energy source.”
In the panic to bury the evidence,
Yankee Atomic is burying the truth.
were told it is clean. It looked clean. It smelled clean. As far as I knew, it
tasted clean. I trusted science, computers, numbers, reason. My safety was
ensured, I felt, and I was told, by ‘defense-in-depth’: back-up systems, to
back-up systems, to back-up systems. It never occurred to me that science might
GE’s Aerospace & Defense Electronics Laboratories, my life was more numbers
and computers, but suddenly everything was very high-tech. I wasn’t just
plugging numbers into the Schrodinger Equation (waves) or Maxwell’s Equation
(electromagnetics), but into components for satellite communications, for
MILSTAR satellite constellations and space-based radars, into hardware that
would be mounted on the fuselage of the B-1 bomber or the payload of a
space-based laser for the Strategic Defense Initiative.
I was responsible for business development. My annual salary was about $49,000.
I published five research papers in the journals of the Institute for Electrical
and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). In 1989, I resigned.
I am a photographer and journalist. I am not a member or contributor to any
organization or society.
spent the last four years (1989-1994) in 23 countries, I have come to realize that
the world cannot be as neatly summed up as the western media or the U.S.
government would have us believe. I have come to realize that the benefits
extolled by industry to justify risking-taking of all kinds are often merely
illusions -- illusions with deadly consequences.
In the past year, I have visited nuclear power plants and waste sites, talked to workers and plant officials, interviewed government regulators, dug through industry records and attended meetings called with little -- and usually no -- notice to the public. I have collected news reports and scientific papers detailing accidents, systems failures, the sale of shoddy parts and the massive build-up of poisonous by-products that will remain on the earth for millennia.
My investigation has brought me to a grave conclusion: The nuclear power industry, fixated on driving down costs and increasing profits, in concert with the U.S. government and its regulatory agencies, has mushroomed over the past three decades, without regard for what it is creating. It has expanded without regard for the ton upon ton of radioactive poison it is producing, without admitting that there is no safe place to put that poison, without adequate respect for the dangers inherent in the splitting of atoms, and with flagrant disregard for the cautions raised by those in and outside the industry.
fear and my belief: it is only a matter of time before Chernobyl, USA, is a
Public documents reveal an industry operating in
secrecy and denial, burying the
poking the contamination into holes that can’t, won’t and don’t contain it.
intention is to further delude the public, to get the next generation of
reactors on-line as the voting age rises above the memory of Three Mile Island
evidence now exists to damn the fission experiment forever. Evidence of latent
cancers, ravaged immune systems, genetic mutations and birth defects caused by
even very low radiation exposures and “benign” radioisotopes.
I reject even the language of nuclear fission. Nuclear “power” suggests
strength and security. “Facility” or “plant” is too neat, tidy and sterile.
“Nuclear energy” sings of sunshine and children playing, not of what it really
is: the harnessing of a nuclear bomb.
terms “high-“ and “low-level” waste are misleading, as well, since “low-level”
can include wastes like nickel-59 (a 750,000 year half-life) and iodine-129 (a
16 million year half-life). When talking about “half-life,” the time in which
half the volume of an isotope decays, remember the remaining half that hasn’t
the term “waste” is euphemistic: radioactivity cannot so neatly be discarded or
shipped to the dump. We should call it what it is: poison. The poison continues
to accumulate: too much, too fast, too hot to handle, homeless, insidious and
deadly. Lasting forever.
with the rapid push by the Massachusetts Waste Management Board to site a
nuclear waste dump in Massachusetts, the poison may soon be coming to a town
fact, it has already been here.
It was the fall of 1994 when I went to Sherman dam in
Rowe, site of Yankee
of the oldest and smallest nuclear reactors in the country.
day I spoke with Tim Henderson, then the reactor superintendent. Henderson
talked about the solidarity and pride of the workers at Yankee.
the decision was made to shut the plant down, it was like something inside of
us died,” he said. In 1991, the Yankee plant was closed because of problems
with cracking reactor vessels. I could see the hurt in Henderson’s eyes, hear
the pain in his voice. “This was the safest plant in the country.”
hours in public documents rooms, those words haunt me.
at most nuclear reactors, the spent nuclear fuel [SNF] rods from Yankee
--permeated with plutonium -- rest in aging, densely packed pools, gaseous and
highly volatile. Yankee’s 533 SNF rods sit 37 feet down in a pool cooled and
vented to the Deerfield River Valley. It is widely acknowledged, even within
the nuclear industry, that an unexpected SNP pool drain caused by seismic
activity or pump failure could lead to a nuclear explosion. Many scientists
worry that the isotope soup in these storage pits -- rods placed too close
together, gases mixing -- could explode spontaneously.
Under the Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980, the government was supposed to take responsibility for SNF by 1998. It promised to come in, take it out, and put it somewhere else. But where? To date, the government hasn’t answered that question. Many scientists are convinced there is no answer.
the meantime, the government is spending billions to study the problem. It has
spent more than $1.7 billion, for example, to study the feasibility of dumping
waste deep below the desert in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. (Yucca Mountain, turns
out, is a Bechtel / SAIC enterprise. See keith harmon snow, Out of the Blue.)
Debate has broken out among federal scientists at Los Alamos National
Laboratory, fueled by claims that such dumping will lead to a nuclear
explosion. (For the former Soviet Union, feasibility wasn’t an issue: they
injected an estimated 1.4 billion curies of radioactive waste straight into the
ground, into the aquifer, according to Nikolai Yetorov, a high-ranking official
in the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy.) At the Hanford Laboratory site in
Washington State, the industry already has buried 177 tanks holding 57 million
gallons of waste, with a strength of about 360 million curies.
curie is a very large measure of nuclear poison. The evacuation of pregnant
women and children from the vicinity of Three Mile Island was ordered after a
suspected release of between 1.4 and 14 curies of the thyroid cancer-causing
isotope iodine-131. One curie equals 37 billion disintegrations per second.
According to the leading radiation health experts, Dr.’s John Goffman and
Ernest Stemglass, for a person in the exposure pathway of a radiation emitter,
just one disintegration per second is enough to cause cancer.
the time of my visit in 1994, Yankee, closed by the citizens in 1991, was being
used as a model, intended to show that a plant could be decommissioned, taken
off-line, cleaned of radioactive waste.
day in July, Henderson led a tour of Yankee. The grass on Sherman Dam was tall
and green, painted with yellow and orange flowers, but knowing of Yankee’s
34-year history of intentional releases of radioactivity, it echoed an
incongruity within me.
were both planned and unplanned spills and leaks, flushed into the Deerfield
River in keeping with the myth that radioactivity highly diluted becomes
sufficiently harmless. But risks from exposure are continuous and cumulative.
The routine venting of gases
and liquids continues today at all operating and decommissioning reactors. The
industry refers to the waste as “below regulatory concern” and “ALARA: as low
as reasonably achievable, taking into account the state of technology and the
economics of improvements in relation to benefits ... and other socioeconomic
considerations.” Ultimately, public safety decisions are based on reactor
design, cost and industry convenience.
The history of nuclear reactors lives in the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission records -- at the public document rooms throughout the
country. Yankee’s records are stored at Greenfield Community College.
time passes, the recorded information in Greenfield becomes increasingly
impenetrable with language designed to obfuscate. A chronological survey
reveals the creeping paralysis of bureaucracy and the mythology of science.
Records show the industry’s increasing disdain toward health and safety. They
show scientific and technological malfeasance, complicity with regulators and
government. They show severe ecological hostility.
Yankee records attest to technological utopianism at its worst. With the
increasing complexity of computer-based systems and human engineering, the
nuclear cancer thrived and multiplied. Defense-in-depth -- the notion of
layered backups -- was born.
Greenfield, I took a random sampling of Yankee documents. Here’s some of what I
early as 1966, the 6-year-old Yankee reactor faced regular contamination leaks
as high pressures and temperatures blew holes in reactor pipes, seals and
bearings. There were major, regular steam generator tube (SGT) repairs, as SGTs
disintegrated from day one. Testifying to the technological problem-solving,
leaks were found by wrapping tubes with saran wrap.
The ‘60s. A long time ago? Not for radioactive waste.
And even recent Yankee documents hold alarming information.
38 shipments from Nov. 30, 1993 to April 7, 1994, Yankee shipped 126,888 curies
of irradiated waste by road or rail; destination, Barnwell, S.C. (One shipment,
I have since found out, was rejected in Barnwell and sent back to Yankee
because it was “too hot.”)
Union of Concerned Scientists, among other nuclear groups, cites the cracking
of steam generator tubes as one of the most urgent reactor safety issues today,
because a major SGT rupture could trigger a serious reactor “event,” initiating
a sequence of events leading to a meltdown, a Chernobyl, or worse.
many nuclear reactors getting older, these unresolved safety issues are of more
con- cem now than ever,” says Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information Resource
Service, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group.
Reactor vessel cracks caused
by aging is another issue, the one that forced the closure of Yankee in 1991.
For Yankee, closure meant decommission the plant-gathering up the waste not
already buried, packing it up on trucks or in railroad cars and sending it
away. of the in
Shelburne Falls. “They want
to go into the business of decommissioning nuclear reactors. They show one
picture with the reactor in it-, in another picture it’s all gone-as if there’s
recent Greenfield meeting open to the public (on the condition that the pubic
keep quiet), Yankee and NRC officials discussed the Yankee property. Prior to
the meeting I interviewed the NRC’s Morton Fairtile, an industry player since
the 1950’s. He said that “Yankee’s steam generators weren’t that contaminated.”
statement doesn’t square with the records. The two Yankee steam generators
stripped out and shipped in December 1993 were contaminated with 681 curies of
the deadliest poisons known to humanity: cobalt-60, iron-55, nickel-63,
plutonium-241 and cesium-137, according to NRC records in Greenfield. Those
radiation levels exceeded NRC regulations for shipping.
the meeting, Yankee and the NRC discussed contamination of the property: soils,
ground water, sediments on the bottom of Sherman Pond at the out-pipe of the
reactor. Language used seemed designed to obfuscate. It was a sort of industry
insider’s code. It told me there was much being said without words. Evident, in
any case, was the gross negligence of an economically driven, accelerated decommissioning.
NRC asked Yankee to clarify its interpretation of “radioactive.” The question
suggested that more than three decades after Yankee began operating, regulators
and plant operators were still unclear in their mutual understanding of the
poison being handled. Or, again, that the definition of terms has become a
means of blurring the truth for the public in an effort to minimize the cost of
Yankee’s plans to ignore the radioactivity at the bottom of Sherman Pond, at
the reactor discharge point, the NRC said, based on experience at other sites,
“there is probably significant contamination.”
is an excerpt from a transcript of that meeting:
Yankee: There is no significant exposure pathway from the
radioactivity in Sherman Pond sediment as long as it remains under water.
NRC: Cobalt-60 is what we’re talking about.
Yankee: If you bring it above water, there is a very low
NRC: Can you please clarify whether or not Yankee plans on
excavating any soil from Sherman Pond? To reduce the amount of concentration
Yankee: We have no plans to do that.
that, regulators and Yankee moved on to another topic. The contamination of
Sherman Pond remained acknowledged but unresolved, at least in front of public
Missing from the discussion of nuclear power is any
true sense of interconnectedness,
with self, other, or with the earth
that we eat and breathe.
and industry officials aren’t alone in ignoring the issue of nuclear poison.
Many environmentalists whom you might think would be alarmed have been silent.
Sims is a professor of journalism at UMass, a member of the board of directors
of both New England FLOW ( a consortium of white-water boating groups) and the
66,000-member Appalachian Mountain Club. Like other big environmental groups in
the United States, including the Conservation Law Foundation [true at the time;
now more complicated], the AMC has been silent on nuclear issues.
spoke with Sims one day at the Charlemont Inn, after he finished a rafting trip
on the Deerfield River. I was introduced to Sims by the bartender, who clearly
knew him as a regular, after I asked if there was anyone around whom would talk
to me about the river. At first Sims dodged my questions about Yankee, but in
the course of our conversation, it became clear he had an opinion.
asked him, as a professor of journalism, an ethical question: Do the boaters
have a right to know about the continued releases, from 1993 to 1995, of
radioactivity, as spelled out in documents in Greenfield?
quote me on this,” he said. “Don’t quote me on anything involving nuclear
power. A lot of these nuclear groups are so rabid that they just won’t stop.
I’m a whitewater boater. I drank the river today. I’ll drink it tomorrow.
They’re not dumping anything in the river.”
hope,” I said.
don’t care. You have to understand some of the scientific principles involved.
My advice: avoid the nuclear issue. It’s an old issue that’s pretty well known
to a lot of people. They’re moving the radioactive material out of here. The
machinery that was in the plant is slightly radioactive. My attitude is get it
out of here, take it someplace, let the government dispose of it.”
in the rush to dispose of all visual evidence of Yankee, to nurture the “clean
environment” myth, Yankee and the NRC dismissed all efforts to evaluate and
document aging mechanisms. Thus began the accelerated stripping and shipping of
hardware, with over 126,888 curies of radiation. Reactor internals were buried
without an autopsy. In the panic to bury the evidence, Yankee Atomic is burying
From the observation decks at the New England Electric
Power Pool, or NEEPOOL, in Holyoke, you can see where the energy comes into
your life. And the supply-side looks big.
the wall is a huge information grid, offering moment-by-moment status of every
provider on the energy landscape -- from Hydroquebee to the big boys in New
England: Pilgrim (665 MWe); Connecticut Yankee (590 MWe); Seabrook (1,150 MWe);
Millstone 1, 11 & III (660, 875 & 1,140); Vermont Yankee (496 MWe); and
Maine Yankee (860 MWe).
inspections at Maine Yankee identified more than 500 confirmed cracks in some
17,000 steam generator tubes, prompting the NRC to demand inspections at dozens
of similar reactors nationwide. Up to 13 utilities have filed lawsuits against
the manufacturer, Westinghouse, alleging massive steam generator fraud. Many
were settled out of court, the parties reaching agreements to seal all records
and evidence from public scrutiny.
the widespread and consistent failure of reactor components, like Maine
Yankee’s steam generator tubes from Westinghouse, I hear the familiar tune of
fact, Westinghouse has a nasty history of fraud. Low-bid at $500,000 in 1974,
the Bataan reactor in the Philippines ended up costing more than $2.7 billion
with interest when it was finished in 1985.
The Philippine government moth-balled the
reactor because of safety concerns before it could go on-line, later filing
suit in the New Jersey Courts against Westinghouse and consultants Burns &
Roe, on the basis of bribery to the corrupt Marcos regime. Although it accepted
a Westinghouse settlement of $49.5 million, the Philippines is still paying. As
of Oct. 31, 1988, the Philippine government was paying $355,000 per day in
newly formed Westinghouse Government & Environmental Services Co. directly
supports our government’s goal to clean up [Department of Energy] facilities,”
reads the Westinghouse Annual Report. “With regard to remedial actions
under federal and state Superfund laws,” it reads elsewhere, “the Corporation
has been named as Principally Responsible Party [to environmental damage] at
numerous sites  located throughout the country.”
employs about 80,000 people. The Energy Systems Division, with a $2.6 billion
backlog of orders, is “a strong cash generator with room for growth in the $30
billion global nuclear fuel and service market,” the report says. The Power Generation
Division, “a major competitor in its $65 billion market,” has a $2.3 billion
U.S. government subsidies for the nuclear industry exceed $20 billion. While
domestic markets may be depressed because of unplanned downtimes caused by
safety problems, the cost of decommissionings and the waste storage crisis,
sales overseas are red hot.
has nine reactors in operation and 14 reactors planned or under construction.
In China, power production lags demand by 20 percent. Canada recently signed
contracts to build two reactors near Shanghai. U.S. and Canadian companies are
rapidly building nuclear plants worldwide. The deal is: Buy U.S. technology;
we’ll take the poison.
are more than 438 nuclear reactors worldwide, 112 in the United States,
poisoning the earth through daily operations. By 2020, the U.S. nuclear
industry will, by some estimates, have produced 30,000 tons of plutonium; the
acceptable body dose is one-millionth of a gram; one pound could wipe out
humanity. Given the widespread dispersion of poisons, no place is safe from
nuclear fission. The creeping paralysis of bureaucracy is spreading the nuclear
I believe that all production of nuclear poisons should
stop immediately and that the poisons should be stored with the contaminated
reactors in the cavities designed to contain them. Jointly we should guard and
monitor them, like temples, protecting ourselves and future generations,
protecting the earth to the best of our abilities. (This proposal was put forward
by Joanna Macy, and others, in their Nuclear Guardianship Program.)
think of Tim Henderson at Yankee. Henderson did what he thought was right, just
as I did for General Electric. And now we need all the Tim Hendersons we can
get, with all their knowledge and experience, to lead us in securing the poison
as best we can.
missing from the discussion of nuclear power is any true sense of
interconnectedness, or community, with self, other, or with the earth that we
eat and breathe. Shared values and community are attainable; the power lies
within us. But people are numbed by the scale of the nuclear calamity, and
until they are willing to accept the enormity of the horrors, to embrace them,
to emerge from denial and despair, it will get worse.
don’t understand when I see people out there trimming their hedges,” says local
clown and political activist Joshua Dostis. “I think, ‘Why bother?’ Don’t they
see what’s happening? And Recycling doesn’t cut it. People need to act. We need
conservation like ‘Wattless Wednesday’. There’s a beginning. Switch the
electricity off -- everyone, everything, every Wednesday. Switch off the nukes.
It may be hopeless, but we’re not helpless.”
so the whole story reminds me of Star Trek and the computer-simulated war
between the planets Eminiar and Vendikar. Chosen by computer, citizen’s
selected as casualties dutifully reported to termination centers, to their neat
and orderly deaths. There was less mess, less of the horror of war. But alot of
unnecessary killing. It never occurred to anyone that they might just one day
stand up and say “enough.”
There are some 261 nuclear waste producers
in Massachusetts, according
to the Massachusetts Radioactive waste Survey Report of 1993.
The U.S. Army
Watertown, along with Texas Instruments and Sprague Co.mpany, accounted for 79
percent; Yankee Atomic and Pilgrim accounted for 13.4 percent. All area
hospitals produce radioactive waste, although they account for less then 2
percent of the total.
are 15 producers in Hampshire and Hampden counties (including UMass, Mt.
Holyoke, Amherst and Smith College); three in Franklin; six in Berkshire; 26 in
Worcester. INS Corporation in Springfield, responsible for laundering Yankee
Atomic radiation workers’ clothing, produced 654,666 cubic feet of waste.
now, a move is on to site a low-level nuclear waste dump somewhere in the
state. If there are no ‘volunteers’ for the dump the state will force it on
some community somewhere.
30 to 35 towns, mostly those in Western Massachusetts, comprising the greatest
unpopulated landmass, have passed resolutions or town bylaws opposing a waste
dump. Those resolutions are based on a document originally drafted by Sunny
Miller of the Massachusetts Alliance to Limit and Eliminate Radioactive Trash
(MASSAlert), demanding that positions be reduced and eliminated at the source,
and that producers be held responsible for the waste.
meeting in Lenox last fall, state Rep. Christoper Hodgkins (D-Lee) blasted
Carol Amick, executive director of the Massachusetts Low-Level Waste Management
Board, for convening secret sessions with public officials to discuss the
also said: “We want to communities that are benefiting from and generating this
waste to be the same fools that are going to take responsibility for storing
most people, Hodgkins forgets that some 38 percent of the New England energy
mix provided to every utility customer on the New England power grid comes form
nuclear sources. Anyone in New England who clicks electrical switch, plugs in a
lawnmower or an electric car, soaks in a hot tub, cooks with a microwave or
types on a computer contributes to the production of nuclear poison.
A 400-acre dump in Massachusetts would certainly draw out-of-state waste and the concomitant threats of transportation. The Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards reported 72 incidents involving radiation on U.S. highways in 1991: 23 accidents; six handling “events”; 12 shipment thefts; and 31 “other.” At least 12 were incidents of contamination.
incident occurred on Dec. 16, 1991, on Interstate 91 in Springfield, when a
truck carrying unused nuclear fuel collided head-on with a wrong way driver,
leaving the truck and fuel containers burning for three hours.
keith harmon snow