Beyond Obama’s ‘Nuclear Security’ Hokus POTUS
By James Heddle
[ First published on Counterpunch.org ]
‘Nuclear Security’ – The Quintessential Oxymoron?
It ended, with no apparent sense of irony, on April Fools’ Day. Obama’s much-heralded ‘Nuclear Security Summit’ came to a close on April 1st in Washington, D.C., having drawn representatives from about 50 countries…minus Russia, which declined to attend citing a “shortage of mutual cooperation” and the exclusion of some of its allies from the invitation list.
Compared to the lofty vision outlined in Obama’s famous 2009 Prague speech of a ‘world without nuclear weapons,’ the POTUS conference marked a sad measure of how far short of his stated intentions his actual accomplishments have fallen.
To be fair, by no means all of that failure can be said to be Obama’s fault. There are many counter-forces.
There’s a global system that profits handsomely from the combined nuclear energy-weapons-waste economy.
There’s a worldwide elite whose members derive much power and privilege from it.
There’s the domestic ‘deep state’ system of the ‘defense and security’ industry with its revolving door to government, which is heavily invested in the permanent war economy.
Then there are the people the President has chosen to surround himself with, some of whom disagree with him and work to undermine his stated policies.
It remains to be seen if the controversial ‘Iran Deal’ will stand as a signature accomplishment of Obama’s tenure. But the facts remain that, despite his boasts that he has ‘reduced’ the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the actual cuts amount to a mere 5% – from 4,950 operational nuclear warheads to 4,700, according to the Federation of American Scientists. As former Defense Secretary William Perry points out, that’s more than enough to destroy the world many times over.
And, as Perry and other former U.S. officials disapprovingly observe, Obama’s plan to spend over $1 trillion to ‘upgrade’ America’s stockpile of nuclear bombs and their delivery systems not only makes their use more likely, but has also triggered a New Arms Race.
Finally, the President’s ‘all of the above’ energy policy treats nuclear energy generation as ‘clean,’ ignoring the massive carbon footprint of the atomic fuel chain that makes uranium essentially a fossil fuel. It also gives massive funding and support to developing a new generation of nuclear reactors, as well as marketing existing U.S. designs world-wide to such clients as warring Arab oil states. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2015-05-25/nuclear-power-people
12 Unspeakable Realities
Those who advocate for nuclear energy as a response to climate change, or for new nuclear weapons in pursuit of ‘national security,’ must ignore or deny an overwhelming burden of facts from the history and legacy of these nuclear technologies so far.
Here are just a few:
The Ultimate ‘Kill Switch:’ Power Grid Black Out
Celebrated former anchorman Ted Koppel’s recent book LIGHTS OUT extensively documents the extent to which our country’s aging power grid is subject to being knocked out in whole, or in serious part, by cyber attack, physical attack or an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) – either from solar eruption or nuclear air-burst.
But the book is strangely silent about the fact that nuclear power plants’ attendant used fuel cooling pools are dependent on off-site power from the grid. Back-up generators and battery arrays would be unlikely to outlast an extended grid collapse. Lethally radioactive ‘spent fuel’ storage pool explosions would be at high risk of happening with devastating effects on surrounding communities and environments.
[See Patrea Patrick’s documentary BLACK START ]
Power Reactors as WMDs-in-Place
Want to take out Wall Street and the whole New York metropolitan area? A cyber hack or physical attack on the rickety Indian Point nuclear plant just 30 miles up the Hudson could do the trick. Imagine Wall Street and 5th Avenue as empty and deserted as the abandoned radioactive ghost towns in Japan’s devastated Fukushima prefecture. Imagine Connecticut being uninhabitable for generations.
Recent cyber attacks on nuclear reactors in Ukraine and the discovery that the alleged perpetrators of the Brussels explosions were casing a nuclear power plant as a possible target have sharpened public awareness that all operating reactors world-wide are potential weapons-in-place for would-be terrorists. Karl Grossman calls them ‘pre-deployed weapons of mass destruction.’
Genocidal Impacts on Indigenous Peoples
· Uranium mining and the deadly radioactive wastes left behind continue to have devastating effects on Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians. In the U.S., thousands of abandoned open pit uranium mines contaminate drinking and irrigation water and the air breathed by tribes across the Great Planes and the Four Corners Area. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsZ70OEzsr4
· Nuclear weapons testing has done lasting genetic and environmental damage to Pacific Islanders in the Marshall Islands and Polynesia. https://www.nuclearzero.org/
The Guardian lists and ranks 33 serious incidents and accidents at nuclear power stations since the first one was recorded in 1952. Of those, six happened in the US, five in Japan and three apiece in the UK and Russia. That’s an average of nearly 5 per decade.
But a report by Cornell University researchers Spencer Wheatley, Benjamin Sovacool, Didier Sornette entitled Of Disasters and Dragon Kings: A Statistical Analysis of Nuclear Power Incidents & Accidents has a database of 174 major atomic accidents worldwide since 1946 – each with over $1 million in damages and at least one death.
“In fact, the damage of the largest event (Fukushima; March, 2011) is equal to 60 percent of the total damage of all 174 accidents in our database since 1946. In dollar losses we compute a 50% chance that (i) a Fukushima event (or larger) occurs in the next 50 years, (ii) a Chernobyl event (or larger) occurs in the next 27 years and (iii) a TMI event (or larger) occurs in the next 10 years.”
See also: ‘10 Devastating Radiation Accidents They Never Tell You About’
Nuclear energy accidents – US meltdowns
There have been 8 nuclear meltdowns so far in the U.S. Contrary to popular belief, the meltdown at Three Mile Island was not the worst. That dubious honor goes to the little-reported July 12, 1959 meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory located a couple of miles from the city of Simi Valley and only about 30 miles north of Los Angeles. The radioactive contamination of the surrounding communities and environment from that event have yet to be fully acknowledged or dealt with.
Nuclear weapons incidents
As part of his research for his book on the nuclear arms race, Command and Control – Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, Eric Schlosser used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that at least 700 “significant” accidents and incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons were recorded between 1950 and 1968 alone. The Business Insider has a useful interactive site based on Rudolph Herzog’s A Short History of Nuclear Folly on which you can track 32 nuclear weapons accidents since 1950.
In its Status of World Nuclear Forces, the Federation of American Scientists reports the existence of
Approximately 15,350 warheads as of early-2016. Of these, more than 10,000 are in the military stockpiles (the rest are awaiting dismantlement), of which almost 4,200 warheads are deployed with operational forces, of which nearly 1,800 US, Russian, British and French warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice.
Approximately 93 percent of all nuclear warheads are owned by Russia and the United States who each have roughly 4,500-4,700 warheads in their military stockpiles.
Former U.S. Sec. of Defense, William J. Perry says the situation is even worse:
“Today we still have over 20 thousand real world nuclear weapons. Enough to blow up everybody on the planet several times over. Those weapons pose the immediate problem of a danger of terrorism, the immediate problem of the possibility of nuclear war.
“The antagonism between Russia and the United States has reached a point now where I believe we are on the brink of a new nuclear arms race. It breaks my heart.
“Today, the danger of a nuclear catastrophe is actually higher than it was during the cold war. Let me say that again…”
Nuclear Brinksmanship – A ‘Nuclear Winter’ in South Asia?
Perry and his colleagues are not only worried about a nuclear WWIII triggered by a U.S.-Russian, or Israel-Iran confrontation. There are other potential atomic flashpoints as well between nuclear-armed states – the Korean Peninsula is one top candidate.
Even more worrisome at the moment are recent developments on the India-Pakistan border. Pre-armed tactical nuclear weapons line the Pakistani side under the command of individual local commanders. India’s strategic nuclear arsenal is targeted at Pakistani population centers. As tensions heighten, the ‘threat level’ of a mutually suicidal nuclear exchange between the two neighboring countries goes up. The result could be a global ‘nuclear winter’ caused by the smoke and ash from the conflagration. [See: ‘Dilip Hiro, Flashpoint for the Planet’ https://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176123/tomgram%3A_dilip_hiro%2C_flashpoint_for_the_planet/#more ]
Again, the take-home message is clear: Individual local nuclear weapons, reactor and waste sites each pose a potential risk to the entire planet.
Human death toll from Chernobyl
In 2013, the book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment was published by the New York Academy of Sciences. Its lead author was the celebrated Russian biologist Dr. Alexey Yablokov, former environmental advisor to the Russian president.
Based on some 5,000 health data, radiological surveys and scientific reports in several languages, concludes that based on records now available, some 985,000 people died, mainly of cancer, as a result of the Chernobyl accident between when the accident occurred in 1986 and 2004. It projects that more deaths will continue follow.
It blows away the specious claim by the International Atomic Energy Agency that the expected death toll from the Chernobyl accident will be 4,000. The book shows that the IAEA is seriously under-estimating, in the extreme, the casualties of Chernobyl – good reason to doubt its pronouncements on Fukushima.
Nuclear worker health impacts
Irradiated, a December, 2015 McClatchy investigative report by Bob Hotakainen, Lindsay Wise, Frank Matt and Samantha Ehlinger, reveals that 70 years of U.S. atomic weaponry production has so far left at least 33,480 Americans dead, with more to come.
Additionally, a recent study by an international team of nine researchers looked at 308,297 workers in the nuclear industry from France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Of 66,632 known deaths by the end of the study, 17,957 were due to solid cancers. The authors report, “The risk per unit of radiation dose for cancer among radiation workers was similar to estimates derived from studies of Japanese atomic bomb survivors.” They conclude that their results “suggest a linear increase in the rate of cancer with increasing radiation exposure.” Translation: There is no ‘safe’ dose of nuclear radiation. https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h5359
Evolutionary biologist Dr. Tim Mousseau shares his alarming findings from his unique research on the biological effects of radiation exposure to wildlife, plants, trees, birds and insects from the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl & Fukushima. He is finding similar catastrophic effects in both disaster areas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xnj5QYBzLs
Genetic Damage from DU Weapons
U.S. use of so-called ‘depleted uranium munitions’ in its wars in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan have left a devastating trail of monster fetuses, grotesquely deformed babies and a permanently damaged gene pool in the affected populations, as well as in the thousands of U.S. and NATO military personnel and their family members sequentially contaminated by exposure to these toxins.
Waste storage build-up, storage incidents
Then there’s the energy-weapons-waste connection, the real ‘nuclear triad.’ Not only are nuclear energy and weapons production joined at the hip from birth, but they share a dysfunctional excretory system. After more than 70 years of trying, no reliable method has been found to keep tons of still- accumulating radioactive waste isolated from the environment for longer into the future than human civilization has yet existed has been found.
An Australian study estimates there are 390,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste in the world, and nearly 10 million cubic meters of intermediate-level waste — all of it produced from nuclear power generation. That amount is growing by approximately 10,000 tons annually. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-15/sa-nuclear-waste-dump-to-meet-‘global-need’-recommended/7167412
It is produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel chain, from uranium mining and enrichment, to reactor operation and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.
Despite over seven decades of trying, no proven location or method of keeping the waste isolated from the environment has yet been found.
According to the Nuclear energy institute, by the middle of 2015, 30 countries worldwide were operating 438 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 67 new nuclear plants were under construction in 15 countries. https://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/Nuclear-Statistics/World-Statistics
The inevitable decommissioning of the aging world reactor fleet will create huge amounts of radioactive wastes. Once they are closed down, most of the world’s nuclear sites will require monitoring and protection for centuries. Wherever and however it is eventually stored, most of the waste will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years – longer than civilization has yet existed.
For a look at how radwaste management is playing out at California’s recently shut down San Onofre , see Donna Gilmore’s excellent site: SanOnofreSafety.org
Popular Push Back
The rise of the global nuclear establishment has been paralleled by waves of massive and often effective public resistance. In the days of the first nuclear arms race and during the Cold War people around the world – joined by American civil rights leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Bayard Rustin, Martin and Coretta Scott King – organized and demonstrated against nuclear energy and for abolition of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Freeze Campaign, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and massive campaigns in Europe mobilized millions.
Without their work, and the roll-backs and treaties it generated, the current nuclear energy-weapons-waste challenges we face would have been even greater.
We owe it to their legacy to continue the work in our generation. As the 5th anniversary of the still-ongoing Fukushima disaster’s beginning occurred on March 11, 2016, solidarity is growing between those working for abolition to nuclear energy and power in Japan, the U.S. and around the world. What might be called ‘nuclear consciousness’ is on the rise again in spite of, or because of, renewed propaganda efforts by the nuclear establishment.
That ‘resistance is fertile’ is shown by the fact that – even in Japan’s current repressive climate – because of massive public pressure and legal efforts, three executives of TEPCO, the nuclear power utility responsible for Fukushima, have been brought to trial.
As the President himself seems, on some level to understand, the abolition – not just reduction – of nuclear weapons is a human survival issue. So are the phase-out of nuclear power reactors and the responsible containment and sequestering of nuclear waste.
Hokus POTUS or a Basis for Future Progress?
This year’s POTUS Nuclear Security Summit is the last of seven meetings held in various venues during Obama’s two terms. As he closed the Conference – which had focused not on the new nuclear arms race, but narrowly on keeping civilian commercial nuclear materials ‘out of the hands of terrorists,’ the President harked back to his 2009 Prague speech. He pointed out that he had stated at the time that the goals he was calling for might not be achieved in his lifetime. Perhaps it was his way of acknowledging the shortfall of his initiatives.
He cited the progress in reducing the availability of nuclear materials and in strengthening treaties and the mechanisms of international institutions. In response to a question, he defended his nuclear weapons ‘modernization’ program as a careful balance between keeping nuclear readiness as a deterrent , while staying open to the possibilities of future arsenal reductions.
With the exception of ‘nuclear terrorism’ dangers, it is sadly unlikely that the POTUS Nuclear Security Summit’s outcomes will even acknowledge, much less seriously address the inconvenient nuclear truths listed above. Still, Mr. Obama deserves some credit for at least trying to keep discussion of nuclear policy going. Perhaps, once out of office, he will feel freer to join other former high-level U.S. officials in pushing for more substantive change.
Elsewhere in the news, “Four senior US statesmen with deep national security credentials – former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn – joined together in 2007 to form the Nuclear Security Project (NSP) working for a world without nuclear weapons. “ Check it out: https://www.nti.org/about/projects/nuclear-security-project/
James Heddle co-directs EON – the Ecological Options Network. He blogs at PlanetarianPerspectives.net. and NoNukesCA.net He is currently at work on a new documentary SHUTDOWN: The California-Fukushima Connection