Joshua Frank’s Brilliance Atomic daysby Haymarket Books, plunges us into the horribly clogged innards of the failing technology that is nuclear energy.
Frank’s excursion into the radioactive wasteland of the Hanford Nuclear Reserve in the Columbia River Valley in eastern Washington State is the ultimate real-world nightmare.
Unfortunately, it serves as a wailing siren for what lies ahead with the atomic waste of our commercial reactors, now hooked up to the toxic hip of the global arms industry.
“Like a relentless treadmill,” Frank writes, “Hanford generated plutonium for nearly four long decades, reaching peak production during the height of the Cold War.”
It is now, he says, “a vast wasteland of radioactive and chemical sewage…the most expensive environmental remediation project the world has ever seen and, arguably, the most contaminated place in the whole planet”.
Current cost estimates to clean up the place, Frank says, “could be between $316 billion and $662 billion.”
But that depends on a few definitions, the most critical of which: what does it mean to “clean up” a hellhole like Hanford? If you want to remove plutonium from a radioactive wasteland, what do you do so that it doesn’t create another radioactive wasteland? And what does that say about the 90,000 tons of high-level waste that sits at more than 50 commercial reactor sites in the United States?
To put it into perspective, we spend $2.6 billion every year just to keep Hanford as it is. The cleanup estimate, according to Frank, has roughly tripled in the past six years, leading us to believe that six years from now it could easily top $6 trillion.
The environmental consequences are colossal. As Frank extensively documents, Hanford is an unfathomable mess. Giant tanks are leaking. Plutonium and other doomsday substances are rapidly migrating to the Columbia River, which could be permanently poisoned, along with many others. Local residents have been poisoned with a “permissible permanent concentration” of lethal isotopes on vegetables, livestock, as well as in the air and drinking water.
Such exhibits even included a deliberate experiment known as the “Green Run” in which Hanford’s agents “deliberately released dangerous amounts of radioactive iodine”.
These emissions are particularly harmful to embryos, fetuses and young children, whose thyroids can be easily destroyed (as we are currently seeing in Fukushima). But at the time, the US Army Corps of Engineers wanted to know how the fallout would flow in the wind currents.
The product was a “mile of death” stretching from the Columbia River Basin to the ocean, filled with radiation poisoning victims.
After decades of devastating leaks from faulty storage tanks, the Los Angeles Times reported that more radioactivity was stored at Hanford “than would be released during an entire nuclear war”.
Thousands of such tanks in Fukushima may soon be given the green light by the government to dump their poisons into the Pacific, with potentially apocalyptic results.
At Hanford, “the waste was so hot it boiled…for decades,” that is, to the present day, Frank writes.
Despite official denials, Frank documents a terrifying array of catastrophic leaks into soil, groundwater and streams across the reserve. By 1985, he wrote, “despite spending $7 billion over the previous ten years, no progress had been made in clearing the aging reservoirs” of their deadly waste.
To this day, “Hanford remains America’s most complex environmental mess,” riddled with problems that yield huge profits for companies that land cleanup contracts and then fail to deliver, even surpassing the complexity of the infamous West Valley landfill. , New York, and the highly radioactive fallout area of Santa Susana, California, just north of Los Angeles.
But Hanford is not alone. Frank also takes us to Chelyabinsk, the site of a Soviet-era disaster, and other wasteland around Kyshtym. Like the 1,000 square mile “dead zone” around Chernobyl, Hanford is full of areas where human life is perilous at best.
To place the nuclear power industry in a broader context, Frank walks us through the “permanent war economy” born during World War II and discusses Franklin Roosevelt’s ambivalent relationship with the “Malefactors of Great Wealth who often stood in the way of making the United States the “Arsenal of Democracy”, and who once even plotted to kill him.
With the decision to build an atomic bomb, the giant Bechtel Corporation used the 120 square mile reserve at Hanford to produce 103.5 metric tons of plutonium, perhaps the deadliest substance known to mankind.
But there was no effective solution for what might happen to the place next. The waste treatment plant to “vitrify” rad waste into glass began construction in 2002, with plans to open in 2011. It has become, in terms of cost and area, “the largest operation under construction in the United States”. now with an estimated price tag of $41 billion and slated to open in 2036.
With “a string of failed jobs under his belt”, the failure of Bechtel’s “Big Dig” in Boston – a much-vaunted tunnel from Logan Airport to downtown – mirrored his work at Hanford when a collapse killed a 39-year-old woman and resulted in a $357.1 million settlement exempting the management from criminal charges.
As the fourth-largest private company in the United States, Bechtel spent $1.8 million lobbying DC in 2019-20, that was normal. The reward, Frank writes, comes from the tragic illnesses suffered by Hanford workers like Abe Garza and Lawrence Rouse, usually amid terse and well-funded official denials. Researchers like Karen Wetterhahn and veterans like Victor Skaar joined Vietnam’s Agent Orange victims in being victims of exposures that they were repeatedly assured were “safe.” Whistleblowers like Ed Bricker were even subjected to intense espionage and sabotage by close associates whom he was tricked into accepting as friends.
Meanwhile, activists like Russell Jim of the Yakama Tribe have begun to force “an immeasurable amount of transparency” around the Hanford disaster. Their decades of hardcore community organizing have been accompanied by a growing demand for accountability that has changed the political atmosphere surrounding the cleanup.
The debate focused on the use of commercial atomic energy.
Due to Hanford’s nuclear presence, five atomic reactors were built in Washington State, promising electricity “too cheap to measure”.
But like the skyrocketing costs of producing and cleaning up plutonium, the Washington Public Power System plunged into the biggest public bankruptcy in US history, due to massive delays and cost overruns. . Only one of the nukes now works.
Unfortunately, some self-proclaimed climate activists have fallen into the atomic pit, saying that in the face of the acute threat of climate change, nuclear power should be pursued as a means to reduce emissions.
But they all ignore the great lesson that Joshua Frank teaches us about Hanford: all the rhetoric in the world cannot cover the physical realities of dealing with atomic radiation. And atomic fires burning at 571 degrees Fahrenheit will never cool the planet. The mines, the factories, the manufacturing of fuel, the reactors themselves, the waste dumps, all that horrible multi-trillion dollar paraphernalia – they together constitute the deadliest and costliest technological failure in history. of humanity.
Many reactor promoters have long vehemently denied any connection between their “peaceful atom” and the scourge of war, but anti-nuclear activists have exposed the falsity of such claims. For example, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a British advocacy organization that opposes both nuclear weapons and the building of new nuclear power plants, writes:
The civilian nuclear power industry grew out of the atomic bomb program in the 1940s and 1950s. In Britain, the civilian nuclear program was deliberately used as a cover for military activities…. The development of the nuclear weapons and nuclear energy industries is mutually beneficial. Scientists at the University of Sussex confirmed this again in 2017, saying the government is using Hinkley Point C nuclear power station to subsidize Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons system.
As the atomic energy industry is increasingly shut out of the electricity market by wind, solar, batteries and increased efficiency and conservation, we are likely to see the nuclear energy industry increasingly admitting what it has always been – a necessary servant of the nuclear weapons industry. .
Rightly so, the only future for atomic reactors will be a bottomless pit for ecological suicide and massive public subsidies – just like Hanford.
Indeed, for readers truly interested in the future of atomic energy, take a look at his play in the work of Joshua Frank. Atomic days. So wonder how soon we can cover this whole place with solar panels.