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DANGERS OF NUCLEAR POWER

PLUTONIUM: The Most Dangerous of All

Nuclear power reactors produce a mixture of plutonium radio- nuclides, and there is no doubt that plutonium, deposited in the human lung, is a powerful producer of lung cancer. Approximately five millionths of a single gram of reactor plutonium deposited in the lung will do it.

On August 6, 1945, the United States government exploded a uranium bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. Over 100,000 peoplewere killed instantly. Three days later, a plutonium bomb destroyed Nagasaki, immediately killing 70,000 people. Many thousands more have since died from the ongoing effects of radiation poisoning.

Plutonium, a by-product of nuclear fission technology, is the deadliest substance ever made by humans. Because it is so toxic --and because plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons -- plutonium-fueled reactors are an extraordinarily dangerous way to generate electricity.

All nuclear power reactors (both uranium- and plutonium-fueled) produce waste materials containing plutonium, as well as other radioactive substances that can be used to make nuclear bombs. Thus every nation that has nuclear power is a potential nuclear weapons state.

How to make a nuclear bomb is no longer a secret. The hardest part of making a nuclear weapon is getting the plutonium. Four-fifths of the plutonium in the world today has been produced by commercial nuclear power reactors. This spread of plutonium through nuclear power has increased the number of potential nuclear weapons states to 44. The five declared nuclear weapons nations -- the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China -- are only one-ninth of the real "nuclearclub."

Japan is acquiring one of the world's largest so-called civilian stockpiles of plutonium by shipping its spent fuel halfway aroundt he world to France and Britain and back for reprocessing into plutonium. Japan, therefore, has the potential to become amajor nuclear weapons power in a short time. In addition, an enormous Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facility is under constructionin Rokkasho Village, in Aomori Prefecture on Northern Honshu, Japan. This "one-stop shopping" nuclear site already includes(as of Winter 1997) two uranium enrichment plants and high- and low-level nuclear waste storage. A plutonium reprocessing plant is also planned for completion by the end of the century. Local villagers have been fighting to stop the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facility for over twelve years, with little success thus far.

Other countries that have attempted to develop commercial Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs) -- including the U.S., Britain,Germany and Russia -- have abandoned them. Only France is still trying to repair its accident- prone Superphnix FBR. Yet, in a hopeful change of attitude, in October 1996, French economic analysts began publicly criticizing the project's enormousfinancial waste. They called the FBR "a grand failure of 60 billion Francs" ($12 billion U.S.) and recommended a serious lookat a complete shutdown of the Superphnix before more billions are wasted.

Japan's prototype FBR, Monju, went on-line in 1994. However, the Kobe earthquake of January 1995 is thought to have caused cracks in some pipelines of the Monju reactor, 100 kilometers away from the epicenter. The reactor has not operated since April 1995. Many people in Japan now question the safety of their country's plutonium-fueled energy strategy. Forexample, in August 1996 the Japanese village of Maki held a historic referendum, voting 61 to 31 against the construction of anew nuclear plant in their community.

The reprocessing of used reactor fuel also creates highly radioactive wastes. Even the nuclear industry estimates that thequantity of wastes requiring long-term isolation from the environment is increased nearly ten-fold as a consequence ofreprocessing.

Finally, all nuclear power reactors and places where quantities of radioactive material are stored could be as dangerous as nuclear weapon explosions. If they become the object of terrorist activity, military bombardment or sabotage, radioactivematerial could spread on a vast and devastating scale. As Mayumi Oda so vividly portrays in her print, THE TWO-HEADED MONSTER OF POISON FIRE, the nuclear weapons and nuclear power industries are two aspects of the same beast. Each exists in the presence of and as a result of the other. Every step of the nuclear chain contributes directly or through connecting steps to the virtually permanent contamination of our atmosphere, watersheds, soil and organic life.

NUCLEAR WASTE: The Unsolved Problem

By the year 2000, the nuclear industry will have created 201,000 tons of highly radioactive irradiated (used) fuel rods. If liquid and solid wastes, uranium tailings and all they have come in contact with are included, the volume is, of course, muchlarger.

Many ideas for "final" disposal have been put forward, but none has proved even remotely adequate. One problem is that the plutonium in the waste will remain radioactive for up to 240,000 years (12,000 generations) or more. For that entire time it must be isolated from all living organisms and from the water, land and air upon which they depend.

Deep underground burial of wastes is currently the favored policy of most nuclear nations. However, changing water tables,earthquakes and other geological factors will eventually disturb the buried waste and lead to contamination of soil, water and air. No container exists that will last as long as the radioactivity of its contents. Nor can we be confident that our descendant swill not dig into burial sites hundreds or thousands of years from now, out of curiosity or lack of information.

None of the 44 countries with nuclear reactors has a solution to the waste problem. Meanwhile, the wastes are either kept in"temporary" storage facilities or buried in shallow pits. Wastes have been dumped directly into the ground, lakes and oceans ofthe world (for example: into the Irish Sea near Sellafield, England; into the Pacific Ocean near the Farallones Islands off San Francisco, California; and into Lake Karachay, near Chelyabinsk, Russia).

A growing number of sites have been abandoned by humans due to radioactive contamination. Yet wind and water, microbes,insects, seeds, birds and other life forms which cannot read posted warning signs move freely from one ecological niche toanother. The question of how to isolate radioactivity enduringly from life remains unanswered.

Further, after irradiated fuel rods are removed, the reactor buildings remain highly contaminated. In the U.S. the law requires that power companies dismantle (decommission) old reactors and "clean up" sites. While companies are required to set funds aside for this purpose, no reactor has yet been completely dismantled. The true costs and risks of this process remain unknown.

Our descendants will face the dangers and bear the expense of deactivating the world's 430 (as of 1996) nuclear reactors.They will also need to protect themselves virtually forever from the thousands of tons of radioactive wastes the industry has already produced.

Since the first splitting of the atom, concerned citizens and public officials have spoken out about the dangers of nuclear energy development. Increased awareness about the nuclear waste problem has strengthened efforts by citizen groups to stop nuclear power and implement safe energy alternatives.

NUCLEAR ENERGY: A Bad Investment

Official calculations of the cost of nuclear energy consider only the direct costs of building and operating reactors, plus mining, processing and transporting fuel.(38) They do not take into account indirect costs to society from environmental and health damage, or the costs of accidents, clean-up, nuclear waste storage and decommissioning.

Nuclear energy is a tragically misdirected investment. It not only pollutes the environment and destabilizes security, it alsomisuses precious financial resources as well as scientific and engineering expertise. Why, then, are new nuclear reactors being promoted and built, producing ever more toxic plutonium and radioactive wastes? One answer is profit-seeking -- fueled inpart by government subsidies and bank loans to nuclear corporations, keeping the deadly industry alive.

Furthermore, nations which use radioactive materials to produce energy gain access to the global club of "borderline" nuclear weapons states. As long as the five permanent seats of the United Nations Security Council are assigned to the five declared nuclear weapons states, the assumption that "access to nuclear weapons equals global power" will encourage nations to pursue nuclear energy -- and thus the potential of nuclear weapons -- to increase their influence in global affairs.

Written by: Toward a Plutonium Free Future


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