Friday, 07 March 2008 19:00 Maureen Heidtmann Editorial Dept - Science
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Feeling like an alien who had been left behind by the Mother Ship to observe creatures from another planet, I studied the life-forms bent over their desks. In reality, all of the beings in the room, including myself, were taking tests that would decide whether we were mentally fit to work at a nuclear power plant.

It was the spring of 1992, and I was there from desperation. Having worked in the art department of a printing company for more than nine years, I was out of work due to health problems caused by exposure to certain chemicals, and I really needed a job. Finally, after searching for employment for more than a year, I saw an ad in a local newspaper: “Wanted: Short Order Cook. Good Salary. Temporary.”


Cook? Can do. I called the number given, and learned where the food and beverage company was located.

“Oh, no! Not the Nuke plant!” I moaned. 

 

Now, you might not think this could be a reason for soul-searching and a potential identity crisis, but in my case it was. A leftover flower-child and lover of nature, I was very much opposed to nuclear power for many reasons.

Hanging up the phone, I thought, “No way.” But then the realities of a son in college, property taxes and other basic needs raised their ugly heads. I called the number again, applied for the job, and justified it as a learning experience. It was. Starting with the tests.

We in our cubicles had three hours allotted to complete the tests designed to measure intelligence and mental balance. The multiple choice questions were no-brainers like: When I see a fly, I…A) Kill it. B) Let it be. C) Pull its wings off. I was done in an hour. While wondering what to do with the remaining time, I drifted into a reverie about The Simpsons T.V. series. Homer Simpson is the father and husband in a highly dysfunctional cartoon family. He is not bright or stable, but he works at the control panel of a nuclear power plant. In the opening credits, Homer is shown driving down a suburban street. As his beat-up car careens around a corner, Homer feels for something in his back pocket. He pulls out a green glowing lump and carelessly tosses it out the window. The discarded radioactive tid-bit bounces merrily along a residential sidewalk…

My daydream bubble was popped by the needle voice of the test monitor.

“You’re done already?” she asked, eyeing me suspiciously.

“Yep”, I replied.

“Then come with me”, she said.

After a personal interview, it was determined that I was smart and sane enough to flip hamburgers at the restaurant on the site. Fine. What was frightening, though, was that others who had passed the same dumb tests were hired on as personnel who would be working with (and have access to) nuclear waste. Real live Homer Simpsons.

We, the chosen, were lined up for orientation, given security clearance, an I.D. badge, and a handbook about the facility explaining its functions and its safety features. Aside from providing useful information, the book was clearly meant to assure us that there was nothing to worry about working in or living near a nuclear power plant. For me, it did just the opposite. The brochure, in its attempt to illustrate how well things are handled at the plant, instead succeeded in showing how many things can go wrong, with cataclysmic results. In addition to the very real, if remote, possibility of a large-scale disaster due to meltdown, I learned that there was a huge stockpile of hazardous waste mixed with highly radioactive material stored on the site, and there was no plan in place for safely disposing of the toxic junk. There was certainly no viable strategy for evacuation in the face of a nuclear calamity, although the booklet cheerfully claimed there was.

As I read through the pages I recalled Woody Allen’s summary of humans as “monkeys with car-keys.” It’s true. We are clever animals who have developed technologies that we can’t control.

Next came a lecture, and we were informed that, in times of refueling, special teams of workers are hired to perform various dangerous tasks and deal with the resulting waste materials. That’s why the cooking job was temporary. I was hired (along with several others) to feed the seasonal workers during their shifts. The crews were large because each man (no women) could be exposed to the radioactive water into which he must dive for no longer than three minutes. Upon emerging, he had to shower, remove and discard his safety diving gear, which was added to the growing mountain of poisonous debris, and shower again. Women could not be hired for the dangerous job because the ramifications of radiation exposure were more serious for them.

I worked at the restaurant for about two months. To my surprise, I enjoyed the fast-paced, shotgun cuisine, and the company of my fellow cooks. I also liked the daredevils, (or fools, or both), who dipped themselves into the River Styx to refuel the silos and make repairs. Amazingly, they considered themselves to be environmentalists, believing that nuclear power was better than dirty Old King Coal. Of course, they had a point. But the King, even backed by General Black Lung and the mighty Fossil Fuel Army, could never outdo or outlast the effects of a nuclear disaster like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. Fifteen years after the Ukranian nightmare, the rate of thyroid cancer in children living near the site was eighty times higher than normal, according to The World Health Organization. At the Three Mile Island plant in New York, the burned out silo has been shut down and unusable, and still dangerous due to the radioactive material contained there; poisons that will be in the ground for thousands of years.

Health and the environment are not the only issues to consider. Unit 1 at Waterford Connecticut’s Millstone power plant is closed, at great financial cost to the customers of Northeast Utilities. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has deemed the unit’s design “substandard”, but there are 22 similar reactors still operating in the United States according to the Nuclear Information Resource Center. In 1999, researchers at Yale University found radioactive sediment in Jordan Cove, Waterford, which caused the shellfish beds to be closed to commercial use while more studies were being conducted. Northeast Utilities did not dispute the fact that the cobalt-60 contamination came from the Millstone plant.

If a Chernobyl-scale accident were to occur at the Millstone, the city of Hartford would be made un-inhabitable, and the Insurance Capital of the World would not be the only casualty. Around Chernobyl, 1000 square miles have been irreversibly affected, and the same would hold true for the areas surrounding Waterford. So, we can kiss Boston and New York City good-bye along with Hartford. Also, nuclear waste and fallout can affect 7000 unborn generations, according to People’s Action for Clean Energy (PACE). But not to worry, says Northeast Utilities because, in A Guide Book for Our Neighbors: Emergency Planning, prepared by the State of Connecticut and N. U., there are emergency zones and evacuation routes mapped out. But just imagine what it would be like trying to leave an area after a catastrophic event, when even a minor car accident can back up traffic on a major highway for hours.

In light of this knowledge, how can we willingly place ourselves, our loved ones and the innocent creatures with which we share the earth, in such predicament? How can we allow nuclear power to spread and proliferate like a vicious form of cancer? Why are we not seeking a cure in the form of safe, clean and renewable energy? It is partly due to complacency, and partly due to ignorance. Most of us just don’t want to be bothered, and others don’t know the facts about the dangers of nuclear power, and the possibilities of “alternate” means of energy production.

When I told the plant’s work crew that I powered my home with solar energy, the men looked at me with pity. They liked me, but they obviously thought I was defective. At the time, the idea of solar energy was much loopier than it is now, and the guys did not spend much time pondering the matter. They simply dismissed it, but here I sit today, with my laptop plugged into the sun, listening to the comforting “click” of the solar panels as they charge the batteries in my home. It is springtime, and the system is producing more power than needed. If I were hooked up to “the grid”, the local electric power company would be obliged to buy the excess from me. That is one of the few incentives provided by the government to promote the use of solar power. Alternative energy has never been a favored topic among most politicians, and has been downright discouraged by some administrations. The current “W” group in the White House is an environmental wrecking crew with deep interests in “Big Oil”; alternative energy and conservation are not good for business. If the need for oil is slowed or stopped, the accumulation of more wealth will follow. The dragons sitting on their piles of gold would not like that.

Oil is good business, and anything that consumes it is encouraged. So “weekend warriors” on their mindless, yahoo, habitat -destroying machines are embraced by the current administration. The Bush bunch is planning to reopen sensitive lands that were made off-limits to off roaders during the Clinton years. Instead of insisting that automobile companies build cars with high fuel efficiency, the dragons bow to them and their gas guzzling monstrosities. Not a problem, they say; we’ll just sacrifice a virgin by raping and pillaging the Arctic Wildlife Refuge (ANWAR); one of the last unmolested places on earth. And, hey, while we’re at it, let’s build more nuclear power plants. Never mind that we don’t know what to do with the spent fuel rods we already have in abundance. Never mind how shipping nuclear waste from site to site for burial poses a real terrorist threat. Never mind that the stuff already buried is leaking from its containers and leeching into ground water, rivers and streams. Whatever we do, let’s not consider conservation, solar, or wind power in our plans.

On April 18th, 2002, President Bush’s scheme to open ANWAR to drilling was shot down. The arrows in the Chief Dragon’s pelt surely stung and irritated him, but his scales are tough, and he is stubborn. He will try again. Meanwhile, other sensitive public lands, especially out west, are being considered for possible drilling. While claiming to be a born-again Christian and believer in Creationism, George W. sure doesn’t seem to mind destroying the Creation. He doesn’t believe in evolution or the existence of global warming despite overwhelming proof of both. That’s the leader of the so-called Free World. God help all of us.

But why is Bush the oil man also in favor of building more nuclear power plants? The answer is simple: nuclear power and the war machine are kissing cousins to the point of incest. According to a report written by The Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, “….proliferation risks arise from the growth of weapons-usable materials in the commercial sector and from the strong technical, political, and financial links between the nuclear power and nuclear weapons establishments. Support for nuclear power makes the goal of achieving a sustainable abolition of nuclear weapons far more difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve.”

The forked tongue of Dragon W. really wags when he talks about fighting terrorism, but supporting nuclear power at the same time. Weapons grade nuclear materials can be stolen by “the evildoers” in many ways, such as hijacking trucks ferrying the stuff across the country. Once procured, the material can be made into crude bombs. To quote David Garman, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficient and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Dept. of Energy, “…solar…resources can enhance our energy security and strengthen homeland security…and make our electricity infrastructure less vulnerable to terrorist attack…if you are engaged in this effort (support of alternative energy), you are also engaged in our national effort to fight terrorism.” George W. should therefore be an advocate for alternative energy, and a nemesis of nuclear, for the sake of fighting terrorism, his favorite theme.

Freedom was my motive when I turned first to wind, then to hydro, and finally to solar power at my little homestead. But I do not wish to give the impression that they are worry free. Gigantic hydroelectric facilities can cause great environmental damage due to the construction of huge dams, water diversion and flooding. But if a landowner is lucky enough to live near a river or fast moving stream, a small water wheel is a good investment. Unfortunately, power companies in many locations own certain rights to waterways, thus making it illegal for homeowners in some areas to install hydo-power systems. As for windmills, large “farms” take up acres of land, and some pose a real threat to migrating birds and bats, thousands of which get chopped up in the blades.

And wildlife protection is not the only issue. The Cape Cod coastline is one site being considered for a large wind power project that would supply half of the area’s energy needs, but it is strongly opposed by many residents. They are worried that the 170 towers, 40 stories high, will be considerable eyesores, and block coveted vistas.

As for solar, the major drawback is the initial monetary investment of setting up a good, basic system. However, in the long run, it is cost effective. A PV system eventually pays for itself, and a homeowner never has to worry about monthly bills, price increases or black/brown outs. Many solar homes actually make money, like the one owned by a solar technical consultant, who saves about $200 a year on energy costs.

Looking at the Big Picture, solar energy is far less costly than nuclear power. According to PACE, “the total life-cycle costs and government subsidies make nuclear power the costliest form of energy ever conceived”. Of course, nuclear power is far more costly to our environment than solar. But just how safe and clean is solar power and other forms of alternative energy?

As with any human enterprise, solar power is not pollution free. The manufacture of the photovoltaic panels as well as deep cycle batteries, which are also used for storing wind power energy, requires the use of some chemicals, but many newer systems have no batteries. As opposed to fossil fuels that produce acid rain, and other menacing side effects, photovoltaic systems emit no toxins during operation and very small amounts of pollutants during the manufacturing process.

So, what are the cleanest forms of energy? The order, from cleanest to least clean: Conservation, Solar, Wind, Geothermal; to less clean: Low Impact Hydro, New Natural Gas, Biomass. Most polluting: Oil; Coal, Old Natural Gas, High Impact Hydro, Nuclear. It must be said that nuclear power does not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so it does not contribute to global warming. However, it has its obvious overriding drawbacks.

All in all, home power plants are far better for the environment and the pocket book than the conventional methods, but most people who are building new homes do not even think of water, wind or solar energy as an option. That reality was particularly presented to me when I was in Arizona recently. Even with the huge boom in population (the Phoenix area is the fastest growing in the U.S.), and the almost relentless sunshine, I saw only one house with solar panels on its roof. Think of how much the atmospheric Co2 load could be reduced if the casinos in Nevada installed solar panels to power their enterprises.

Unfortunately, energy conservation is a thought that does not crease the brow of the average American, including residents of my home state. In one affluent town, I saw Cruella Deville, the villain in the 101 Dalmations movie, in the flesh. I know it sounds crazy, but it was she alright, with her spiky, frosted hair, bright red lips, shiny high heels, and an ankle length fur coat: white with black spots. Her dark glasses, slanted like cat’s eyes, threw sparks of sunlight as she climbed into a brand-new LandRover SUV, as glossy and black as her shoes.

Dropping her cigarette to the ground, Cruella started the engine of the rugged vehicle, which was designed for traversing African savannahs, not suburban streets and shopping malls, and this one had obviously never encountered so much as a mud puddle. Ms. Deville’s automobile, I’m sure, had not carried her on the hunting safari that blew away the spotted animals now limply hanging on her body. The shiny, trendy truck was just another status-bauble. And there are a growing number of suburbanites who drive family cars that are larger than locomotives. According to some estimates SUV’s, which average about 17 miles per gallon, use as much oil in one year as would be extracted from the Arctic Refuge.

As a society, Americans have a short memory. No one recalls the last oil crisis. Due to current unrest, we may now be on the brink of another. If that happens, the owners of huge Yuppie Buggies will be the first to complain about increasing gas prices. The government will not urge, or even suggest, that people drive fuel efficient cars, nor make laws to enforce the fuel efficiency standards, so it is up to us as individuals to make appropriate choices when purchasing cars: Refuse to buy bloated, gluttonous machines.

As individuals, we are either part of the solution or part of the problem. We have the power to make things better by looking into sources of clean and renewable energy, and practicing conservation. Our habits as consumers are constantly being monitored, so we must send a clear message. Ultimately, it is up to We the People to make important changes in the energy policy of this country, for the sake of our environment, our health, and freedom from dependence on oil, domestic and foreign. We must stop being so complacent and selfish. For the sake of the planet, our children and grandchildren, we must think beyond the present.

Epilogue:

In 2008, due to the wars and unrest in the middle-east, and our insatiable need for oil, we are in energy and environmental crisis. The price of crude oil is steadily rising, and the climate is rapidly changing due to our consumption of fossil fuels. The mess, largely due to, or exacerbated by, the current administration, will be left to the next president to deal with.

Consequently, some of the candidates for that job are encouraging the building of more nuclear power plants, despite the fact that, still, no one knows how to safely dispose of the spent fuel rods and other poisonous by-products of the industry. Others are talking about wind and/or solar power and conservation. However, we can’t trust that, once elected, the next president will follow through with his or her promises. Although some are better than others, we can’t rely on our elected officials to do what’s best for the everyday citizen.

The time is past due to be pro-active. If we don’t do everything in our power to turn the dire energy and environmental situations around, we will have only ourselves to blame for the consequences, and once again the wise words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo the ‘Possum will ring true: “We met the enemy, and he is us.”

Author's Note: This paper was written before 9/11 and long before our current energy crisis. I don’t claim to be a prophet, but it has come to pass that...MH

*“We Met the Enemy, and He is Us” - a quote from Pogo the ‘Possum by Walt Kelly

Images: NFP Files



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