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Nuclear Chickens

Less than a decade after the United States visited a nuclear iki-jigoku (“hell on earth”) upon the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instantaneously killing at least 150,000 and delivering countless more Japanese people to the grim reaper of gruesome radiation sickness, three of America's leading nuclear technology boosters embarked on a promotional tour across Japan. Their purpose was to help swing Japanese public opinion in favor of the country's infant civilian nuclear power industry, which was poised for a windfall of technological and financial assistance from the United States.

The international liaison was part of then-US President Dwight Eisenhower' “Atoms for Peace” program, a Cold War diplomatic offensive aimed at providing nuclear technology loans and exports to so-called “developing” nations, so as to render them reliant on western capitalism for development of their energy infrastructures, rather than on the Soviet Union. A 1955 National Security Council directive framed the matter thusly: “[Atoms for Peace will] strengthen American world leadership and disprove the Communists’ propaganda charges that the [US] is concerned solely with the destructive uses of the atom.”

The American promotional contingent in Japan, which arrived in May 1955, was comprised, respectively, of the man perhaps most responsible for orchestrating the Manhattan Project during World War II, a nuclear-industrialist entrepreneur, and a financial adviser from Chase Manhattan Bank: famed UC Berkeley physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, General Dynamics President John Jay Hopkins of San Diego, and nuclear technology financing expert Lawrence Hafstead. Their visit was funded and coordinated by the Japanese media mogul and member of the Japanese Diet (Senate) Matsutaro Shoriki. Shoriki's ownership of both Japan's largest circulation newspaper and its first television station easily rated him as the country's most well-endowed propagandist, and thus as the person best positioned to give nuclear power there a boost in public confidence.

Although a public address by the three men at Hibya Park in Tokyo was partially disrupted by protesters, who expressed their concern about plutonium and other nuclear fission products being used in the production of their country's electricity, America's atomic peddlers found a far more receptive audience with leading Japanese politicians and industrialists. Six months after their visit, the Diet voted to form the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission, with Shoriki as inaugural chairman. In the early-1960s, Japan finally parlayed the technology and financial assistance from “Atoms for Peace” into its first nuclear power plant, the now-infamous Tokai facility on the northeastern coast.

Last week, Tokai was one of four Japanese nuclear power plants that sustained major damage from the Sendai earthquake and tsunami. Shortly after the 'quake, which measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, the plant's cooling system failed. At the time of this writing, it is in imminent danger of melting down. There have already been partial meltdowns in three of the nuclear reactors that comprise Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant No. 1, located slightly to its north. Radioactive debris from these plants has already been deposited in perilous concentrations across the northern coastal regions of Japan, at the very least. As power plant workers attempt to head off even more dangerous meltdowns, the fate of millions of Japanese people and much of the remaining non-human life there hang in the balance.

It is more than a matter of academic interest to examine the United States' part in causing this human and environmental tragedy to occur. If not for the Atoms for Peace program, the nuclear energy industry throughout the world would be vastly different, including in Japan. The liberal nuclear export policies initiated by the US and other Western suppliers in the mid-1950s dramatically reduced the costs of undertaking serious nuclear research and development for dozens of nations around the world. The nuclear power installations of Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan, and South Korea resulted directly from this program. No country capitalized more fully on it, however, than Japan, which rose to become the world's third largest nuclear energy producer, after only the US and France.

Combined, these three countries are home to roughly half of the world's existing nuclear power plants. The US alone features nearly a quarter of all such installations, with 103.

Of course, it would be grossly inadequate to explain nuclear power's central role in Japanese society by way of a 1950s US foreign aid program. Japan got a decisive early boost from the US on its path toward nuclear energy development. Needless to say, however, that Japan has been a global economic powerhouse in its own right for more than four decades. Its own internal history and political dynamics are the primary reason its leaders made the catastrophic error of basing the domestic energy supply on nuclear power.

In truth, the US' partial involvement in the development of Japan's sprawling nuke power industry says far more about the US than it does about Japan. In arguably Noam Chomsky's most penetrating book on American foreign policy, Hegemony or Survival: The US Quest for Global Dominance, he examines how US political elites' overarching commitment to imperial global expansion and military dominance even trumps survival of life on the planet, as evidenced by those historical moments when nuclear holocaust was a possible or likely outcome of American actions abroad.

Chomsky's main example comes from the Cuban Missile Crisis. In October 1962, a US destroyer attacked a Soviet submarine carrying a torpedo tipped with a thermo-nuclear weapon. Under panic, two of the submarines' captains issued an order to fire the weapon in retaliation. The US would have almost certainly responded by unleashing thermonuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. Terminal nuclear warfare would have ensued. Fortunately, a third commander reprimanded the order to fire, convincing his peers to await authorization from Moscow before launching the assault. The US destroyer eventually withdrew; a global catastrophe was barely averted.

“The lesson from this,” National Security Archive Director Thomas Blanton asserted in 2002, “is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov [the Russian submarine commander] saved the world.” But there are more profound lessons.

Another case in point of Chomsky's hegemony-or-survival thesis is the role of “Atoms for Peace” in the development of the nuclear arsenals of Pakistan and India. Both of these countries received 10s of millions of dollars in direct nuclear energy infrastructure aid from the US from the 1950s through the 1970s. Absent the foreign assistance, in other words, neither country could have developed nuclear weapons. In the late-'90s, the two countries arguably came close to a nuclear exchange stemming from their dispute over the small bordering country of Kashmir.

The region remains a flashpoint of nationalistic tensions. Yet, in 2007, the US Congress approved a massive nuclear technology transfer agreement with India, which serves as a quid quo pro for that country's support of US military strategy vis-a-vis their mostly unfounded delusions about so-called “Rising China.”

As California's various nuclear installations make clear, the hegemony-or-survival thesis also extends to the domestic energy industry. The Diablo Canyon power plant, located 15 miles outside San Louis Obispo, is located on four active earthquake faults, including the San Andreas. As with the reactors now melting down in Japan, Diablo Canyon was designed only to withstand a 7.5 earthquake. Yet, the San Andreas caused at least a 7.7 in San Francisco in 1906. The San Onofre nuclear plant just outside San Diego – one of the world's densest population areas – is designed to endure only a 7.0 'quake. Yet, it also sits on one of California's most active fault lines.

That's in spite of southern California's existing history of nuclear mishap. While the accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in March 1979 was the most serious public health crisis involving a commercial nuclear development in the US, a perhaps even larger meltdown occurred in 1959 at an experimental reactor in Santa Susana, only 35 miles north of Los Angeles. In keeping with the nuclear industry's persistent mantra of “Let Them Eat Plutonium, the meltdown was covered up. Untold thousands of people were unknowingly exposed to contamination, leading to a large regional spike in cancers and deformities.

Then there's the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons laboratory, located roughly 40 miles east of Berkeley, which houses an untold quantity of plutonium. Livermore is a vital installation to the US nuclear weapons complex, being one of two facilities that has designed every nuclear weapon in the US arsenal. In January 1980, an earthquake measuring just 5.5 on the Richter Scale rattled the Livermore Valley, causing a release of radiation from a 30,000-gallon tank containing tritium at a rate of a quart per minute into local groundwater. The carnage that might result should a larger earthquake strike the facility should be clear. More than seven million people live within a 40-mile radius of the lab.

The entire nuclear industry is insane. It relies on mining and milling uranium, then transporting that uniquely dense mineral across great distances so that it can produce fission products to heat water for electricity. The mining and milling processes are themselves highly toxic. In the US, they have occurred disproportionately on American Indian reservations, which have quietly experienced their own versions of Three Mile Island multiple times over. For example, a huge mill tailings pond on the Navajo reservation in Church Rock, New Mexico collapsed in 1979, dumping a huge quantity of contaminated water into the Rio Puerco River causing a public health catastrophe.

In some cases, “Let Them Eat Plutonium” is almost a literal proposition. The Palisades nuclear power plant in southwest Michigan, for instance, stores its high-level radioactive waste in outdoor silos on the beach of Lake Michigan, only a hundred yards from the water. This is the main source of drinking water for more than 40 million people in the Midwest and Canada.

Already, the disaster in Japan has prompted governments in Germany and Switzerland to scuttle plans for new nuclear reactor development. Ultimately, the new chorus demanding an end to nuclear power will succeed only if enough people recapture the sense of urgency that Lewis Mumford voiced in 1946, as the Nuclear Age was dawning: “You cannot talk like sane men around a peace table while the atomic bomb itself is ticking beneath it. Do not treat the atomic bomb as a weapon of offense; do not treat it as an instrument of the police. Treat the bomb for what it is: the visible insanity of a civilization that has obey the laws of life.”

Given this systemic lack of regard for the basic laws of life, it stands to reason that meaningful curbs on nuclear power development have come not as benevolent gifts from an enlightened ruling class, but rather because people organized to demand them. As late as 1974, in the midst of the Arab Oil Embargo, the consensus proposal of the California Public Utilities Commission, Stanford Research Institute, and the RAND Corporation was that California's coastline would soon be studded with 70 nuclear power plants, supplied by two inland processing facilities, a fast breeder reactor near the Imperial Valley, and uranium mining in the San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield. If those numbers seems far-fetched, consider that Japan is roughly the size of California, and that it has an almost comparable number of nuclear plants in operation (or at least did until last week): 56.

Probably the main reason this ambitious proposal never came to pass is that it made virtually no economic sense, being that California had access to more than enough electricity. But it was also successfully opposed by an active anti-nuclear movement, which won meaningful restrictions on new power plants in the State Legislature.

In fact, the first successful environmental battles against the nuclear power industry to occur in this country took place right here on the North Coast. In 1964, PG&E's plan to build a nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay was scuttled by environmentalists, including the once-famed San Francisco attorney David Pesonen. A few years later, PG&E was busy proposing a nuke power facility a little further up the North Coast, this time in Point Arena, which Pesonen and kindred environmentalists again halted in its tracks. Each time, these projects were stopped on the grounds that they were proposed for active earthquake faults.

My own insights into American anti-nuclear politics (and the sorry state thereof) stem from my two and-a-half-year tenure on the staff of an anti-nuclear non-profit based in Santa Barbara, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. My ex-wife and close friend, Julia Moon Sparrow (who grew up in Willits), was a co-founder Shundahai Network in 1992. The organization worked with the Western Shoshone Nation – on whose land the Nevada nuclear test site is located – to oppose the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in southern Nevada. Shundahai played a major role in finally compelling US Senator Harry Reid — who initially favored siting of the waste dump within his state's borders – to become its most implacable legislative foe.

In early-2009, the Obama administration formally scuttled Yucca Mountain. But that hasn't stopped the Obama crowd from proposing the most ambitious expansion both of nuclear power plant and nuclear weapons development in the US in many years. Obama has curried favor with the nuclear lobby in ways the Bush administration never could have dreamed of, including making billions in loan guarantees on behalf of nuclear power plant construction and promising billions of dollars in funding for a new plutonium pit factory in New Mexico. Thousands of nuclear bombs remain deployed by nine different countries throughout the world, and here the president who promised “hope” and “change” has adopted the most destabilizing nuclear posture of them all.

The distinction between “destructive” and “peaceful” “uses of the atom” has never appeared more arbitrary than during the past week. A power plant built partly with “Atoms for Peace” funding in Japan threatens to meltdown, endangering the lives of tens of thousands. One of the primary reasons the US decided to promote civilian nuclear power development in the first place, during the 1950s, was that the power plants would produce a much-needed supply of fissionable materials for use in thermo-nuclear weapons. Plutonium, widely known as the most toxic substance on earth, is an inherent bi-product of all nuclear reactors. Yet, the US and other powerful states continue to treat nuclear energy as merely another bargaining chip in a twisted game of global power projection.

If we are to effectively head off future disasters like those unfolding in Japan, we need to be clear. The nuclear power and its first cousin, the nuclear weapons enterprise, continues to be celebrated by those in power only because they help to concentrate greater wealth and authoritarian power in the hands of a few. And those two things – greed and authoritarian power — are invariably toxic to life in all their forms. ¥¥

(Contact Will Parrish at

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