A Hot Rain's A Gonna Fall

by Michael W. Stowell

July 23, 2001

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I wonder if Bob Dylan ever thought about radioactive waste when he sang that song "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall." Indeed, the fallout from almost six decades of nuclear folly is about to settle upon the Earth and the umbrella has yet to be built that will protect anyone from its tragic consequences.

I'll begin by deliberating on the 'headwaters' of nuclear waste: mining. There are uranium mines all over the world but most uranium ore is taken from remote areas or third world countries. There are two common ways of acquiring it, in situ leaching technique and tunnel or open-pit mining. In situ leaching utilizes sulfuric acid that is pumped into the ground to dissolve the ore and the resulting sludge is then sucked out for processing. This technique is used at the Beverley Uranium mine on Adyamartha land in South Australia. In some places only five meters of clay separate the aquifer (sludge pit) from the great artesian basin, the underground water supply for most of Australia. Even though this practice presents catastrophic risk for the driest continent on Earth, it is not deemed cost effective to clean the aquifers after removing the sludge.

Tunnel and open-pit mining generates massive amounts of discarded, low-grade radioactive rocks and uses vast quantities of water. Raw uranium ore is usually milled on site; that is, processed into 'yellow cake'. The by-product tailings are diverted to ponds, which release large quantities of radon, radioactive toxic gas, into the surrounding environment. The first to suffer from exposure are the miners and people living in closest proximity to the mines. Examples are the Navajo in America, the Arabunna and Adyamartha people in Australia and the Jaduguda people of India. Uranium mining has not become safer over the decades and miners are not always told about the radioactivity of the mud they take home with them from the mines, so whole families are unknowingly exposed. It seems absurd that uranium mining continues while hundreds of tons of processed uranium and plutonium are stockpiled at enormous expense and governments and people around the globe are concerned about its safekeeping. Logically, the first step toward remediation of the world's nuclear crisis would be to end the mining of radioactive material.

Western estimates put Russia's current stock of high-grade plutonium at 200 tons, experts there say the old Soviet weapons complex produced more than 140 metric tons of plutonium and stockpiles of highly enriched uranium total about 1,000 metric tons. No one can be certain about the exact quantity of fissile material produced there in the past because accurate inventories were not always kept. We do know that their nuclear power industry will produce an additional 110 tons of plutonium within the next few years. The quantity of associated radioactive waste amounts to many thousands of tons and yet the Kremlin is determined to import up to 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from reactors in Germany, Switzerland, Eastern Europe, South Korea and China; even though more than 90% of Russians say they oppose the scheme. In mafia-infested, cash-strapped Russia an increase in proliferation of nuclear materials could be disastrous. The Russian daily Izvestia has reported that more than 5,500 criminal gangs operate in Russia and "the lion's share of their operations involve stealing nuclear materials and smuggling them out." Meanwhile, Russia's naval prize, the Kursk, rests on the floor of the Barrents Sea and 100-odd decommissioned subs rust in the harbors near Murmansk. Most still have nuclear reactor cores onboard and now serve as poignant symbols of a dreadful specter.

In 1992, the Bush I administration initiated a program with Russia to destroy 500 metric tons of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium from Russian nuclear weapons, the equivalent of about 25,000 nuclear warheads, and turn it into fuel for US nuclear power plants. Codified in a 1993 government-to-government agreement, this program has become the centerpiece of US efforts to prevent the personnel responsible for the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union from black-marketing fissile material. The flow of nuclear fuel derived from Russian nuclear weapons has become essential to the nuclear power industry in the United States; half of all US nuclear fuel now comes from Russia. The Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase agreement is thus now fundamental to US energy security, as well as to international peace and stability. Although the US government originally administered the deal, the private United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), formerly a government company under Washington's direct control, now runs it. When USEC was privatized in July of 1998, it was given control of US enrichment facilities and supply from Russia, effectively putting the future of the nation's nuclear fuel supply in the hands of a single private company.

Recently, the Department of Energy (DOE) completed its plan for more transportation of nuclear fuel from foreign research reactors. The next shipment will be the twentieth under the Foreign Research Reactor Spent Fuel Acceptance Program. Under the program, up to 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel from research reactors in 41 countries may be shipped to the US through 2009 for disposition. The radioactive waste will be delivered to the DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

On the other side of the country, the DOE's Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington holds 60% of America's most radioactive waste in tanks that are decades past their projected life spans and at least one million gallons of the waste have already leaked into the ground. Washington's Attorney General, Christine Gregoire, recently warned US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, "The federal government needs to fulfill its cleanup commitments just like anyone else...Hanford is one of the worst sites in the nation and Energy should set an example for responsibility by cleaning up its mess." The attorneys general of Washington, Colorado, California, Idaho, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Oregon signed the letter to the Energy Secretary. "The Department not only has the responsibility to be a good steward of tax dollars, it also has the obligation to comply with the law...Happily those interests coincide in this case, because keeping the cleanup on track can save billions of dollars that would otherwise be wasted keeping the lights on in surplus, contaminated facilities. Each day that we delay cleaning up contamination and decommissioning obsolete and dangerous contaminated facilities costs millions of dollars because it is just another day that DOE must continue to maintain the enormous 'mortgage' cost of keeping its facilities and the nuclear materials in them in a safe, secure and stable condition."

The DOE has requested a reduction of approximately $58 million in its 2002 budget for cleanup at Hanford, though to meet its obligations at the Hanford site the department would need an increase of several hundred million dollars next year. In the letter to Secretary Abraham, the AGs expressed skepticism that management reform or new technologies could make up for the substantial budget cuts he has requested.

Like Hanford, the Rocky Flats plant outside Denver has long been in the business of building nuclear weapons and concerns about radioactive waste and pollution span the entire length of operations. After a 1970 study that found alarming plutonium levels in the Denver area due to emissions at Rocky Flats, tens of thousands of people converged and protested at the plant throughout the following decade. However, the media, led by the New York Times, headlined front-pages with "Dispute on Waste Poses Threat to Weapons Plant" and other similar propaganda. The American people have been told that the threat is not to the public, but to the profit-takers engaged in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Now consider the nuclear weapons testing program. The DOE has a complete official roster of "Announced United States Nuclear Tests" and first on the list is the 1945 Trinity test in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The second and third tests were conducted at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those two cities were chosen for testing because they were large enough to show gradation of effect at one-half mile, one mile, two miles, and five miles. World War II began with a public ethic that one did not bomb civilian populations but, after the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, Americans were desensitized to the anti-ethical atrocities that were to be condemned at Nuremberg. What happened in the Nazi concentration camps in Europe was, in effect, what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; that is, the experimentation on human beings without informed consent. The same impropriety has since occurred in the US and elsewhere through the production, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons.

In 1951 the US expanded its nuclear testing program and established the Nevada Test Site. Downwind, in small and medium-sized communities in southern Utah, central Nevada and northern Arizona, people and livestock and wildlife were exposed to radioactive fallout. In the mid-1950s leukemia began afflicting children in places like Fredonia, Arizona, St. George, Utah and Railroad Valley, Nevada. The rising childhood cancer and leukemia rates caused widespread health concerns during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, eventually resulting in the historic 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the US and the USSR. Though the American people did experience a brief moment of coherent public health consciousness during that period and weapons testing went underground and into massive and very expensive super-computer programs for virtual testing, the Nevada Test Site is still one of the most contaminated places on Earth and the wind still lifts radioactive fallout into the sky. Nine hundred twenty-eight US nuclear weapons tested and the legacy has begun.

A treaty cannot be withdrawn from the Senate once it is presented for approval so President Bush has resolved to let the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty languish in the Senate where necessary votes for ratification are lacking. Bush has long opposed the treaty, which was rejected by the Senate in a partisan vote, 51 to 48, a couple of years ago. Currently, 161 nations have signed the treaty and 77 of them have ratified it. Among those are 31 of the 44 states required for the treaty to enter into force; among the remaining 13 are the US, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. The Bush administration recently asked US nuclear weapons scientists to examine ways that nuclear test explosions beneath the Nevada desert could resume more quickly if the government decides to end a nine-year moratorium on nuclear testing.

At least 300,000 US soldiers were also exposed to nuclear weapons testing through atmospheric tests at short range between 1945 and 1962. Many have suffered increased incidences of leukemia and other cancers and the US government would have us all believe that those military personnel were making personal sacrifices in the line of duty. The same corporate/military complex that profits from nuclear testing has put a cloak of murky mystification over its modus operandi and corporate control of the media itself is consolidating the tangled web of deceptions. Sometimes they are one in the same. For example, General Electric, one of the all-time champions of nuclear weapons testing and deployment, owns NBC.

That the powers that be have allowed themselves the guinea-pigging of humanity and the rest of our biosphere with the manufactured consent of the populace is also evidenced in the proliferation of nuclear power and its related toxicity.

One of the nuclear industry's early public relations tricks was what Eisenhower called the 'peaceful atom': nuclear power plants. Initially, the electrical utilities were not interested in entering into the high-stakes, super-expensive game; so they were recruited through all sorts of bribes and inducements. There was a tremendous public relations machine, the Atomic Energy Commission, chaired by Dixie Ray Lee in the 1960s. She became famous for her excursions into the media lights by stating the she would eat plutonium. "I'm not worried, you know, about these isotopes." Unfortunately she failed to keep her promise, nuclear power plants were built and the guinea-pigging of the public continued. One inducement created for the utilities was an insurance cap that limited their liability; Uncle Sam's silent lambs would pick up the tab.

Last renewed in 1987, The Price-Anderson Act limits nuclear industry liability in the event of an accident. Currently, the limit is about $8 billion, however, the exact amount depends upon how many reactors are operating. Essentially, the nuclear power industry as a whole purchases $200 million worth of private insurance and when that money is taken up each reactor is levied $10 million per year for about seven years. If accident damages exceed that amount, taxpayers will make up the difference. Compare that to the 1982 Sandia National Laboratory study (http://www.mothersalert.org/crac.html) that projected economic damages of up to $300 billion (1982 dollars) resulting from an accident at the Indian Point, N.Y. reactor site. The 1982 Chernobyl catastrophe already has cost Russia, Ukraine and Belarus approximately $300 billion and costs from interdicted land, radioactive waste disposal and ongoing health effects mount daily.

Moreover, no other hazardous industry has such a subsidized insurance scheme...not chlorine, not any other toxic or chemical manufacturer. Current estimates of this taxpayer subsidy are about $3 billion per year, based on the estimated costs if each utility purchased the full amount of its own insurance. If they did, of course, the costs would be passed on to the ratepayers and the public would be impacted and respond; but a taxpayer subsidy can be hidden in the vast ocean of government spending.

The House Commerce Committee wants to finish work on a major energy bill and send it to the floor so the full House can pass it before the August recess. In the package will be reauthorization of the Price-Anderson Act. It is important to note that if Price-Anderson is not renewed, its provisions will continue to hold for existing reactors. It is only to subsidize the construction of new reactors that Price-Anderson renewal is even being considered. If renewed, it will serve only as an unnecessary, even dangerous, government subsidy that favors one electrical generation method, nuclear power, over others such as gas, solar, wind and geothermal.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Pete Domencini (R-NM) has a twinkle in his eye when he talks about the possibilities for the nuclear power industry. Though it's been more than twenty years since a reactor was built, and for much of that time Domencini has been a lone voice in Washington, he now has seventeen co-sponsors for his nuclear power bill, the "Nuclear Energy Electricity Supply Assurance Act of 2001." The bill is designed to ease the way for a resurgence of nuclear power through regulatory relief and the Bush II administration has put lyrics to the tune by giving nuclear power a prominent role in America's new national energy plan. On the other side of the orchestra, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the new Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairperson, states that "the economics are the most important factor...once they are built, they produce power at a relatively low cost." According to a 1999 study by the Worldwatch Institute, the last nuclear power plants built in the US cost an inflation-adjusted $3 billion to $4 billion each; 100 times the cost of a natural gas plant of equal output. Look for mixed but bi-partisan support of Domencini's legislation, it will renew the Price-Anderson Act, authorize spending on new power plant research, and fund research for new nuclear waste disposal technology.

In what appears to be more corporate socialism, US taxpayers are funding the Export-Import Bank which is solidly backing major US nuclear contractors such as Westinghouse, Bechtel, and General Electric in their efforts to seek foreign markets for nuclear reactors. Between 1959 and 1993 Ex-Im Bank spent $7.7 billion to help sell American-made reactors abroad. Most countries do not have the capital to buy nuclear power generators so contractors, in order to be competitive, provide 100% of the financing. If the host country defaults on its loan, the Ex-Im Bank steps in with American taxpayer dollars.

Westinghouse built the Bataan nuclear power facility in the Philippines in 1985 at a cost of $1.2 billion, 150% above their projections. However, the Bataan plant was never brought online due to the fact it was near an active volcano. Despite the fact that the plant never generated a single kilowatt of energy, the Philippines still pays about $300,000 a day in interest on the Ex-Im Bank loan that funded the project. Should the Philippines default, US taxpayers will pickup the tab.

In Turkey, the Ex-Im Bank has approved a preliminary loan in support of a Westinghouse-led consortium's $3.2 billion bid to build the Akkuyu plant on the Mediterranean coast. The Akkuyu plant site is near an active fault line in a region that has experienced a number of strong earthquakes over the last 100 years. Estimates are that some 70 nuclear power plants will be built in Asia in the next 25 years and China will be a principle buyer despite Beijing's refusal to abide by nonproliferation rules established by the International Atomic Energy Act.

One hundred and three nuclear reactors were online in America last year, they generated power an average of 89% of total possible operating time and produced 23% of the nation's electricity. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission relicensed five nuclear power plants and another forty are expected to apply for operating license extensions in the next few years. It would seem economically feasible to extend plant operations but one must also consider the likelihood of system failures in the aging equipment. Reactor failures can be very dangerous and extremely expensive.

Between now and 2020, according to a federal study published last December, 27% of current nuclear generating capacity will be retired. During that time US electricity demands will increase by 1.8% per year which means that 1,300 new power plants could be needed in this country; more than one new plant each week. That brings us to the crux of the problem: a competitive economic system that nurtures a culture of consumerism and over-population. How long can the parents of capitalism continue to lie to their children about the consequences of the family secrets? How long can they hide in the darkness of feigned ignorance?

Not much longer.

To date, US reactors have accumulated about 42,000 tons of spent fuel rods that are stored either in reactor pools or in dry storage casks. These storage facilities are only meant for transitional use and a permanent, 300,000 year solution is yet to be found. Much of the radioactive material will be hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years and a plan for its safekeeping was not developed before the creation of nuclear power plants. The same lack of foresight marks the nuclear weapons industry and it has even deadlier and more volatile waste to dispose of. It seems likely that the $58 billion Yucca Mountain repository will be built in Nevada by US taxpayers; and toxic, radioactive waste will be transported to it from all around the country despite widespread opposition; and when that facility is filled to its maximum capacity of 70,000 metric tons there will still be thousands of tons of radioactive material in transitional storage.

I'm reminded of something Norman Solomon said in a speech delivered at the University of California, Santa Cruz on February 24, 1992. "If your bathtub were overflowing and you came in the front door and there was water in your living room having run down the steps from the bathroom, you probably would decide that one of the first things you should do is turn off the water."


       Michael W. Stowell is chairperson of both the City of Arcata, Humboldt County, CA, Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Commission and the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Arcata Library. He is the producer/editor/videographer of numerous public access television programs; he is a naturalist, a gardener, a bicyclist and a Swans columnist.

[Ed. Note: The City of Arcata, incorporated in 1858, is located in Humboldt County, on California's Redwood Coast, at the juncture of California Highway 101 and 299 West. The city is approximately 289 miles north of San Francisco, 150 miles west of Redding and 760 miles north of Los Angeles. The 1990 census reported Arcata's population as 15,197 and the county population as 119,118.]


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Published July 23, 2001
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