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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: Nuclear power — 70 years later

By Ed Smith
December 6, 2012 | 11:30 a.m. CST

Dec. 2 marked the 70th year since the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction took place. This past weekend I attended an event at the University of Chicago, the location of the first experiment, to remember the day that ushered mankind into the Atomic Age, in a shroud of secrecy.

Reflecting on the lives destroyed over the last 70 years the Atomic Age is sobering. On Sunday, I heard a Japanese woman speak who survived the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. At least 140,000 Japanese were killed from the U.S. attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I listened to a Native American from the Sioux tribe in South Dakota. She and her ancestors’ waters, food and way of life have been contaminated by uranium mines, the cost of the nuclear fuel cycle. To come full circle we heard from a young woman from Japan who is working on the frontlines with communities contaminated by the Fukushima triple nuclear meltdown. More than 100,000 people still cannot return home more than 18 months later. Imagine evacuating the entire city of Columbia indefinitely. It’s daunting.

Missouri has cause to reflect on our own nuclear and radioactive history. In April of 1942, The Manhattan Project secretly contracted Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, located in St. Louis, to purify uranium on a commercial scale. Commercial purification lasted for 25 years in the region while the radioactive waste contamination will outlive all of us.

The Japanese were not the only victims of The Manhattan Project. Too many Mallinckrodt workers, because of purifying uranium and handling wastes, had years shaved off their lives. It was one employee’s daughter, Denise Brock, who tirelessly worked the legal and political system to finally win $150,000 to cover their incredible health bills. People who were unknowingly exposed to radioactive materials just because of where they lived, worked or played are still out of luck.

These people are real. They live in Hematite, near Gov. Jay Nixon’s hometown of De Soto, and are worried about health problems due to the nuclear fuel production facility that Westinghouse is paying $200 million to clean up. They are the 300,000 people who live in north St. Louis County whose water is threatened by tons of radioactive waste illegally dumped in the Missouri River floodplain in 1973. They are the kids who played in Coldwater Creek in St. Louis or near Weldon Spring in St. Charles who have died before their 20 year high school reunion.

Health concerns are valid. The National Academy of Sciences recognizes there’s no safe level of ionizing radiation exposure for humans. Increased exposure means increased health risk, plain and simple. For this reason, pregnant women don’t even get small doses of radiation, like x-rays.

Nuclear power, for weapons or commercial use, has real consequences. It’s great to be pro-jobs. I don’t know many people who aren’t. But at what cost and to whom? There’s a new proposed uranium mine along the Missouri River in South Dakota. If Callaway 1 receives a license extension or Ameren gets a small modular reactor, are we going to help the Sioux woman clean up at least one of the hundreds of abandoned uranium mines as a thank you for the fuel from her land?

Health problems aside, look to the history of nuclear power for an indication of the future. Wall Street stopped financing nukes decades ago. If the economics are as rosy as nuclear proponents say, and “small nukes” are really a $25 billion industry, then where are the bankers? If nuclear is good business then the industry shouldn’t need upfront taxpayer and utility customers’ money to build them 70 years after the birth of the technology. The “too cheap to meter” promise for commercial reactors in the 1950s is now too expensive for Goldman Sachs.

The nuclear industry has a history of minimizing risk (economic, health, accident) while marginalizing critics. Missourians overwhelmingly voted for renewable energy in 2008. Instead of safe energy, politicians and utility executives are trying to shove expensive nuclear power down our throats. I encourage you to consider the long-term costs of nuclear power. And in the short-term, watch out for state legislators, especially who are “anti-tax,” that want to increase your electric bill to subsidize nuclear power for monopoly electric utilities.

Ed Smith is the Safe Energy Director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, a 43-year-old independent, environmental nonprofit organization.