Have We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?
Have we learned to stop worrying and love the bomb?
The House recently approved a defense authorization bill for 2013 that shows a remarkable disregard for our current nuclear goals and the deadly legacy of our nuclear past. Several aspects of this bill are troubling. Despite U.S. commitment to the 2010 New Start pact, when both the U.S. and Moscow agreed to cut the number of deployed strategic weapons, the bill proposes keeping the number of weapons at current levels with no reduction or withdrawal of tactical weapons in Europe. The bill wants to beef up bomb production as well. Back in 1989, when the production of plutonium pits was halted at Rocky Flats following an FBI raid, the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico picked up the slack. But LANL is capable of producing only a few pits per year whereas Rocky Flats produced 70,000 over nearly 40 years. The bill calls for $160 million to build a new plutonium plant in New Mexico to make as many as 450 or more pits per year, even though the Energy Department says that existing facilities and current stockpiles of plutonium pits are adequate.
The bill aims to weaken worker protections as well. For decades, nuclear weapons workers at DOE sites were put at risk without their knowledge or consent. If passed, the bill would raise exposure levels and reduce the protection of workers exposed to radiological hazards. And it’s not that workers haven’t had enough trouble already. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, enacted in 2000 to provide compensation for nuclear workers who developed illnesses while working in the nuclear industry, hasn’t provided much relief. Due to lost or poorly kept medical records at DOE sites and administrative red tape that includes conflicts over qualifying contaminants and dose reconstruction formulas, nearly 2 out of every 3 workers who have filed a claim remain uncompensated. Workers’ efforts to have their concerns addressed by the Obama administration (despite Obama’s early support of the program) or the Romney campaign have been stymied. Just last week a group of workers at a Romney event in Colorado were told to leave their signs at the door, even though other groups were allowed to bring signs.
But the most egregious example of our willingness to erase the past is the recent decision by the Supreme Court to sidestep a class-action lawsuit in Colorado that residents have been pursuing for over two decades.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli filed three briefs last week, urging the justices not to intervene in three environmental cases under consideration. One of those cases was Cook v. Rockwell International Corp, involving more than 12,000 landowners near the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver. Originally filed in 1990 after an FBI raid on the plant, it took 20 years for the case to wind its way through the courts. In 2006 a jury awarded the plaintiffs $926 million, but a panel of three judges with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver overturned the decision. At stake—in addition to the health and property values of thousands of concerned residents near Denver—is how to establish compensation for a nuclear incident under the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act. Established in 1957 and recently extended until 2025, the Act largely indemnifies private contractors like Rockwell and Dow Chemical from any liability related to nuclear accidents. The wrangling includes debate over state versus federal law, how much plutonium constitutes a real harm, and if residents can prove a link between plutonium exposure and health effects that include lung cancer and leukemia. There is little question as to the fact that residents’ properties were contaminated with plutonium. The question is how much actual risk is actually involved, and who’s responsible. The situation is not unlike the tobacco industry a few years ago. It’s hard to prove the link. And controversy continues over the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, the site of the former nuclear weapons plant slated to open for public recreation even though a large portion of the site is so profoundly contaminated it can never open to the public.
The Supreme Court will likely not take up the Rocky Flats case, or any of the three proposed environmental cases. In the meantime, the White House has threatened to veto the defense authorization bill unless changes are made, but no one seems to want nuclear weapons—and nuclear power—to become campaign issues. The Senate bill has only made it through committee, but it includes the new plutonium plant in New Mexico.
How can we tell the rest of the world to limit their nuclear ambitions, when we can’t limit our own? Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. Hasty decisions on this bill will have long-term ramifications.
Kristen Iversen is the author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats