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Sunday, September 9, 2007

The original inconvenient truth

There was a time, more than a decade ago, when I fancied myself as something of an expert on nuclear waste issues. As a species, we create lots of radioactive garbage every day, and despite a bunch of malarkey to the contrary, (a) it's not safe to be around it, and (b) the vast majority of it comes from nuclear power plants.

In studying this fascinating subject, I had to learn a little bit about physics and biology, and a lot about big-bucks politics and governmental lying. On the biology side of things, among the big questions were how much radiation one's cells could absorb before they went haywire, and how radioactive a substance needed to be before it posed an intolerable risk.

One of the pioneers in the discussion of the health effects of ionizing radiation was a scientist named John Gofman. Gofman worked on the Manhattan Project, which produced the United States' first atomic bombs during World War II, and in that capacity he developed techniques for creating and capturing plutonium, which nowadays is an essential ingredient in most such weapons.

He then went on to medical school, and as a doctor he made major contributions in the understanding of cholesterol and its relationship to heart disease. In the '60s, however, the federal Atomic Energy Commission hired him to study the health effects of radiation, and it was there that Gofman and his professional partner, Arthur Tamplin, blew some big whistles. Their findings about the health hazards presented by exposure to radioactivity stunned the world, and they changed the casual way in which humans approached such radiation.

Their questioning of the safety of "low level" exposure to radioactivity made them the immediate targets of the nuclear energy and nuclear weapons industries, which embarked on a campaign to discredit them. Those guys know how to play rough. Gofman disputed their assertion that there was a safe "threshold" for exposure to ionizing radiation. He spent the rest of his life confronting the nuclear establishment, and warning the public that government reassurances that everything is fine in Nuke Land are false.

Gofman, who eventually became an emeritus professor at Berkeley, died of heart failure at his San Francisco home last month. He was 88 years old.

Nowadays I spend a lot of time wondering how passive and gullible the American public can be -- how easily it gets conned by our government and by the corporate interests that rule the world. Throughout the Bush Presidency, I have shaken my head just about daily at our folly. I'm sure none of it was a surprise to Gofman, who spent decades decrying the same phenomena in the electricity, medical, and defense arenas. But he spoke out and he kept fighting, and so he serves as an inspiration to the rest of us, who owe it to ourselves to do the same.

Comments (24)

Rest in Peace Gofman, sounds like you could use it.

I don't know if he got tired. But he was brilliant, and he kept going when others would have taken the money and shut up.

To Whom It May Concern:

Yes, I was wondering if someone could explain to me what the dangers of radioactive waste have to do with the Bush Presidency? The two issues seem unconnected to me. I therefore find it a waste of energy, and the good memory of Gofman, to misdirect resentment regarding one issue and use it to attack President George Bush instead.

I await your response. Thank you for your time and have a good day.


To Whom It Should Concern:

Try entering the words "depleted uranium" into your search engine. Maybe add "Iraq" to it. One warning: If one of the websites mentions graphic pictures of badly deformed children, or children with cancers do not look at these pictures. You won't want to see them, because they're way off message from our President this week. Just remember the surge is working and be happy.

Here at home you might want to take a look at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant as an example of Bush's take on corporations over the public health. It was scheduled to close in 2012 because of old age but the Bush administration is in the process of granting a 20-year extension. They've already granted a waiver allowing it to run at 120% of capacity. So far, everything is going great, and Vermont Yankee even sounds patriotic, which proves this is good.

No administration in history has done more to put science at the mercy of cronyism. Somebody's roommate from college, or somebody's kid who needs a job, takes precedence over actual competence. Other bothersome areas like testing Chinese toys for lead are cut back, because why spend money protecting the public through science? If something is wrong, Jesus will tell the President, right? That toy-testing department has literally been whittled down to one guy, and it goes on and on.

Yes, the problem of nuclear waste predates President Bush. I recommend a documentary about General Electric that shows the cancers and birth defects around Hanford. I don't have a name but you probably could search for it. You won't see it on NBC - General Electric owns NBC - but you might see it on cable access. Wait, you probably don't want to watch it. Just remember G.E. brings good things to life like your TV set tells you.

And don't worry about the thousands of tons of depleted uranium that President Bush has used in Iraq. The half-life of that nuclear waste is 4 and a half billion years, so it's just a matter of time before the problem goes away.

Funny, isn't it? We invaded over WMDs - nuclear weapons that the President knew didn't exist - and we end up using nuclear shells in the form of depleted uranium. That's ironic.

But there's no reason for you to know about it. It'll just make you feel awful. Besides, this week's message is that the surge is working and we should all be really happy about that.

Mr. McDonald-

Please stop bringing pesky facts into this discussion. We all know the problems associated with nuclear waste are the Clintons' fault.

Thank you.

Truth is that the Texas Turd is pushing for more nuclear plants as his clean energy program. As with everything else he has taken on, this too will be a disaster with corruption and using inferior materials and shortcutting safety issues. Maybe Cheney will be put in charge with his Halliburton thugs to produce these monuments of criminality.
How can those, like Sara, be so wrong-headed?

Truth is, fossil fuels are our past and nuclear energy is our future. Figuring out how to harness it while minimizing and/or neutralizing its risks is our task. Some were prescient and realized these things 40 years ago. Simple as that. Neo-Luddism is not gonna get 'er done.

To Sara,
I hope you will read Bill Mcdonald's post. I mean really read it!
Should you wish to further your education, look up Naiomi Klein's new book, "The Rise of Disaster Capitalism".
Even the critics of the book acknowledge that "enough truth remains to condemn a global status quo in which the profit humgry make use of the fantastical theories of the Chicago School of Economics".
FYI... you can check it out in the Globe and Mail newpaper from Canada, in yesterday's edition.
It is all about the money.

Bill, great post. I will be stealing your words to sound bright at parties.

As a granola eating, bike riding, Volvo driving type I have a tough time dealing with nuclear energy. I think a lot of the costs have been socialized so it has looked artificially cheap. However, the demand for oil is overtaking supply (sorry, dudes but it is), the natural gas on our continent is declining and the bloody ice caps are melting. I want wind, tidal and sun to replace fossil fuels but every non-political, nerdy assessment I read tells me there is a big gap between demand and what renewables are likely to supply in the next fifty years. That seems to leave the two choices of either rapidly reducing demand (I don’t see a politician running on the “you can’t have all this stuff” platform), or nuclear. Of course, many countries seem to have decided to bring back nuclear at the same time, which means we may run out of uranium sooner than expected.

NukeYouLiar Dubya is guilty and blamed for selling stupidity and insisting that everyone buys it. Paying impoverishing taxation, of guilt and complicity, against generations yet unborn, for the medical needs of veterans returned from lands of uranium-salted sands and, so far, of whom more than half have bodies so contaminated they 'glow in the dark.' Stupidity monolithic.

There is NO safe or secure process for nuclear power. Study nuclear physics and know, that the radiated isotopes corrode any and all metallurgy of containments. For unknowing so complete as to be an abomination of stupidity, listen some day to LIARS Larson explain how nuclear reactors 'make' electricity by 'some kind of spark that happens.' (No. The reaction heats water to boiling, and from it the steam pressure is jetted against propelling blades which turn a conventional turbine, the same as wind or water can turn just as much. The scalding water 'by-product' is effluent into rivers, cooking death to all biotic life there.) Hanford's leaching plutonium waste is sedimented in the Columbia, now found and measured as far downriver as the confluence with the Willamette.

There are hopeful prospects in early research, [see: Fungi in Bioremediation, Edited by Geoff M. Gadd ], of mycological remediation for petroleum and hydrocarbon contaminations in the environment, and maybe including the polychlorinated phenyls and bi-phenyls groups, too. There is NO process or prospects for remediation of radiological contaminations, only arrest, removal, containment, and disposal -- where 'disposal' means 'into the core of the Earth,' through tectonic migration.

Further, there is not enough uranium on the planet, for today's designs, to produce (in replacement) as much electric power as is being generated today, mostly by hydrocarbon combustion, (80% of US electricity source, e.g.), even if that many reactor facilities existed, overnight.

Furthermore, the world's uranium deposits are increasingly sequestered by the right and sensibility of the indigenous First Peoples.

Not sure to say what the future is for neo-Luddites, yet it seems coming clear that the self-sufficient agrarian mindset might be only who survive the century ahead.

It does sound good. Problem is that it's a one-sided presentation. Every single claim he makes is unproven and a matter of debate.

Maybe one of the Tri-Cities geniuses who have done such a good job with the Hanford site would be a good debate opponent.

a waste of energy, and the good memory of Gofman, to misdirect resentment regarding one issue and use it to attack President George Bush instead

I'm sure Gofman disliked Bush every bit as much as I do, particularly his ideas about expanding nuclear operations around the world.

Or maybe good debate opponents would be those guys that the last Dem presidential nominee kept telling us are so much more intelligent, sophisticated and nuanced than we --the French. France operates 59 nuclear power plants, which produces 79% of its power, and produces more nuclear power thn anybody else. France is also the largest net exporter of energy in the world, and its electricity cost is the lowest in Europe.

I don't think Kerry was advocating the French nuclear power program. I do think you are becoming an insufferable, argumentative person, as usual.

Truth is, fossil fuels are our past and nuclear energy is our future.

prove it.

...those guys that the last Dem presidential nominee kept telling us are so much more intelligent, sophisticated and nuanced than we --the French.

i'd be grateful for one quote from a Democratic candidate in the last election that states (or even strongly implies) "the French are more intelligent, sophisticated and nuanced than we".

Don't be dragged that far off topic by a troll.

the same as wind or water can turn just as much

But all the enviros say we cant have those either...they hurt birdies and fishies.

To the current government, ordinary people (soldiers, coal miners, toy-seeking children, etc.) are a resource that can be expended for the economic benefit of the elite. The great advantage of nuclear power in this program is its promise of capturing and monetizing the present value of almost unlimited future generations, not just in this country but around the world.

Look! Up in the sky!
It's the SUN; and it works!
OK the basic infrastructure is pricey now, but the gov't could subsidize the initial cost for homeowners, like they do for SUVs.
And don't tell me it won't work in our climate and at our latitude, because we use ours everyday very successfully at 49 degrees north!
Oh and don't forget to unplug all those things with clocks and stuff. A huge percentage of power is wasted everyday on parasitic appliances.

OK the basic infrastructure is pricey now, but the gov't could subsidize the initial cost for homeowners, like they do for SUVs.

SUV's? I must have missed that when I bought mine. Where do I sign up?

So you power your entire home without electricity service? I didnt think we got enough sun up here for it to work efficiently.
I know a guy in CA who does, but it cost him nearly $200k to outfit his home to run entirely on solar power.

SUV's? I must have missed that when I bought mine. Where do I sign up?

Over 3 ton gross weight (GWVR) vehicles used in a business get a very generous Sec. 179 deduction. Or, at least, until recently they did.

Over 3 ton gross weight (GWVR) vehicles used in a business get a very generous Sec. 179 deduction. Or, at least, until recently they did.

Hmm, my Nissan doesnt weigh anything near that...(hell, my old full-size Expedition didnt weigh that much either.)

But its interesting how one can see a business deduction for large vehicles, and turn it into propaganda as a blanket deduction for "evil SUVs"...

Jon: "I didnt think we got enough sun up here for it to work efficiently." Yet, you didn't know. So look it up. Do the math. Figure it out. Set aside, for a second, the conclusion on which you base your facts.

Good engineering takes a tip from Nature's technique of redundant design and distributed load. Meaning: Don't put all your electrical eggs in one basket. Solar panels alone can't do enough. Wind generators alone can't do enough. Micro-hydro generation, or ocean- and tidal-wave action, or biomass compost pile heating, or a Honda generator running on alcohol distilled from garden tillage, or personal conservative-use lifestyle sacrifices -- any one alone can't do enough. Integrate the power grander.

You can do this. We all can. Because we say we Can Do.

Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, by Ralph Nader, September 11, 2007, CommonDreams.org
Taxpayers alert! The atomic power corporations are beating on the doors in Washington to make you guarantee their financing for more giant nuclear plants. They are pouring money and applying political muscle to Congress for up to $50 billion ....

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