By Karen Charman
if you were promoting an industry that had the potential to kill
and injure enormous numbers of people as well as contaminate large
areas of land for tens of thousands of years? What if this industry
created vast stockpiles of deadly waste but nevertheless required
massive amounts of public funding to keep
it going? My guess is that you might want to hide that information.
From the heyday of the environmental movement in the late 1960s
through the late 1970s, many people were openly skeptical about
the destructive potential of the nuclear power industry. After the
partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in central Pennsylvania in
March 1979 and the explosion of Chernobyl’s unit four reactor
in the Ukraine in April 1986, few would have predicted that nuclear
power could ever shake off its global pariah status.
Yet, thanks to diligent
lobbying efforts, strong government support, and a full public-relations
blitz over the past decade, the once-reviled nuclear industry succeeded
in recasting itself in the public mind as an essential, affordable,
clean (low carbon emission), and safe energy option in a warming
world. In fact, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has
just cleared the way for granting the first two licenses for any
new reactors in more than 30 years. The new reactors will be built
at the Vogtle plant in Georgia, southeast of Augusta.
Even so, the ongoing crisis following meltdowns in three of the
six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan nearly
a year ago has shined an unwanted spotlight on the dark side of
nuclear power, once again raising questions about the reliability
and safety of atomic reactors.
In response, the nuclear industry and its supporters have employed
sophisticated press manipulation to move the public conversation
away from these thorny issues. One example is PBS’s recent
Frontline documentary, Nuclear
Aftershocks, which examines the viability of nuclear power in
a post-Fukushima world.
What follows is a detailed critique of many of the issues raised
in the program, which initially aired January 17, 2012.
In the program, NASA’s celebrated chief climate scientist,
James Hansen—who has a penchant for getting
arrested protesting the extraction and burning of the dirtiest
fossil fuels—says that the Fukushima accident was “really
extremely bad timing.” Though it was at the end of a statement
about the harm of continuing to burn fossil fuels, Hansen’s
comment begs the question: Is there ever a good time or place for
a nuclear catastrophe?
Under the cloud of what some experts believe is already worse
than Chernobyl, the nuclear industry and its supporters are
scrambling to put as good a face on the Fukushima Daiichi disaster
Fukushima’s triple meltdowns, which are greatly complicating
and prolonging the cleanup of the estimated
20 million metric tons of debris from the 9.0 earthquake and
subsequent tsunami last March, present a steep public relations
The strategy seems to be: 1) to acknowledge the undeniable—the
blown-up reactor buildings that look like they were bombed in a
war, the massive release of radionuclides into the environment,
the fact that tens of thousands of people have been displaced from
their homes and livelihoods, and that some areas may not be habitable
for generations, if ever. But then, 2) after coming clean about
those harsh truths, downplay or dismiss the harm of the ongoing
radiation contamination, invoking (irrational) “fear”
as the much greater danger. And 3) frame discussion of the need
for nuclear power in the even scarier context of global warming-induced
catastrophic climate change (this despite the irony that the reality
of global warming is still rejected by fossil fuel industry partisans
and growing numbers of the public who have been swayed by the industry’s
media-amplified misinformation). Whether consciously or not, Frontline’s
Nuclear Aftershocks adheres to this PR strategy.
The program begins with a harrowing view of nuclear power at its
most destructive. Viewers see close-ups of the three destroyed Fukushima
Daiichi reactors with the tops of their buildings blown off amidst
the wreckage around the plant. Real time video captured on cell
phones shows the precipitating earthquake, and there is film of
the ensuing tsunami that engulfed the plant.
Frontline also captures the dystopian scene of an utterly destroyed
landscape littered with seemingly unending tracts of twisted and
broken buildings, infrastructure, and the various trappings of modern
Japanese life—much of it now radioactive detritus. A member
of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission who toured the plant six
weeks after the beginning of the disaster sums it up with this simple
comment: “This scenery is beyond my imagination.”
Frontline clearly explains how, without electricity to run the valves
and pumps that push water through the reactors’ cooling systems,
the intensely radioactive and thermally hot fuel in three of the
Electric Mark 1 boiling water reactors (BWRs) then in operation
quickly began to melt. (Loss of all electricity is one of the most
dangerous situations for a nuclear reactor, and is known as a station
blackout.) This in turn led to a build-up of hydrogen, which is
highly combustible, in the reactor buildings where any small spark
could—and did—trigger explosions.
“It was an unprecedented multiple meltdown disaster,”
Frontline correspondent Miles O’Brien reports. “For
the first time since the Chernobyl accident in 1986, large quantities
of dangerous radioactive materials—about one-tenth of the
Chernobyl release—spewed into the atmosphere from a stricken
nuclear power plant.”
As bad as that was, O’Brien says the problems for plant owner
Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco,) were only just beginning.
That’s because Tepco had to try to keep the reactors cooled
with enough water in order to prevent the absolute worst, what is
popularly but misleadingly referred to as “The China Syndrome.”
According to nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, a China Syndrome
accident is a
three-stage progression. In stage one, all of the fuel inside
a reactor melts and turns into a blob at the bottom of the reactor
core (the “meltdown”). In stage two, the molten radioactive
blob eats through the nuclear reactor vessel (“a melt-through”),
which in the case of GE Mark 1 BWRs is an eight-inch steel encasement.
Housing the reactor vessel is the containment structure, three feet
of concrete lined with two inches of steel. If the melted nuclear
fuel were to bore through that and hit the natural water table below
the plant, it would result in a massive steam explosion that would
send most of the reactor’s deadly contents into the air, where
they would disperse far and wide.
Although CUNY physics professor Michio Kaku said on ABC’s
Nightline, that Tepco’s efforts were “like a
squirt gun trying to put out a forest fire,” the company
was able to get enough water in to keep the fuel cool enough to
prevent the absolute worst case.
Gundersen says that was the good news.
The bad news is that the water that has come into direct contact
with the melted fuel in the three destroyed reactors (including
water that is still covering them) is leaking out the side through
cracks in the containment structures, filling other buildings at
the plant, and seeping down into the groundwater below and around
the plant and directly into the Pacific Ocean. Frontline acknowledges
the problem, pointing out that because of the high levels of radiation,
it will be “a long time” before the site is decontaminated
enough for anyone to be able to get inside the reactor to see exactly
where the cracks are and to fix them.
As significant a problem as this ongoing contamination is, the biggest
discharges of radioactivity into the Pacific—considered
the largest ever release of radioactive material into the sea—occurred
within the first seven weeks of the accident. At its peak concentration,
cesium-137 levels from Fukushima were 50
million times greater than levels measured before the accident,
according to research
by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution chemist, Ken Buesseler and
two Japanese colleagues.
It’s impossible to know exactly how much radioactivity contaminated
the Pacific or what the full impact on the marine food chain will
be. A preliminary estimate by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency reported
in the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun in October said that more
than 15 quadrillion becquerels of radioactivity poured into
the ocean just from the Fukushima Unit 1 reactor between March 21st
and April 30th last year. (One quadrillion equals 1,000 trillion.)
in January in the Montreal Gazette noted that Japanese testing for
radioactive cesium revealed contamination in sixteen of 22 species
of fish exported to Canada. Radioactive cesium was found in 73 percent
of the mackerel tested, 91 percent of the halibut, 92 percent of
the sardines, 93 percent of the tuna and eel, 94 percent of the
cod and anchovies, and 100 percent of the carp, seaweed, shark,
and monkfish. These tests were conducted in November and indicate
that the radioactivity is spreading, because tuna, for example,
is caught at least 900
kilometers (560 miles) off shore.
Real Health Concerns or Just Fear?
In summing up the disaster, Frontline’s O’Brien says:
“The earthquake and tsunami had stripped whole towns from
their foundations, killing an estimated 18,000 people. Life is forever
But then he shifts from documenting the undeniable devastation to
speculating on how big a problem remains: “[T]he big concern
remains the radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear explosions.
People here are fearful about how much radiation there is, how far
it has spread, and the possible health effects.”
Japanese citizens have decried their government’s decision
to allow radiation exposures of up to 20 millisieverts a year before
ordering an evacuation. O’Brien equates this level with “two
or three abdominal CAT scans in the same period” but nevertheless
characterizes it as “conservative.” What follows is
his exchange with Dr. Gen Suzuki, a radiation specialist with the
Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission.
MILES O’BRIEN: [on camera] So at 20 millisieverts over the
course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk?
SUZUKI, Radiation specialist, Nuclear Safety Comm.: Yeah, it’s
0.2— 0.2 percent increase in lifetime.
MILES O’BRIEN: [on camera] 0.2 percent over the course of
GEN SUZUKI: Yeah.
MILES O’BRIEN: So your normal risk of cancer in Japan is?
GEN SUZUKI: Is 30 percent.
MILES O’BRIEN: So what is the increased cancer rate?
GEN SUZUKI: 30.2 percent, so the increment is quite small.
MILES O’BRIEN: And yet the fear is quite high.
GEN SUZUKI: Yes, that’s true.
MILES O’BRIEN: [voice-over] People are even concerned here,
in Fukushima City, outside the evacuation zone, where radiation
contamination is officially below any danger level.
Missing from the above exchange is both established and emerging
radiation biology science, as well as the fact that radiation exposure
is linked to numerous other health problems from immune system damage,
heart problems and gastro-intestinal ailments to birth defects,
including Down’s syndrome.
points out that, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
report (BEIR stands for Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation),
an annual exposure of 20 millisieverts will cause cancer in one
of every 500 people. Since this is an annual exposure rate, the
risk multiplies with each year of exposure. So, for example, five
years of exposure to 20 millisieverts will result in an additional
cancer in one in 100 people.
Gundersen notes that the risk is not the same for all population
groups. According to Table 12-D in BEIR VII Phase 2, the younger
the person exposed, the greater the risk of cancer.
Girls are nearly twice as vulnerable as boys of the same age, while
an infant girl is seven times and a five-year-old girl five times
more likely to get radiation-induced cancer than a 30-year-old male.
Using BEIR’s risk data, one in 100 girls will develop cancer
for every year that they are exposed to 20 millisieverts. If they
are exposed for five years, the rate increases to one in twenty.
New radiobiology science shows even more cause for concern. Numerous
studies of nuclear workers over the last six years—including
by 51 radiation scientists that looked at more than 400,000 nuclear
workers in 15 countries—found higher incidences of cancer
at significantly lower exposure rates than what Japan is allowing.
This finding is important because it challenges the application
of the highly
questionable data from the Japanese atom bomb survivors that
authorities use to set radiation exposure limits.
Nuclear reactors emit low doses of radionuclides into the air as
part of their normal operation. Because workers are generally exposed
to repeated low doses over time, compared to an initial very high
dose from a nuclear bomb, this data is a much more accurate predictor
of radiation-induced cancer in people in fallout zones, or downwind
of nuclear reactors, than records of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors.
Despite the fact that the National Academy of Sciences accepts that
there is no safe dose of radiation, nuclear proponents have long
insisted that low doses provided very little, if any, risk from
cancer. (Some even say it’s beneficial.)
But new evidence shows otherwise. Chromosomal translocations (or
aberrations), a kind of genetic injury that occurs when DNA molecules
damaged by genotoxic chemicals or radiation don’t properly
repair themselves, are well documented in cases of medium to high
radiation exposure. Chromosomal translocations are also known to
increase the risk of many forms of cancer.
Until recently, it wasn’t clear whether low-dose exposures
caused chromosomal translocations. A 2010 study
looking at the impact of medical X rays on chromosomes not only
found that this chromosomal damage occurs with low dose radiation
exposure, but that there were more chromosomal translocations per
unit of radiation below 20 millisieverts (the Japanese limit) and—surprisingly—“orders
of magnitude” more of this kind of damage at exposures below
Frontline’s complacent assessment of the “small increment”
of increased cancer risk to Japanese citizens from the ongoing Fukushima
fallout contrasts sharply with an assessment by the Canadian Medical
Association Journal. That peer-reviewed journal quotes health experts
who say the levels of radiation the Japanese government has set
before requiring evacuation, combined with a “culture of cover-up”
and insufficient cleanup, is exposing Japanese citizens to “unconscionable”
levels of radiation.
CMAJ notes that instead of expanding the evacuation zone around
the plant to 50 miles, as international authorities have urged,
the Japanese government has chosen to “define the problem
out of existence” by raising the allowable level of exposure
to one that is twenty times higher than the international standard
of one millisievert per year.
This “arbitrary increase” in the maximum permissible
dose of radiation is an “unconscionable” failure of
government, contends [chair of the Medical Association for Prevention
of Nuclear War, Tilman] Ruff. “Subject a class of 30 children
to 20 millisieverts of radiation for five years and you’re
talking an increased risk of cancer to the order of about 1 in 30,
which is completely unacceptable. I’m not aware of any other
government in recent decades that’s been willing to accept
such a high level of radiation-related risk for its population.”
Frontline’s take epitomizes a longstanding pattern of denying
radiation health effects, even in the most dire nuclear disasters
(though Fukushima is arguably the most dire to date) and blaming
it on the victims’ personal habits or their levels of stress
from fear of radiation. This was done to the victims of the March
1979 accident at Three
Mile Island in central Pennsylvania, to Chernobyl
victims, and it is happening again with Fukushima.
But what about alternatives? Are there any, or does Margaret Thatcher’s
famous slogan regarding capitalist globalization, “There Is
No Alternative” (TINA) apply?
Frontline answers this question by going to Germany, where correspondent
O’Brien probes the German psyche in an attempt to learn why
nuclear power elicits such a strong negative reaction there.
He questions several German citizens, including an adorable little
boy, on why they are so afraid of nuclear power. He speaks with
the head of the German government committee tasked with considering
how to phase out nuclear power, as well as a German energy economist,
who says the decision is not likely to change. And he expresses
astonishment that an industrial nation the scale of Germany has
decided to shut down all seventeen of its reactors, which account
for 23 percent of its electricity generation, within a decade.
Standing in a field that he identifies as the world’s largest
solar farm with solar panels as far as the eye can see, O’Brien
says Germans support this “seemingly rash decision”
because they have faith that there is an alternative.
He then informs viewers that over the past 20 years, Germany has
“invested heavily in renewables, with tax subsidies for wind
turbines and solar energy,” adding, “It’s kind
of surprising to see [the world’s largest solar farm] in a
place like this with such precious little sunshine.”
Though he says there is plenty of wind, he characterizes Germany’s
target of producing 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources
by 2050 as a “bold bet” whose success will depend on
technological breakthroughs to store enough wind or other renewable
energy (presumably through improved battery technology) so that
it can provide a steady source of power. He notes that the steady
production of power is something “nuclear energy does very
Any honest discussion of nuclear power—especially when raising
the issue of tax subsidies and other government support for renewable
sources like wind and solar—must include information on the
many hundreds of billions of dollars of public support thrown its
way. Despite the highly publicized recent bankruptcy of Solyndra,
this support dwarfs what has been given to renewables.
In the executive summary to his February 2011 report
on nuclear subsidies, energy economist Doug
Koplow says the “long and expensive history of taxpayer subsidies
and excessive charges to utility ratepayers…not only enabled
the nation’s existing reactors to be built in the first place,
[they] have also supported their operation for decades.”
Every part of the nuclear fuel chain—mining, milling and enriching
the uranium fuel; costs associated with the construction, running,
and shutting down and cleaning up of reactors; the waste; and even
the lion’s share of the liability in the case of an accident—has
been subsidized to one degree or another.
Koplow says that because the value of these subsidies often exceeded
the value of the power produced, “buying power on the open
market and giving it away for free would have been less costly than
subsidizing the construction and operation of nuclear power plants.”
One of the most important gifts to the nuclear industry is the pass
on financial responsibility for a serious accident. This was legislated
during the Cold War in the Price-Anderson Act of 1957. In fact,
without this protection, it’s highly unlikely the commercial
nuclear power industry could or would exist.
In a recent article
in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists arguing for the end
of Price-Anderson, nuclear industry economic analyst Mark Cooper
points out that 50 years ago General Electric and Westinghouse,
the two largest reactor manufacturers, said they wouldn’t
build reactors without it.
Although Price-Anderson was initially rationalized (along with many
of the other subsidies) as necessary protection to help get the
fledgling industry going, Congress has repeatedly renewed it over
Today, reactor owners have to carry a small amount of private insurance,
and Price-Anderson creates an industry-wide pool currently valued
at around $12 billion. Accounting for inflation, Cooper puts the
estimated costs of Chernobyl in excess of $600 billion. In Japan,
the Fukushima accident is projected to cost up to
$250 billion (though it could well be more). Here in the U.S.,
Cooper says, a serious accident at, say, Indian Point, just 35 miles
north of Manhattan, could cost as much as $1.5 trillion. If such
an accident were to happen in the U.S., taxpayers would be left
with the tab for the difference.
But even with all of the subsidies, the cost of building a new reactor—pegged
at between $6
billion and $12
billion apiece—is still so expensive that reactors only
get built with substantial government help.
To jumpstart a new round of nuclear construction, the Obama administration
is trying to offer $54.5 billion in loan guarantees (only $18.5
billion is actually authorized by Congress). This means that if
a project is delayed or cancelled for some reason—including
for concerns over safety—taxpayers pick up the tab for that
delay or cancellation.
Although the U.S. Department of Energy is expected
to approve $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for the two new reactors
at the Vogtle plant in Georgia any day now, significant concerns
remain over the
lack of transparency regarding the federal loan guarantees.
Besides the massive federal subsidies, the nuclear industry has
also succeeded in getting three states so far, South Carolina, Georgia,
and Florida, to pass legislation mandating “advanced cost
recovery.” This allows nuclear utilities to collect the cost
of building a reactor from their customers before it is built.
Advanced cost recovery programs have existed in the past, but Morgan
Pinnell, Safe Energy Program coordinator at Physicians for Social
Responsibility, says the new ones the nuclear industry is pushing
are particularly irresponsible from a public-interest point of view.
For example, in December 2011, a resolution
was offered to the St. Petersburg City Council to repeal the
2006 legislation, F.S. 366.93, citing, among other things, that
the two reactors that Progress Energy proposed for
Levy County would raise Progress Energy customers’ bills
more than $60 a month. Even if the reactors are never built, it’s
not clear whether the utility would have to pay the money back.
Are Nukes Green?
Back in the 1980s, when nuclear power was widely considered a pariah,
growing concern about global warming in government circles provided
an opportunity for the beleaguered industry. Since it was recognized
that nuclear power plants, unlike coal plants, did not produce carbon
emissions when generating electricity, the UN International Atomic
Energy Agency and some policymakers began to promote nuclear energy
as a necessary power source in a warming world.
By the early nineties, the nuclear industry began casting itself
as the clean, green “fresh air” energy source, a description
that goes unchallenged in today’s mainstream media. Towing
this line, Frontline’s Nuclear Aftershocks argues that nuclear
power is needed to combat climate change.
It bears asking how true, or even realistic, this claim is. In order
to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming, many climate
scientists have been saying for at least the better part of a decade
that by 2050 humanity needs to reduce
global carbon emissions 80 percent from what was emitted in
An MIT task force report, The
Future of Nuclear Power, written ostensibly to figure out how
to do that, calls for 1,000 to 1,500 thousand-megawatts electric
(MWe) capacity reactors to be up and running by 2050 to increase
the share of nuclear-generated electricity from 20 percent to 30
percent in the U.S. and 17 percent to 20 percent globally. (Currently
there are 435 reactors operating in the world and 104 at 60 different
locations in the U.S.)
The first page of the executive summary of the report says that
such a deployment would “avoid 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon
emissions from coal plants, about 25 percent of the increment in
a business-as-usual scenario.”
But displacement of 25 percent of the expected growth in carbon
emissions does not square with the need to cut emissions by 80 percent
by 2050. That aside, the 2009
update of the report notes that progress on building new reactors
has been slow, both globally and in the U.S.
The 2003 report reveals another hitch in this plan: in order to
deal with the nuclear waste from that many new reactors, an underground
repository the size of the highly controversial and cancelled
Yucca Mountain would have to be built somewhere in the world
every four years. It bears noting that we are in the sixth decade
since commercial nuclear power generation began and not one permanent
repository has been completed anywhere in the world.
Some people are calling for fuel reprocessing, which takes spent
nuclear fuel and uses a chemical process to extract plutonium and
uranium to make more nuclear fuel. Aside from the fact that reprocessing
wouldn’t actually reduce the volume of spent nuclear fuel
very much, it’s
dangerous, expensive, and irresponsibly polluting (the West
Valley reprocessing plant in Western New York, which ran for
six years between 1966 and 1972, is still a huge toxic mess).
Reprocessing also creates lots of weapons-grade plutonium that can
be made into atomic bombs, a feature that one might question in
our increasingly tense and politically unstable world.
Other nuclear enthusiasts see a magic bullet in thorium reactors,
but according to a 2009 Department of Energy study,
“the choice between uranium-based fuel and thorium-based fuels
is seen basically as one of preference, with no fundamental difference
in addressing the nuclear power issues.”
One specific design, the “liquid fluoride thorium reactor,
or LFTR (pronounced “lifter”) has attained cult status
as a “new,
green nuke” that its promoters say will produce a virtually
endless supply of electricity that is “too cheap to meter”
in “meltdown proof” reactors, creating miniscule quantities
of much shorter-lived waste that is impossible to refashion into
But critics say these claims are fiction. Thorium technology is
significantly more expensive than the already exorbitant uranium-fueled
reactors, so there are serious doubts it could ever be commercially
viable without much higher subsidies than the nuclear industry already
There are also serious safety concerns with reactors that run on
liquid fuel comprised of hot, molten salt, as the LFTR design does.
Ed Lyman, senior scientist in the Global Security program at the
Union of Concerned Scientists, says a small prototype of the LFTR
that operated at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s
remains “one of the most technically challenging cleanup problems
that Oak Ridge faces.”
Nukes in a Warming World
The need for nuclear power has been sold to the public as a way
to prevent the existential threat of catastrophic climate change.
But that argument can be turned the other way. In a world of increasingly
extreme weather events, we need to question the wisdom of having
more potential sources of widespread, deadly radiological contamination
that could be overwhelmed by some Fukushima-style natural disaster.
presentation to the San Clemente City Council, home of the
troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant, which is right on the
Pacific Ocean halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, nuclear
engineer Arnie Gundersen points out that U.S. nuclear plants are
designed to meet whatever industry designers think Mother Nature
is expected to throw at them. This requirement—their “design
basis”—is found in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s
CFR Part 50, Appendix A, No. 2.
Different locations have different risks, so the requirements for
plants vary. For example, nuclear plants in California are designed
to be able to withstand stronger earthquakes than, say, the reactor
in Vermont. Likewise, plants built in Florida are designed to handle
more severe hurricanes than plants in upstate New York.
The requirements are set for a one-in-a-thousand year event. Considering
that four events exceeded the design basis of nuclear reactors in
the past year—the 9.0 To¯hoku earthquake in Japan, the
tsunami that followed, the flooding of the Missouri River around
the Ft. Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska, and the 5.8 earthquake
centered near the North Anna plant in Virginia (two of which resulted
in disaster)—how confident can we be that either nuclear operators
or the NRC have anticipated the worst nature can throw at us?
Using the thousand-year scenario, Gundersen points out that for
any one reactor running for 60 years, there’s a 6 percent
chance that it will see an event as bad as or worse than what it
was designed for. Multiplying that 6 percent by the 60 nuclear plant
locations bumps it up to a 360 percent chance.
“In other words,” Gundersen says, “it’s
a near certainty that some plant in the U.S. over its lifetime will
experience an event worse than designers had anticipated. As a matter
of fact, it’s more like three or four plants…”
As the impacts from global warming worsen, the risks will undoubtedly
Consider that 2011 broke
all records for billion-dollar weather disasters in the U.S.
AP science writer Seth Borenstein recently
described it this way: “With an almost biblical onslaught
of twisters, floods, snow, drought, heat and wildfire, the U.S.
in 2011 has seen more weather catastrophes that caused at least
$1 billion in damage than it did in all of the 1980s, even after
the dollar figures from back then are adjusted for inflation.”
But it wasn’t just the U.S.: 2011 also saw record-breaking
extremes all over the world throughout the year. Ross Gelbspan,
whose 1997 book The Heat is On chronicled the fossil fuel lobby’s
remarkably successful campaign to deceive the public and derail
any action to address global climate destabilization, catalogues
a hefty list of meteorological calamities from floods, torrential
rains and massive mudslides, colossal snowstorms, ripping windstorms,
and tornadoes to withering heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires here
With or without nuclear power, the escalation of global warming
isn’t likely to slow any time soon. Though a recent discovery
of the effectiveness of polyethylemimine
at capturing CO2 sounds promising (researchers say it sequesters
carbon at large industrial sources, small individual sources like
car exhausts, and can even pull it directly from the air), it remains
to be seen how quickly scrubbers from this material can be manufactured
and deployed and how well they will actually work.
In any case, fossil fuel companies are doubling
down on their pursuit of “unconventional” fossil fuels
like natural gas from shale, coalbed methane, and tight gas sands
(fracking), and oil from deepwater wells and tar sands—all
in all, the dirtiest (in terms of greenhouse gas and other pollution),
riskiest, and most energy-intensive sources.
And in the absence of policies to reduce greenhouse gases, the U.S.
Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook
2011 projects global coal use to rise 50 percent between 2008
and 2035 from 139 quadrillion Btu to 209 quadrillion Btu.
Despite the increasing urgency to tackle global warming, the most
recent global climate talks in Durban failed to reach agreement
on extending the Kyoto Protocol, which laid out the world’s
only legally binding (but subsequently ignored) carbon emissions
It’s time to reexamine a lot of the assumptions that lurk
beneath the nuclear-power-is-necessary-to-deal-with-climate-change
narrative. There was no mention in Frontline’s Nuclear Aftershocks
program or any other mainstream media that I have seen about the
big elephant in the room: the voracious energy-gobbling economy—which
creates the need for enormous, centralized power sources—that’s
making the planet (and us) sick.When
junk-food addicted smokers get diabetes, cancer, heart disease,
or any number of other maladies considered “lifestyle diseases,”
the admonishment that they need to change their lifestyle is typically
accepted without question.
We would do well to start applying that same logic to the way our
societies use energy and the kind of economy such energy use powers,
rather than blindly accept the Hobson’s choice of either turning
the Earth into Venus because of global warming or poisoning
large swaths of it with radioactivity.
Wars: When Agriculture and Public Health
Karen Charman is an investigative journalist specializing in
agriculture, health and the environment.
Note: This is the second article in a series on pesticide poisoning
in Florida. To view the first, on Omar Shafey, an epidemiologist
who lost his job after blowing the whistle on the poisonings, click
Kathy Rink was home going about her business one Saturday in mid-June
1997 when she got caught up in Florida's most recent war against
a despised agricultural pest. Her life has not been the same since.
That sweltering afternoon, a woman in jeans, a long-sleeved flannel
shirt, work boots, gloves, a mask, and safety glasses appeared in
the backyard of Rink's Sarasota home. Rink, a petite blonde with
bright blue eyes and an earnest demeanor, says the woman was there
to spray the fruit trees with malathion (an organophosphate insecticide
and nerve toxin) as part of the battle to wipe out the Mediterranean
fruit fly. Numerous medflies had been found in and around Tampa
and were threatening Florida's $21 billion horticulture industry.
Rink had seen the television announcements about the medfly campaign
and went outside to ask the woman what she was spraying. She says
the woman described it as "a little bit of molasses syrup mixed
with a tiny, tiny bit of pesticide." Despite the fact that
Rink was out there in shorts, the woman didn't stop. She sprayed
Rink directly on the leg.
Rink says she went inside and started feeling dizzy almost immediately.
She vaguely remembers sitting down and calling a friend but has
no memory of the rest of the day, or even the exact date. Later
that evening, her youngest son Adam, then 12, went out and climbed
an orange tree in the backyard. Though neither Rink nor her son
had any preexisting health complaints before that first exposure,
both have had serious medical problems since.
Immediately after the spraying, Adam became very weak, wouldn't
eat, and slept 12-18 hours a day for weeks. Rink says he also threw
up every time sprayers returned that summer. After several visits
and disturbing blood test results, his pediatrician didn't know
what to make of his condition. So she set up an urgent appointment
for them with a children's oncologist in Saint Petersburg.
The oncologist gave Adam another blood test and reviewed the results
right then. Instead of sending them home, Rink says the doctor told
them he needed to take bone marrow. "When I asked why, he said
'leukemia.' He told me to hang in there." Leukemia was ruled
out, but the source of Adam's illness was never fully identified.
Eventually he was diagnosed with elliptocytosis, a mild, hereditary
form of anemia which could have made him more susceptible to the
pesticide exposure. His health has improved, but he gets sick much
more easily than before, and she worries about the long-term consequences.
Aside from memory loss, Rink herself developed numbness and tingling
in her hands and feet, sensitivity to common household chemicals,
and migraine headaches -- some serious enough to land her in the
The night I met her at an environmental scientist's home in Sarasota
in July 2001, mosquito control trucks fogged the neighborhood with
synthetic pyrethroids, a class of pesticides that disrupt the endocrine
system and promote the growth of breast cancer cells in laboratory
studies. Rink was concerned since she, like many people who have
been previously poisoned by pesticides, report adverse health reactions
to subsequent exposures. The next day she reported another debilitating
cluster migraine. "Before I was sprayed, I didn't even know
what a migraine was," she laments. "Now I have to take
migraine medication just to function."
The Rinks were not the only people to get sick in the cross-fire
of Florida's crusade against the medfly. One of the most tragic
cases is Barbara McFarland, a former security guard at a Tampa car
McFarland, then 66, was making her rounds checking the cars, as
she did each night, when she saw a very low flying plane approach
and fly directly over, dousing her with "a whole face full"
of the spray. McFarland finished her rounds but not before the plane
came back and drenched her again. She started vomiting immediately
and went home. A little later, she says she could barely breathe.
The next day McFarland tried to get to her doctor but had to return
home because she was too weak to walk the length of the parking
lot into his office. The following day she went back to the doctor
with her husband and ended up in the hospital for seven days, where
she was given inhalers and oxygen, which she still needs. Other
than occasional asthma, McFarland didn't have any preexisting health
complaints, but now she says the doctors tell her she will never
The physical and financial dependence on others since the spraying
incident has been particularly hard for McFarland. "I worked
ten hours a night and took care of all my own housekeeping, and
now I can't even sweep my floors," she sighs. "I do some
cooking, but there are days I can't even do that."
In 1997, the first year of what turned out to be a two-year outbreak,
the Florida Department of Health was inundated with complaints from
people reporting that the spraying had made them sick. The following
year, department epidemiologist, Dr. Omar Shafey, confirmed 123
cases of pesticide poisoning from the medfly eradication program
in 1998. Confirming poisonings is a tricky, time-consuming task,
and most doctors aren't trained to do it. So it is likely that many
more poisonings occurred that were not counted. More than a million
people, mainly in the urban and suburban neighborhoods from Tampa
to Sarasota, had been repeatedly sprayed.
Shafey later recommended that the department prohibit the Florida
Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services from spraying urban
areas for medfly. But he was informed that such a recommendation
was not within the realm of "political reality" in the
state's fight against the medfly. He was subsequently sacked after
intimidation from his bosses failed to get him to change his recommendation.
Citrus is, by far, the state's largest primary industry product.
In 2000, Florida growers sold $1.67 billion worth of oranges, grapefruit,
and other citrus fruits, generating 24 percent of the state's agricultural
Besides producing nearly all of the nation's orange juice, Florida
also supplies most of the eastern U.S. with vegetables in the winter.
According to a 1997 study, more than 130,000 Floridians are employed
in the state's fruit and vegetable sector, which grows over 100
economically significant crops. Though agriculture is good for Florida's
economy, the state's warm climate and multitude of crops also makes
it a delectable haven for the medfly. This tiny fly is one of the
most detested pests in agriculture, because females can lay their
eggs in more than 250 different crops -- turning some of them to
If medflies are discovered in an agricultural area, an immediate
quarantine results, preventing growers from selling their fresh
produce. University of Florida citrus economist Tom Spreen says
a horticultural state like Florida simply can't afford to let the
medfly become established. "It's not a matter of losing the
European market or this market or that market," he says. "You
are basically going to lose every market you sell into."
The discovery of one mated female medfly in any given area is enough
to trigger a "medfly emergency," which most often means
teams of people, spray trucks and aircraft dousing the specified
area with malathion. The detection of 70 medflies in and around
Tampa within a week of May 28, 1997, when the first medfly was found,
put Florida agriculture officials on the highest alert. Spraying
began June 5, 1997.
Rick Martinez, a Tampa organic farmer who also travels the globe
certifying organic farmers, points out that the medfly is endemic
throughout much of the world, including countries like Brazil that
have thriving agricultural export trades. (In fact, Brazil is Florida's
biggest citrus competitor.) Still, Spreen's assertion that the establishment
of the medfly would automatically wipe out markets is the conventional
wisdom in agriculture circles.
During the medfly war, agriculture officials repeatedly claimed
in television and full page newspaper ads that malathion was safe
and the spraying was no cause for concern. This resulted in unnecessary
exposures because proper precautions to avoid the spray were not
Stories such as McFarland's and the Rinks' tend to fall on deaf
ears in the agriculture community. Walt Boland, a grower representative
with Florida Citrus Mutual, the Sunshine state's main citrus industry
trade association, doesn't believe that anybody could get sick from
the spraying, and that anybody claiming that they are sick is just
"selfish" and "trying to get attention" in order
to stop the spraying.
"Every chemical like malathion that's been used has been tested
any and every way it could be by the EPA and the USDA for the harmful
effects it might have," he says. When I asked him how he knew
that, he replied that public health and agriculture officials said
it was "very, very safe" at public meetings. "That's
what the public meetings were about -- to try to convince the general
public that [the spraying] was safe and necessary," he said,
adding that "safe and necessary are two essential words."
In fact, EPA and USDA don't routinely test pesticides. They simply
depend on data provided by the manufacturers. Many scientists, including
an expert panel at the National Academy of Sciences, dispute the
level of protection that people, particularly children, get from
this regulatory scheme. Since the late 1980s, Congress has twice
mandated a re-evaluation of pesticide safety, but EPA -- under intense
pressure from farmers and pesticide manufacturers -- is years behind
in completing it.
Boland did admit that spraying in urban areas could be avoided if
the growers themselves fumigated their fruit before it moved out
of quarantined areas. But that would cost "several hundred
dollars per semi load," and because of the thin margins that
many growers operate on, the citrus industry had no interest in
absorbing that cost. State and federal taxpayers pick up the tab
on medfly eradication programs.
CRAM and SCRAM!
The day the spraying began in 1997, Citizens for Responsible Alternatives
to Malathion (CRAM) was formed. "We just knew the spraying
was wrong," says Thalia Potter, one of the original organizers.
Over the next several months, Potter and her group learned more
than they ever thought possible about malathion, its health and
environmental effects, and the length to which government bureaucracies
will go in defending the use of pesticides.
Although Tampa was sprayed repeatedly for three and a half months
in 1997, the area was spared aerial applications in 1998, when the
epicenter of the medfly outbreak moved south to Manatee and Sarasota
Sarasota contains a large group of chemically sensitive people,
many of whom are veterans in ongoing battles to keep their homes,
workplaces and children's schools free from pesticide contamination.
Like their counterparts in Tampa, concerned citizens in Sarasota
and Manatee County organized immediately to stop the spraying and
push for safer alternatives to deal with the medfly infestation.
Sarasota/Manatee Citizens Rally Against Malathion (SCRAM), like
CRAM the year before, diligently monitored the spraying and documented
scores of violations, says former SCRAM president, Cheryl Gross,
an environmental scientist with the Sarasota County Health Department.
Spray trucks and helicopters showed up without warning during times
when a lot of people, including children, were outside. Instructions
on the chemical's own label say malathion must be stored at temperatures
below 77 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid breaking down into potentially
deadly byproducts, such as malaoxon. But tanks of malathion sat
in full sun on airport tarmacs in 95 degree Fahrenheit weather for
months, and the chemical was not tested before it was sprayed. EPA
regulations prohibit spraying malathion over certain bodies of water,
but that was routinely ignored. The Tampa Tribune reported that
malaoxon, a potent neurotoxin that by some estimates is 68 times
more toxic than malathion, was found in Tampa's treated drinking
A Win-Win Situation
Both SCRAM and CRAM say they were not unsympathetic to the agriculture
sector's concerns about medfly. "It wasn't that we just said
'stop, not in our backyard.' We said you can do this, but you can
do it safely," said Gross, the former SCRAM president.
Both groups pushed the Florida agriculture department and USDA,
the joint operators of the eradication effort, to use a non-toxic
biological control program that involves releasing sterile male
medflies to breed the medfly population out of existence. Sterile
medflies have an excellent track record in California, which has
had intermittent battles with medfly since 1975.
The two groups also demanded more monitoring for medflies around
Florida; better efforts to detect the pest in ports where they most
likely enter the state; safer alternatives for ground spraying,
if that was necessary; and much greater efforts to pick up fallen,
rotting fruit, since so many of the outbreaks centered around abandoned
SCRAM and CRAM exerted intense pressure on officials, by organizing
public meetings and by bombarding the media and public health officials
with research about the risks of and alternatives to pesticides.
As a result, a sterile medfly program was introduced covering the
Miami, Tampa and Sarasota areas. It seems to be working: no medfly
outbreak has since been declared.
Nevertheless, when I visited the MacDill Airforce Base in Tampa,
where the sterile medfly program was based, manager Joe Stewart
said the $2.8 million a year program might be axed because of budget
pressures. Ironically, the 1997-98 emergency spraying cost about
After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, MacDill Airforce Base became one of the main command centers
for the Bush Administrations's current war, and the sterile medfly
release program was asked to leave. The program is currently in
the process of relocating to Sarasota and is expected to begin operating
in February 2002.
Though the success of the sterile medfly release program should
keep it running, its future could be jeopardized if the economy
continues to weaken, says Richard Gaskalla, director of the Division
of Plant Industry in the Florida agriculture department. Without
the preventative sterile medfly releases, a repeat of the emergency
eradication spraying is virtually certain. The only question would