Parallel Atomic Universes
By Karl Grossman
May 24, 2002
Tomsk, Siberia, May 24, 2002
We—the people of the United States and you, the people of Russia—live in parallel atomic universes. Our nuclear establishments rose from similar roots: the development of atomic bombs.
They continued and expanded for the same reason: to perpetuate themselves mainly. In the United States an additional interest was greed, money to be made through capitalism. In the former Soviet Union, an additional motive was communism’s worshipful commitment to technology.
As the 1958 book Atom For Peace of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences stated: “Atomic energy is a powerful tool of technical progress. The speediest and fullest utilization of this new source of power is thus in the interests of humanity.”
“Atomics, like science and technology in general, finds its natural home in socialism, which alone makes possible social planning, and, therefore, the use of productive forces for the benefit of the people,” declared the Marxist analyis Atomic Energy and Society published by International Publishers.
But whether atomic technology was developed under U.S.-style capitalism or Soviet communism, the end result was the same: nuclear pollution destroying life and contaminating the environment in both our nations.
In the United States, atomic technology began with a letter to our president in 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt, from Albert Einstein—written in Peconic on Long Island, New York. (I live 15 kilometers away.)
In late 1938 fission was accomplished in Nazi Germany. Physicists Leo Szilard
and Edward Teller, like Einstein refugees from the Nazis, fearing Hitler might develop a bomb based on the energy unleashed by fission, with others asked Einstein to
write the letter. Einstein wrote to the president about information that “leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of
energy in the immediate future,” how “it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium” and of “this new phenomenon” leading “to
the construction of bombs…extremely powerful bombs of a new type.”Out of that letter came the Manhattan Project run by the U.S. Army. Scientists and engineers were
gathered and put to work at facilities secretly built at locations across the U.S. The biggest were laboratories and manufacturing plants in Los Alamos, New Mexico;
Hanford, Washington; Argonne, Illinois; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Large corporations and universities were retained to manage the facilities. Indeed, Einstein’s letter
had suggested that “government departments” join with “university laboratories” and “industrial laboratories” for this crash program to beat the Nazis to
By 1945 four atomic bombs had been built, one used for a test and two dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
Also by 1945, 600,000 people had become part of a program on which two billion dollars, in 1940’s dollars, had been spent. The Manhattan Project had become a major part of the U.S. economy.
With the war’s end there was anxiety among many of those involved in the Manhattan Project. Many of the scientists and government officials didn’t want to see the endeavor and their jobs over; corporations didn’t want to see their contracts ended.
As James Kunetka writes in his book City of Fire about Los Alamos Laboratory, with the war over there were now problems of “job placement, work continuity…more free time than work…hardly enough to keep everyone busy…without a crash program underway.”
Some of the people and corporations could continue building nuclear weapons, and they did. And they built even bigger bombs—the “super,” the hydrogen bomb, Teller’s project. Nuclear weapons do not lend themselves to commercial spinoff. What else could be done with atomic technology to perpetuate the nuclear establishment that rose with the Manhattan Project? In the first nuclear reactors, built at Hanford to turn uranium-238 into plutonium-239, fissionable atomic bomb fuel, lay a clue for commercial use of atomic technology: use the heat caused by fission to boil water to turn a turbine and generate electricity.
There were other schemes: using nuclear devices as substitutes for TNT to blast huge holes in the ground. Indeed, the U.S. in the 1950s planned to string 250 nuclear devices across the isthmus of Panama to create a new canal—dubbed the Panatomic Canal. If would, though, rain radioactive debris on a large section of Central America. Finally, what the Manhattan Project became in 1946, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, withdrew the project because of “prospective host country opposition to nuclear-canal excavation.”
There was even a scheme to close the Straits of Gibraltar with nuclear devices. The Mediterranean would then rise and desalinate so its waters could be used to irrigate the Sahara Desert. Atomic scientist Glenn Seaborg who went on to become AEC chairman acknowledged that “of course, the advances of a verdant Sahara would have to be weighed against the loss of Venice and other sea level cities.”
There were plans, too, to use nuclear technology to radiation-expose food to extend shelf life, to build nuclear-powered airplanes and nuclear-powered rockets.
The nuclear establishments in my country and here pushed on and on and on…
As Josephson states in Red Atom: “The physicists desired energy ‘too cheap to meter’ through power-generating reactors. They sought new ways to produce nuclear fuel—plutonium—cheaply through liquid metal fast breeder reactors…They built small nuclear engines intended to power locomotives, rockets, airplanes, and portable power plants…They sterilized various food products with low-level gamma radiation to prevent spoilage and increase shelf life. They pioneered the so-called tokamak reactor in pursuit of fusion power. And they used ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ for various mining, excavation, and construction purposes. Nuclear technology was at the center of visions of a radiant communist future.”
He continues, “whether nuclear reactors or food irradiation programs, small nuclear engines or factories spitting out…liquid sodium or isotope separation equipment, each of these technologies developed significant momentum. As if divorced from human control, the programs expanded.” Just like in the U.S.
In 1954, in a race with the United States, the first Soviet reactor to produce electricity, Obninsk, started up—despite what Josephson says were problems causing the reactor to be “unstable and in need of constant attention.”
The first commercial nuclear plant in the U.S., Shippingport in Pennsyvlania, started up in 1957. It was built by the U.S. government under the direction of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “father” of our nuclear navy. The private utilities in the U.S. were reluctant to build atomic power plants, fearing their exposure, their liability in the event of an accident. With the opening of Shippingport, Lewis Straus, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, declared that “it is the commission’s policy to give industry the first opportunity to undertake the construction of power reactors. However, if industry does not, within a reasonable time, undertake to build types of reactors which are considered promising, the commission will take steps to build the reactors on its own initiative.”
That, however, was based on a nuclear plant with a fifth the power of those that actually were built in the 1960s and 70s. In 1982, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the successor agency of the AEC, issued a report reflecting the increased power. This analysis, Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences, projected consequences such as, for the Indian Point 2 and 3 nuclear plants 28 miles north of New York City—over which, might I note, one of the jets that crashed into the World Trade Center September 11 flew—46,000 “early fatalities” if Indian Point 2 underwent a meltdown with breach of containment; 50,000 “early fatalities” from a meltdown at Indian Point 3. Peak “early injuries” from 2: 141,000. From 3, 167,000. Cancer deaths, 13,000 from 2; 14,000 from 3. And as to property damage, the study estimated $274 billion—in 1980 dollars—as a result of a meltdown at 2; $314 billion as a result of a meltdown at 3.
Another important U.S. government admission, on the “likelihood of a severe core melt” accident, came in 1985: “In a population of 100 reactors operating over a period of 20 years, the crude cumulative probability of such an accident would be 45%,” said the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Your nuclear whistle-blower Lydia Popova has written how “the Soviet nuclear industry began with the creation of deadly weapons in secret cities and secret laboratories.” Your counterpart to our governmental nuclear regulatory agencies, the Ministry of Atomic Power, as Popova states, “acquired the privileges of the [nuclear] weapons program—including its secrecy and total financial dependence on the taxpayer. Its commitment was to serve the interests of the industry and a select group of nuclear specialists at the expense of ordinary people.”We had our Three Mile Island accident about which our nuclear establishment is still in denial. A TV documentary I’ve done is called Three Mile Island Revisited in which it is revealed that despite the claim of our nuclear establishment that “no one died” as a result of the TMI accident, the owner of the plant has quietly been giving cash settlements to people who suffered impacts including the loss of loved ones.
Here Chernobyl brought horrific devastation and as Popova has written, your nuclear establishment is also “unrepentant,” seeking to have Chernobyl “forgotten.”
And both Russian and U.S. governments are now are pushing for a “revival” of nuclear power—many more nuclear power plants in both nations. As one official in the U.S. process, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, has said: “If you set aside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the safety record of nuclear power really is good.” Really.
Your government would establish Russia as a repository for much of the world’s nuclear waste. My government is now moving to dump U.S. nuclear wastes in Yucca Mountain which is on or near 32 earthquake faults and is 100 miles from Las Vegas.
Speaking of a big gamble.
In their 1992 book Ecocide in the USSR, Murray Feshback and Alfred Friendly, Jr. wrote: “When historians finally conduct an autopsy on the Soviet Union and Soviet Communism, they may reach the verdict of death by ecocide…No other great industrial civilization so systematically and so long poisoned its land, air, water and people. None so loudly proclaiming its efforts to improve public health and protect nature so degraded both. And no advanced society faced such a bleak political and economic reckoning with so few resources to invest toward recovery.”
They write about how the Soviet Union endangered “the health of its population—especially its children and its labor force—the productivity of its soil and the purity of its air and water.
Ten years later, the people of Russia are examining alternative systems. There are those in my country who would sell you on our system. Capitalism, they say, is the answer. Life, I say, is the answer. To life, to the preservation of life—that is what a nation should aspire.In my country, cancer is now epidemic. Nearly one in every two Americans is expected to get cancer. And analysis after analysis has attributed a majority of cancer cases to environmental pollution: the toxic soup of air pollution, water pollution, the impacts of dangerous chemicals and radiation.
As a Presidential Toxic Substances Strategy Committee reported: “Environmental factors…are significant in the great majority of cancer cases seen.”
As the First Annual Report to Congress by the Task Force on Environmental Cancer and Heart and Lung Disease stated: “The environment we have created may now be a major cause of death in the United States.’
Rachel Carson whose 1962 book Silent Spring sparked the modern environmental movement in the U.S. spoke of a “barrage” of toxics “hurled against the fabric of life” and causing widespread death. That barrage continues.
The government is of little use in protecting its citizens. That’s the way it has always been.
Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a physician known as the “father” in the U.S. of pure food regulation (there’s even a U.S. postage stamp bearing his likeness), came to Washington, D.C. in 1883 to become chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The U.S. was changing—from a rural to an industrial society—and dangerous chemicals had begun to be put into processed food. These chemicals, Dr. Wiley determined, were “real threats to health.” So he formed Dr. Wiley’s “Poison Squad,” a group of Department of Agriculture volunteers who under the gaze of the press ate doses of chemicals being used to color and preserve and otherwise treat food, to show their negative effects on human beings.
The populace became alerted and alarmed by Dr. Wiley’s campaign and the publication of the book, The Jungle, by crusading writer Upton Sinclair, about the filthy, unhealthy way meat was beginning to be processed in the U.S. And there was citizen action led by an early consumer group, the National Consumer League.This led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. It could be regarded as the first environmental law in the U.S.
But passage of laws and their implementation are two different things.
Government inspectors did not enter food processing plants—unless allowed to do so by plant management. Penalties were light. Pesticides, including those containing poisons like arsenic, had come into use, but attempts to deal with pesticides under the law were beaten back by industry. In 1912, as a matter of conscience, Dr. Wiley resigned from U.S. government service. He decided he would be able to more effectively fight against poisons in food outside of government.
He wrote a book: The History of a Crime Against the Food Law. In it, he stated: “There is a distinct tendency to put regulation and rules for the enforcement of the law into the hands of industries engaged in food and drug activities. I consider this one of the most pernicious threats to pure food and drugs. Business is making rapid strides in the control of all our affairs….It is never advisable to surrender entirely food and drug control to business interests.” The Pure Food and Drugs Act had been “perverted,” Dr. Wiley declared.
This conflict, this dialectic—between efforts to protect the health of people from poison put into the environment and the power of those who do the poisoning—continues in my country. The big difference is that in recent decades the poisoning, the pollution has become far more severe. And the toll in illness and death, especially from cancer, has become more and more intense in the U.S.
As for U.S. government regulation of atomic power, forget it. Neither the Atomic Energy Commission or Nuclear Regulatory Commission ever denied an application to construct or operate a nuclear power plant anywhere, anytime in the U.S. Our regulatory agencies have been lapdogs not watchdogs. One thing I have learned clearly in being an environmental journalist for more than 35 years is that virtually all polluting processes and products are unneeded. They can be replaced—indeed, many have been and are—by clean, unpolluting, safe, sustainable processes and products. The threat to peoples’ lives, the environmental destruction is unnecessary.
A classic example: PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls. The U.S. company Monsanto
started churning out PCBs in 1929 producing 85 million pounds of the stuff by the 1960s, after it had become obvious that PCBs impact on health, were carcinogenic.
Well production of PCBs in the U.S. was banned the following year. Industrial society in the U.S. has continued. What has been the major substitute for PCBs? Not an exotic substance at all but mineral oil.
In fact, whether it is production of electricity with cancer-causing, lethally dangerous nuclear power—for which solar, wind, geothermal, appropriate hydropower and a host of sustainable, safe alternatives can substitute—to agriculture with toxic, synthetic chemicals which increasingly is being shown to be counter-productive and highly expensive compared to organic farming, to the replacement of ozone-damaging chloroflourocarbons in spray cans, safe alternatives, substitutes in harmony with nature are here today. The central problem: the vested interests that gain from polluting processes and products.
Those on the left in my country like to point to big business, giant corporations as the cause of environmental destruction. Under capitalism, they say, the bottom line is profit. So what if people die and pieces of the planet are destroyed in the process? And the left is not incorrect.
On the other hand, look at the mess at virtually all the U.S. government-owned national nuclear laboratories in the U.S.—including Los Alamos and Oak Ridge.
No matter what the system—and we all have our preferences—whether it be the “market economy”/capitalism or socialism or communism (or nudism), foremost is that we must be ecocentric. Life first.
Life, and not to be anthropomorphic, all life, must come first!
What’s to be done? Democracy; transparency; independent, honest science; independent, honest epidemiology—desperately needed. In the U.S., we must end the current system of accomodating pollution. We must say “no” to death by contamination. We must eliminate bad environmental actors—and substitute processes and products in harmony with nature, with life. We must prosecute criminally those who cause injury and death by pollution. In the words of an American singer, U. Utah Phillips: “The earth is not dying, it is being killed. And those who are killing her have names and addresses.”
Fundamental change is needed.
Citizen activism is critical. We must engage politically. We must organize, agitate and creatively litigate.
We must prohibit media ownerships by corporate environmental wrongdoers. Nuclear plant manufacturer and corporate outlaw General Electric today owns the NBC, MSNBC and CNBC TV networks. GE should be watchdogged by the press, not own the press. A media that challenges power, that honestly and properly informs the public, is crucial. Conveying the information through the educational system, too, is vital.
Above all: democracy! Let an informed public make the decisions. They are far too important to be left to corporate executives and scientists and government bureaucrats.
Admiral Hyman Rickover, in the end, regretted what he had done. In a farewell address before a committee of the U.S. Congress in 1982 he said: “I’ll be philosophical. Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn’t have any life—fish or anything. Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet and probably in the entire system reduced and made it possible for some form of life to begin…Now when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible…Everytime you produce radiation, you produce something that has life, in some cases for billions of years, and I think there the human race is going to wreck itself, and it’s far more important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliiminate it. I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation.” The man who built America’s first commercial nuclear power plant, recommended that “we outlaw nuclear reactors.”
Indeed, we must shut down every nuclear plant.
This is my fourth visit to Russia in four years. I have been working with the Center for Russian Environmental Policy and its leaders, Alexey Yablokov and Vladimir Zakharov. I have been impressed by the Center’s calls for the adoption of the precautionary principle here, the “greening of the economy,” establishing “an integrated system to assess human health and environmental health,” the stress on the paramount importance of health and development of clean, safe alternative energy sources.
I attended the Second Annual All-Russia Congress on Nature Conservation. There I heard Dr. Tamara Zltonikova of the State Duma declare: “To protect the environment is to protect life on Earth.” And I heard speaker after speaker—from all walks of life—espouse the kind of wisdom for which people here are known. Sixty years ago, we of the United States of America and you of Russia were allies in the Great Patriotic War, what we call World War II, against forces that would destroy life. As during the Great Patriotic War, we and you again face the same enemies—forces that would destroy life. Some of our experiences in the U.S. —our environmental successes (we do have a wonderful national park system) and our failures—might be helpful to you. We and you are again pitted against a common foe. We much achieve victory, both of us, to survive—for life to survive. There is a way: a wise, life-affirming, eco-centric, green way.
Karl Grossman is professor of journalism at the State University of New York who for more than 35 years has pioneered the combining of investigative reporting and environmental journalism in a variety of media. He coordinates the Media & Communications Program at the State University of New York’s College at Old Westbury. A special concentration is nuclear technology. Among the six books he has authored are: Power Crazy; The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet; and Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed To Know About Nuclear Power.He has given speeches on nuclear technology and other energy and environmental issues around the world. He gave presentations at the Center for Russian Environmental Policy’s International Conference on “Toward a Sustainable Russia: Environmental Policy” in Voronezh in 1998, at the Second All-Russia Congress on Protection of Nature in Saratov in 1999, and in 2000 at the conference on “Health of the Environment” at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
He has long been active in television and is program director and vice president of EnviroVideo, a New York-based TV company that produces environmental documentaries and interview and news programs.
He narrated and wrote EnviroVideo’s award-winning documentaries The Push To Revive Nuclear Power; Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens and Three Mile Island Revisited.
He is now in the process of putting together an EnviroVideo (www.envirovideo.com) documentary on the great strides in safe, clean, renewable energy technologies and how they are ready to be implemented. His EnviroVideo TV programs are aired across the U.S. on cable TV and via communications satellite by Free Speech TV.
His magazine and newspaper articles have appeared in numerous publications.
He is vice-chairman of the board of the leading worldwide organization challenging nuclear technology, Nuclear Information and Resource Service-WISE.
He is secretary of the board of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.
He is a charter member of the Commission on Disarmament Education, Conflict Resolution and Peace of the International Association of University Presidents and the United Nations.
He can be reached by E-mail at