Synthesis/Regeneration 11   (Fall 1996)

Desperately Seeking True Costs

by Susan Lee, Feminists for a Compassionate Society, Austin Greens

Figuring out the real costs to this nation, much less the world, of the 50-something year experiment in nuclear weapons and energy is a big job, one still in the making, though some of the authors featured in this issue have been taking some good cracks at it for a while.

A few years ago the Houston Chronicle ran a half page article on Chernobyl with references to the then-shutdown South Texas Nuclear Project (STNP), 90 miles southeast of Houston, which cited a 1982 report by the Sandia National Laboratories for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The report projected that a complete meltdown at STNP would cause "as many as 22,000 deaths, while incurring $112 billion in direct costs, not including health care costs and litigation." (Jim Morris, 1993)

The NRC itself predicted a 45% chance of such a meltdown at one of the 110 operating commercial reactors in the US by the year 2005. The nuclear utilities, of course, are protected from financial catastrophe in the event of such a catastrophe by the Price-Anderson Act, which seriously limits their liability for meltdown scenarios, tossing that potato right back to us, the citizens. Dr. John Gofman, the nuclear chemist, pioneering research physician, retired professor and fiery nuclear opponent, has long argued that if Congress would rescind Price-Anderson, industry would shut down the nukes.

Recently, the push for de-regulation, in part as Jim Riccio (p. 22) explains, to counter pricing abuses of the utilities which were benefitting from "cost-plus" guarantees from the state public utility commissions, which ensured their bad investments would not hurt the shareholders but be passed on to the ratepayers, led some energy observers to believe competition would shut down the costly nukes. But the utility lobby screamed "stranded investments" and lobbyists are scrambling to bury the possibility of ratepayer relief with exemptions to keep the nukes on line until they recover their construction costs, a very shabby and dangerous deal, indeed.

A big exception to Sandia's catastrophic cost estimate was the health burden—again, most likely to fall on the individual victims or their local or federal government. Both Gofman and Sister Rosalie Bertell of Canada have painstakingly assessed health risks per rem of radiation dose. Before me is a page from Bertell's handbook on estimating those risks that predicts in a population of 1 million exposed to 1 rem (absorbed dose) of ionizing radiation, between 549 and 1,648 persons will eventually develop some form of cancer as a result of that exposure, in excess to cancers caused by other factors.

We know cancers are just the tip of the iceberg, with diabetes, lupus and other auto-immune diseases, heart disease, cataracts, and thyroid problems noted in radiated persons. It falls to other researchers to determine the economic costs of health care for radiation sickness and deaths, such as Pace University, which factors in "externalities," that is the environmental and social costs of various sources of energy (see pp. 21-22) However, Navy nuclear radiation victim and nuclear opponent Don Darling alerts us that recent research from Chernobyl (see p.19) raises a genetic spectre of health costs into the infinite future, which undoubtedly put the Pace U studies way under "true costs."

From where I sit, usually behind the wheel of a big blue converted RV anti-nuclear museum touring communities affected or about to be affected by some phase of the nuclear cycle, it seems that Greens could lead this nation in organizing a coalition to repeal Price-Anderson; boycott nuke producers and hawkers like GE, Westinghouse and General Atomics; and set up reparations and economic conversion, i.e. Green community-owned businesses, for affected nuclear workers and communities. A tall order, I know, but do you see any other political party or group on the horizon likely to take it up?

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