Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nonviolence unplugged

Suffer the little children. This is a poor child born with radiation-induced birth defects from the Chernobyl power plant accident in Ukraine in 1986. The Soviet government was willing to bet that its nukes would work well enough. It was a poor bet.

There is a debate now raging about the virtues of nuclear power; some see president Obama's new nuclear power plant funding as a good bet because it will reduce carbon consumption and give the US more energy independence. It is a bet we cannot afford to make.

From a nonviolence point of view, the entire nuclear cycle from uranium mining through production of nuclear electricity production or bombmaking through managing the transuranic and depleted uranium wastes for thousands of years is violent indeed.

Solar electricity is nonviolent. If the government would lend me $25,000, interest-free for the first 10 years, I could afford to install enough photovoltaic solar panels and the other requisite hardware to drastically reduce my electric dependence on the grid. Otherwise, I cannot afford it, and I suspect many homeowners are in that position. Where I live in Oregon the utility allows us to pay a bit more for a higher percentage of our electricity from renewables, which of course I do, and I've contacted the citizens' utility board asking if Pacific Gas and Electric is honest about this. Supposedly, they are. I'd rather see the panels on my roof, wouldn't you? I cannot currently afford it.

But we cannot afford more nuclear gambling either.

Nuclear power is so dangerous that no utility would build a single power plant until the government agreed to mandate a very low limit on utility liability in the event of catastrophic accident. It was called the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, passed in 1957 and updated since. Otherwise, nuclear power plants are completely uninsurable and corporations require insurance or a law granting them immunity from civil and all legal prosecution for their muck-ups. Once again, we find an industry operating with immunity and impunity, only avoiding the sloppiness that produces nuclear disaster because disasters mean that utility customers aren't sending in their payments.

There is a reason Chernobyl is referred to as the final warning. That 1986 meltdown in Ukraine took the life of a river to save the lives of the citizens, and it took 28 lives from acute radiation poisoning immediately and identifiably, many of whom were treated by Dr. Peter Gale, the American leukemia specialist who volunteered to go help and who wrote a book about it after.

Had there been epidemiological studies done after it might have been possible to place numbers on the mid-term and long-term excess deaths attributable to that accident. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the terrible Ukraine economy this simply didn't happen, to my knowledge. Did hundreds more die? Thousands? Was the health of tens of thousands affected, or millions? After all, the radiation readings in Sweden spiked and that is the only reason the USSR admitted that the catastrophic accident even occurred. Radiation wafts on the winds. The atomic poison pie is easily cut into millions of servings as it becomes airborne and waterborne.

Look at the histories of uranium mining and the places chosen to store nuclear waste--never mind the places chosen by the nuclear weapons countries to test bombs. Indigenous peoples are the usual hosts. Dump it near the reservations, where they are demographically weak and where we can kill babies with less public concern. Pueblo, Navajo, Pima, Yakima, Lakota and other tribes have disproportionally borne the environmental human health costs of our anti-life experiment with nuclear power.

So, what is the nonviolent solution?

First, nonviolent resistance to nuclear power. A mass movement will be required, and it needs to be a mass movement prepared to commit mass civil resistance.

Second, massive conservation. From the Thich Nhat Hanh admonition to mind our daily activities and become less supportive of violence to insistence on massive investments in electric conservation measures (e.g. affordable installation of insulation in millions of homes and buildings that now waste electric heat or air conditioning), conserve and reduce consumption.

Third, commit to mass purchase of safe and clean electricity that doesn't include 'clean coal' or nuclear. Essentially, drive down costs by driving up scale of production by safe means.

Fourth, get new laws that remove subsidies from nukes. No more Price-Anderson. No more taxpayer-funded storage of the waste that is produced at every stage. Internalizing all costs in all forms of energy production would suddenly make solar and wind the cheapest of all.

I suspect getting any of this done would require a citizenry prepared to engage in mass nonviolent action. This doesn't mean running out to get arrested, necessarily, but paying attention to votes by politicians, instituting measures in our homes and businesses, and education of ourselves and others. Right now, the nuclear industry is using our mainstream media as a weapon of mass deception and our obligation is to counter that.


Robert Peter Gale and Thomas Hauser (1988). FINAL WARNING The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: Warner Books.

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