Feature 2: The Burden of Nuclear Supremacy

Chapter 1: The United States

Half a century has passed since Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt in 1939 to encourage the development of an atomic bomb. Since then the United States has succeeded in developing and building up a formidable array of nuclear weapons. Today, however, the United States faces a contamination problem for which there appears to be no immediate solution. Under increasing pressure from the public, the United States is beginning to count the cost of being at the forefront of nuclear technology.

Increasing Concern over America's Nuclear Policy

On August 6, 1989, the forty-fourth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, more than a thousand people gathered outside the Oak Ridge Y12 plant to stage an antinuclear protest. The nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee was the home of the Hiroshima A-bomb, "Little Boy." Placards declaring "A 21st century without nuclear weapons" and "No more radiation!" were waved in the air, families on holiday stopped to join in, and drivers honked their horns in support. It was evident to us that people's attitudes toward nuclear weapons were undergoing a definite change.

Oak Ridge was the nerve center of America's nuclear development program, and, as is shown by its nickname "the secret city," its activities have been more closely guarded than those of any other government facility in the country. Until recently it would have been unthinkable that a thousand people would gather outside the compound yelling anti-nuclear slogans. The demonstration is clear evidence of an increasing uneasiness in the community concerning the safety of nuclear weapons facilities. Walking around the outside of the huge compound that houses the Y12, X10, and K25 facilities, we were horrified to see huge piles of drums containing radioactive waste—the byproducts of the weapons production process. Inside the wire fence, which seemed to stretch for miles, we could see where piles of waste drums had been buried. A sign prohibiting fishing and swimming was posted on the bank of the nearby river.

Stephen Smith of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance spoke to us about the waste: "Just by looking at all these drums you can see how much effort the government has been putting into the development of nuclear weapons. The result has been these disgusting piles of radioactive garbage, and we've got no guarantee that this stuff won't contaminate the air or the water. It frightens me to think that one day it could make its way into the human body," said Smith, shaking his head.

No data is available to back up claims of illness caused by exposure to radiation from the Oak Ridge plant. However, Paul White, who had worked at Oak Ridge for thirty-six years, assured us that if the factory records were opened up to public scrutiny a lot more suffering would probably come to light. White himself suffers from a brain tumor, while his brother and a large number of his former colleagues are also troubled with deteriorating health. According to him, details of accidents at the plant have been kept a tightly guarded secret. On one occasion, 1,500 pounds of enriched uranium were mysteriously lost from the plant; large quantities of mercury have also been discharged into the environment. The task of uncovering the sordid history of the "secret city" is only just beginning.

Nuclear weapons-related facilities administered by the DOE are spread across thirteen states. Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Hanford in Washington, and Los Alamos in New Mexico are the three original facilities built for the development of the atomic bomb under the Manhattan Project. The Cold War saw the construction of facilities at Rocky Flats in Colorado; Savannah River in South Carolina; Fernald in Ohio, and elsewhere, completing a network of nuclear weapons factories across the United States. According to Robert Alvarez of the Washington-based Environmental Policy Institute, there are at present twenty nuclear facilities in the United States incorporating a total of 250 factories and employing 110,000 workers. Their annual budget is over $9 billion.

Most of these facilities are known to be linked with radioactive contamination and health problems. For example, in an incident that occurred in 1988 at the Rocky Flats plant, three employees entered a highly contaminated room and were exposed to radiation. When this became known the factory was temporarily closed down. This particular plant has a history of accidents involving plutonium, a state of affairs that eventually lead to an FBI investigation in June 1989. The Savannah River facility has also been a source of acute embarrassment to the White House. This plant, which manufactures plutonium and tritium for use in atomic warheads, has had a total of thirty accidents in twenty-eight years, none of which the president of the United States or the chairman of the DOE were informed about.

Originally built in the interests of national security, a number of these nuclear facilities were closed down after details became known of a number of accidents involving dangerous radioactive substances. Every one of the plants supplying enriched uranium, plutonium, and tritium for use in warheads has been forced to halt operations. The closure of the plants is likely to bring about fundamental changes in U.S. nuclear policy: because of the short half-life of tritium, a halt in the supply of tritium will mean that an increasing number of warheads will become useless in the near future.

The Crippling legacy of the Arms Race

"If America is the democracy it claims to be, it is difficult to understand why the truth about accidents and contamination at its nuclear weapons facilities has been kept from the public for so long. According to Alvarez, the practice of shielding details of military nuclear facilities from the public eye began with the Manhattan Project during the Second World War and has been upheld ever since, enabling the operation of nuclear facilities with no interference from the public. The fact that not even Congress is able to intervene in matters of nuclear policy shows a blatant disregard for democratic principles, making the general public increasingly suspicious of the government's handling of domestic nuclear issues.

Most of America's atomic-weapons factories are now over thirty years old and showing marked deterioration. Some sources have estimated that the upgrading of these facilities and the disposal of the enormous quantities of radioactive waste that have accumulated over the years would cost at least $100 billion. The U.S. government, already straining under the yoke of a huge deficit, will before long be forced to count the cost of all those years of nuclear expansionism.

The crippling legacy of the arms race will not be confined merely to the treatment of waste and the cleaning up of a contaminated environment. The most serious matter for the government's consideration is the health of its people. The number of Americans suffering from the effects of exposure to radiation is unknown; very few surveys have been carried out by government organizations, so there is little reliable information available.

The only data in existence is that put out by the National Association of Radiation Survivors (NARS), based in California, which estimates the number of radiation victims to be around 886,000. According to the NARS survey, there are an estimated 15,000 victims suffering from diseases related to uranium mining, while 250,000 have been exposed to radiation from nuclear arms-manufacturing facilities and research institutes. In addition, approximately 250,000 workers at the Nevada bomb-testing site, 120,000 residents living downwind of the test area, and 250,000 ex-service personnel mobilized for testing in the Marshall Islands and elsewhere are also likely to have been exposed to huge amounts of radiation. As Fred Allingham of NARS told us, "From uranium mining to weapons manufacture, through to the disposal of nuclear waste, radiation has caused suffering at every stage of the development of nuclear arms. It would not be exaggerating to say that there are victims of radiation in almost every part of the United States."

Virtually no steps have been taken by the authorities to help people suffering from radiation-linked diseases. Public demands for an effective program of assistance have been voiced since around 1977. Although laws were passed in 1988 providing support for ex-service personnel exposed to radiation during bomb tests and now suffering from cancer, no such steps have been taken to help civilians. At present it looks like being a long time before the residents of Hanford and their compatriots in Nevada and elsewhere obtain what they see as rightful compensation. If the federal government were to recognize the existence of victims of radiation, it would have to be prepared to pay out vast sums for medical treatment and compensation for years of suffering. Not only that, but the manufacture of nuclear weapons would be rendered impossible. Allingham sees these fears as the main obstacle in the way of government provision of assistance for victims of radiation.

However, perhaps the picture is not all one of gloom and despondency. In August 1989, the DOE admitted that groups other than ex-service personnel were at risk from exposure to radiation when it acknowledged that a high rate of cancer had been detected among civilian employees at nuclear weapons facilities. One by one these plants have also been made to promise that they will release environmental data to the public.

Fred Allingham left us with these words: "For a nation to say it is acting in the best interests of the security of its citizens without taking their general health and well-being into consideration is a contradiction in terms. The legacies of the Cold War must be accounted for in a manner befitting a democratic country. "