Climate change is the biggest challenge human beings have ever faced. We don’t have much time to deal with it. Unfortunately, political transformation is usually a slow process.
A growing number of climate activists are supporting nuclear power as a carbon-free “clean” alternative to fossil fuels. They include NASA scientist James Hansen and Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs.
Judith Mohling and LeRoy Moore of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center (RMPJC) are concerned about this development. They argue that nukes are highly dangerous, citing a new peer-reviewed paper published in the Open Journal of Pediatrics that says that the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in Japan may have given American kids health disorders which, if left untreated, can lead to permanent mental and physical handicaps.
Children born on the West Coast between one week and 16 weeks after the meltdowns began in March 2011 were 28 percent more likely to suffer from congenital hypothyroidism than were kids born in those states during the same period one year earlier.
Substantial quantities of the radioisotope iodine-131 were produced by the meltdowns, then traveled over the Pacific Ocean and fell on Hawaii, the U.S. West Coast and other Pacific countries, reaching levels hundreds of times greater than those considered safe.
After entering a person’s body, radioactive iodine gathers in the thyroids. Thyroids are glands that release hormones that control how we grow. In babies, including those not yet born, such radiation can stunt the development of body and brain. The links between iodine radioisotope exposure and juvenile hypothyroidism were established after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown.
It is disturbing that nukes are becoming popular, particularly among environmentalists. Boulderites remember the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant (eight miles south of here) where many of us demonstrated for world peace and against the nuclear arms race. It was closed in 1989 after an FBI raid to collect evidence of environmental crimes.
We might have forgotten about it if the RMPJC hadn’t been around raising a ruckus about the establishment of a wildlife refuge on the site which would be open for public recreation and the construction of a major highway intended to cut through the most contaminated eastern part of Rocky Flats.
Mohling and Moore have dealt with nuclear waste issues for decades and have worked with government agencies and people in endangered communities.
The main contaminant at the Rocky Flats site is plutonium that remains radioactive for a quarter-million years. You cannot taste, smell or see the tiny radioactive particles. Just one particle can cause cancer if inhaled, ingested or otherwise taken into the body. Nobel chemist Glenn Seaborg (who discovered plutonium in 1941) described it as “fiendishly toxic, even in small amounts.”
The late Edward Martell, an NCAR radiochemist, said that the radioactivity from plutonium dust particles at Rocky Flats is “millions of times more intense than that from naturally occurring radioactive dust particles (uranium) of the same size. Minute amounts … are sufficient to cause cancer.”
There was a “clean-up,” but Moore points out that “a lot of plutonium was deliberately left in the soil on the assumption that it would remain in place and that exposure to it would be insufficient to cause harm.”
Moore says both assumptions are refuted by the 1995 detection of rapid plutonium movement in the soil on site and a study showing that 18 species of burrowing animals were constantly redistributing soil and its contents (including plutonium). He also cites evidence in 65 cartons of data on environmental lawbreaking seized by the FBI in 1989 and sealed by order of a federal court. In response to the inadequate “clean-up,” the RMPJC is seeking to implement “Nuclear Guardianship” at Rocky Flats to, as Moore says, “enable present and future generations to take responsibility for the nuclear legacy bequeathed to them in a way that protects people and the environment from further radioactive poisoning.”
They want to create a model for long-term ecological caretaking of radioactively contaminated sites. Remember that plutonium is radioactive for a quarter-million years.
Meanwhile, we need to build a future that is both post-carbon and post-nuclear. We don’t have much time.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.