Deconstructing America's Nuclear Cult

03/25/2011 09:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bob Burnett Berkeley writer, retired Silicon Valley executive

The August 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki both ended World War II and precipitated the United States' 65-year-long addiction to nuclear power. In the light of the catastrophe at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi facility, it's time to reconsider America's lethal habit and our cult of atomic energy.

The first U.S. nuclear reactor surreptitiously powered up on December 2, 1942, as part of the Manhattan Project that tested the first Atomic bomb July 16,1945. On that momentous occasion, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the project scientific director, famously mused, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.

After the end of World War II, the U.S. scrambled to justify its awesome destroyer and, in 1953, launched "Atoms for Peace." Our first commercial nuclear generator became operational in December 2, 1957. America is now the world's largest producer of nuclear power; our 104 reactors provide slightly more than 19 percent of our electricity.

Notwithstanding our extensive deployment of nuclear reactors, and the billions of dollars expended, the U.S. atomic energy program has been cloaked in lies and disinformation since its inception. In addition to standard complaints about behemoth federal programs -- wildly unreasonable expectations followed by repeated missed deadlines and enormous cost overruns -- the U.S. nuclear power industry has been dogged by three persistent problems, issues that also surfaced at the troubled Fukushima Daiichi site.

First, government officials responsible for atomic energy seem incapable of candor. We saw this at Fukushima Daiichi where the Japanese government has consistently understated the gravity of the situation. (On March 16th, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Gregory Jaczko told Congress that the situation at Fukushima was worse than the Japanese government had admitted.) This contributed to the low level of panic that infected the U.S. West Coast, where many Americans did not believe what the government was telling them.

The second problem is that Nuclear Engineers consistently make gross errors that jeopardize site safety and the lives of the unfortunates in surrounding communities. At the Fukushima Daiichi site there were at least three such errors. First, the site was not designed to survive worst-case conditions, a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami that knocked out power to the cooling systems. Second, Fukushima Daiichi clustered reactors in clumps with four in one contiguous group and two side-by-side a quarter of a mile away. Third, in addition to housing six reactors, the Fukushima Daiichi site is a repository for forty years of spent fuel rods, an estimated 1914 tons including active fuel.

The third problem is that, despite having had 65 years to consider the problem, Nuclear Engineers have yet to come up with a common-sense solution for spent fuel. (The spent nuclear fuel, no longer capable of sustaining a nuclear reaction, remains dangerously lethal for thousands of years and no reasonable person wants it stored in their neighborhood.) This had led to the great Yucca Mountain storage debate in the US and similar sagas throughout the world. At Fukushima Daiichi they "solved" the problem by keeping the spent fuel on site.

The U.S. has accepted these problems because we've been indoctrinated by a cult that's facilitated our atomic energy addiction. America's nuclear cult is ruled by what Admiral Hyman Rickover once called "the nuclear priesthood."

A cult is a group that engages in "coercive persuasion" and for 65 years that's been true of the U.S. atomic energy establishment. Our nuclear cult has six defining characteristics: First, people are placed in a "physically or emotionally distressing situation;" citizens are warned that if we don't build nuclear power plants we will run out of electricity. Second, legitimate concerns are dissuaded by "one simple explanation;" we're assured that our nuclear priests are smarter than the rest of us and their "science" will solve all problems. Third, converts typically fall under the spell of a "charismatic leader;" for four decades, Edward Teller mesmerized Washington with his exaggerated atomic energy claims, "nuclear power will be too cheap to meter." (Teller was the model for Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.) Fourth, adherents savor a new powerful identity; the U.S. prides itself as being part of an exclusive nuclear "club." Finally, cult members are isolated and "their access to information is severely controlled." This, of course, is what has happened in Japan, where dissenting opinions were stifled and in many cases vital information was withheld; for example, what has happened to the fuel at Fukushima Daiichi reactor four.

As is the case with most cults, America's nuclear priesthood has insisted upon special privileges. Thus, builders of American nuclear plants are granted legal immunity from lawsuits in the event of catastrophic events. And even when new information arises that would question facility safety, nuclear plant operators are give a free pass, told they do not have to submit to new tests or rules. (For example, they've ignored the new fault by California's Diablo Canyon Nuclear Reactor.)

For 65 years the U.S. has been the victim of coercive persuasion administered by our nuclear priesthood. In light of the horrific Fukushima Daiichi events, it's time for Americans to be deprogrammed. It's time for us to kick our atomic-energy addiction and close all of our nuclear plants.