“The Atomic States of America”

Eco Brooklyn obsesses over energy.  Our projects are built to minimize heat loss and optimize gain, while providing individual homeowners ways to generate their own energy through solar panels.  We want to minimize homes’ reliance on energy generated through fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Three Mile Island.  Chernobyl.  Fukushima Daiichi.

These names instantly bring up an instinctive fear of nuclear power as an insidious danger to public health.

Add “Shirley, Long Island” to that list.

“The Atomic States of America,” which premiered at Sundance 2012, is a documentary based on Kelly McMasters’s “Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town.”  Shirley is a small working-class town that happens to be located right next to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a center for research that has produced seven Nobel prizes since it was built in 1947.

McMasters considered her life fairly normal but first realized something was wrong when her college roommate asked why she was always going home to funerals.  Further research revealed an abnormally high rate of cancer and disease in Shirley residents.  The prime suspect was low-level radiation from Brookhaven National Lab, whose reactors had leaked…into aquifers supplying water to all of Long Island.

Democracy Now! did an extended interview with the director, Sheena Joyce, and Kelly McMasters, incorporating clips from the film.  You can watch part 1 here, and a link should appear to part 2.

As far as I can tell, the story is a troubling and evocative view of human suffering caused by the presence of a nuclear facility, exacerbated by unwillingness of government and investigative agencies to act in the people’s best interest.

But I don’t think it’s a compelling argument against nuclear power.  Shirley’s story exposes poor planning (who thought it was a good idea to build nuclear reactors on top of the only aquifer system anyway?) and corruption, which would be dangerous regardless of the technology in question.

McMasters is a modern-day Erin Brockovich, except the bad guy’s now nuclear power instead of Pacific Gas and Electric.  Erin Brockovich decried unsafe conditions and inadequate disclosure, not the existence of gas and electricity.  The same horror stories surround any town exposed to chemicals and poor operating standards.  What about Minamata disease?  The Bhopal disaster?  The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill?  Those tragedies weren’t enough to stop gas or electricity or plastics or oil from becoming ingrained in our modern lifestyle, so why chicken out with nuclear power?

Nuclear power has the potential for massive devastation.  I’m going to quote freely from the Wikipedia article on Chernobyl here.  More than 350,000 people had to be relocated.  The cleanup effort spanned two decades, used 500,000 workers, and crippled the Russian economy.  Russian estimates place the number of premature deaths as a result of Chernobyl near one million.  The area surrounding Pripyat is still a dead zone, the first legal tourists just beginning to tiptoe in.

Let’s look at some more numbers.  There are 441 nuclear reactors in the world, 60 more under construction, and another 150 being planned.  They produce 6.3% of the world’s energy and 15% of its electricity.  France is the leader in reliance on nuclear power (75% of total energy generated) but the U.S. wins in total number of reactors (144).  Some countries, like Italy and Australia, steadfastly refuse to go nuclear.  Germany and Switzerland are phasing out nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima accident.  The future of nuclear power is a deeply polarizing topic, but given the prevalence of nuclear plants, having just a handful of major accidents doesn’t sound unreasonably risky to me.

But is nuclear power worth the risk?  Is it truly sustainable?  (Nuclear reactors still consume fossil fuels, cost billions to build, and produce tons of dangerous nuclear waste.)  Can safety ever be ensured?  What alternatives are available?

At present we don’t know enough about nuclear power to guarantee safety and efficiency for people living near plants or people using electricity generated by reactors, so nobody should be guaranteeing those things.  Saying that nuclear reactors are clean and safe is a big fat lie.  Nuclear science’s destructive side is still engrained in the global consciousness.  In school we learn about Hiroshima years before we get to physics.

That’s why we need to be realistic and focus on research and accountability.  Walking away from nuclear power out of fear rather than a well-informed decision is failing to make use of all the possibilities.  Maybe the facts also say that nuclear power isn’t sustainable, or that the likelihood of an accident is too high.

“The Atomic States of America” might become a new rallying point for people opposed to nuclear power, but don’t forget, it centers around an intensely personal story.  The featured testimonial for “Welcome to Shirley” reads: “A loving, affecting memoir of an American Eden turned toxic.”  It was from Oprah.  I’d rather not have Oprah making energy policy.  Her car giveaway habits would definitely not be sustainable.

On the other hand, it’s easy for me to cheer on nuclear development because I’ve never lived in a Shirley.  I am, however, in a state that’s highly dependent on nuclear-generated electricity.

New York is one of the 5 states with the highest nuclear capacities.  We get 30% of our electricity from nuclear energy.  Part of my enthusiasm for nuclear power comes from the fact that it powers 30% of my internet browsing habits.  In the end it comes down to sacrifice: would you use less energy to lower the need for nuclear power, or would you rather give up the assurance of a future without nuclear accidents?

One of these will be the obvious right answer to you, but maybe not to the next person.  That’s why films like “The Atomic States of America” are so important–they keep the conversation going about a topic that’s dominated by big money and politics, but affects us all.

About the author: Yi Deng

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  1. James Aach - February 13, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Here is another conversation-extender – a book about nuclear power by a long-time industry insider that has no corporate sponsors and is currently free online. As a bonus, the novel “Rad Decision” is both entertaining, and features a plant of the Fukushima design and a climactic event that also is similar to the Japanese tragedy. Nuclear energy is a strange, secretive world – the novel “Rad Decision” provides a rare peek inside. Just google the titlee or go to the website above for the online version. Plenty of reviews at the homepage or Amazon.

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