[Marxism] LA Weekly warms to nuclear power

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 10 08:00:49 MST 2005

(The LA Weekly began life as a left-leaning alternative newsweekly. Now, 
like practically all such newspapers, it is a mixture of conventional 
liberal thinking and life-style articles geared to yuppies on questions 
such as where to get the best burrito, etc.)

LA Weekly NOVEMBER 11 - 17, 2005

Green to the Core? — Part 1
How I tried to stop worrying and love nuclear power

Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.

—Marie Curie

A rock, glittery gold and slate colored, has been placed on a table next to 
a chip of old Fiestaware and a Big Ben clock inside a brightly lit 
classroom at Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating 
Station, the power plant whose twin containment domes define the coastline 
below San Clemente. Ray Golden, a spokesperson who conducts plant tours for 
schoolchildren, foreign diplomats and anyone else he can interest in the 
magic of nuclear fission, is telling me how radiation — in the form of the 
clock’s glow-in-the-dark radium or uranium oxide that gives the plate its 
deep reddish-orange hue — has been used for nearly a century in 
manufactured goods. But it’s the rock, a roughly elliptical piece of solid 
uranium ore, small enough to fit in my hand but able to throw off 
radioactive particles as it slowly decays into unstable thorium, radium 
and, eventually, lead, that attracts me. And when Golden turns his back to 
write some diagrams on the classroom’s whiteboard, I quickly pick up the 
rock, cradling it in one hand. Small doses of alpha, beta and even 
penetrating gamma rays begin to bombard my skin, and I savor the 
transmutation of elements happening under my very nose. Just about 10 
seconds pass before I put the rock back where I got it, unnoticed by Golden.

In practical terms, the chunk of ore is no more dangerous than any other 
stone I might have held. Still, when Golden runs a pale green plastic box, 
a dosimeter, across the surface of the rock to measure its radioactivity, 
the machine emits high-pitched beeps with each pass — sometimes slowly, 
like a moderate pulse, other times in rapid succession like a jammed letter 
on an old computer keyboard. Each beep represents 200 counts per minute; 
2,000 counts makes a millirem, which is atomic science’s metric for 
absorbed radiation. Holding the rock for 10 seconds, I may have absorbed a 
millirem of radiation in various forms, which is not so bad: The average 
person gets about 360 millirems a year just from the radiation that beams 
down from the sun and occurs naturally in the Earth’s rocks and soil; 
mile-high Denver residents get nearly twice that. It would take much more 
to hurt me.

“Fifty-thousand millirems would cause a slight change on your body 
chemistry,” Golden explains. “Five hundred thousand, if you got it in a few 
hours, would bring on burns, vomiting, sickness, hair loss and, for about 
half the population, death.”

It would be impossible to get that kind of dose from a rock even 100 times 
the size of this one, and relatively easy to avoid getting any dose at all. 
Although it usually takes lead or concrete to block gamma radiation, the 
rock is so small and its gamma rays so weak that it’s mostly sending out 
alpha and beta particles, and when Golden places a piece of paper between 
the rock and the dosimeter, the beeping fades. A sheet of Plexiglas stops 
the beeping altogether.

Even plutonium, one of the world’s most toxic materials, emits only alpha 
particles, which can be blocked by paper, a thin sheet of aluminum or even 
your skin. “As long as you don’t ingest or inhale [them],” Golden says, 
“alpha particles can’t hurt you.” Or, in the words of Elena Filatova, the 
intrepid Ukrainian motorcyclist who documented Chernobyl’s dead zone in 
photographs, “You can play billiard balls with pure plutonium. Just don’t 
swallow it by mistake.”

Like every magical property of nature that man has harnessed, radiation, 
Golden insists, is neither good nor bad. But what about nuclear power? Is 
it good or bad for the Earth? Neither? Five years ago, few of us would have 
bothered to ask. You were either for or, more likely, against nukes — if 
you thought about them at all.

But nuclear energy is seeping back into our public consciousness here in 
2005, which may go down in history as the year in which global warming went 
from debunkable theory to indisputable fact for a significant part of the 
population, not simply because of our record-breaking hurricane season or 
the record-high temperatures in many cities around the world, but the 
reality that we regularly wake up to find evidence in our mainstream 
newspapers of an ecology gone awry due to warming seas and blistering 
droughts — disappearing cold-water plankton and starving seabirds in the 
Shetland Islands, the Russian ship that sailed to the North Pole in August 
without the aid of an icebreaker, the sudden disappearance of certain 
butterfly species in Baja. In light of these conditions, almost anything 
seems better than burning more coal, which for every megawatt of power 
blasts a ton of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the skies. This is one 
reason why nuclear has reemerged as a viable source of energy for new power 
plants — not just among George W. Bush and his business buddies (who like 
the idea of more nuclear and more coal), but even among futurists, 
environmentalists and Democrats in the U.S. Senate, from quasi-Republican 
Joe Lieberman to new hope Barack Obama.

“Nuclear power is the only green solution,” began a spring 2004 editorial 
in London’s Independent by James Lovelock, the progenitor of the Gaia 
theory of the Earth as a self-correcting, self-regenerating organism. “We 
cannot continue drawing energy from fossil fuels, and there is no chance 
that the renewables, wind, tide and water power can provide enough energy 
and in time . . . we do not have 50 years.”

Stewart Brand, the visionary founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, followed 
Lovelock this year in Technology Review: “The only technology ready to fill 
the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear 
power,” he wrote. “The industry is mature, with a half-century of 
experience and ever improved engineering behind it.”




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