Know Nukes

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 4/12/07

A few weeks ago I was heading down to the National Conference on Organized Resistance at American University in Washington, DC with a vanload of college students. As we crossed the Susquehanna River, I pointed out the plume of steam from the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant—which suffered a near catastrophic partial meltdown in 1979. “That’s Three Mile Island,” I said.

They thought I was pointing out some scenery.

“No, the nuclear plant,” I clarified.

One of the students knew something about it. The others were puzzled. It seems the fact that one of our nuclear plants almost went into a full meltdown that would have irradiated the heart of the eastern seaboard, including the nation’s capitol, somehow had escaped mention in the high school history curriculum. And these were students “in the know” on their way to a conference on political activism.

At the conference I ran into Clay Colt, co-owner of Donnelly/Colt, once the nation’s largest and most prolific producer of political buttons and bumper stickers—including the iconic, circular, green-and-white “No Nukes” pine tree symbol. Donnelly/Colt had a table set up in the vending area of the conference. On it there was one “No Nukes” sticker. Clay said he stopped production on most of the other anti-nuke stickers, buttons and shirts because they weren’t selling.

At the conference, a few college-aged activists stopped by his table, looked at the odd “No Nukes” sticker and asked him what it meant. Clay explained it was about nuclear power. Most folks either looked confused, or asked, “Isn’t that carbon neutral?”

Here’s the problem. In the Bush-Clinton-Bush era we suffer from issue fatigue, as working people and our environment are assaulted on an unprecedented global level by an ever more powerful parasite in the form of unbridled corporate globalization. Add to this the fact that most Americans get all or most of their information from corporations representing this system, and our national ignorance or amnesia suddenly makes sense.

It gets more complicated. The US is the number one global source for nuclear technology, which makes up one of our largest export industry sectors, with nuclear technology firms linked to media conglomerates through outright ownership or major stakes in the media industry, as is the case with General Electric, for example. Under this light, it’s no mystery why an entire generation seemed to miss the Three Mile Island story. Nobody really wants to tell it. And, like the kid who ran into traffic and almost got mashed down, all’s well that ends well—or well enough if you didn’t live too near Harrisburg. Amnesia. Like selective ignorance, it’s one of those unsettling characteristics of American life.

Without history to guide us, we’re ill equipped to make decisions, and hence are prone to making the same bad ones over and over again. So it should come as no surprise that otherwise militant environmental activist punks could so easily buy into the Bush administration’s nuclear fantasies without ever wondering why we haven’t started building a single new nuclear power plant in the US for a generation.

With global warming threatening famine, disease, mass extinctions and massive coastal flooding, and with peak oil threatening to take down the global economy while shredding our social fabric and proving obsolete the whole concept of auto-based culture and suburbia, suddenly nuclear energy looks promising. In true hedonistic American fashion, we can have our cake, lots of it, and we can eat it, barf it out and eat it again and again. In this case, we can build a thousand nuclear power plants, juice up all of our electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars and whiz about unfettered by reality. Global warming and peak oil all solved—American car culture saved. Thank God.

Or is it God? Nuclear power’s deadliest byproduct is plutonium—of which a thimble full, properly distributed, could kill everyone on earth. It’s named after Pluto, the ancient Roman god of Hell. Three Mile Island could have rendered a chunk of the eastern seaboard uninhabitable. The question’s not academic. There’s a whole swath of the Ukraine and Belarus roped off as uninhabitable after the Soviet-era (1986) meltdown at the Chernobyl reactor. Then there’s the haunting question as to what would have happened if one of the hijacked planes that hit the World Trade Center in 2001 instead dove into the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which it flew over 24 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. In an age of apocalyptic terrorism, this ain’t fun stuff to think about.

The skinny is this: Global warming could radically transform the planet into something much less inhabitable. Peak oil could radically change society—and the change won’t be pleasant to live through. But nuclear power—now here’s something with the potential to render the whole planet uninhabitable. Nuclear waste is deadly—extremely deadly—for hundreds of thousands of years after it’s produced. We’ve produced hundreds of tons of this crap already and still have no clue what to do with it other than assuming we’ll have the wherewithal to babysit it for the next quarter of a million years through whatever chaos comes our way. Oh, and did I mention it’s invisible and has no odor?

Going the nuclear route might keep our air conditioners running for a few more years, but if there’s a surefire route to really blowing it and rendering the planet absolutely uninhabitable, this is it. Nuclear waste is the nastiest thing we can leave for future generations. Know nukes. Please. Learn this word and understand it before the people who brought us our current, permanent state of war really do us in once and for all.

Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous cheery columns are available at and archived at

ęCopyright 2007

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