|SPLITTING THE ATOM|
An exploration of issues relating to nuclear bombs, nuclear power and nuclear waste...
November 18-22, 1996
Forum topics for the week of November 18-22: November 18:
A panel of experts with different perspectives on the most recent international Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) answered questions about the most recent treaties and nuclear weaponry in the U.S., Russia, and around the world
Nov. 20, 1996:
The author of "Nuclear Fear," Dr. Spencer Weart, answered questions about nuclear fear and suspicions and Scott Peterson of the Nuclear Energy Institute answered questions about nuclear power.
Nov. 22, 1996:
The head of the whistleblower's Government Accountability Project joined the Director of Planning and Analysis a the Department of Energy's Environmental Management Progam to answer your questions about the hazards of nuclear waste, and issues surrounding health and safety at nuclear plants and disposal sites.
"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
These words, taken from the ancient Hindu text the Bhagavad-Gita, were used by Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Los Alamos project, to describe his emotions as he watched the rising fire ball of the first above-ground nuclear explosion. The date was July 16, 1945. Less than a month later, the U.S. used two bombs against its World War Two enemy, Japan. The horrible images of death and destruction that came out of the two targeted cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, challenged the international community to confront the reality that by mastering the atom, mankind now had the potential to destroy whole civilizations. Life on planet Earth would never be the same.
The need to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons was evident from the first days of the nuclear era. In November 1945, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada proposed a U.N. Atomic Energy Commission for the express purpose of "entirely eliminating the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes." The Baruch plan of 1946, offered by the United States, suggested international ownership and control of all nuclear resources.
But the first postwar nuclear disarmament efforts failed. The Soviet Union in 1949, the United Kingdom in 1952, France in 1960, and the Peoples Republic of China in 1964, obtained nuclear-weapons. On Monday, November 18, the Director of the Carnegie Endowment's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Project, the Director of Arms Control at the Department of Energy, and a Foreign Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), who worked on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) answered questions about the recent Non-Proliferation Treaty and Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, as well as the status of nuclear weaponry in the former Soviet Union.
Nuclear bombs are only half the story. Researchers have developed significant medical advances using knowledge gained through the nuclear experiments of the 40's and 50's. And since the early 1960s it has been clear that the peaceful application of nuclear energy could produce cheap, relatively clean energy. By 1966, nuclear power generators were operating, or under construction, in five countries.
But peaceful applications do not guarantee safety. The worst example occurred on April 26, 1986. An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Northern Ukraine sent 50 tons of radioactive dust into an area of nearly 140,000 square miles - covering parts of the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The radioactivity was 200 times the amount in the Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. It is estimated that as many as 4.9 million people have been exposed to significant doses of radiation. On Wednesday, we addressed issues of nuclear power, the pros and cons, and also look at the imagery of nuclear energy, the dual symbols of death and rebirth at the core of the atom.
After Chernobyl, efforts to assure public safety were stepped up. Although there has always been the fear of nuclear accidents, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency that regulates 110 nuclear power plants across the nation, has only dealt with one major mishap: the 1979 Three Mile Island partial core meltdown.
Currently though, industry watchdogs are warning that deregulation has forced the nuclear power industry into greater competition with other power utilities, and that some of the wealthiest nuclear facilities have been found to cut corners in order to save money. The result: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has cracked down, scrutinizing the safety at nuclear power plants with a rigor not seen since the Three Mile Island accident. There are mixed signals however, as the NRC has been criticized for becoming cozy with industry it regulates.
Even less certain is the government's rigor when dealing with health and safety at nuclear weapons facilities.
There are currently a number of law suits pending, filed by workers at nuclear weapons facilities, that complain radiation levels both inside the factories, and in poorly attended waste dumps surrounding factories, are dangerously high. Our final forum featured Tom Carpenter, head of the whistleblower's Government Accountability Project, and Jim Werner, the Director of Planning and Analysis at the Department of Energy's Environmental Management Progam. They answered your questions about the hazards of nuclear waste, and issues surrounding health and safety at nuclear plants and disposal sites.