Something Old, Something New

Something Old, Something New

To the January ritual of reflecting on the old year and looking to the new, add the “top five” list of various 2001 nuclear events put together by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.


To the January ritual of reflecting on the old year and looking to the new, add the “top five” list of various 2001 nuclear events put together by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. NAPF agitates generally for peace and, in particular, for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In a time of anthrax letters and exploding shoes, the foundation argues that nuclear arsenals constitute “the only weapons that threaten the survival of the human race.” The foundation also takes a dim view of civilian nuclear power as a dirty and dangerous codependent: The biggest bombs require the plutonium generated by reactors.

To skim NAPF’s lists is to realize 2001 was a year of nuclear landmarks, from the White House’s calls to scrap both warheads and treaties, to Germany’s pledge to phase out nuclear power by 2025, to Ukraine’s destruction of its last nuclear missile silo.

But the lists are most intriguing when they move behind the headlines. A list titled “Top Five Nuclear Accidents in 2001” begins with the deaths of four Russian workers, who were killed in June in a “self-generated” nuclear explosion at a Ural mountains uranium-enrichment plant. Other accidents listed include a mishap in Scotland, in which twenty-four radioactive fuel rods weighing hundreds of pounds slipped from a crane arm and crashed two and a half feet to the floor below. The fuel rods have lodged against a shaft door of the Chapelcross nuclear power plant. That was in July, and ever since, NAPF reports, workers have been scratching their heads over how to lift the rods back up–and pondering what a worst-case scenario for dropping those fuel rods could have meant for themselves, and for Scotland itself.

In a “top five” list of events involving nuclear waste, NAPF cites plans announced in Britain in 2001 to put a stadium-size nuclear dump in the Snowdonia National Park; in Russia to import the world’s spent nuclear fuel for cash; and here at home to turn a Nevada mountain into America’s spent-fuel dump. So far, all three announcements remain just proposals.

A list that stands out for sheer creepiness is the “Top Five Nuclear Secrets Revealed in 2001.” Whether civilian or military, the nuclear world is secretive, and we often learn the worst only after many years. (NAPF’s list of worst accidents in 2001 carries an asterisked caveat: The list may be altered by future revelations.) It was not until September 30, 2001, that the British Atomic Energy Authority admitted that from the 1950s to 1970 it had removed the thighbones of 3,400 dead babies, without their parents’ consent, to test whether fallout radiation was becoming lodged in the bones of children. And only in May 2001 did the British Ministry of Defense admit that in the 1950s and 1960s it had ordered servicemen from Britain, Australia and New Zealand to walk, run and crawl through contaminated nuclear test sites, as a way of testing protective clothing. In June, the Sunday Times of London recounted a strikingly similar story from 1954, in which tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers were ordered onto a testing range moments after a powerful nuclear explosion, to test their nuclear war-fighting usefulness.

A fifth and final item on this list raises the question of what’s an accident and what’s a secret: In April, Norwegian authorities revealed that for nine years a nuclear research plant had been feeding its waste into a town’s sewage system by error. Officials said there was no risk to human health involved, but environmentalists, noting that farm fertilizers are made from the town’s waste, want further tests.

Finally, there’s a list of things to worry about in 2002. It starts with the possibility of a resumption of international nuclear testing, now that the Bush Administration has hindered the implementation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. From there it surveys Indian-Pakistani tensions, potential terrorist threats and the thousands of decrepit Russian nuclear missiles on hairtrigger alert and aimed our way. Still.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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