“The atom is our future. It is a subject everyone wants to understand, and so we long had plans to tell the story of the atom. In fact, we considered it so important that we embarked on several atomic projects. For one, we are planning to build a Hall of Science in the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland where we will put up an exhibit of atomic energy!” — Walt Disney: Introduction to Our Friend the Atom by Dr. Heinz Haber, 1957 (children’s edition)
Two decades ago President Dwight Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace program in a speech before the United Nations, and Walt Disney assured us that there was an atom in our future. But today, plagued by a plethora of technological, economic and environmental problems, the nuclear power industry is, in the words of one of its leaders, “teetering on collapse.” And it has attracted a growing army of critics who feel that atomic energy belongs, not in tomorrowland, but in never-never land.
The federal government, however, is officially committed to the development of nuclear energy. The Ford administration has proposed spending billions of public dollars to salvage the industry. But first the pronuclear forces face a pivotal ballot-box showdown in California on June 8th. At issue is the California Nuclear Safeguards Initiative — Proposition 15 — supported by a broad coalition of environmentalists, political activists, and maverick nuclear engineers. Alerted by the Atomic Industrial Forum that the California initiative is “the bellwether public vote on nuclear power,” the energy interests are mobilizing for its defeat. Consumer leader Ralph Nader, working on behalf of the initiative, charges that its opponents are a “runaway band of energy monopolists who are afflicted with a disease called technological insanity, lubricated by a massive, multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign to send out a stream of lies to the California people.”
As part of the media assault, 3 million tabloid newspapers blasting the initiative were distributed to Californians in mid-April. A radio and TV blitz is under way. Almost 300 corporations and utilities across the country have contributed more than $1.55 million to the “No on 15” campaign already. The estimated total budget is $3-5 million — ten times that of the initiative’s supporters.
In addition, the energy interests are getting help from Washington. Nearly 80% of a recent mailing of the Energy Research and Development Agency’s pronuclear pamphlet, “Shedding Light on Nuclear Energy,” went to California. Although the leaflet is ostensibly intended for nuclear workers, supporters of the California initiative charge that it has been turning up at Proposition 15 rallies and debates. In early May, Representative Jim Weaver (D-Oregon) called for hearings into the matter before the Energy and Environment subcommittee of the House interior committee.
Former California governor Edmund (Pat) Brown, father of the current governor, has emerged as the figurehead leader of the antiinitiative effort. “This is a bad bill written by bad people,” Brown charges. “Not bad people in the sense they’re criminals or anything like that, but these people … don’t know what the hell they’re doing.”
If Proposition 15 passes, Brown and other nuclear proponents worry, the nuclear industry will be forced to shut down completely by 1984, and the dream of the “peaceful atom” will be relegated to a place next to the Edsel on the technological shelf of history.
The California Nuclear Safeguards Initiative represents the first serious attempt to halt the unchecked proliferation of nuclear power plants. If it passes it will establish a legislative procedure to supervise nuclear safety mechanisms, particularly the controversial emergency core cooling system (ECCS). Though this system is supposed to cool down the reactor in case of a “meltdown” and prevent a nuclear catastrophe, it has never been successfully tested.
The elimination of radioactive waste products would also be regulated. Some of these wastes are hideously persistent, retaining dangerous levels of radioactivity for up to 200,000 years. (Already 200 square miles of Nevada is permanently unfit for human habitation due to nuclear weapons tests.) And the reactors themselves have a useful life expectancy of only 30 or 40 years, after which they are so “hot,” i.e. radioactive, that they have to be “entombed” for approximately 10,000 years.
The legislature would also consider the threat of sabotage by terrorists who might steal plutonium — a deadly byproduct of reactors — to make bombs.
After an initial five-year grace period under Proposition 15, the nuclear industry would have to demonstrate to the satisfaction of two-thirds of the state legislature that its safety and waste disposal systems actually work. Otherwise, operating nuclear plants would be forced to cut back to 60% of their maximum output, and no new plants could be built. Furthermore, California’s plants would have to cut their output ten percent more each year until they attained safe operating standards.
In addition, the initiative would restrict nuclear development in the state until the U.S. Congress removes the limits on the liability of industry in case of a major nuclear accident. The Price-Anderson Act, passed in 1957 when private insurance firms refused to insure the earliest nuclear plants, established a liability ceiling of $560 million. However, recent studies by the Atomic Energy Commission (which last year shed its title and split its functions between two new federal agencies) calculated that a nuclear accident could kill 50,000 people and cause up to $30 billion in damages.