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California’s Proposition 15: Fearful Little People

A last-ditch drive to harness the nuclear industry

Governor, Jerry Brown, Pat Brown, Democratic National Convention, Madison Square Garden

Former Governor of California and father of Jerry Brown, Pat Brown, demonstrates on the floor for his son during the 1976 New York, New York, Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City on July 1st, 1976.

George Rose/Getty

“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.

If within one year of Proposition 15’s passage Congress has not removed the liability limits, all California nuclear plants would be forced to cut back to 60% of their maximum power, with further ten percent reductions each year the limits remain in effect.

The initiative also would require the governor to publish yearly an evacuation plan for all populated areas which might suffer from an accident at one of California’s nuclear facilities. Legislative hearings on all points of the initiative would open within a year of its passage and a 15-member advisory board of experts would be created.

“The main objection I have to Proposition 15 is it’s too rigid,” explains Pat Brown. “There’s no question on God’s green earth that it would shut nuclear power down.” The industry agrees: for a time earlier this year its mailings were labeling the proposition the “Nuclear Shutdown Initiative.”

If the industry’s claim is true, it raises a troubling contradiction. Boiled to its essence, the initiative requires the nuclear industry to substantiate what it has been proclaiming for many years — that nuclear energy is safe. But recent revelations about a series of “near misses” at reactors, including the disastrous fire last year at the Brown’s Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama, and the 1966 episode described by John Fuller in his popular book, We Almost Lost Detroit, have raised new doubts. If Proposition 15 would shut down the nuclear industry, does that mean nuclear power is not safe after all?

“They keep telling us it’s safe, and all we’re saying is, ‘Okay, prove it,'” argues Joyce Koupel of People’s Lobby, one of the groups supporting the initiative. “We want to shift the burden of proof to them, where it belongs.”

One of the initiative’s primary authors believes that the nuclear industry will not be able to prove its safety. “As a result,” Alvin Duskin, the San Francisco dress manufacturer and environmentalist, says, “there simply won’t be any more nuclear power plants because they can’t be made safe. It’s basically an unsafe technology.”

At least three former nuclear engineers concur. The three men, who had worked a combined total of 54 years at General Electric (which along with Westinghouse dominates the reactor manufacturing field), resigned in February and went to work on behalf of the initiative. At a press conference the day of their resignations, one of the men charged that nuclear power had become a “technological monster, and it is not clear who, if anyone, is in control.” Another stated that his reason for leaving was “a deep conviction that nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons now present a serious danger to the future of all life on this planet.”

“We Californians cannot ignore our global interdependence,” said the third. “The issue we face is not the survival of an industry, but the survival of mankind.”

But Pat Brown disagrees. “We’re deadlocked by groups of fearful little people … scared to death of death. You talk to these people and they are just so unreasonable and irrational about this thing. Death is going to happen to all of us one of these days. …”

While the debate over nuclear safety rages, another basic defect of nuclear energy has emerged. “As a source of power, nuclear energy is a completely inappropriate way to produce electricity, both physically and economically,” biologist/writer Barry Commoner argues. “It’s like trying to kill a fly with a can-nonball: you’ll get the fly but there will be a lot of damage. Most of the cost of a nuclear power plant is containing this damage that has nothing to do with producing electricity.

“The capital cost — the amount of money you have to invest to build a nuclear power plant — is higher than for any other source of power,” Commoner continues. “And it’s rapidly rising [because] these damage effects have not been adequately considered. Most of the escalation in the cost of nuclear power plants is to introduce the environmental and safety precautions that were not originally taken into account.”

The initial capital cost of a nuclear power plant, which ten years ago was $250 million, now runs to between $1-1.5 billion and it is still going up. Since the late Sixties, nuclear fuel costs have tripled, the cost per kilowatt of electricity produced by “nukes” has quadrupled and the start-up capital costs have skyrocketed 244%. Meanwhile, the recession has slowed overall demand for electricity and diminished the nation’s projected future energy needs. As a result, about 70% of all planned nuclear facilities have recently been canceled or delayed and one major nuclear plant producer has abandoned the field entirely. Orders by the nation’s electric utilities, which purchase and operate most of the nuclear power plants, fell from 27 in 1974 to only five last year, and some experts predict no new orders will be placed this year at all.

According to Harvard Business School’s Irvin C. Bupp, who headed an M.I.T. study of nuclear economics, if costs continue to rise at their present rate, the utilities soon will not be able to afford any new nuclear plants. In California as in most states, the big utility companies are currently caught in a “capital squeeze” due to rapidly escalating costs and reduced electricity demands. Commoner and other experts believe that nuclear power is “heading for an economically impossible position, and therefore, extinction.”

In spite of this gloomy prognosis, or perhaps because of it, the Ford administration has proposed a number of measures which critics dub a “Lockheed-style bailout” of the nuclear industry. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whose family name is synonymous with the big energy interests, has repeatedly argued for massive federal assistance to the nuclear industry as part of his $100 billion energy plan. Such an infusion of taxpayers’ funds would fit neatly into the formula which has historically produced steady profits for the owners of the utility companies. The formula works like this: the companies are guaranteed an annual rate of profit by public utility commissions based on a “ratebase” which includes the total amount of their capital investment. Therefore, the bigger their investment, the greater their profits. Thus the utilities have a built-in incentive to continue purchasing multibillion-dollar nuclear plants — if they can raise enough capital to do it.

Recent studies by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Ford Foundation Energy Policy Project and the Edison Electric Institute have all concluded that nuclear energy is the most capital-intensive (as opposed to job-intensive) energy source available.

Ironically, however, in California, the leaders of organized labor have joined with industry in opposing Proposition 15. Though plant construction would provide jobs for highly skilled construction workers who have been hurt by the recession, most jobs at nuclear facilities are temporary. Some laborers receive their allowable yearly dose of radioactivity in one day, and are therefore “burned out” and unfit for further nuclear employment.

Furthermore, scientists do not yet know how to gauge the long-term genetic damage to the human gene pool by the nuclear industry’s employment practices. “It is not clear,” writes H. W. Ibser, in a recent issue of the Progressive, “that the industry would be able to continue if it were actually forced to give its employees a complete explanation of the risks.”

By comparison, more jobs are generated by nuclear’s alternatives, both the traditional fossil-fuel plants, and new technologies like solar, wind or geothermal power. “The reason the energy giants support nukes and oppose solar or wind energy,” quips Sam Lovejoy, an activist who knocked down a transmission tower in protest against nuclear energy, “is that they can’t figure out how to hang a meter on a solar panel or a windmill!”

In fact, according to a study by the American Institute of Architects, the U.S. can realize a tremendous energy savings (and job growth) by adopting simple conservation measures. The AIA says that current buildings can be retrofitted to use 30% less energy over the next 15 years, and new buildings can be built to save 60% of the energy they currently require.

The man perhaps most responsible for the imminent showdown with California’s nuclear juggernaut is Alvin Duskin. He started writing the initiative three years ago, failed in his first attempt to obtain enough signatures to get it on the ballot, then began again.

“At first people thought I was crazy.” Duskin says. “Everywhere I went they said, ‘Nuclear power is the answer to our problems — it’s clean, it’s safe and we won’t have to strip-mine coal any longer. It’s so inexpensive that they are not even going to meter our electricity anymore!”

Then, government and scientific studies started indicating that nuclear power was not very clean, safe or inexpensive after all. Fuel costs for uranium increased so dramatically that Westinghouse was forced to cancel supply contracts to 27 utilities, drawing lawsuits that may eventually cost the firm up to $1 billion. And the highly publicized defections of a number of nuclear engineers and government regulatory officials (including the former head of the AEC) to the antinuclear cause also increased public awareness. Accordingly, the latest California polls show that the voters are split almost evenly over Proposition 15.

But at the time he wrote the initiative, Duskin couldn’t foresee the dramatic turnaround in public opinion. Instead, he was obsessed with a legal stumbling block. The U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled in Northern States Power Company v. Minnesota that direct regulation of the health and safety aspects of nuclear power were the prerogative of the federal government — not the states. “So the dilemma was to find a way of running the initiative in which the substantive issue was not preempted by the federal government. We had to find something that was left for state power.

“Finally we hit upon the notion that the one relevant area not preempted by Washington was land-use planning,” Duskin continues. “If California land is to be rezoned for a nuclear power plant, that plant has to meet the same reasonable standards of safety as any other industrial facility. That’s the simplest, most direct way to deal with this situation where we Californians are in effect having a technology thrust on us which we are helpless to defend against.”

To help author Proposition 15 Duskin turned to San Francisco lawyer David Pesonen, who had led a successful one-man crusade in the mid-Sixties against a nuclear plant planned for Bodega Bay, astride the San Andreas Fault. In the early Seventies, Pesonen had headed up another winning effort to stop a “nuke” planned for the scenic Mendocino coast, also in earthquake country. Duskin and Pesonen enlisted the help of People’s Lobby founder Ed Koupel, who had perfected the art of gathering signatures for broad-based political action movements.

They were quickly joined by a small circle of scientists and environmentalists that eventually mushroomed into a statewide coalition including Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and Another Mother for Peace. Pesonen heads up Californians for Nuclear Safeguards, the umbrella group whose constituent memberships total 125,000. Though Koupel died earlier this year, his organizational legacy — People’s Lobby — expects soon to have nuclear initiatives on the ballot in ten more states. And much of the grass-roots energy for Proposition 15 is generated by Project Survival, a middle-class group boasting nearly 9000 members, who pin up posters, ring doorbells, hold lectures and hand out bumper stickers.

The fervor surrounding the initiative threatens to spark a nationwide debate over nuclear energy. “This is a showdown on decision making,” says Pesonen. “In the past the decisions have been cloistered away from public control by the utilities in their cozy relationship with the federal government. What they are really afraid of is having the decision taken away from them.”

Barry Commoner agrees. “The nuclear power industry knows it can’t stand an open look at this issue. An open analysis of the nuclear power requirements in California would immediately show that the power industry is very short of capital and in fact is trying to charge its customers for the capital it needs. And that it’s in bad economic shape and that it has not done its job well, which in my view, if I were a citizen of California, would raise the issue of a public takeover. If the nuclear power industry says, ‘We need taxpayers’ money to keep going,’ then our answer should be, ‘We want to be on the board of directors!'”

David Pesonen, for one, is optimistic about the ultimate outcome of the energy showdown. Three years ago he helped block the proposed erection of a nuclear power plant by Pacific Gas & Electric Company at Point Arena on the northern California coast because of the earthquake threat. Today, on that same site, the giant utility is constructing an experimental windmill. “The nuclear business,” predicts Pesonen, “is going to be different after Proposition 15, whichever way it goes.” 

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