French nuclear regulator finds serious problems at La Hague

La Hague, France. Nuclear Waste Reprocessing Facility.
Would you be depressed if you worked in a plutonium factory?

Le Monde reports this week that the nuclear waste reprocessing center (plutonium factory) in La Hague has been ordered by the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire to cease some operations until several “serious gaps” in security are addressed. Several pieces of equipment, containing high levels of radioactivity, have not been handled properly. Pressurized containers of radioactive gas have not been properly secured, and fire safety violations were noted. In addition, the workforce has much higher rates of depression and suicide than the outside population – a problem that the regulator also identifies as a threat to the safety of operations.
The English language media doesn’t seem very interested in covering the French nuclear industry, so in case translations of the report don’t get picked up by British and American media, my translation is available below.


Le Monde. Agence France Presse.
January 29, 2013

It is the third time in less than a year: On January 28th, Areva’s nuclear waste reprocessing facility at La Hague was again ordered to halt operations. The ASN is demanding compliance with regulations regarding tens of pieces of equipment, of which some, it was stressed, contain very high levels of radioactivity.
The “gendarme du nucléaire” has discovered, from an inspection that began in early December, sixty pieces of equipment that are “nuclear pressurized,” meaning gases containing radionuclides stored above atmospheric pressure. These “could present a significant security risk,” noted the ASN. Among these pieces, some consist of confinement of radioactive substances and are susceptible, in case of failure, to lead to the release of radioactivity.
The ASN also found “serious gaps,” notably in documentation, which is the way to record the required verifications for this type of nuclear pressurized equipment. Areva has been given six months to conform with the demands made for six pieces of equipment that help to evaporate solutions, and twelve months for the others, according to AFP.


Areva management explained this stoppage was due to “a delay in transmitting documents,” and it assured that it was in the process of rectifying the error by gathering the documents into a common source.
But this is not the first time that warnings have been given to the facility in La Hague – the site which concentrates the highest level of radioactivity in Europe. Already in April 2012, following a surprise inspection, the ASN halted operations and ordered the reinforcement of fire security. The “gendarme du nucléaire” (ASN) reported then “serious gaps in the measures taken to protect against the risk of fire” and a “lack of rigor in the application of provisions for limiting this risk and, in particular, a poor management of fire permits required by regulations” (fire permits notably being required for certain types of operations for maintenance or dismantling of facilities).
Five months later, in September, there was another stoppage ordered at La Hague. This time, the concern was the “rate of suicides” among workers at the facility – “three times higher than the average in the region (La Manche), which is itself higher than the national average.” The health officer at the site, where, according to AFP, 5,000 people work, was alarmed in 2011 over “the state of the mental health of the workforce” which “had degraded at an accelerated pace in two years.” This was estimated to be a risk factor “for the safety of the installation.”


Another warning from the ASN to La Hague: In 2011, it indicated that the facility under-estimated the gravity of numerous incidents that had occurred on the site in the previous year. Further, in June 2012, following the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, the ASN cited the reprocessing facility, as it gave out hundreds of directives to all French nuclear installations. In the case of La Hague, it demanded the implementation of robust backup systems for spent fuel storage pools.
One month later, in July 2012, the ASN came back with another concern: it reminded Areva to take heed of predictable failures and reinforce the security of radioactive waste at La Hague. This applied to the storage of waste products accumulated during the operation of the first treatment facility, of which the most part “was left in an unfinalized state” representing “an insufficient level of security.”


At the site in La Hague, two facilities have taken over from the old nuclear waste treatment facility, baptized UP2 400, which functioned from 1966 to 1998 and must now be decommissioned. This task is to employ 500 people at the height of operations and should achieve the treatment of 50,000 cubic meters of wastes. It is a long-term operation, much more important than the decommissioning of one reactor.
Areva recently estimated the cost at 4 billion euros over twenty-five years, according to the director of La Hague, Jean-Jacques Dreher. In 2010, Areva nonetheless announced a figure much lower: 2.5 billion euros. This estimation “didn’t include the cost of packaging the wastes, which means the most finalized storage of wastes,” explained Areva. In January 2012, the Court of Auditors announced, citing EDF (Electricité de France, the French electricity utility), an estimated cost of decommissioning for the 58 French reactors of about 18 billion euros. In this report, it included a figure, dated as of 2010, of 3.2 billion euros for the UP2 400.


The Perpetual Problem

According to Wired magazine this week, Renault-Nissan, Ford and Daimler are teaming up to bring cars to market within five years that will use standardized hydrogen fuel cell engineering. In the article, a spokesman for Daimler says, “We are convinced that fuel cell vehicles will play a central role for zero-emission mobility in the future.”
Zero emissions? An inquiring mind, and especially a good journalist, would want to stop there and raise some questions about this claim. Anyone who claims he has a zero-emissions energy technology might as well be claiming that he has invented a perpetual motion machine. The Associated Press and Huffington Post also ran this story with no serious questions asked about the "zero emissions" claim.
A simple internet search turns up the disappointing facts about hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel is not a naturally occurring source of energy, so it can only be called a carrier of energy. Hydrogen fuel is made with inputs from various energy sources. Like a battery, it can store energy until it is needed, but the disadvantage is that it has a low energy value relative to storage size. Mass marketing of fuel cell cars is hindered by the lack of infrastructure and standards, not to mention that it does what batteries already do.
This trio of car makers believes that hydrogen fuel will be made from emissions-free energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear. However, the label doesn’t apply to any of these energy sources, especially nuclear.
Wind and solar require the use of fossil fuels in their manufacture, and they are made with materials mined from the earth, some of which are associated with serious environmental effects. Furthermore, there could never be enough of wind and solar energy to meet transport needs. The earth has limited surface area available to catch the wind and sun. The biggest criticism of them now is that they cannot replace the present need for electricity, especially base load electricity that needs to be constant, so it is inconceivable that they could generate enough hydrogen to make a difference in transportation. Even if the plan is to create the hydrogen fuel during off-peak hours when generators have to run at high output (because they can't just be turned off for eight hours), there is no reason to think that this stored energy wouldn't be better used to equalize the present difference between peak and off-peak demand for electricity. The hydrogen fuel, converted from wind and solar, could first be used to replace electricity that used to be generated with coal, oil, gas and nuclear, but it is doubtful there would be much left over to shift transportation from carbon fuels to "emissions-free" fuel.    
Some in the nuclear industry dream of creating hydrogen fuel with nuclear power plants, but nuclear has huge inputs of fossil fuel energy throughout the cycle from mining, processing, enrichment (very energy and, by some methods, CFC gas intensive), delivery, power plant construction and decommissioning, and finally storage and transport of spent fuel. This expensive and energy intensive energy source could never expand enough to seriously offset the carbon fuels consumed in transportation.
If auto companies are really going to spend billions developing fuel cell cars, it might be purely for public relations purposes. Fuel cells could be only the next gimmick to make consumers feel good about maintaining energy-intensive lifestyles. They will be the next hoola hoop - a fashionable token of environmental consciousness.
Which brings me to my point: to recommend the excellent essay called The Hoola Hoop Theory of History by Morris Berman. He articulated an insight I’ve been coming around to as I’ve watched Japanese society react to its nuclear crisis, and the entire world react to the undeniable reality of climate change. Humanity does not stop disasters. Disasters stop humanity. We won’t stop until we’ve steam-cleaned every drop of oil out of the Alberta Tar sands, fracked all the gas from under our aquifers, and distilled every atom of uranium out of our gardens. If Florida and Bangladesh are underwater, and Paris is radioactive, the rest of us will just adjust and carry on in other places as long as we can. One can hold onto a sliver of hope - because a different path can be imagined - but there is scant evidence that we are ready to take it.

“I recall attending a conference on postmodernism in the 1990s and being struck by how similar the lectures were, in form, to those of Communist Party members of the 1930s. The ‘holy names’ were different – one cited de Man and Derrida instead of Marx and Lenin – but the glazed eyes and the mantra-like repetition of politically approved phrases were very much the same. Truth be told, I have observed the same hypnotic behavior at all types of academic conferences, from feminism to computer science. You watch, you listen, and you wonder: When will we finally wake up? And you know the horrible truth: never. In effect, we shall continue to erect statues to Napoleon, but never, or rarely, to Montaigne. This much is clear… We will not escape the ravages of climate change; we shall not avoid the economic and ecological disasters that are integral to global capitalism; not be able to avert an oil crisis, an energy crisis, or a food and water crisis that will become extreme when the world population finally arrives at 10 or 11 billion, by mid-century. These things are not going to be resolved by reason, by the neocortex, no matter how many articles are published on these subjects in learned journals or popular magazines. And they certainly can’t be resolved by the limbic brain, whose function is indulgence, not restraint. Hence, it is a fair guess that we shall start doing things differently only when there is no other choice; and even then, we shall undoubtedly cast our efforts in the form of a shiny new and improved hula hoop, the belief system that will finally be the true one, after all of those false starts; the one we should have been following all along. What to call it? Catastrophism, perhaps. You can consider this the founding document.”
January 13, 2013


Nuclear Security

Recent analyses of the nuclear standoff with Iran illustrate why nuclear powers are so desperate to prevent other states from gaining nuclear weapons, and why some countries are so desperate to develop a nuclear weapons program. Once the facilities are operational, they are the best deterrent from attack. Nuclear capability deters not only by the threat of retaliation, but perhaps more effectively by the threat of a radiological catastrophe that would cause attackers to be accused of humanitarian and environmental crimes. The same reasoning applies to spent fuel storage at the “peaceful” nuclear sites called power plants, but for some reason this risk produces no scaremongering headlines. As tensions between China and Japan heat up, these would-be aggressors need to step back and remember that a future war would be of a very different nature than the last one.
In the case of Iran, even if a nuclear capability could be removed by brief aerial bombardment (as if such pre-emption could be rationalized by existing nuclear states), as some in Israel like to believe, no nation should want to be responsible for the radiological calamity it would unleash. This may be the reason that there has not been and, hopefully, will not be an attack on Iran.
Khosrow B. Semnani, a physicist, industrialist and philanthropist based in the US, and no apologist for the regime in Iran, writes at Nucleargamble.org:

·      A military attack against nuclear facilities of any state necessarily poses grave radiological risks to tens of thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers, especially citizens who lack the necessary preparation or information to protect themselves.
·      In evaluating the consequences of military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities it is worth remembering the results of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that lead to the evacuation of 100,000 people, and loss of 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles) of agricultural land.
·      Our assessment of the Iranian situation takes into account the poor record of Iranian government in cases of emergencies and natural disasters. Lack of planning, preparation, prevention and intervention due to significant underfunding can mean that the death toll from a strike against an Iranian nuclear site might be 100 to 1,000 times greater than necessary
·      The study examined the Gilan accident and the inability of the Iranian regime to cope with radiation-related sickness. The government was not able to treat its scientists and workers in timely fashion, and was forced to send many of them abroad for medical treatment.

Some of the commentary around this issue has gone on to say that Iran has cynically placed nuclear labs and factories close to cities as a way of taking its own citizens hostage. This is an interesting assertion that would amuse the residents of Denver, and of other such cities within the big five nuclear powers, who lived for decades in proximity to nuclear weapons facilities.
This would be a good time sit back and to listen to Randy Newman singing his Cold War satire Political Science. Let’s hope that certain actors on the scene today don’t give into a infantile, paranoid and fatalistic attitude of “they-all-hate-us-anyhow.”

by Randy Newman
album: Sail Away, 1972

No one likes us-I don't know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one and see what happens

We give them money-but are they grateful?
No, they're spiteful and they're hateful
They don't respect us-so let's surprise them
We'll drop the big one and pulverize them

Asia's crowded and Europe's too old
Africa is far too hot
And Canada's too cold
And South America stole our name
Let's drop the big one
There'll be no one left to blame us

We'll save Australia
Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo
We'll build an All American amusement park there
They got surfin', too

Boom goes London and boom Paree
More room for you and more room for me
And every city the whole world round
Will just be another American town
Oh, how peaceful it will be
We'll set everybody free
You'll wear a Japanese kimono
And there'll be Italian shoes for me

They all hate us anyhow
So let's drop the big one now
Let's drop the big one now


The Yin and Yang of Nuclear Energy

A recent letter in The Japan Times complained that opponents of nuclear power always conflate good nuclear power (electricity) with bad nuclear power (bombs). This blog is guilty as charged, and it’s a valid question to ask, but unfortunately, there are some very good reasons why you can’t have your yin without your yang. Seriously, viewing the photo above of the Fukushim Dai-ichi Unit 3 detonation, who wouldn’t be terrified by both the civilian and military uses of nuclear energy?
To understand why the two co-exist requires a look at the origins of nuclear energy. The history shows that during the days of discovery, no one had the faintest thought of using nuclear fission to boil water, even though it wasn’t too hard to imagine how the chain reaction could be moderated. The history also shows that a vast, expensive infrastructure for building weapons had to exist before nuclear power plants were built – mostly as an afterthought justification for having made the weapons complex.
Consider how hard it has been to get modern civilization off its addiction to fossil fuels. There has been no transformative, massive investment in renewable energy, and the likely reason is that it has no potential for massively destructive weapons that would change the balance of power in the world.
Imagine that the discovery of fission had happened during peacetime. Instead of Einstein writing a letter to President Roosevelt warning that the Germans might build a terrible new weapon, he would have been asking for government subsidies for a new kind of energy that some friends were trying to launch in a start-up company. He would have explained that a multibillion-dollar infrastructure was needed to set up the mining, processing and power stations. Massive fossil fuel-burning generating stations would be needed to run the enrichment facilities. The outcome would be uncertain, and the details worked out along the way. Oh, and by the way, devastating military applications would be possible, but a system of global surveillance could ensure that no nation ever submitted to the temptation to make such a weapon. Furthermore, the used fuel would be the most toxic thing ever known, and potentially a weapon of mass destruction. A way to dispose of it would have to be worked out. Devastating accidents could happen that would have catastrophic effects on populations and food supplies. We don’t yet understand what this stuff does to living tissue, but it’s just a matter of control. What do you think? This could be the way of the future.
The opinion you have about to this speculation depends on your theory of human nature. No one can say what would happen in this alternate reality, but my conclusion is that there is no leader now or ever who would have supported this start-up. The likely response would have been, “Spare me the science fiction nonsense, but tell me more about the weapons.” As it was, the most Einstein ever said about making electricity from nuclear energy was that it was “one hell of a way to boil water.”
Another interesting speculative question is whether any nation would have built nuclear infrastructure if the implications had been thoroughly discussed and put to a vote. The Manhattan Project was carried out in secrecy under the leadership of General Leslie Groves, without the knowledge of Congress, and $2 billion was spent on a massive system of laboratories, mines, factories and enrichment facilities. The political leaders didn’t understand the science or the health dangers, and the scientists naively believed the bomb would be used to deter a Nazi nuclear attack. They were shocked, shocked to realize that the $2-billion bomb would have to be used to justify its cost and to make a show of strength to the Soviets.
The American public has always excused this Manhattan Project secrecy as a necessity of the war, but nonetheless it was one massive blank check that wasn’t really essential. The Americans quickly realized that enormous generating stations and industrial plants were required, not to mention access to lots of uranium ore, and the USSR, Germany and Japan all lacked the prerequisites, under the conditions that existed from 1943-45. America was the only country that had the capacity. By the spring of 1945, Germany had surrendered and General Groves was worried that Japan would be done too before “the gadget” was ready. The outcome of the war would not have been much different without the bomb.
Few historians believe anymore that the atomic bombs were essential to end the war. There was no CNN in those days, so most of Japan barely knew anything had happened. The generals in Tokyo had heard only vague reports of a terrifying new kind of weapon, but they didn’t know enough about it to be scared of it, and they certainly didn’t care about the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was just two more bombed out cities after all the others that had been bombed by conventional methods.
After the Nagasaki bomb the generals still wanted to fight on, and if they had had a chance to call a bluff and see if the Americans would drop another one, they would have found out that there weren’t any more. (The Bikini Islanders still had 11 months to enjoy their homeland before the next bomb was ready for them.) The surrender happened only because some cabinet members were able to get around the military leadership, sneak the recording of the Emperor’s speech out of the palace, and get it on the radio. According to historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, what really got the political leadership to surrender was the entry of the USSR into the war in August 1945. They concluded, predictably, that going with the capitalists would be the lesser of two evils.
As late as 1995 (and still now for a large segment of the population), this was still a wild, revisionist theory in America. A proposed exhibit at the Smithsonian, commemorating the 50th. anniversary of the atomic bombings, was to present a contextualized, multifaceted approach to the interpretation of the history, but political opposition shut it down. It was offensive to veterans to suggest that factors beside the bombs had an influence in ending the war.
The standard defense is that the bombings were justified because they eliminated the necessity of a land invasion in which hundreds of thousands would die. Some even suggested there would have been a million American casualties. The trouble with this reasoning is that it ignores an obvious possibility: pack up and go home if you don’t want to invade. The war was already over. Japan could no longer wage war outside its territories, it could not have held on to Korea and Taiwan, and it was under blockade. The threat of Soviet invasion would have made Japan come begging for an American occupation, which is basically what really motivated the actual surrender. 
   Thus the atomic bombings were a sideshow, but a nice demonstration of American power to usher in the post-war world. The entire Manhattan Project seems like a series of events that spun out of control and went beyond any outcome that anyone imagined at the outset. It expanded like as a headless monster, and the mission creep has continued all the way to Fukushima and the present nuclear standoff with Iran.

Colonel: What’s that you’ve got written on your helmet?
Private Joker: ‘Born to Kill’, Sir.
Colonel: You write ‘Born to Kill’ on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What’s that supposed to be, some sick joke?...
Private Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.
Colonel: The what?
Private Joker: The duality of man. You know – the Jungian thing, sir.

Stanley Kubrick (dir.) Full Metal Jacket. 1987

There are problems with speculating about how things might have happened under different circumstances, but it is worthwhile to run such thought experiments. I find it hard to believe that humanity would have first tried to harness nuclear energy for anything other than weapons. The struggle to establish renewable energy has shown that the fossil fuel paradigm would not allow itself to be threatened by such a novel, risky and expensive undertaking as nuclear power, which requires energy inputs from fossil fuels in any case. Using nuclear energy to produce electricity was a side-benefit promoted to soften the criticism of the nuclear arms race and ease the conscience of the scientists who had contributed to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it was made affordable only by the pre-existing infrastructure for weapons. Once nuclear power plants exist, they are all plutonium factories that add to the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and fill the world with nuclear waste for which there is still no disposal solution. We could imagine a world with nuclear weapons and no nuclear power plants, but not vice versa.

The secret revealed in August 1945 shouldn't be considered to have been a total a surprise at the time. News headlines from 1939-43 (below) told the world about the coming nuclear age, and a Scientific American issue from 1939 (excerpted below the table) recounted the discovery of uranium fission by Otto Hahn in December, 1938. The article explicitly describes the possibility of developing a new kind of weaponry.

Articles about Uranium Fission Reported in The New York Times before Manhattan Project Censorship took hold completely:

·      Vast Energy Freed by Uranium Atom; Split, It Produces 2 'Cannonballs,' Each of 100,000,000 Electron Volts Hailed as Epoch Making, New Process, Announced at Columbia, Uses Only 1-30 Volt to Liberate Big Force. Jan. 31, 1939.
·      The Week in Science; When Uranium Splits Doubtful Source of Power Cancer and X-Rays Neutron Possibilities News Notes. March 5, 1939.
·      Vision Earth Rocked by Isotope Blast; Scientists Say Bit of Uranium Could Wreck New York. April 30, 1939.
·      Release Largest Store Known on Earth A ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ When Separated in Pure Form It Can Yield 235 Billion Volts Per Atom of Its Own. May 5, 1939.
·      New Key is Found to Atomic Energy; Actino-Uranium Is Credited With Power to A Mixture of Physics and Fantasy. March 17, 1940.
·   Vast Power Source in Atomic Energy Opened by Science; Report on New Source of Power. May 5, 1940.
·      Third Way to Split Atom Is Found By Halving Uranium and Thorium; Scientists at University of California Say Cleavage Creates Much Energy -- Tokyo Men Also Report Uranium Fission. March 3, 1941.
·      Scientist Reaches London; Dr. N.H.D. Bohr, Dane, Has a New Atomic Blast Invention. October 9, 1943.
·      Research Institute is Seized in Denmark; Germans Are Expected to Work on New Secret Weapon. December 12, 1943.

(List of references made by Korean Minjok Leadership Academy)

Jean Harrington. "Splitting the Atom." Scientific American. October 1939:
“These secondary neutrons constitute a fresh supply of ‘bullets’ to produce new fissions. Thus we are faced with a vicious circle, with one explosion setting off another, and energy being continuously and cumulatively released. It is probable that a sufficiently large mass of uranium would be explosive if its atoms once got well started dividing. As a matter of fact, the scientists are pretty nervous over the dangerous forces they are unleashing, and are hurriedly devising means to control them.
It may or may not be significant that, since early spring, no accounts of research on nuclear fission have been heard from Germany — not even from discoverer Hahn. It is not unlikely that the German government, spotting a potentially powerful weapon of war, has imposed military secrecy on all recent German investigations. A large concentration of isotope 235, subjected to neutron bombardment, might conceivably blow up all London or Paris.”

Other sources:

Philip Nobile (ed.). Judgment at the Smithsonian: The Uncensored Script of the Smithsonian’s 50th Anniversary Exhibit of the Enola Gay. Marlowe and Co.1995.
The Pacific War Research Society. Japan’s Longest Day. Kodansha. 1968.
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2006.
Ward Wilson. “The Myth of Nuclear Necessity.” The New York Times. January 13, 2013.

from sources posted on Wikipedia: Debate over the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

After the war, Admiral Soemu Toyoda said, "I believe the Russian participation in the war against Japan rather than the atom bombs did more to hasten the surrender." (John Toland, The Rising Sun, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2003, p.807) Prime Minister Suzuki also declared that the entry of the USSR into the war made "the continuance of the war impossible." (Edward Bunting, World War II Day by Day. Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2001, p.652) Upon hearing news of the event from Foreign Minister Togo, Suzuki immediately said, "Let us end the war", and agreed to finally convene an emergency meeting of the Supreme Council with that aim. The official British history, The War Against Japan, also writes the Soviet declaration of war "brought home to all members of the Supreme Council the realization that the last hope of a negotiated peace had gone and there was no alternative but to accept the Allied terms sooner or later."


Sometimes Satan Comes as a Man of Peace

Of all the things Lance Armstrong’s blood was tested for, was it ever tested for plutonium?

Two guys who knew you had to lie to win. We all know about Lance Armstrong… General Leslie Groves led the secret Manhattan Project to build the bombs that landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He managed to hide a budget of $2 billion from Congress (1945 dollars!), censor all news about the project and the splitting of the atom (which had been reported in mass media before 1942) and conceal the nature of the project from almost all of the thousands of people working on it. He wouldn't have sought forgiveness in a sit-down with Oprah.

Competitive sport is thought to be a safe and healthy expression of humanity’s tendency toward political and military domination. Yet as in war and realpolitik, we see in sport the quest for power, we see greed trampling over ethics, we see enmity, hypocrisy and duplicity. Sorry, tell me again why we thought this was the healthy side of humanity’s competitive spirit. By now we should see in the endless sports scandals that it might have been a mistake to think that sport is a benign form of competition. We see that the logic of competition, in sport, business, finance and politics, unavoidably fills the top rungs with those whose strategy was cheating concealed under a veneer of honor and righteousness.
Lance Armstrong’s tragic fall from grace should indicate that the flaw is not in him but in us. We placed no upper limit on competitive tendencies we support, and this necessitated that the best cheaters and most ruthless competitors would rise to the top. If it hadn't been Lance, it would have been someone else who was willing to cheat, clever enough to avoid detection, and ruthless enough to destroy friends and teammates who blew the whistle.
Lance Armstrong’s strategy was exactly the same as all states that have acquired nuclear weapons. They make a pretense of being upstanding global citizens, but the long game is to lie, cheat and deny long enough to ultimately prevail. Israel, for example, knows what Iran is doing because Iran is playing with Israel’s nuclear playbook.
It should be obvious that the lust for power itself is the problem, and the human race should be taking a cognitive leap in its evolution by curtailing the glorification of competition, even in sport. Let’s tie ourselves to the mast as we sail past the sirens that tempt us toward our own destruction. We got Lance to sit down with Oprah and confess his sins, and this is likely to be the first step in his losing all the financial assets that we bestowed upon him. It’s too bad we can’t do the same thing to hypocrites on the world stage who spend hundreds of billions of dollars renewing their nuclear arsenals while they mouth platitudes about keeping the world safe.
A good way to change the world might be to change what we think of as acceptable outlets of competitive impulses. We should all be disgusted enough with the doping scandals and the excessive financial rewards of professional sport (the “amateur” Olympics included). It’s time that we valued sporting events that emphasize health, joy and participation over spectating. There would still be winners and losers, but if we developed cultural beliefs that the prizes should be small and the winners be humble, there is a chance this attitude might spill over into our economic systems and international relations.
Lance Armstrong’s story is connected to the nuclear arms race in another way. There is a possibility that his cancer was caused by plutonium, the ultimate symbol of man’s competitive excess. If it was not by plutonium, it was by any of the other evils that have contaminated the environment. But this is a subject in his life story that seems to have received no attention.
People don’t like to speculate about the causes of a particular cancer, and understandably so. There is nothing to be gained for an individual in brooding over past mistakes or blaming parents for where they lived or what they fed their children. Cancer doesn’t leave a calling card telling “this tumor brought to you by hexavalent chromium” or whatever the cause may be.
The emphasis in charity foundations, like Armstrong’s Livestrong, has been mostly on helping patients and funding research for “finding the cure.” This is fine, as people have a right to donate their money to whatever causes they wish, but it is curious that we give so little thought to eliminating the causes of cancer. As Bob Dylan said, “sometimes the devil comes as a man of peace.” Our heroes and noble causes have ways of blinding us to the important questions like, “Why was testicular cancer almost unknown before the nuclear age?” Our expectations have lost touch with formerly common sense understandings of nature and human nature. We should be outraged that a young man got cancer, but not surprised that he cheated to win. Did you really think he won the Tour de France clean when all the other top riders had been busted for doping? Did you really think it was normal for teenage boys to get testicular cancer?
There have been studies on plutonium in animals, and there is a shameful history of experiments on uninformed, and sometimes captive, human subjects (see Eileen Welsome’s The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War). It is known that plutonium accumulates in the gonads at high levels and causes tumors, and that this can happen while it exists at low levels elsewhere in the body. This finding prompted experts to suggest that existing standards were a poor way to measure whether a person was at risk from occupational exposure.
It is known that plutonium can travel on the wind, and not just in dirt particles. This important difference was found by Carl Johnson when he analyzed house dust in homes southeast of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory in Colorado.
It is known that nuclear facilities and nuclear contamination were spread throughout North America during the age of weapons testing and production. Some sites were giant factories like Hanford and Oak Ridge, while others were sub-contracted cottage industry metal shops that existed secretly in residential areas of small towns. There are some sites that are extremely contaminated national sacrifice zones, from which the contamination spread out to surrounding communities. No place was unaffected. We all have plutonium in our bodies.
Lance Armstrong grew up in Plano, Texas, and famous American plutonium factories nearby were in Amarillo, Texas (523 km to the west) and Crescent, Oklahoma (where Karen Silkwood worked, 326 km to the north). Experts at the Department of Energy would say it is impossible that there was a risk at these distances, but there are many unanswered questions about plutonium contamination, and all the places where it was produced and transported are unknowable. If I were Lance Armstrong, I’d be curious to know more.
But of course Lance had other goals. He would have damaged his brand value with corporate sponsors if he had raised uncomfortable questions about the US government’s environmental contamination and its liability for cancer cases.
In the same way, researchers had nothing to gain by pursuing epidemiological studies of plutonium. You would think doctors would want to check for the element in every testicle and ovary removed from cancer patients, but the large-scale research required would need government funding, and the government has no motive to fund research that might conclude it is liable for damages in thousands of cancer cases. Researchers know this and don’t even bother to apply for grants.
This historical record shows how long it took tobacco companies to admit the health damage cause by their products. Eventually, they had to pay $206 billion to the state governments that sued them for health care costs. In the case of plutonium contamination, there are no powerful state agencies to act as plaintiffs. They and their contractors are the defendants. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 provided compensation to “energy workers” but government responsibility for the health effects on the general population has never been acknowledged. If Lance Armstrong wants to redeem himself, this is an area he could devote himself to. This time he might realize the virtues of walking the path of the unsung, unsponsored hero.

Supporting sources – quotations and comments:

Leslie Fuger. “From Potatoes to Plutonium.” Boise Weekly. March 16, 2005.

“According to a 2004 report by the National Center for Environmental Health of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is abundant evidence in areas surrounding the Los Alamos National Laboratory - the site after which INL's [Idaho National Laboratory] complex would be modeled - that hazardous emissions are escaping the facility despite DOE's best efforts to contain it. The CDC concluded that the soil surrounding LANL contains as much as 100 times more plutonium than was previously estimated. According to the same report, Los Alamos County has an abnormally high rate of breast, melanoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, ovary, prostate, testicular and thyroid cancers, and Los Alamos residents, even those who have never worked at the lab itself, have more plutonium in their bodies than any one other county nationwide.”

C. V. Beechey, D. Green, E. R. Humphries & A. G. Searle. “Cytogenetic effects of plutonium-239 in male mice.” Nature 256, 577 - 578 (14 August 1975); doi:10.1038/256577a0

“Green et al. have recently shown, however, that plutonium reaching the testis after intravenous injection of 239Pu citrate into CBA mice concentrates in the interstitial tissue, outside the seminiferous tubules. They calculated that the average dose rate to spermatogonial stem cells, in which genetic damage can accumulate, was about 2–2.5 times that to the whole testis. In these circumstances, the genetically significant dose is higher than the average tissue dose, which is that normally used for protection purposes.”

Dr. Carl Johnson's work is discussed on pages 182-183. He found plutonium concentrations in house dust were higher than in soil - showing that plutonium particles did not stay bound to heavier dirt particles. They could travel through the air much farther than was previously thought. Carl Johnson also found levels in soil, in an area planned for housing development, that exceeded the government limit by a factor of 7. 

Michael Castleman. "Why Johnny Can't Have Kids." Mother Jones. April 1982. pages 14-18.

“20 common industrial chemicals have been linked to human reproductive impairment.”
“Testicular cancer rates have doubled among whites and tripled among blacks since 1950… it has become one of the most common solid malignant tumors in men aged 15-35… A century ago, testicular cancer was virtually unheard of in men under 50. By 1960, men under 25 accounted for 12 per cent of cases. Today they account for more than 26 per cent.”
This article also referred to Carl Johnson’s work near Rocky Flats. He found that upwind from the site there were 17 cases of testicular cancer, while downwind there were 40. Skeptics responded that the finding was inconclusive because cancer clusters can be randomly distributed in patterns that are meaningless. (If you throw 1000 pennies into the air over an empty parking lot, they won’t land evenly spaced. They will cluster in some places.) But perhaps the randomness of clusters is not the issue. The futility of looking for geographical patterns is evident when we realize that there is no longer an untouched control group to compare to. There is no pure population. Chemical and radiological causes are confounded with those associated with lifestyle, diet and “genetics,” and I put this term in quotation marks because when genetic damage, in an individual or across generations, is caused by radiation and toxins, there is nothing about it that we should fatalistically accept as “naturally occurring” mutation.

Testicular Cancer and Exposure to Ionizing Radiation. JSI Center for Environmental Health Studies

“Rate of testicular cancer incidence was very high in Los Alamos County, while mortality was  very low. Los Alamos County ranked highest in the incidence of testicular cancer among the 33 counties in New Mexico from 1970 to 1996. In recent years, about one to two cases have occurred annually in the county.
There was a consistent increase in incidence between 1984 and 1997.”


“LAC [Los Alamos County] residents experienced an 82% elevation in testicular cancer when compared with the New Mexico state reference population.”
“Cancer incidence rates that were significantly elevated in LAC when compared to the state reference population rates included breast, melanoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, ovary, prostate, testis (significant at the 90% confidence interval), and thyroid cancers.  Cancer mortality rates that were significantly elevated in LAC when compared to the state reference population rates include breast cancer.”
The author of the paper wrote that rates were “significantly elevated,” but noted, “When studying small populations, for example LAC, the small number of cancer cases results in unstable incidence and mortality rates, large confidence intervals, and a loss of determination in whether a rate is really statistically significant.”


9. Processed Uranium from Oxford, Ohio. Washington Nuclear Museum and Educational Center. September 15, 2010.
For a fuller description of this example of America’s nuclear cottage industry in Oxford, Ohio, see: Robert R. Johnson. Romancing the Atom: Nuclear Infatuation from the Radium Girls to Fukushima. p. 98-139. 2012.

Ward Wilson. “The Myth of Nuclear Necessity.” The New York Times. January 13, 2013.

Ward Wilson. "The Bomb Didn't Beat Japan - Stalin Did." Foreign Policy National Security. May 29, 2013.

12. Wikipedia: List of Doping Cases in Cycling. Hundreds of incidents listed, from 1880s to 2012.


Great Lakes Nuclear Dump

(revised April 4, 2017)

More forgotten history that hides in plain sight: It's not a stop for the Japanese tourists who visit Niagara, but they might be interested to know. The shores of Lake Ontario and the Niagara River are the resting place for high-level radioactive waste left over from the project to build the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. Who knew?

While growing up in Toronto, or visiting home as an adult, I have taken many day trips to Niagara Falls. It is a great place for getting lost in contemplations of geological time and the more recent history of human habitation. One can think about the Ice Age scraping out the Great Lakes, or imagine the first French explorers coming up the river with native guides in the 17th century. Later, slaves escaping from plantations took the Underground Railroad, and crossed the Niagara River to freedom. The N.A.A.C.P, at first called The Niagara Group, began in 1905 in a hotel on the Canadian side because hotels on the American side were segregated. A statue on the American side commemorates Nikola Tesla and the 1895 launch of the first large-scale AC power system in the world. This heralded the industrialization of the area on the American side.

In the early days of electricity, there was a cost advantage in setting up close to the source of power, so American investment in heavy industry flowed into the area. On the Canadian side, the power was sent to points farther away. Thus the difference between Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York: One is Canada’s front yard, welcoming visitors from the more populous south. On the Canadian side it is all resorts, wineries, casinos and tended gardens. On the other side is America’s backyard industrial zone, a day’s drive from the front entrance in New York City.
The Ice Age carved out the Great Lakes, and ten thousand years ago the falls were five kilometers farther north toward Lake Ontario. One can look forward the same length of time and wonder how the falls will be then, and what kind of civilization will exist. On a warm summer day you can meditate like a zen monk to the roar of the water, all that water set in motion by the eternal energy of the sun.
The industrial history of the area can also lead one to these thoughts of eternity because, in another astounding example of “secret” history hiding in plain sight, one of the world’s many intractable nuclear waste dumps can be found beside the Niagara River in Lewiston, New York. Hardly anyone is aware of it, even though it stopped being a state secret long ago.
The site is described in Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies [1] and more recently in Tom Zoellner’s Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World. [2]but there is surprisingly little about it to be found in mainstream journalism.
In the summer of 2011, I came across a report by WIVB, a Buffalo, NY television station, about a Niagara Falls road project that had been held up because of high radiation levels discovered by a contractor on the project. [3] The report is somewhat confusing because some of the people quoted seemed to be alarmed by the discovery, while the mayor said, “The project is not a remedial project for removing radioactive materials wherever they’re found. It’s a road construction project in which radioactive materials that are under the road are being removed, and so there are limits to the bounds of the project.”
In other words, everyone involved was supposed to know the contamination existed, and residents with contaminated properties were out of luck because the project focused only on the road. Strangely, the report failed to explain why the area was contaminated. This might be because the issue is so well-known to locals that it need not be mentioned. This is, after all, the home of Love Canal, one of the most famous cases of industrial pollution in the world. The area has been so damaged by industry that health studies of the radiation are inconclusive because the high rates of cancer are also caused by chemicals.
Another explanation for the lack of context in the news report is that the relevant information has just gone down the memory hole, and the journalists may not know or care to investigate why the road is radioactive. People who worry about the legacy of nuclear waste give a lot of thought to the possibility that people in the future may lose contact with the knowledge of the hazards left by their ancestors. This report is evidence that this change is already underway.

There is some hope to be found in the fact that a year before this TV report, two writers for a Buffalo arts weekly were up to the task of doing some real journalism. Geoff Kelly and Louis Ricciuti made the connection to the debris left by the Manhattan Project, quoted precise figures of the radiation levels–which were astoundingly high–and pointed out that, just as we have seen in Fukushima, the contract went to a local company with no capabilities in radiological cleanup. Their work also covers the stories of Manhattan Project workers who suffered health consequences that went unrecognized and uncompensated. They reported on many instances of contaminated soils being moved about improperly, or lands being sold and developed without proper remediation. [4] (See notes [5] to [9] for additional articles by these writers and by other journalists who have reported on radioactive contamination in Niagara Falls.)
To look deeper into the truth of such matters one can’t expect much from local media which is always hesitant to publish news that will tarnish the reputation of the town and damage the economy. One has to turn to a local, concerned expert who has fought the battle and recorded details on a personal blog or journal. James Rauch, author of Tonawanda Nuclear Site Info (TNSI), seems to be just such a local hero. [10] His extensive site gives this summary of the Manhattan Project nuclear waste dumped in the Niagara Falls area:

[The term] K-65 residues [refers to] the uranium mill tailings resulting from a uniquely concentrated uranium ore discovered before WW II in Katanga province (Shinkolobwe) of the former Belgian Congo, now Democratic Republic of Congo… This ore, dubbed “K-65”, had a record 65% uranium content. It also held very high concentrations of thorium and radium, and their decay products, including radon gas, which are retained in the tailings (residues). The very high concentrations of these extremely toxic, long-lived radionuclides present in these wastes prompted the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council to categorize them as indistinguishable in hazard from High-Level Waste in its 1995 report. The K-65 ores were refined as a key part of the Manhattan Project during World War II at the Linde Ceramics Plant at Tonawanda, NY, and at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis… The Linde “K-65 residues” were transported to a storage silo built at the federally-appropriated Lake Ontario Ordnance Works site outside of Lewiston, NY, a short distance from Niagara Falls. [9]

The report by the National Academy of Science concluded with the points below (among others not cited here):

1.  There is no immediate hazard to the off-site public from the residues in their present configuration.
2.  The high-level residues pose a potential long-term risk to the public, given the existing environmental conditions and future unpredictability, if they are left permanently at the NFSS.
3.  The proposed actions of replacing the interim cap with a “permanent” cap and of long-term site maintenance and monitoring do not address the potential risks to the public for the long periods of time commensurate with the duration of that potential risk.
4.  The present and potential future interactions between the NFSS and disposal sites adjacent to the NFSS, where non-radioactive toxic chemical and landfill wastes are currently disposed, have not been addressed adequately.
5.  Current site monitoring activities are inadequate for the determination of long-term site integrity and potential future risks to the public… [11]

What this means is that the Niagara Falls Storage Site (NFSS) poses the same risk that the infamous Hanford facility in Washington inflicts on the Columbia River. Unless a better solution is built, soon or sometime within a century, and for a long time afterward, a plume of radionuclides will flow through the groundwater into Lake Ontario. Nothing is being done about this, and considering present conditions in the USA, it is doubtful that the country will have the competence for the task in 2085.
Sixty kilometers across the lake in my hometown, I suspect very few of Toronto’s four million residents know anything about this blowback from Hiroshima and Nagasaki that has been dumped on their Great Lakes border. Ironically, there is a campaign now underway called Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, but it is focused on opposing the proposal to create a permanent storage site near Lake Huron for low-level waste from Canada’s nuclear power plants. The people behind this campaign may not realize the full extent of the problem they have taken up.
International Institute of Concern for Public Health
(IICPH) released the Great Lakes Nuclear Hot Spots Map
[1] Ginger Strand, Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies (Simon and Schuster, 2008).

[2] Tom Zoellner, Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World (Penguin 2010).

[3] Luke Moretti, “Concerns over Falls Road Fill Radiation,” WIVB Television, Buffalo, NY. August 31, 2011.

[4] Geoff Kelly and Louis Ricciuti, “The Cult of Nuclearists,” Artvoice, May 12, 2010.

[5] Geoff Kelly and Louis Ricciuti, “The Bomb that Fell on Niagara,” Artvoice, September 24, 2008.

[6] Geoff Kelly and Louis Ricciuti, “Greenpac Reveals Radioactive Waste Issue at Niagara Falls Mill,” Artvoice, August 1, 2013.

[7] John R. Emshweller and Jeremy Singer-Vine, “A Nuclear Cleanup Effort Leaves Questions Lingering at Scores of Old Sites,” Wall Street Journal, October 30, 2013.

[8] Ralph Blumenthal, “Big Atomic Waste Site Reported Found Near Buffalo,” New York Times, February 1, 1981.

[9] Libbe Halevy, “Nuclear Hotseat #270: Niagara Falls’ Dirty Nuke Secrets w/Lou Ricciuti...” Nuclear Hotseat #270, August 24, 2016.

[10] James Rauch, Tonawanda Nuclear Site Info.

[11] Safety of the High-Level Uranium Ore Residues at the Niagara Falls Storage Site, Lewiston, New York (National Academy of Sciences. Commission on Geosciences, Environment and Resources, 1995).