From the Manhattan Project to the Bronx Project: The toxic legacy of the nuclear age

Recent alarming reports state that the UK is prepared to supply Ukraine with depleted uranium ammunition in the ongoing slaughter in Ukraine. These lethally toxic carcinogens are known to cause illness and death, not only for the victims of war but for the perpetrators as well. Victims who have suffered genetic damage pass it on to their children who are often born with terrible malformations and illnesses. In Metal of Dishonor–Depleted Uranium: How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers and Civilians with DU Weapons, published in 1997 by Ramsay Clark and the International Action Center, essays reveal the horrors caused by depleted uranium in the first Gulf War. Although the figures on the nuclear budgets have risen astronomically, with the United States now budgeting over $1 trillion for new bombs, bomb factories and delivery systems, sadly, nothing else has changed much since that time. Below is a chapter written for that book in 1996, when the author was president of GRACE, the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment.

The world is awash in radioactive waste. We simply haven’t a clue where to put it. The best we have come up with in the United States is a harebrained scheme to ship the lethal carcinogenic garbage from nuclear weapons and civilian nuclear power plants, by rail and by truck, from the four corners of the continent, and bury it in a hole in the ground in Nevada at Yucca Mountain. Citizens groups, like the proverbial boy with his finger in the dike, have been holding off the onslaught of this devastating disposal solution, preventing the legislation from passing in the Congress. Deadly plutonium remains toxic for 250,000 years and there is no way of guaranteeing that the Yucca site could prevent radioactive seepage into the ground water over this unimaginable period of time. Remember that all of recorded history is only 5000 years old!

The National Academy of Sciences reported last August that most of the contaminated nuclear weapons sites across our land can not be adequately cleaned up because of “insufficient money, technical skill or political will to do the job.” reflecting the skewed priorities of our national leadership. Congress approved Clinton’s last request for $5.1 billion to the Department of Energy’s weapons labs which will fund the design of new nuclear weapons and they are currently addressing Bush’s latest request to raise the ante to $5.3 billion with corresponding cuts in clean up funds while Bush is pushing hard to revive Reagan’s ill-conceived Star Wars program with a first installment of at least $60 billion for the so-called National Missile Defense, a platform to a much larger offensive missile program to dominate and control the military use of space according to the Air Force Space Command’s Vision 2020 document.

Our Doctor Strangeloves continue to create new sources of toxic waste with sub-critical underground tests of plutonium mixed with high explosives at the Nevada test site and plans to fabricate 6,000 toxic new plutonium pits for nuclear bombs at Los Alamos. Tens of thousands of IQ points are devoted to these provocative programs which threaten to start a new arms race with Russia and China and encourage nuclear proliferation in other countries. Yet, the scientists don’t seem to have a clue about how to protect our earth’s future from the lethal residue of their careless weapons work.

We’ve Wasted Precious Resources
The United States has spent five and a half trillion dollars on nuclear weapons over the past 50 years.

We’ve Polluted Our Own Environment
We’ve created more than 4,500 contaminated sites, covering tens of thousands of acres that may take 75 years and cost as high as one trillion dollars to ‘clean up.’ ‘Clean up’ of toxic plutonium, which remains lethal for over 250,000 years, is the wrong word. At best, we can only attempt to manage and contain the poisons from seeping into the air and groundwater and visiting further destruction on our people.

We’ve Experimented on Our Own People
Nuclear weapons drove us to the unspeakable act of secretly testing radiation on our own population. 23,000 American civilians were subjected to radiation research in about 1,400 projects over 30 years. The government tested on children with mental disabilities, mental patients, poor women, and US soldiers. More than 200,000 troops were ordered to observe nuclear test detonations and were exposed to radiation.

We’ve Abused Indigenous Peoples
Every nuclear test site in the world is on indigenous land. Over 1,000 nuclear tests were conducted in Nevada on Western Shoshone homeland. New nuclear waste sites, loaded with financial incentives, are constantly planned for native lands. Right now, Utah is involved in a huge battle with private contractors attempting to create a nuclear waste dump at Skull Valley on Goshute land. And the Nevada test site is slated to receive waste from the nuclear industry and from weapons production waste.

In less than a life-time the waste from nuclear weapons, power plants and the nuclear industry has permeated nearly every sector of the globe—silently undermining the health and life expectancy of humankind and other species.

Worst of All—We’re Still Doing It
In addition to the “stockpile stewardship” program, a 20 year taboo against using military plutonium for civilian purposes is being undermined by a Clinton policy to permit the burning of weapons plutonium in civilian reactors—a blatant corporate welfare giveaway by a corrupt government to a dying nuclear industry, no longer capable of economic survival—feeding off taxpayer subsidies to spew out ever more tons of lethal waste which continue to poison the earth. And new plans are underway to manufacture new supplies of replacement tritium, a less long-lived deadly substance, which gives more bang to our grossly oversized stockpile of bombs.

We are importing foreign fuel waste and scheduling it for “reprocessing” and “enrichment” for eventual resale to feed the reckless nuclear power industry. Stymied in this country where they are unable to build hazardous new reactors, companies like Westinghouse have redoubled their efforts to peddle their poisonous products abroad, spreading not only more lethal nuclear waste, but creating nuclear bomb factories in ever more countries who want to play with the big boys by developing their own source of bomb material with each new siting of a civilian power reactor. (That’s why the CTB requires the 44 countries with nuclear reactors to join it before it becomes effective—they well know that every nuclear power plant is a bomb factory!) The most difficult part of building a nuclear weapon is obtaining the plutonium. The mechanical technology is widely known today. All nuclear power plants produce weapons material. Some reactors, such as the light water reactors proposed for North Korea, make the process of developing bomb grade plutonium more complicated than others. But eventually they can all deliver the lethal goods.

Enchanted by the “hardness” of depleted uranium which can penetrate tank armor, some evil genius in the pay of the Pentagon thought to make bullets from it in a bizarre recycling program which enabled the government to make a dent in the 500,000 tons of depleted uranium waste amassed since the Manhattan Project. Don’t be misled by the term “depleted uranium.” Like “spent fuel” from civilian reactors, depleted uranium is highly toxic and carcinogenic and has a half-life of some 4.4 billion years. “Half life” is another euphemism that distances us through our language from grasping the deadly seriousness of what we are doing to our planet. For example, while the half-life of plutonium is 26,000 years, this lethal poison has a fully toxic life of about 250,000 years until all the radioactivity decays. So you can imagine — or can you — the life span of toxic depleted uranium with its “half life” of over 4 billion years!

While our brilliant military was dreaming up its scheme of penetrating Saddam’s tanks with “hard” depleted uranium (DU), they neglected to calculate the impact this material would have on our own soldiers. “Friendly fire” killed 35 U.S. soldiers and wounded 72 others during the Gulf War while disabling more US tanks than the Iraqis did. Spewing 300 tons of DU ammunition over Iraq, the U.S. left a growing legacy of respiratory problems, liver and kidney dysfunction, and birth defects among the newborn children of U.S. vets (A Veterans Administration study of 251 Gulf War veterans families in Mississippi found that 67 percent of the children born to the vets since the war have severe illnesses, with effects ranging from missing eyes and ears to fused fingers.) And similar medical reports are coming from Iraq with an increase of leukemia and congenital birth defects from 8% before the war to 28% today. Undeterred, similar environmental havoc and dangers to health were created by the use of depleted uranium ammunition in the bombing of Bosnia.

This callous disregard for human well being is sadly typical of government policy during the nuclear age. In Portsmouth, Ohio, where we have been leaching radioactive poisons into the rivers and streams for 50 years to produce uranium, the US Enrichment Corporation is recycling spent fuel for overseas sale. I saw photos of children with three fingers, one ear, and a two-headed cow. In Karaul, Kazakhstan, a small village near the former Soviet test site at Semipalatinsk, I saw similar birth defects among children there who had the misfortune to be born downwind from Soviet nuclear testing.

In Idaho I saw rusting tin cans filled with plutonium from nuclear submarine waste sitting in raw open earth pits on top of an aquifer in an earthquake zone! The Navy ships its spent fuel clear across the country by rail, from New York to Idaho, creating this macabre storage “solution.” And they continue to build new submarine reactors, creating even more waste. In Amarillo they store plutonium pits from dismantled bombs on top of the world largest freshwater aquifer — the Oglala which supplies drinking water to 16 states. In Portsmouth, Ohio, on the Ohio-Kentucky border, the U.S. Enrichment Plant pours its toxic filth into the rivers and streams poisoning the poor people of Appalachia. Down winders in Utah with higher incidences of breast cancer and leukemia continue to suffer from nuclear testing in Nevada. Uranium miners in Arizona and workers at the leaking Hanford tanks in Washington live shorter lives than average with higher cancer rates than the general population. Indeed every site where nuclear activity occurs, both military and civilian, has a saga of woes from the effects of lethal radioactivity. Further, most sites, worldwide, are located on the lands of indigenous people or in poverty stricken rural communities. It is an immoral tale of environmental racism.

Last year, a mountain of radioactive scrap metal at Paducah Kentucky was scheduled to be recycled into consumer goods, like children’s high chairs, tableware, pots and pans—until citizen action was able to stop that effort temporarily. Watch for the proposal to rear its ugly head again as our government continues to seek bizarre recycling possibilities for the horrendous nuclear waste negligently stored around the country. Recently the FDA, in a flawed, industry driven process, approved the use of radioactive cesium and cobalt-60 in food irradiators to nuke our countries meat supply in order to mask the inhumane and unsanitary practices of huge factory farms which raise livestock in animal concentration camps under filthy conditions. They also want to dispense with labeling the food as irradiated, or wish to call it cold pasteurization. Here too, people are organizing to stop these undemocratic and uncaring practices.

Trying to get our government to admit that radioactive bomb factories and power plants are harmful to living things is like the long battle waged against the tobacco companies who continued to claim that there is no connection between smoking, cancer, and other life threatening diseases. There are current assaults on the permissible level of radiation exposure. Don’t protect the people. Just change the standards. This is the same malevolent mentality that permitted over 1200 horrendous radiation experiments to be performed on poor people,  those with mental disabilities, pregnant women, soldiers, and prisoners without their knowledge and consent — the disenfranchised guinea pigs of the nuclear age to whom we must now add the new victims of depleted uranium, and potential victims of recycled radioactive metal and irradiated foods.

The shocking radiation experiments were conducted by some of our leading universities and institutions that even today sit as trustees over the national laboratories of death at Los Alamos, Sandia, and Livermore. In New York, Brookhaven National Lab, with its two nuclear reactors, told 800 local homeowners not to drink their well water now contaminated with radioactive tritium and strontium 90 which is “migrating” into the sole source Long Island aquifer. Epidemiologist, Jay Gould reports a higher incidence of cancer within 50 miles of every nuclear reactor across the country. Brookhaven Lab is governed by American Universities, Inc., a consortium of our most prestigious eastern universities including Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. They have failed to take responsibility for the harm and havoc to human health and the environment that is occurring today under the aegis of their trusteeship. Similarly, the University of California adds its respected imprimatur to the lethal brainstorms from Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia, including MIRVs, min-nukes, hydrogen bombs, and Star Wars.

And now that we have inherited mountains of radioactive waste that remains lethally toxic for eons, what are the great scientific minds at our national laboratories focused on? Space nukes, bunker busters, depleted uranium bullets and armor, third generation hydrogen bombs in virtual reality computer simulations — instead of applying themselves to cleaning up the poisonous legacy of the nuclear age.

A National Academy of Science report, after concluding that we currently have neither the money, the technology, the management skills, or the political will to handle the mess, recommended that we establish a long-term program that “actively seeks out and applies new knowledge” to address the issue. If the US could spend $5.5 trillion on its nuclear weapons program which left us in the sorry state we are in today, then just as we had a Manhattan project to build the bomb, we need a “Bronx” project to clean up the toxic legacy of the nuclear age—a project which will devote the intelligence, willingness, and resources commensurate with those that were used to cause the disgraceful state we find ourselves in today.

We need a commitment like the one that was made to put a man on the moon in 10 years. While not as glamorous as the Manhattan project, the Bronx Project would perform an invaluable service by seeking ways to render plutonium less long lived so we can guard it until it is harmless to future generations. This is a man-made substance and we have yet to take a hard look at unmaking it — or at least making it less lethal over time.

We need to tell the boys to put away the toys of war and clean up the mess they made. And if today’s unreconstructed cold warriors are too addicted to new weaponry instead of good housekeeping then we ought to at least get them to stop making any more of it. We need to keep it all in place as safely as possible instead of moving forward with wild transportation schemes by air, by sea, by rail, and by road, across all the ocean lanes and flight paths of the world for reprocessing, centralized storage, recycling in consumer goods, radiating the countries food supply, and other lunatic schemes to spread the stuff around, poisoning more people under cover of secrecy which weakens the very foundation of our democracy.

Our ability to govern ourselves has been eroding as a result of the unprecedented secrecy and cover-up engendered by the nuclear age. Scarcity of information is an assault on democracy and has disempowered the people. Well the cat is out of the bag. Besides the acknowledged nuclear weapons states (US, Russia, China, France and UK) India, Pakistan, and Israel now have the bomb. South Africa, Brazil and Argentina actually had it and gave it up. It is no longer a secret that any country with a nuclear reactor can get the bomb. For this reason, the recently signed Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty requires a designated group of 44 nations to sign it before it “enters into force”. Those are the very 44 nations that have nuclear reactors and can make a bomb. So let’s get all the facts out on the table. The radiation experiments, the depleted uranium illness, the nuclear dumpsites, the spills, the leaks, the health statistics, the real long-term costs of nuclear power compared to clean energy from our sun, the wind, the tides — let the people decide.

A sane informed citizenry would call for an immediate cessation of the production of any new nuclear material, leaving all existing nuclear waste as close to the point where it is generated, as safely as possible, under international guard. We would call for a Global Alternative Energy Agency to promote clean sustainable energy the way the International Atomic Energy Agency now touts for the nuclear power industry pushing for the proliferation of nuclear reactors abroad. (Last week at the Commission on Sustainable Development planning meetings at the UN, the nuclear industry was lobbying to have nuclear energy included as sustainable energy!) We would call for a new generation of physicists to develop the Bronx Project. Just as the Hebrew children born in slavery had to wander in the desert for 40 years so that no one born in servitude would enter the Promised Land, we need to have young physicists work on the Bronx project. We must guard against the possibility that scientists who developed nuclear bombs would be given opportunities to pervert the new goal of eliminating nuclear waste by devising deadly new schemes for spreading contamination. We must prevent developments such as the latest crackpot schemes for recycling radioactive metals in consumer goods, irradiating the US food supply because of filthy inhumane factory farm practices and making toxic weapons out of depleted uranium, leaving a lethal legacy not only for innocent civilians in Iraq and Bosnia, but for our own soldiers and their progeny as well.

This article was first published on Peace & Planet News

Alice Slater