A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age

By Jim Miles

In Mortal Hands – A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age. Stephanie Cooke. Bloomsbury, New York, 2009.

In an era when the corporate media and the corporate politicians and the corporate military men gang up together and denounce and threaten other countries because of their nuclear related activities, they should spend much of that rhetorical energy by cross-examining themselves in a mirror. North Korea’s latest nuclear test received much more attention than its earlier ‘possible’ test because of its greater power and the strategic message sent by its politically timed Taepodong II rocket launch. Iran has moved a little bit off the radar screen as its elections have proven more interesting than its nuclear ‘threat’ but it is under increasing scrutiny as it reaches weapons potential. When placed in relation to this “cautionary history”, North Korea and Iran are acting only as all other nuclear powers have acted in the past, for the main theme behind In Mortal Hands is that of lies, deceit, deception, cover-ups, and secrecy to cover up the real issues with the nuclear industry.

The real issue as reiterated constantly and perceptively by Stephanie Cooke is that of an industry whose central purpose is to create fissile material for weapons production regardless of and in spite of all other attempts to equate nuclear energy with peaceful purposes and with the ‘greening’ of the energy industry. It is a trillion dollar industry, supported by governments of all genres as no private developer is able to cover the costs of development, the insurance liabilities in case of accident (highly likely, already highly significant), and the huge timelines and costs of decommissioning the radioactive waste from the reactor’s fuel as well as the radioactive hulks of the reactors themselves.     

In short, it is an economically unfeasible and environmentally dangerous business that is supported by public officials and the media in order to keep making weapons. 

That statement will of course lead to derision by spokespeople for the nuclear industry, whether they are within the industry or members of the political and media propaganda that supports them. As we head into a future with the advertised benefits of nuclear power in an era of ‘green’ energy, In Mortal Hands is indeed a cautionary tale that all those involved and everyone in the public should be reading.  

Media, Propaganda, and Secrecy

All of the themes are necessarily related and with significant overlaps, but they can be examined through various different foci. Media and its entanglement with propaganda receive a large share of the commentary in the book, as the nuclear industry tried – mostly successfully – to convince the public (the taxpayers supporting it all) that there was a peaceful side to nuclear power and that it was clean and safe. On the other side, the politically provoked fears of communism then and militant Islam now are to convince those same taxpayers that nuclear weapons could be used to act pre-emptively and win a nuclear war with whatever opponent is chosen. 

It began early with Operation Candor (candor meaning frank and unbiased – were they amused by their own irony?) which was a “year long media campaign designed to get Americans used to the permanent presence of nuclear weapons, culminating in the president’s [Eisenhower] Atoms for Peace speech at the United Nations.” The purpose was to “reverse public apathy toward nuclear weapons [!!]” and to convince them that the  “United States was permanently in danger of a knock-out blow from the Soviet Union,” hoping to “balance fear with hysteria avoidance.” All this in 1953, at the beginning of the nuclear age, was “controlled by savvy media men,” experts in “wartime psychological operations.” 

Once under way, the peaceful use of nuclear fuel and the resulting “uranium boom was really started to ensure the country had enough fuel for the rapid build-up of its nuclear weapons stockpile.” It was supported by “spin-doctoring in Washington, D.C. [reaching] down through the corporate sphere to local people.” 

Media participated in other areas as well. They also helped alleviate radiation worries in combination with the nuclear scientists who received – and still are receiving – government grants. The propaganda used “the exalted status of scientists to camouflage the dangers with deceptive assurances that appeared to be based on fact but which were no more than educated guesswork.” After creating the fear of Russian nuclear weapons, the Chinese achievement of nuclear weapons became an “achievement” for the State Department as “…it can be said that we were the best news managers in the world.”

Cooke’s ultimate condemnation of media’s role occurred with her description of the evasions concerning the Chernobyl eruption of nuclear waste in 1986 (the Russians concealingd the seriousness of the incident, and the U.S. doing the same in order to alleviate concerns about radioactive poisoning and the safety of nuclear reactors in general), and the Three Mile Island (TMI) ‘accident’ that was effectively covered up in 1976:

“A kind of holy order was at work. It existed largely to protect its own existence and ensure its future, and its concern for the rest of the human race was markedly absent. [Chernobyl] highlighted the congenital defects of a global enterprise born in closed, secret cities – and in people working from an ancient code that counted secrecy and unstinting faith in the endeavour above al else.”

Proliferation and Peace and the NPT

As indicated above, the real purpose of the peaceful use of nuclear weapons was to create fissile material (the same process Iran and North Korea are currently undergoing, nothing new there) for weapons production against the created Soviet threat. The problem then became that in order to promote the peaceful use of nuclear power and to promote its use by other countries simply created an environment in which proliferation was – or could be – well, prolific – both words coming from the root meaning to produce offspring, abundantly productive – pro-life, how ironic.   

That of course is exactly what happened, slowly in terms of public perceptions and the secrecy surrounding all the different initiatives surrounding the nuclear industry, but abundantly apparent as the ‘big two’ nuclear powers became the ‘big five’ with the addition of France, Great Britain, and China, and they were in turn joined by several others including Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea. Others are seeking or capable of producing weapons quickly, including Iran, Japan, Germany, and Brazil while South Africa and Libya have supposedly ‘surrendered’ their programs. Depending on time and circumstances they all aided and abetted each other, either through backroom diplomatic channels, covert operations, or dealing through some rather dubious corporate entities – there are no innocents. With nuclear energy being proposed as one of the main sources of future power and in the U.S. receiving the vast majority of research funds for alternate energy resources, proliferation will continue on proliferating.

As for the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the actions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), they are decidedly two faced about the issue. After demonstrating the fallibilities of the NPT and the IAEA, Cooke summarizes their efforts as “the product of another era, with little relevance to the situation that exists today. Its central bargain is based on the supposition that nuclear energy is not only beneficial, but something every country is entitled to.” As long as countries are entitled to nuclear facilities and enrichment (as is Iran who is in the NPT, while Israel, Pakistan and India are not, and North Korea opted out), the problem will continue to get worse. It is not helped by the United States with its bias towards pre-emptive nuclear war (always has been from the beginning, it was just not very public until Bush II and his gang of neocons came along) and its own non participation in the NPT vis a vis supporting Israel and India, as well as its own negligence – bordering on international criminal negligence – in consideration of its own obligations under the NPT towards disarmament. 

As Cooke has ably demonstrated: “commerce and proliferation – are inescapably related.  It seems impossible to imagine the problem of nuclear proliferation disappearing as long as nuclear commerce flourishes….as long as nuclear commerce continues, more countries will have nuclear weapons, and the existence of weapons means there is a risk of nuclear war. The other nuclear dangers and their lingering long-term affects are…with us right now.”

Clear and Present Danger

Perhaps the current situation has not been clear with all the secrecy, lies, deceit and hypocrisy surrounding the nuclear industry, but after reading this excellent work, there remains a clear and present danger.

As highlighted by Cooke, the nuclear industry is not safe. The big items, Chernobyl and TMI are history (although Counterpunch has run a recent series of articles reviewing the seriousness of the TMI incident) and the cover-up of hundreds and hundreds of other incidents is ongoing and pervasive. No nuclear reactor site is safe: either within its own design and safety features that continually have proven to not be fail-safe and requiring “intuitive” responses when incidents go beyond the training manual; nor from the lack of security on the site of nuclear waste and nuclear materials transportation.  

Waste management for the industry is essentially non-existent. Yucca Mountain is temporarily off the map again and there are no alternatives, so thousands and thousands of kilograms of nuclear waste – both spent fuel and highly radioactive plant components and waste materials – lie around the country. Other countries are in the same position, waiting for some form of ‘accident’ as the storage areas are exposed and continually under threat by the radioactivity itself. Amazingly – and I am not amazed too easily in my personal cynicism, and I should have known this – radioactive steel and radioactive sludges, dried and powdered – have been “recycled” into commercial steel and cement products. And anyone reading the current war descriptions in the Middle East should know that a kind of nuclear war is already ongoing as the armaments used in Iraq and Afghanistan contain depleted uranium – another strategic form of “recycling” uranium waste, regardless of consequences to human health.

Considering the number of nuclear tests – hundreds of above ground tests in the 1950s and 1960s – the whole world is irradiated with the long-term contaminants of the industry. Underground tests are marginally better, but venting leaks and radiation seeping into aquifers and water tables provide other long term health threats.  

The Future

It goes on. This is possibly one of the most important books that I have come across for all spectrums of interest, from the military, through government secrecy and control, for the environment, for the ‘business’ of greening nuclear energy. It should be read by anyone involved with any of these interests. It is readily accessible to the lay reader, and even the politicians should be able to understand it, but whether they can break away from their corporate financial obligations to do anything about it other than provide more lip service is questionable. 

If we are to have a future without the threat of nuclear war or serious nuclear accident, and if public access to good information, and not secrecy and deceit, is key, then In Mortal Hands is the place to start. 

– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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