She was born when the tsunami hit Japan. Next day, reports began to circulate that the nuclear reactors of Fukushima were in trouble.
Wowie is my granddaughter. The ocean between her and Fukushima did not comfort me. There’s not enough distance between a bad nuclear accident and any life on Earth to comfort those who remember Chernobyl, those with even an inkling of Chernobyl’s meaning.
I’m not a nuclear expert, but I know a lot more than I wish I did. I know a lot more than I wish anyone needed to know about the challenge humanity has created for itself with its nuclear misadventure.
Instantly, I started researching the Fukushima accident, or trying to. I wanted to know what needed to be done to keep my Wowie safe.
But it was the same old story I first stumbled onto as a journalist more than a quarter of a century ago.
When you try to learn anything in the haunted shadow lands of the split atom you find yourself in a spooky world. Here, facts are closely guarded by a Ministry of Truth.
Tortured souls, Ministry of Truth members dispense information on the strictest need-to-know basis. They have a list of who needs to know, and the public isn’t on their list. All those trying to learn what actually goes on in the world of the split atom—what has gone on and what it might mean—are instantly placed on another list: a watch list.
Once, I was on that watch list.
At Washington State’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where the plutonium in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki came from, along with more half the rest of the plutonium in America’s nuclear arsenal, the Ministry of Truth watched my every move.
What happens in the environment, and what happens to public health, I wanted to know, when you make nuclear weapons? What happened at Hanford?
Oh, nothing, nothing at all, said the Ministry of Truth. Here’s a press release. Move along.
But a funny thing started happening when I would go to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to attempt researching this subject. The Ministry of Truth assigned a security guard to me. He kept me within reach at all times—even when I used the urinal in the mens room. (Thank goodness the urinal’s all I ever needed to use there.)
(Hey, wait a minute, you may be wondering. How come one of the biggest nuclear weapons factories on Earth is managed by an “energy” department? That’s a tad, well, Orwellian, isn’t it? Oh, you weren’t wondering that? You should.)
Days after Willa was born, days after the Japanese tragedy, Wowie was smiling, recorded by her father’s phone camera. At that moment, Popsie (that’s what they call me these days) was scrambling. I was trying to find out what in God’s name needs to be done to protect Wowie’s brand new thyroid (if anything does need to be done, or can be done), and what needs to be done to protect the other angels in my immediate life. I’m concerned about this, because of all the experience I had with the Ministry of Truth. And because children took it in the throat after Chernobyl.
POOR PEGGY BENNETT
And while I’m trying to get my arms around Fukushima, all these memories of my dealings with the Ministry of Truth are hitting me like a tsunami, my own private tsunami. As we all now know, you don’t soon forget a tsunami. Because of my own tsunami experience with the Ministry of Truth, I know that expecting it to come clean about anything in the mad world of the split atom is like expecting a drunk to give up his bottle.
So, yes, I’m worried. It’s not because I understand Fukushima. It’s because I understand the Ministry of Truth. I’m remembering all my experiences with it. I’m remembering Peggy Bennett. Dear, sweet Peggy.
Peggy Bennett was the public relations woman for Rockwell, the company managing Hanford when I was doing my reporting. One day, my old colleague, Tim Connor, and I were doing an interview with several Hanford scientists. Peggy was their keeper that day.
Before I tell you about poor Peggy’s experience you need to understand that the first thing you learn as a reporter trying to cover the world of the split atom is that you can’t do it without help. It’s way too esoteric. It’s not just a Ph.D.’s world, it’s a world of enslaved Ph.D.s and the horribly mutilated science that the Ministry of Truth has run through its million-micron filter. You must never forget that, as a member of the peasant public, you are not on the need-to-know list.
Pass through the portals of the Ministry of Truth alone and you’re just a hound dog trying to read an algebra book.
So by the time I conducted interviews like this one I had received a lot of hand-holding from generous scientists who were willing to help me. They had names like Dr. Alice Stewart, Dr. John Gofman, Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, Dr. Carl J. Johnson, Dr. Thomas F. Mancuso, Dr. Sam Milham, Dr. Thomas B. Cochran, Dr. Edward A. Martell, Dr. Allen B. Benson, Dr. William H. Houff, etc. (I’ll let you Google them yourself.)
DAUGHTERS OF THORON
By this time, the Ministry of Truth knew that I was getting my hands on documents I wasn’t supposed to have. Like the stack sample of what was actually released as soon as the “energy” department fired up Hanford’s decrepit old PUREX factory. (PUREX wasn’t a bleach plant. It was a plutonium uranium extraction facility.) Its restart was part of the Reagan Administration’s arms buildup.
The Multnomah County Commissioners, in Portland, Oregon, and the Southwest Washington Board of Health, on the northern banks of the Columbia River, were terrified of the PUREX restart. They asked the “energy” department not run it again. Reason: during the Cold War, Hanford made the Columbia the radioactively hottest fresh water body on earth. You didn’t want to be eating the shellfish of Willipa Bay. Hanford radioactive contamination was being measured out on the continental shelf of the Pacific Ocean.
Oh, you sillies, said the Ministry of Truth. There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll be careful.
But the stack sample referred to above explains why PUREX’s own operators were terrified. I learned of their terror from… well, never mind.
The Ministry of Truth released a statement saying that nothing but a few little “thoron daughters” had come up the PUREX stack. The media dutifully reported that. Heck, how scary can daughters be?
But the actual stack printout showed that one of the isotopes that had been released had a decay energy of (drum roll) 5.245 MeV. That, ladies and gentlemen (another drum roll) is Plutonium-239. You want to keep Pu-239, every grain of it, away from anything you don’t want to kill, for 250,000 years.
BACK TO MS. BENNETT
But I digress.
So Tim and I do our interview with the Hanford scientists. We take them through the documents we want their comments on. The whole while the scientists eye our running tape recorders like they’re cobras. It was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done—I’m not kidding—because the scientists were extremely professional, collegial, civil. They were just plain nice. And so smart. And the most fun a reporter can have is talking to nice, smart people.
Now the interview’s over. The tape recorders are off. We’re all standing, politely shaking hands. Some of the scientists have big sweat rings under their arms; some have sweat beads on their foreheads. Even so, I have the distinct impression that they almost found it a relief to talk to us. These are not bad, immoral people. They’re just slaves.
And then it happened.
“Larry, I want to ask you something,” says Peggy. “Why don’t you want to believe us?”
The scientists start fidgeting. Peggy’s question makes them nervous. They say things like, no, no, we’re happy to answer questions, this is fine, any time, really. But Peggy cuts them off.
“No, Larry. I want to know. Why don’t you want to believe us?”
Keep in mind the subject: Hanford’s radiation releases. Ever since the World War Two Manhattan Project, the Ministry of Truth has insisted that no harm to public health could possibly have resulted from Hanford’s activities.
Peggy Bennett looked exactly as you would expect someone in her position to look. Attractive, impeccably dressed, very professional. A woman of a certain age, somewhere in her 50s, I would guess.
“Believe me, Peggy,” I said. “I do want to believe you. This is just science. It’s just arithmetic. We just need you to go to the blackboard and do your work.”
Absolutely, said the scientists. Quite right. Harrumph, harrumph. We’re happy to answer questions. Any time. Stuff like that.
I’ll never know what was going through Peggy’s mind, but it clearly tortured her. She looked at me hard and said:
“Larry, I have grandchildren in this town. Do you think I would do anything to harm them?”
Her voice cracked, and tears suddenly flooded her eyes and streamed down her cheeks and streaked her face with mascara. In my memory, the mascara actually dripped onto her blouse.
We continued pressing Hanford to release the documents proving government claims that the public had nothing to fear. In report after report we hammered on our request. We spoke all over the Northwest, sometimes to gatherings of several hundred people. I addressed the annual meeting of the Washington State Medical Association one year. Always our message was the same: release the records.
Finally they did. The documents showed Hanford’s Ministry of Truth had been lying all along. Google “Hanford’s Green Run” to read about how the government secretly released thousands of curies of thyroid-killing Iodine-131 from Hanford—on purpose—just to see what would happen.
Why did the Ministry of Truth let down its guard and release the documentation we sought? Al Conklin, a former Rockwell staffer, told me years later. He was leaving Rockwell to go to work for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, he explained to me, when Hanford manager Mike Lawrence gave him a final assignment: review 20,000 pages of Hanford records in the few days he had remaining to be sure they contained no legitimately protected national security secrets. Conklin told me the assignment was a joke. He said he just sat there hitting papers with the stamp that would release them all.
Within days after Wowie’s birth, my wife flew out to help her and her parents. Early Saturday morning my wife texted me. Wowie’s mother, our youngest daughter, was worried about radiation from Fukushima. Could I please do more research and see if I could find reassuring information?
I went to the Web site of the Institute for Policy Studies, where my old friend and trusted source, Robert Alvarez, is a senior scholar. I saw that IPS had hosted a press conference the day before, Friday, March 18. (See “Fukushima, USA” in the post below.)
That press conference was not reassuring. Again, I urge everyone to listen to it and form your own conclusions. (I also urge you to read the comment Alvarez made beneath that post and study the documents he links. This is the only way around the Ministry of Truth’s disinformation campaign, disinformation that threatens you and everything you love, and everything in the world you care about.)
Listening to the press conference, you will see that the highly credentialed and extremely sober presenters refer to the irrationality of the Ministry of Truth as addictive behavior. This did not surprise me.
What shocked me was to learn that the drunks of the Ministry of Truth are covering up dangers in the U.S. that are far greater than the dangers that caused the Fukushima tragedy. Dangers that threaten Chernobyl-dwarfing apocalypse in the U.S.
The Wowie contingent did listen to the IPS press conference. Next day, my wife told me that she had discovered our daughter—our own baby—weeping quietly alone in the bathtub. Even though Wowie’s mother is one of the most tender hearted, loving people we have ever met, she was not prepared for the intensity of the love that she felt for her baby. And now she feared what might come from the sky.
If there was anything in the world that young woman’s father could do to repair it so she didn’t have to be afraid of the sky, you’d better believe he would do it. This is DNA talking.
The irony is, I think that our daughter’s tears are not just healing, I think they represent humanity’s best hope. I think they represent the kind of spontaneous sanity that Peggy Bennett displayed, a reflexive recognition at the level of DNA of what really is true. Such recognition of truth, I believe, is our only hope.
The lesson of Fukushima makes me wonder how much time we have to recover our right minds. We have been lost, it seems to me, for such a long time.
AMERICA’S POTENTIAL CHERNOBYLS
Even though he had just completed an exhausting week, on Sunday, March 20, Bob Alvarez granted me a very generous interview of more than an hour. I wanted him to elaborate on the 2003 study that he and colleagues had done about the crisis of America’s improperly stored nuclear waste. Nuclear waste like what was afire at Fukushima.
Alvarez, a former senior policy adviser to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, and a deputy assistant secretary himself from 1993 to 1999, is in a position to know what he’s talking about.
He reiterated what he had said at the press conference. America has not built proper storage facilities for its high-level nuclear waste. This deadly garbage just keeps building up at nuclear generating plants, unprotected, a catastrophe of unimaginable scale waiting to happen.
(Can you imagine what health inspectors would do with a restaurant that just dumped its garbage and trash out back?)
Incredibly, at 34 of the nation’s 102 nuclear plants, this deadly waste is stored underwater in flimsy buildings high above ground, just as at Fukushima. Noting the hideous risk of that, in 2002, 27 U.S. state’s attorneys general sent President Bush a Gregoire letter asking him to, please, clean up this scary mess.
Chillingly, their letter pointed out that “diagrams of U.S. nuclear power plants were found in Al Qaeda enclaves in Afghanistan.”
What would “evil-doers” who thought it clever to fly airliners into iconic buildings think about targets like these? That question is disturbing enough, but what can be said about the geniuses who created such tempting nuclear targets in the first place, and who refuse to remove the temptation?
Remembering my Hanford background, Alvarez emphasized the unbelievable vulnerability of Hanford’s Columbia Generating Station (CGS.)
Beyond the very real threat of terrorist attack, he notes, CGS sits in a zone that is vulnerable to both earthquakes and volcanoes. It houses four to five times more long-lived radioactive waste than Fukushima, its latent fires of hell stuffed in a precarious, contemptuously cheap structure perched some 70 feet above potentially shaky ground. Whether loss of cooling water in this awkward garbage can resulted from an earthquake or terrorists, there is no backup generating capacity to replace the water, just as at Fukushima, Alvarez explained.
I couldn’t believe it. “There’s no backup water circulation capability?” I asked.
“No.” he said. “In fact the [CGS] spent fuel pool has basically the equivalent of a tin roof over it.”
The work of Alvarez and his colleagues shows that just this one plant, the Columbia Generating Station, has the potential to “take out” an area four times larger than the Chernobyl disaster—roughly 2,400 square miles.
The resulting contamination, Alvarez and his colleagues estimated, “could render an area greater than several states combined uninhabitable for the indefinite future.”
By what democratic process, you may wonder, did the Ministry of Truth in this “greatest democracy on Earth” impose such a risk on its own citizens, to say nothing of its Canadian neighbors ?
Alvarez stressed that he and his colleagues didn’t publish their study “just to scare people.”
The point is, he said, it’s an easy problem to fix. We’re just not fixing it. *
It occurs to me that, so long as these latent Chernobyls are scattered all over America, calling support for nuclear power “pro-nuclear” is like calling drunk drivers “pro-auto industry.”
A KIND OF BRAIN DAMAGE
Has this incomprehensible state of affairs resulted from addictive behavior alone? If so, then I think humanity’s only hope is for the citizens of the world to figure out how to do an intervention. Take the bottle away from the drunk. Take away the car keys.
I’m aware, however, of a school of thought that suggests humanity’s crisis is even more profound than addictive behavior. Quoting extensively from C.G. Jung, the great Swiss psychotherapist, Santa Fe, New Mexico therapist Jerome S. Bernstein argues that when humanity turned away from its natural roots—its connection to the living universe—it “wrenched its ego” from the only wholeness that can support human life.
The American Indians were in touch with that wholeness, students like Bernstein and the great Sioux Indian scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. argue. But we wiped out Indian culture, stole Indian land, banished their language and destroyed their very words for saying what they had learned over millennia about how the world works and what it means, a world in which the sky was revered, not feared. We forfeited the life-giving treasure of ancient wisdom.
I saw a poignant dramatization of that during my Hanford coverage. The “energy” department wanted to locate its first permanent high-level nuclear waste repository on sacred Yakima Nation land at what was now called Hanford. But how to warn people for the next 250,000 years to stay away? What kind of signage would it take?
“Don’t worry,” said Yakima leader Russell Jim at one hearing. “We’ll be here. We’ll tell them. The Yakimas have been here on the Columbia Plateau since the beginning of time. We’ll be here at the end of time.”
Hush settled over the room full of Ph.D.s.
As if wanting to help them from their confused state, Jim continued: “If you can believe the Creator created the first woman from the rib of the first man, you ought to be able to believe the Creator created the first Yakima from the soil of the banks of the Columbia River.”
It was one of the most reasonable, sane things I’ve ever heard. The Ph.D.s were mute. What could they say?
Wowie’s mother is an artist. She was working last summer as the personal assistant to a famous movie star, on location in Vancouver, B.C. My wife and I visited. Our son-in-law was with us, too.
“We have something to tell you,” said our daughter.
The angel was on the way.
We were sitting under a beautiful summer sky in a park by the bay, (a place that, I suppose, could be unsafe if things went horribly wrong at the Columbia Generating Station).
Every moment has been filled with anticipation since we learned the angel was coming. And now I find myself wondering: Why did the angel come when she did? Why on that day of all days, the day of the tsunami?
I’ve often wondered why certain things happen when they do. Now that I’m a grandfather, such thoughts come all the time. Its true what they say about the preciousness of time as it runs down.
I was thinking about the angel the other day, thinking about how her parents are so shocked by the intensity of their love for her, their wonder at every little twitch, gurgle and coo, when I remembered the four-million-year-old genius.
The genius is the amazing ability all people have to parent, to love their children. Even people who come from the most disadvantaged, traumatized family backgrounds can connect pretty quickly with the genius, given the right help. It’s because the genius resides in the DNA.
That, at least, is the conclusion of a team of researchers I profiled 10 years ago. 4-million-yr.-old genius.
Their theory is that we really do know how to find our way through the stars, to come home from the lonely Diaspora we’ve been on since losing contact with our heart.
Wowie, the Angel of Fukushima, makes me think they’re right. Anyway, it’s a lovely thing to hope for.
Dear Ministry of Truth: Y’all can put me back on your watch list. The Angel of Fukushima has put you back on mine. I pray to God she puts you on the watch list of everyone of Earth.
(Yes, I’m authorized to say “y’all.” I’m a genetic Texan.)
Y’all be good now.
* Details of recommendations by former U.S. DOE Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Alvarez for correcting America’s spent nuclear fuel crisis: “The fix involves thinning out the spent fuel pools—removing about 3/4ths—and placing it in dry, hardened casks. These are large, steel-lined concrete containers that keep the fuel cool by air convection. The casks, which have been around for decades, are more able to withstand earthquakes. Currently, the U.S. reactor fleet has about 63,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods. Only about 14% of it is in dry casks. Germany took the steps we recommended 25 years ago, because of concerns over NATO crashes and terrorism. We estimated in 2003 that this could be done in 10 years for all U.S. reactors at an expense of $3.5 to $7 billion.”