It was a beautiful spring day and, in the control room of the nuclear reactor, the workers decided to deactivate the security system for a systems test. As they started to do so, however, the floor of the reactor began to tremble. Suddenly, its 1,200-ton cover blasted flames into the air. Tons of radioactive radium and graphite shot 1,000 meters into the sky and began drifting to the ground for miles around the nuclear plant. The first firemen to the rescue brought tons of water that would prove useless when it came to dousing the fires. The workers wore no protective clothing and eight of them would die that night -- dozens more in the months to follow.
It was April 26, 1986, and this was just the start of the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the worst nuclear accident of its kind in history. Chernobyl is ranked as a "level 7 event," the maximum danger classification on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. It would spew out more radioactivity than 100 Hiroshima bombs. Of the 350,000 workers involved in cleanup operations, according to the World Health Organization, 240,000 would be exposed to the highest levels of radiation in a 30-mile zone around the plant. It is uncertain exactly how many cancer deaths have resulted since. The International Atomic Energy Agency's estimate of the expected death toll from Chernobyl was 4,000. A 2006 Greenpeace report challenged that figure, suggesting that 16,000 people had already died due to the accident and predicting another 140,000 deaths in Ukraine and Belarus still to come. A significant increase in thyroid cancers in children, a very rare disease for them, has been charted in the region -- nearly 7,000 casesby 2005 in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.
In March 2011, 25 years after the Chernobyl catastrophe, damage caused by a tsunami triggered by a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake led to the meltdown of three reactors at a nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan. Radioactive rain from the Fukushima accident fell as far away as Ireland.
In 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency had, in fact, warned the Japanese government that none of the country's nuclear power plants could withstand powerful earthquakes. That included the Fukushima plant, which had been built to take only a 7.0 magnitude event. No attention was paid at the time. After the disaster, the plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power, rehired Shaw Construction, which had designed and built the plant in the first place, to rebuild it.
Near Misses, Radioactive Leaks, and Flooding
In both Chernobyl and Fukushima, areas around the devastated plants were made uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. In neither place, before disaster began to unfold, was anyone expecting it and few imagined that such a catastrophe was possible. In the United States, too, despite the knowledge since 1945 that nuclear power, at war or in peacetime, holds dangers of a stunning sort, the general attitude remains: it can't happen here -- nowhere more dangerously in recent years than on the banks of New York's Hudson River, an area that could face a nuclear peril endangering a population of nearly 20 million.
As the Fukushima tragedy struck, President Obama assured Americans that U.S. nuclear plants were closely monitored and built to withstand earthquakes. That statement covered one of the oldest plants in the country, the Indian Point Energy Center (IPEC) in Westchester, New York, first opened in 1962. One of 61 commercial nuclear plants in the country, it has two reactors that generate electricity for homes across New York City and Westchester County. It is located in the sixth most densely populated urban area in the world, the New York metropolitan region, just 30 miles north of Manhattan Island and the planet's most economically powerful city.
The plant sits astride two seismic faults, which has prompted those opposing its continued operation to call for a detailed analysis of its capacity to resist an earthquake. In addition, a long series of accidents and ongoing hazards has only increased the potential for catastrophe. According to a report by the National Resources Defense Council (NDRC), if a nuclear disaster of a Fukushima magnitude were to strike Indian Point, it would necessitate the evacuation of at least 5.6 million people. In 2003, the existing evacuation plan for the area was deemed inadequate in a report by James Lee Witt, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
American officials have urged U.S. citizens to stay 50 miles away from the Fukushima plant. Such a 50-mile circle around IPEC would stretch past Kingston in Ulster County to the north, past Bayonne and Jersey City to the south, almost to New Haven, Connecticut, to the east, and into Pennsylvania to the west. It would include all of New York City except for Staten Island and all of Fairfield, Connecticut. "Many scholars have already argued that any evacuation plans shouldn't be called plans, but rather 'fantasy documents,'" Daniel Aldrich, a professor of political science at Purdue University, told the New York Times.
Paul Blanch, a nuclear engineer who worked in the industry for 40 years as well as with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), thinks a worst-case accident at Indian Point could make the region, including parts of Connecticut, uninhabitable for generations.
According to a report from the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition, there were 23 reported problems at the plant from its inception to 2005, including steam generator tube ruptures, reactor containment flooding, transformer fires, the failure of backup power for emergency sirens, and leaks of radioactive water laced with tritium. In the latest tritium leak, reported only last month, an outflow of the radioactive isotope from the plant has infused both local groundwater and the Hudson River. (Other U.S. nuclear plants have had their share of tritium leaks as well, including Turkey Point nuclear plant in Florida where such a leak is at the moment threatening drinking water wells.)
Experts agree that although present levels of tritium in groundwater near the plant are "alarming," the tritium in the river will not be considered harmful until it reaches a far greater concentration of 120,000 picocuries per liter of water. (A picocurie is a standard unit of measurement for radioactivity.) Tritium is the lightest radioactive substance to leak from Indian Point, but according to an assessment by the New York Department of State, other potentially more dangerous radioactive elements like strontium-90, cesium-137, cobalt-60, and nickel-63 are also escaping the plant and entering both the groundwater and the river.
Representatives of Entergy Corporation, which owns the Indian Point plant, report that they don't know when the present leak began or what its source might be. "No one has made a statement as to when the leak started," wrote Paul Blanch in an email to us. "It could have started two years ago." Nor does anyone seem to know where the leak is, how much radioactive matter is leaking, or how it can be stopped. The longer the leak persists, the greater the likelihood of isotopes more potent than tritium contaminating local drinking water.
According to David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and once a trainer for NRC inspectors, the danger of flooding at the reactor should be an even greater focus of concern than radioactive substance outflows, since it could result in a reactor core meltdown. Yet despite repeated calls for Indian Point's shutdown from the early 1970s on, it keeps operating.
On April 2, 2000, the NRC rated one of Indian Point's two reactors the most troubled in the country, and it has been closed for lengthy periods because of system failures of various sorts. This, it turns out, is typical of Entergy-owned reactors. There were 10 "near-miss" incidents at U.S. nuclear reactors last year, a majority of them at three Entergy plants, according to a UCS report on nuclear plant safety. A near-miss incident is an event or condition that could increase the chance of reactor core damage by a factor of 10 or more. In response, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must send an inspection team to investigate.
The number of such incidents has declined since UCS initiated its annual review in 2010, "overall, a positive trend," according to report author Lochbaum. "Five years ago, there were nearly twice as many near misses. That said, the nuclear industry is only as good as its worst plant owner. The NRC needs to find out why Entergy plants are experiencing so many potentially serious problems."Upstate New York's Ginna plant, he adds, has been operating as long as Indian Point, but with only two "events" in its history. At Indian Point "there's a major event every two to three years."
What troubles Lochbaum more than anything else is Indian Point's vulnerability to flooding. "There was a problem in May 2015 where a transformer exploded," he told us. "There was an automatic fire sprinkler system installed to put this out. But it ended up flooding the building adjacent to where the explosion had taken place. Fortunately a worker noticed that an inch or two of water had accumulated. If the room had flooded up to five inches, all the power in the plant would have been lost. It would have plunged unit 3 into a 'station blackout.'"
This might indeed have led to some kind of Fukushima-on-the-Hudson situation. In Fukushima, after the earthquake wiped out the normal power supply and tsunami floodwaters took away the backup supply, workers were unable to get cooling water into the reactor cores and three of the plant's six reactors melted down.
In 2007, when Indian Point's plant owner applied to the NRC for a 20-year extension of the plant's operating license, it was found that a flood alarm could be installed in the room in question for about $200,000. As Lochbaum explains, "The owner determined it was cost-beneficial, that if they installed this flood alarm... it [would reduce] the risk of core meltdown by 20%, and [reduce] the amount of radiation that people on the plant could be exposed to by about 40%, at a cost of about two cents per person for the 20 million people living within 50 miles of the plant." But nine years later, he told us, that flood alarm has still not been installed.
Potential Pipeline Explosions
As if none of this were enough, a new set of dangers to Indian Point have arisen in recent years due to a high-pressure natural gas pipeline currently being built by Spectra Energy. Dubbed the Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) pipeline, it is to carry fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation underlying New York and adjacent states to the Canadian border. At 42 inches in diameter, this pipeline is the biggest that can at present be built -- and here's the catch: AIM is slated to pass within 150 feet of the plant's reactors.
A former Spectra worker hired to help oversee safety during the pipeline's construction tolda reporter that the company had taken dangerous shortcuts in its rush to begin the project. He had witnessed, he said, "at least two dozen" serious safety violations and transgressions.
Taking shortcuts in pipeline construction could, in the end, prove a risky business. Pipeline ruptures are the commonest cause of gas explosions like the one that, in March 2014 in Manhattan's East Harlem, killed eight, injured 70, and leveled two apartment buildings. Robert Miller, chairman of the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives,attributed the rising rates of such incidents in newly constructed pipelines to "poor construction practices or maybe not enough quality control, quality assurance programs out there to catch these problems before those pipelines go into service."
In January 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board published a study documenting that gas accidents in "high-consequence" areas (where there are a lot of people and buildings) have been on the rise. With the New York metropolitan area so close to Indian Point, it seems odd indeed to independent experts that the nuclear plant with the sorriest safety history in the country has been judged safe enough for a high-pressure gas pipeline to be run right by it.
A hazards assessment replete with errors was the basis for the go-ahead. Richard B. Kuprewicz, a pipeline infrastructure expert and incident investigator with more than 40 years of energy industry experience, has called that risk assessment "seriously deficient and inadequate."
At another nuclear plant subsequently shut down, as David Lochbaum points out, a rigorous risk analysis was conducted for possible explosions based on a worst-case scenario. ("I couldn't think of any scenario that would be worse than what they presumed.") At Indian Point, the risk analysis was, however, done on a best-case basis. Among other things, it assumed that any pipeline leak around the plant could be stopped in less than three minutes -- an unlikelihood at best. "It's night and day. They did a very conservative analysis for [the other plant] and a very cavalier best-case scenario for Indian Point... I don't know why they opted for [this] drive-by analysis."
Of all the contaminants released in this industrial world, radioactivity may, in a sense, be the least visible and least imaginable, even if the most potentially devastating, were something to go wrong. As a result, the dangers of the "peaceful" atom have often proved hard to absorb before disaster strikes -- as at the Three Mile Island reactor near Middletown, Pennsylvania, on March 28, 1979. Even when such a power plant sits near a highway or a community, it's usually a reality to which people pay scant attention, in part because nuclear science is alien territory. This is why safety at nuclear power plants has been something citizens have relied on the government for.
The history of Indian Point, however, offers a grim reminder that the government agencies expected to protect citizens from disaster aren't doing a particularly good job of it. Over the past several years, for instance, residents in the path of the AIM pipeline project have begun accusing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) of overwhelming bias in the industry's favor. As FERC has a corner on oversight and approval of all pipeline construction, this is alarming. Its stamp of approval on a pipeline can only be contested via appeals that lead directly back to FERC itself, as the Natural Gas Act of 1938 gave the agency sole discretion over pipeline construction in the U.S. Ever since then, its officials have approved pipelines of every sort almost without exception. Worse yet, at Indian Point, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission joined FERC in green-lighting AIM.
During the two-and-a-half-year period in which the pipeline was approved and construction began, the mainstream media virtually ignored the project and its potential dangers. Only this February, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been opposed to the relicensing of Indian Point, first raised concerns about the dangers of the pipeline, did the New York Times, the paper of record for the New York metropolitan area, finally publish a piece on AIM. So it fell to a grassroots movement of local activists to bring AIM's dangers to public attention. Its growing resistance to a pipeline that could precipitate just about anything up to a Fukushima-on-the-Hudson-style event evidently led Governor Cuomo to urge FERC to postpone construction until a safety review could be completed, a request that the agency rejected. In February, alarmed by reports of tritium leaking from the plant, the governor also directed the state's departments of environmental conservation and health to investigate the likely duration and consequences of such a leak and its potential impacts on public health.
According to Paul Blanch, the risk of a pipeline explosion in proximity to Indian Point is one in 1,000, odds he believes are too high given what's potentially at stake. (He considers a one-in-a-million chance acceptable.) "I've had over 45 years of nuclear experience and [experience in] safety issues. I have never seen [a situation] that essentially puts 20 million residents at risk, plus the entire economics of the United States by making a large area surrounding Indian Point uninhabitable for generations. I'm not an alarmist and haven't been known as an alarmist, but the possibility of a gas line interacting with a plant could easily cause a Fukushima type of release."
According to Blanch, attempts to regulate nuclear plants after a Fukushima- or Chernobyl-type catastrophe are known in the trade as "tombstone regulation." Nobody, of course, should ever want to experience such a situation on the Hudson, or have America's own mini-Hiroshima seven decades late, or find literal tombstones cropping up in the New York metropolitan area due to a nuclear disaster. One hope for preventing all of this and ensuring protection for New York's citizenry: the continuing growth of impressive citizen pressure and increasing public alarm around both the pipeline and Indian Point. It gives new meaning to the phrase "power to the people."
As Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has catapulted the issue of fascism into the mainstream U.S. political realm, we turn to best-selling author Adam Hochschild, who has just written a remarkable, sweeping history of the Spanish Civil War.
The book is called "Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939." It tells the story of how the Spanish Civil War captivated the world with volunteers flooding to Spain to bolster the democratic government's efforts to stave off a fascist uprising led by Francisco Franco and aided by Hitler and Mussolini.
Some 2,800 Americans went to Spain as volunteers in the fight against fascism, and nearly a quarter of them perished there. The Americans were known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
After two-and-a-half years of fighting, the fascists were able to declare victory on April 1, 1939. World War II began shortly afterward.
Adam Hochschild is the author of eight books, including "King Leopold's Ghost," "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918" and now "Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939."
"American raceologists were proud to have inspired the strictly eugenic state the Nazis were constructing."
Woven throughout this four week-long discussion of eugenics is American complicity, eugenics support and enthusiasm for the Nazi racial state. America's eugenicists trained their German pupils; American finance built the German laboratories dedicated to creating Hitler's Master Race.
To American utopians Hitler was a pioneering hero. And Hitler in turn acknowledged his debt to them: "Hitler studied American eugenics laws… the intellectual outlines of the eugenics [he] adopted in 1924 were made in America." The law against sex relations between Jews and Aryans followed American laws against sex relations between blacks and whites; American laws promoting involuntary sterilization found themselves adopted whole by the Nazi state. Even the Reich's furtive attempt to rid itself of its Unfit by poison gas was an adaptation of an American model, the "lethal chamber (later adopted as the death row gas chamber)." In the end American eugenicists chose to murder the Unfit indirectly, by "some adverse feature of the environment, such as excessive cold, or bacteria, or by bodily deficiency."
American support for German "race science" began long before Hitler. "During the '20s, Carnegie Institution eugenic scientists cultivated deep personal and professional relationships with Germany's fascist eugenicists." He, in turn, acknowledged his debt to America:
"'Now that we know the laws of heredity,' he told a fellow Nazi, 'it is possible to a large extent to prevent unhealthy and severely handicapped beings from coming into the world. I have studied with interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock."
Even the epithets attributed by Hitler to the Jews, "bacteria," vermin," etc., were first introduced by American eugenicists decades earlier in referring to their own Unfit.
But it was the model of eugenics introduced into American law that provided Germany the rationale for state controlled social engineering geared to the creation of a superior race. It provided as well the "scientific" veneer justifying those future atrocities which, following Israel's capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, would be referred to as "the Holocaust."
In addition to U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned "involuntary sterilization," Germany took special not of Virginia's legislation enacted to preserve "white racial purity." That law, and miscegenation laws around the United States, remained on the books until the 1967 Supreme Court ruling against the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was ruled unconstitutional.
1924 was also the year the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed its eugenics-conforming Immigration Act of 1924 which fifteen years later sealed the fate of European Jewry. The eugenic intent of the 1924 law and the quota system it established regarding immigration remained in place until finally repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965."
Propaganda for Nazi Germany's T-4 Euthanasia Program: "This person suffering from hereditary defects costs the community 60,000 Reichsmark during his lifetime. "Fellow German, that is your money, too." From the Office of Racial Policy's Neues Volk.(Wikipedia)
America funds Rassenhygiene: We have already seen that the Carnegie Institute was supporting German eugenics as early as the 1920's. But Carnegie was not alone. "The Rockefeller Foundation also supported German eugenics, even funded the "program that Josef Mengele worked in before he went to Auschwitz." The Foundation funded both eugenic research and building projects to house the researchers. Among these was the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin.
One important project of the Institute involved distinguishing "racial variation" by blood groups. Another was twin studies:
"At the time of Rockefeller's endowment, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a hero in American eugenics circles, functioned as a head of the Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics. Rockefeller funding of that Institute continued both directly and through various research conduits during Verschuer's early tenure. In 1935… Verschuer wrote… that Germany's war would yield a "total solution to the Jewish problem."
Verschuer's research assistant was a young doctor named Josef Mengele who would be called the "Angel of Death" by Auschwitz inmates. As camp "physician" Mengele conducted gruesome experiments, particularly his "twins" experiments with children, described by Vershuer as, "Anthropological testing of the most diverse racial… being carried out with permission of the SS Reichsführer [Himmler]."
America teaches Germany eugenics: In 1928 Harry Laughlin, assistant director at the Carnegie-funded Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, the main eugenics research center in the United States, delivered a speech in Munich followed by a paper the following year. In it he claimed that, "It has been proven that sterilization is necessary to the well-being of the state… Most importantly, the 'prohibition of procreation for certain members of degenerate tribes' needed to be accompanied by special support for marriages hereditarily valuable," (The Nazi Connection). As early as 1928 American eugenics was providing the Reich its blueprint for its Herrenvolk (Master Race).
"American raceologists were proud to have inspired the strictly eugenic state the Nazis were constructing… Nazi doctors, and even Hitler himself, regularly communicated with American eugenicists from New York to California, ensuring that Germany would scrupulously follow the path blazed by the US."
Just how envious the Americans were of their German disciples and the emerging Nazi state is expressed by the executive secretary of the American Eugenics Society: "While we were pussy-footing around…the Germans were calling a spade a spade." And in 1934 the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine [!] raved, "Germany is perhaps the most progressive nation in restricting fecundity among the Unfit." This was one year after Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany and began Germany's rigorous application of eugenics in pursuit of the blond hair, blue-eyed Master Race." It was also one year following the legislation of the anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws.
American support of Nazi eugenics did not end with Auschwitz (although most eugenicists hid their enthusiasm during between 1941 and 1945). Nor did their loyalty and support for their Nazi disciples end with reports of the horrific crimes they committed. With American assistance accused Nazi war criminals not only escaped judgment at Nuremberg but were assisted to return to prominent teaching and research careers. Mengele's boss, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, "became a corresponding member of the newly formed American Society of Human Genetics, organized by American eugenicists and geneticists… In the fall of 1950, the University of Münster offered Verschuer a position at its new Institute of Human Genetics, where he later became a dean."
Afterword: After the Holocaust American eugenics generally adopted new titles, cosmetic changes disguising their continuing racist agenda. The American Society of Human Genetics for example annually celebrates the success of the Human Genome Project. It also conducts an aggressive educational outreach to students K through twelve and beyond.
One present day non-profit organization, the Pioneer Fund, created in 1937, remains openly dedicated to the goal of American race betterment, aspires to an eventual American Aryan state.
Recent writings in this Series:
1. Eugenics, euthanasia and American race improvement
2. Antisemitism as national policy: The US Congress shuts the borders
3. Before Hitler the Aryan Master Race was America's ideal
4. America redefines Zionism: The Diaspora as Jewish homeland