August 10, 2008 – Leave it to John McCain to pick the site of a horrific atomic meltdown to symbolize his push for nuke power.
McCain says he wants at least 45 more US reactors as part of his “do everything” campaign for American energy independence. Apparently that strategy does not include inflating car tires, long known as one of the easiest, cheapest and most reliable ways to significantly improve auto gas mileage. McCain had only ridicule for Barack Obama’s ideas to fight waste in our energy economy.
Indeed, the term “efficiency” has no apparent place in the McBush lexicon. The “drill drill drill” mantra speaks only of production, a “supply side” Reaganomic approach to a problem whose fastest solution is to cut back on demand. As if turning off lights in empty rooms or making cars run cleaner is somehow an affront to American manhood, more production is the one and only idea in McCain’s energy plan.
Thus it was fitting he chose Monroe, Michigan for a nuke-powered energy push. The town’s central square hosts a statue honoring General George Armstrong Custer, wiped out by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876.
More important was the melt-down at Monroe’s Fermi Unit I on October 5, ninety years later.
Fermi I was a sodium-cooled fast-breeder. Its promise was not only electricity “too cheap to meter,” but a fuel system that would magically generate more than it used. This astonishing fantasy was part of a government sponsored “Peaceful Atom” push to paste a happy face on the nuclear weapons industry.
Fermi I was key in a number of ways. Detroit Edison’s legendary boss, Walker Sisler, told the feds he would be a prime nuke booster. But like the rest of the nation’s utility execs, he demanded protection against the monstrous liability that could come with a major melt-down.
So in 1957, before the “inherently safe” Fermi I was built, Congress passed the Price-Anderson Act, shielding reactor owners from the billions in lawsuits that would follow a catastrophe. Since they believed it would be a short time before private insurers stepped in, the bill was only good for 15 years. Since then, it has been constantly renewed. Today the prospective builders of new reactors demand this same federal insurance protection. So the “temporary” acknowledgement that private insurers won’t touch atomic reactors is now a permanent shield for this “safe” technology.
Fermi I was subjected to the first major legal challenge to reactor construction by the United Auto Workers legendary lawyer Leo Goodman. The UAW took Edison all the way to the Supreme Court, where it lost 7-2. In a benchmark minority decision, Justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black warned that nuclear power involved “a lighthearted approach to the most awesome, the most deadly, the most dangerous process that man has ever conceived.”
In 1966 a blockage occurred in the $100 million plant’s cooling system. Because it carried highly volatile liquid sodium, which can explode when exposed to air, all of southeastern Michigan stood at the brink of an unthinkable catastrophe. Police officials seriously debated evacuating Detroit, just forty miles north.
But an explosion at Fermi would have permanently irradiated the Great Lakes and a gigantic area of land stretching hundreds of miles in all directions. Countless thousands of people would have died from both short-term and long-term radiation sickness. One actual victim from the releases that did occur may have been then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who spoke in Monroe the day after the accident, and later died of cancer.
The public was kept totally in the dark. That day I served as Editorial Director of the University of Michigan Daily, where we were tapped in to the core of the nation’s major news sources. Though I was the Time Magazine and United Press International correspondent for Ann Arbor, just forty miles west, I never heard a word about this accident until I stumbled upon John G. Fuller’s legendary WE ALMOST LOST DETROIT in 1974. Writing for the Readers Digest Press, Fuller’s astonishing tale still sends chills down the spines of a whole generation that lived in the neighborhood and never suspected the danger we were in.
So Monroe is indeed a fitting global symbol for nuclear power. In mere moments, a $100 million asset became a multi-billion-dollar liability, and millions of people and square miles were put at unconscionable – and uninsured – risk.
But for John McCain, none of this seems to matter. His fellow nuke backers argue that the Fermi-style fast breeder is no longer on the table.
In response, we suggest that the next time he’s overseas pumping his global creds, he can lead a “more nukes” rally at Chernobyl. And when he comes home, MCain can complete the trifecta at Three Mile Island.