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Nuclear agency overlooks public interest

Recent history shows that neither uranium mining nor the generation of electricity from nuclear energy is harmless, no matter how many claims to the contrary are issued by the government or the industries involved.

In the region where uranium lies deep within the earth, the region that is the focus of the cover story, “Uranium’s Trail of Tears” (see story), the pursuit of the nuclear future has been lethal. Its victims offer quiet testimony to the lack of accountability in the past by the government and the industries it is supposed to regulate.

NCR’s investigation into the resurgence of the nuclear energy industry in this country uncovered the resurgence also of disturbingly familiar patterns from the past: an industry intent on keeping public misgivings from gaining too large a forum while assuring everyone concerned that whatever the industry does is harmless.

Perhaps nuclear energy is an irreversible fact of life. And perhaps it is even a beneficial transition from fossil fuels toward some yet unforeseen energy future.

Yet the past -- the accidents, the deadly spills, the waste disposal problems, the cavalier treatment by business of a worried public -- still nags.

The overwhelming evidence turned up by NCR’s Arthur Jones is that we still have considerable reason for concern today. It is difficult to construe the evidence any other way than that the government agency charged with oversight, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has the industry’s interest, not the public interest, at heart.

In New Mexico, the mining company HRI is free to begin uranium mining. Legally, it has every right to proceed.

The question is whether the law requires enough, whether the law is sufficiently demanding on issues like uranium mining and nuclear power plant safety.

The question is especially timely because the nuclear power industry is apparently doing everything it can to bend the law and regulations to its own interests.

Justice is not something Native Americans of the Four Corners region of the United States expect from the U.S. government, and they are right to distrust U.S. intentions.

From the outset, the government denied there was danger in uranium mining, nuclear testing and in nuclear power generation.

This same government has been ignorant or willfully dishonest about the true costs of nuclear power generation, of decomissioning plants and of nuclear waste disposal.

Impaled on the spindle of its own denials, the government adds insult to its ignorance. It permits the entwined uranium and nuclear power industries to have their way -- to lower regulatory standards and have the public pay for cleanup and disposal.

The nation needs an independent inquiry into the decisions over the past two decades of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the light of the accusations that it now kowtows solely to the industry, with Congress’ compliance. A companion inquiry would investigate a nuclear power industry that eases its way through government regulations by lining political candidates’ pockets.

Back in Four Corners, the abandoned uranium-mine landscape is littered with radioactive promises. Now the Navajo, a people who have borne the devastating brunt of past missteps, are being asked to take uranium risks again -- and at a time when there is no shortage of uranium worldwide.

There is a deadly phrase in uranium and nuclear history, from weapons testing to generation of electricity. And almost 60 years into the nuclear era we’re still hearing it. The phrase is: “It’s safe.” But it hasn’t been safe.

The U.S. domestic uranium and power story tells us all that such promises are suspect. Experience further shows that by the time the dangers are discovered, the perpetrators are usually gone.

The past has alerted the Navajo and should alert the rest of us. There is no need to create a new crop of victims.

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999