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#513 - Fallout From the Peaceful Atom, 25-Sep-1996

It was 1953 --seven years after Hiroshima --when President Dwight
Eisenhower announced plans for the "peaceful atom" so that "the
miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death,
but consecrated to his life."[1,pg.148] The shining star of this
program was to be thousands of nuclear-powered electricity-generating
plants, worldwide, making electricity "too cheap to meter."[1,pg.149]

But electricity was not the only promised benefit. According to author
Catherine Caufield, news articles soon began appearing with headlines
such as, "Forestry Expert Predicts Atomic Rays Will Cut Lumber Instead
of Saws," and "Atomic Locomotive Designed."

Between 1946 and 1961, the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] worked
diligently --and spent $1.5 billion of taxpayers' money --to develop an
atomic airplane. (The entire Manhattan Project to develop the atomic
bomb had cost $2.2 billion.) Problems with the atomic airplane were
obvious from the beginning. The nuclear reactor powering the plane had
to be shielded to prevent the crew from getting fried, but shielding is
heavy, so an atomic-powered airplane could never get off the ground.
According to NEW YORK TIMES science-columnist Peter Metzger, for a time
the AEC considered reducing the shielding and employing only older
pilots who wouldn't be planning to have any more children. Another
problem was the radioactivity that would build up inside the nuclear
engine: after running for a year, the engine would contain 20 times as
much radioactivity as was released by the Hiroshima bomb. A plane crash
would leave a major legacy of radioactive waste spread across the
countryside.[2,pgs.203-208] The project was abandoned.

The Atoms for Peace program spawned other expensive schemes. For
example, NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) was
developed at a cost of $1.4 billion. On January 16, 1965, the AEC
staged a nuclear accident in the Nevada desert; a NERVA rocket was
launched and a portion of its nuclear engine was purposefully burned up
so that AEC scientists could study environmental effects of radiation.
Six million residents of southern California were showered with
radioactive debris by this event.[3] Glenn Seaborg, former head of the
AEC, concluded that NERVA would be too dangerous to launch from earth
because of radioactive releases.[2,pg.210] The project died a public
death in 1972, but in 1994 it was revealed that the Department of
Defense had gone ahead and developed a nuclear-powered rocket using its
"black budget" (secret funds), as part of the Strategic Defense
Initiative, popularly known as the Star Wars program.[4] The Star Wars
program itself was subsequently abandoned.

The keel of a nuclear merchant ship, the SAVANNAH, was laid in 1958.
The ship toured the world, aiming to improve America's image abroad.
However, the SAVANNAH was deactivated in 1971, and the project was

In the mid-1960s, the whiz kids at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory
in New Mexico began promoting nuclear-powered pacemakers to be
implanted in the chests of patients with heart problems. Pacemakers
monitor heartbeat and provide an electrical jolt when needed. At least
100,000 Americans have conventional (non-nuclear) pacemakers installed
in their chests at any point in time.

The nuclear-powered pacemaker took advantage of a natural
characteristic of plutonium-238 which is so radioactive that it gives
off heat, which can be used to make a "nuclear battery" producing
electricity. Los Alamos scientists spent several million dollars, and
several years of effort, on the nuclear pacemaker before they realized
there was no way to keep track of such pacemakers and that plutonium-
238 would soon be wafting out of the smokestacks of crematories.
Plutonium is among the half-dozen most toxic materials ever discovered
and it spontaneously bursts into flame upon contact with air, then
burns and gives off a fine, highly-radioactive dust. Airplane
accidents, certain kinds of gunshot wounds, and hazards to firefighters
presented additional safety questions, and the nuclear pacemaker was

The military developed a thousand-watt "man-pack" plutonium-powered
battery for use by troops. The device never went into service because,
if one were blown up, a large area would have been permanently
contaminated by plutonium dust. Nevertheless in 1970, newspaper writers
optimistically predicted that within 3 to 5 years campers would be
carrying their own plutonium-powered man-packs into the woods.
[2,pg.226] The project was abandoned.

The Bulova watch company in 1969 announced it was developing a
plutonium-powered wrist watch, but the project was abandoned.[2,pg.227]

The Navy developed plutonium-impregnated "long johns" to keep divers
warm in cold waters. One set of nuclear long johns contained enough
plutonium to provide one trillion (one million million) "maximum
permissible lung burdens" of plutonium (333 maximum permissible lung
burdens for every human on earth in 1970). One accident involving the
loss, rupture or abandonment of one diving suit and the "no swimming"
sign would go up forever. The project was abandoned.[2,pg.227]

The Monsanto Research Corporation, which operated the lab where the
diving suit was developed, promoted a nuclear-powered coffee pot. Such
a pot would perk for 100 years relying only on its self-contained
plutonium-238 heat source. The plutonium in each pot (1/5th of an
ounce) would contain 10 million lethal doses of plutonium.[2,pg.227]
The project was abandoned.

Even the crown jewel of the peaceful atom program --nuclear-generated
electric power --fell upon hard times. Despite billions of dollars of
subsidies from Uncle Sam to help it grow, a multitude of problems beset
the industry from the start. The upshot has been that, since 1975, no
new nuclear power plants have begun construction in the U.S. For all
practical purposes, in the U.S., the technology has been abandoned.

Despite the failure of these many schemes, one part of the peaceful
atom program has been kept alive. Beginning in the late 1950s, the
Atomic Energy Commission began promoting a new way to preserve food --
zap it with large doses of radiation. By zapping food with 100,000 to
three million rad of energy, insects and bacteria could be killed,
reducing food spoilage. (This is a large dose; 600 rad is sufficient to
kill half of the humans thus exposed. In other words, 600 rad is the
LD-50 for humans, so a million rad is an enormous dose.) Unfortunately,
it became clear from the earliest days that a dose of radiation
sufficient to achieve complete sterilization would also cause profound
changes in the food: unpleasant, unfamiliar, and dangerous degradation
products formed in the food itself. Therefore, from the very beginning,
the program used less radiation than could achieve complete
sterilization, thus scaling back the benefits from "long-term
preservation" to "possibly extending the shelf-life of some foods." To
this day, no study has ever added up and described the benefits to be
derived from irradiated food.

Lack of quantified benefits has not slowed the program, however. In
1967, a truck-mounted food irradiator built by the AEC criss-crossed
the country promoting the benefits of irradiated food. In the late
1960s, the Army produced irradiated ham, to provide ham sandwiches for
frontline troops. However, in 1968, the Food and Drug Administration
declared that the Army's irradiated ham could not be considered safe.
[2,pg.229] For a time, this put a damper on food irradiation.

Despite this setback, the atomic authorities have kept up a steady
drumbeat, ceaselessly promoting irradiated food. In 1986, the Food and
Drug Administration (FDA), issued a mystifying and scientifically-
controversial decision, approving the irradiation of spices, pork,
fruits and vegetables. The data that the FDA relied upon have been
challenged.[5] Nevertheless, despite immense effort by government to
create this new industry, no market for irradiated food has ever
developed. The public just doesn't seem interested. Therefore food
irradiation is legal in this country but largely unused, except in the
case of a few spices. Still the government keeps pressing on.

Originally, food irradiators used cobalt-60 as the source of radiation.
But in recent years the government has been urging a shift to cesium-
137. Some critics suspect that food irradiation proposals are a way to
use up the nation's limited supply of cesium-137 and thus create a need
to produce more of it.[6] Evidence for this is the fact that the
government is willing to lease cesium-137 at bargain prices (0.83 cents
per curie per year), compared to cobalt-60, which sells for $1 per
curie on the open market.

It is true that if a food irradiation industry can be created, it will
soon sop up all available cesium-137, and thus create a demand for
more. This would require the government to start reprocessing nuclear
waste instead of burying it in the ground somewhere. If wastes were
reprocessed to extract the cesium, two things would follow
automatically: the cesium would become the responsibility of states,
thus relieving the federal government of an enormous radwaste problem.
And, secondly, plutonium could be extracted from the wastes
simultaneously --a dream that the atomic establishment has savored
since 1950, but which has been frustrated in recent decades by fears
that the plutonium would fuel a black market among terrorists and rogue
governments. This is a valid fear. See REHW #473. In sum, the
government wants to create a food irradiation industry, thus requiring
waste reprocessing to extract cesium-137, in order to revitalize a
dormant plutonium-extraction program, critics argue.

For our part, we see the peculiar pressure to create a food irradiation
industry in a somewhat different light. Now that the world's scientific
community has reached consensus that global warming is upon us, and
that humans are causing the problem (at least in part) by burning oil,
gas, and coal, pressure will mount steadily to shift to new energy
sources. There are only two alternative sources of energy: nuclear and
solar. Nuclear is intrinsically centralized and therefore politically
controllable; solar is intrinsically dispersed and therefore
politically uncontrollable. For good reasons, nuclear power (and the
people promoting it) have gained unsavory reputations.[2] But we
believe the greatest barrier to the future growth of nuclear power is
still public unwillingness to tolerate machines that create and release
radiation. The public's distaste for radiation has been, and still is,
the ultimate barrier to nuclear power.

What better way to undercut distaste for radiation than by putting
irradiated food on our plates? Food is our most intimate source of
sustenance. It nourishes us as we take it into our bodies during daily
rituals of pleasure, sociability, and renewal. If we can all be
convinced to irradiate our food, then our great respect for, and fear
of, radiation will dissipate and ultimately vanish. By this means --and
probably ONLY by this means --can the way be cleared for deployment of
the global nuclear power industry envisioned in Eisenhower's day. (See
REHW #473.) Trillions of dollars --and major issues of global political
control and environmental contamination --are at stake.

The push to irradiate food has intensified enormously in recent months.
To learn more about food irradiation, and how you might become
involved, contact Food & Water, Inc.; phone toll-free 1-800-EAT-SAFE.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


AGE (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

[2] H. Peter Metzger, THE ATOMIC ESTABLISHMENT (NY: Simon & Schuster,

[3] "U.S. Staged Nuclear Accident in 1965," FACTS ON FILE WORLD NEWS
DIGEST Dec. 31, 1994, pg. 986F3.

[4] "'Star Wars' A-Rocket Reported," FACTS ON FILE WORLD NEWS DIGEST
April 18, 1991, pg. 276B2.

[5] Donald B. Louria, "Zapping the Food Supply; Irradiated Food is Not
Radioactive, But is it Good for You?" BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS
Vol. 46 No. 7 (1990), pgs. 34-36.

[6] Ken Terry, "Why is D.O.E. for Food Irradiation?" THE NATION
February 7, 1987, pgs. 142-146. And see Judith Johnsrud, "Food
Irradiation: Its Environmental Threat, It's Toxic Connection," THE
WORKBOOK Vol. 13 No. 2 (April/June 1988), pgs. 47-58.

Descriptor terms: nuclear power; radiation; atomic energy commission;
nuclear rockets; dod; doe; nuclear ships; nuclear pacemakers;
plutonium; nuclear coffee pot; nuclear wrist watch; monsanto; food
irradiation; fda; cobalt-60; cesium-137; catherine caufield; peter
metzger; star wars program;