A Teachable Moment


As I digest media accounts of the nuclear reactor situation in Japan, it seems to me the U.S. media has a teachable moment at hand.

Teachable, as I intend here, means the U.S. media thoughtfully lead the debate on nuclear power and harm in the same way as perhaps Life magazine (May 16, 1949 “The atom: A layman’s primer on what the world is made of” & February 27, 1950, “The atomic bomb”) and The Progressive (“The H-Bomb Secret“, November, 1979) explained the technological dangers to the American citizens. While the looming face of secrecy was the undercurrent for this reporting, discussion was strongly tempered with a call for education and openness:

To make public the information that Americans must have in order to think clearly in an atomic age. (Life, 1950)

Thomas Jefferson was well aware of the role that information had with responsible citizenship in public life (through the Bill of Rights) and privately (the establishment of the Library of Congress). In a letter to his colleague Edward Carrington during the Shays Rebellion, Jefferson wrote:

…the way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of public papers and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.” (Ford, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Macmillan, 1947).

I propose that if individuals are to accept the nuclear fuel cycle as national energy policy and into their communities, they must be informed. This is the foundation of informed consent. In the aftermath of the earthquake, public conversation on the risks that spring from nuclear fuel cycle activities must become a fundamental element of national energy policy discourse. This, alongside discussion of precaution as envisioned by the National Environmental Protection Actnot the Atomic Energy Act & Amendments – is a necessary task.**

There is an urgency to this teachable moment, not just in terms of disclosures on venting and a possible meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant, but for many U.S. communities considering hosting nuclear jobs as a (fallacious) means to create new sources of revenue and economic stimulus. However, this nuclear “renaissance” has amnesia; for example, in Pueblo, Colorado, a nuclear power plant is proposed, all the while decades of Fort St. Vrain waste remains onsite. In Montrose County, Colorado, a mill facility to process uranium and vanadium ore was approved by county commissioners; and Sen. Jeff Bingaman with six co-sponsors, including Colorado’s Mark Udall, introduced S.512, that among other things suggests a partnership with the private sector to develop “develop a standard design for each of 2 small modular reactors, at least 1 of which has a rated capacity of not more than 50 electrical megawatts.” This all the while the Department of Energy still monitors numerous legacy sites around the U.S. and spent fuel is building at generator sites.

Moreover, the U.S., as is the case with many other countries with an existing nuclear power infrastructure, has not come to grips with how to deal with the inevitable pollution, liability, compensation, and harm to public health and ecosystems from nuclear fuel cycle activities. These subjects must be included in any meaningful dialogue on the future of all things nuclear. The media as the Fourth Estate, the essential link between government and citizen, has a significant role in leading debate on nuclear policy that also includes reflection on risk, precaution, and competing U.S. laws. In Jefferson’s time the Fourth Estate was the newspaper. Today, the Fourth Estate is compromised by shrinking readership and corporate control. Yet there may be a defining moment here in the now for the digital Fourth Estate to create authentic civic discussions on the cycle.


The Atomic Energy Act of 1946

(Sec.1 (a), 1946) states

Accordingly, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the people of the United States that, subject at all times to the paramount objective of assuring the common defense and security, the development and utilization of atomic energy shall, so far us practicable, be directed toward improving the public, increasing the standard of living, strengthening free competition in private enterprise, and promoting world peace.

Atomic Energy Act, 1954 as Amended

Sec. 1. Declaration
Atomic energy is capable of application for peaceful as well as military purposes. It is therefore declared to be the policy of the United States that:
a. the development, use, and control of atomic energy shall be directed so as to make the maximum contribution to the general welfare, subject at all times to the paramount objective of making the maximum contribution to the common defense and security; and –
b. the development, use, and control of atomic energy shall be directed so as to promote world peace, improve the general welfare, increase the standard of living, and strengthen free competition in private enterprise.