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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

Croaking Canaries

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When even Democratic politicians start warming to the idea of building new nuclear power plants, which have banned from Wisconsin since 1983, our canaries could start croaking any day. Coal miners used to take canaries into the mines to warn them of danger. Canaries were highly sensitive to poisonous buildups of carbon monoxide. When the canaries started toppling over with little Xs over their eyes, miners knew to scramble for their lives.

Surprisingly, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle has embraced a task force recommendation to modify the ban on new nuclear plants approved by voters statewide 25 years ago. When we hear somebody suggesting we reconsider our prescient decision to curtail nuclear power, it’s usually some cartoon villain like Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons” or Vice President Dick Cheney.

Doyle sounded almost Cheneyian when he suggested those who refused to consider nuclear power were burying their heads in the sand. Doyle said his Task Force on Global Warming took a responsible step by suggesting that Wisconsin begin to consider new nuclear power plants “without the hurdles that the current law puts up where it can’t even be really thought about.”

Terrorism Has Multiplied Every Danger

It’s certainly true that our world has changed a lot since voters approved the ban on new nuclear plants 25 years ago. But what Doyle didn’t say was that the most dramatic changes have made proliferation of nuclear power even more frightening.

When Wisconsin voters approved the nuclear moratorium in 1983, the world did not yet have the example of the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986. But that cataclysmic event sure made us look smart.

The largest release of radioactivity from a nuclear power plant in history turned an area of the Ukraine once considered the breadbasket of the Soviet Union into a wasteland that now goes by far grimmer nicknames such as the “Dead Zone” and the “Zone of Alienation.”

Not only that, but the plume of radioactive fallout, 30 to 40 times that released by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, eventually drifted over most of Europe and even eastern parts of North America.

The International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization estimated in 2005 that nearly 10,000 additional cancer deaths may have resulted.

The other major world event since 1983, of course, was 9/11. Along with everything else that changed after that momentous event was increased awareness of all the deadly dangers around us. That is made even more frightening because of one thing that absolutely has not changed in the quarter of a century since Wisconsin approved the moratorium on new nuclear plants.

As Wisconsin wisely decreed in 1983, new nuclear plants should not be built until there is a national or international disposal site where the deadly, radioactive waste the plants generate can be safely stored.

Guess what? Twenty-five years later, there still isn’t. The Bush administration has attempted to turn Yucca Mountain in Nevada into a nuclear waste dump, but legal battles and geological questions make the site increasingly unlikely.

As difficult as it’s been to secure a disposal site, that’s just the beginning. The idea of transporting deadly, nuclear waste from all over the country, through our towns and cities and countryside, certainly would require far more careful planning and competence than the current administration has ever demonstrated.

The development of nuclear power always has required a shocking human arrogance and lack of concern about the near impossibility of protecting future generations from growing stockpiles of radioactive nuclear waste that remain deadly for hundreds of thousands of years.

The age of terrorism has multiplied every danger. The nuclear by-product of plutonium can be easily converted into handy dandy nuclear weapons by sinister movements or whacked-out individuals bent on destroying human life. It’s been so long since we’ve actually had to worry about building new nuclear plants, many people today have never heard of Three Mile Island or the Academy Award winning film, The China Syndrome, or the compelling, non-fiction book by journalist John Fuller, We Almost Lost Detroit.

When Doyle reversed his resistance to considering new nuclear power plants in Wisconsin, the story didn’t even appear on the front page of Milwaukee’s newspaper. It appeared in the business section.

Apparently, editors don’t think the general public cares about nuclear power escaping from the crypt where it’s been buried for the past 25 years. Nukes are a business story, only of interest to those who stand to profit from them.

It’s not surprising to hear Republican presidential candidate John McCain promise millionaire executives 45 new nuclear plants after he gets done personally drilling all of our nation’s beaches for oil. But we’ve counted on Doyle and the Democratic state Senate to protect us from Assembly Republicans, who voted earlier this year to lift the nuclear moratorium.

If Doyle’s gone over to the dark side, we may have to start giving our canaries CPR any day now.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com