FALLOUT FROM THE PEACEFUL ATOM
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FALLOUT FROM THE PEACEFUL ATOM
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
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. 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.
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 abandoned.
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
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 abandoned.[2,pgs.220-224]
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
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 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
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. 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.
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
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. 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
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
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Catherine Caufield, MULTIPLE EXPOSURES; CHRONICLES OF THE
RADIATION AGE (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).
 H. Peter Metzger, THE ATOMIC ESTABLISHMENT (NY: Simon &
 "U.S. Staged Nuclear Accident in 1965," FACTS ON FILE WORLD
NEWS DIGEST Dec. 31, 1994, pg. 986F3.
 "'Star Wars' A-Rocket Reported," FACTS ON FILE WORLD NEWS
DIGEST April 18, 1991, pg. 276B2.
 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.
 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;
Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic
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--Peter Montague, Editor