Health Hazards of Nuclear Power

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Health Hazards of Nuclear Power

by Energy and Environment Group, Science for the People, NYC Chapter

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 5, September/October 1976, p. 24–28


The article “Nuclear Power: Who Needs It?,” which appeared in the May 1976 issue of Science for the People, was a reprint of a pamphlet1 prepared by a San Francisco Bay Area project group, many of whom are members of the Berkeley Science for the People chapter. The pamphlet was prepared in support of proposition 15, the Nuclear Safeguards Initiative recently defeated (June 8) in California. Similar initiative campaigns are underway in several other states. In our view, the pamphlet represents an important attempt by a SftP chapter to link its work to a spontaneous mass movement. This attempt should be applauded as a serious effort to reach a large audience and to expand the scope of SftP work. However, we feel that the pamphlet suffers from some major weaknesses in its political analysis, even keeping its intended purpose in mind.

Is It Safe? — Is It Necessary? 

The pamphlet does not seriously address the question “Under what conditions, if any, is nuclear energy a ‘good’ source of energy?” The anti-nuclear movement answers this question clearly-nuclear power cannot be developed safely under any conditions. Do we agree? 

One cannot answer the above question without considering others. What are the alternative sources of energy available at this time and in the near future, and what are the relative merits and risks of these various forms of energy? What are the potential effects of energy conservation programs? In short, “Is nuclear power necessary?” 

Of course, the pamphlet does touch on some of these problems, but, we feel, in an unsatisfactory way. There is a tendency to, first, not “take a stand” on nuclear power per se, and second, to avoid discussion of the technical issues. It is true that arguing on the technical aspects of a problem can lead to a situation where two sets of “scientific” experts wind up opposed to each other, and this may lead to confusion in the eyes of the “public.” But this is no reason to avoid these questions, especially in a case such as this, where a main concern of the public is the safety of nuclear power. As revolutionaries interested in issues of technology, we must combine discussion of the technical issues with informed political analysis.

In its brief discussion of nuclear safety, the pamphlet does mention the problems of major accidents at nuclear power plants, waste disposal, and the potential theft of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium. One important area not mentioned in the pamphlet is the occupational health and safety hazards faced by workers involved in various aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. It is true that nuclear power is not unique in this respect. For example, a recent study of over 9000 coal miners conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and by the Bureau of Mines showed that almost one third had black lung (pneumoconiosis), and that 2.5% had the “severe, advanced form that can cause disability and death. “2 It is estimated that 200,000 or more active and former coal miners suffer to some degree from this disease.3 The death rate among coal miners from all forms of chronic respiratory disease is five times greater than for the general population.4 Similarly, oil refinery workers are exposed to a wide range of carcinogenic substances. Unfortunately, because of a lack of cooperation by the oil companies, it has been impossible to carry out good epidemiological studies in order to determine the incidence of various types of cancers among refinery workers.5 Both coal miners and refinery workers are continually exposed to the danger of fires and explosions. 

The technology exists to greatly reduce or completely eliminate the above diseases and dangers: a major cause is in the organization of production under capitalism. Properly ventilating a coal mine or maintaining a safe refinery reduces profits: it is cheaper to expand that other commodity, labor power. Nuclear power seems to be qualitatively different. It is not clear that the technology to operate safely exists, no matter how much money is spent. One problem is that it is impossible to completely contain the radiation produced, and even very low levels of radiation have harmful effects. The most authoritative report of the effects of nuclear radiation was prepared by the National Academy of Science and is known as the BEIR report.6 It discusses three major types of damage that arise from radiation-genetic damage from gene mutations and chromosome aberration; induction of cancer; and damage of various kinds during the early stage of development, to which the foetus and young child are particularly susceptible. The conclusion of the report is that there is no threshold below which radiation does no biological damage; even the smallest increment in the environment increases the statistical probability that a person exposed to it will suffer genetic damage or develop cancer (or both). 

Harmful as radiation is to the population at large, it is much worse for workers in the nuclear industry because they are exposed to much greater doses. For example, at the only commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing plant which has operated in the US, the Nuclear Fuel Services plant at West Valley, NY, the average annual full body exposure rose from 2.74 rem7 in 1968 to 7.15 rem in 1971. (The plant closed in January 1972).8 The latter figure is over 40 times the exposure received, on the average, by a member of the population at large (mainly from background radiation, not associated with power production). For uranium miners, the situation is even worse. A study of 4180 uranium miners showed an excess of about 180 cases of lung cancer by 1973.9 Taking into account the long latency period for the disease, it is estimated that 600-1100 of the current  total of 6000 uranium miners will eventually die from radiation induced lung cancers.10 Although radiation effects on uranium miners, largely due to ingestion of radioactive radon gas,11 could be reduced substantially by better mine ventilation, some radiation would remain. Again, improvements doubtless could be made in containing radiation in fuel reprocessing, and, indeed, some are being incorporated in the proposed plant at Barnwell, South Carolina. However, the technology is so complicated that it is difficult to believe that major improvements will occur in practice, taking into account the fact that radiation levels were so large and increased rapidly with time at West Valley, and that the Barnwell plant will have a much greater throughput of radioactive material. 

In considering whether or not nuclear power is necessary, it worth keeping in mind that even many of its proponents advocate it only as a short-run solution to energy shortages, until advanced coal, wind, solar, etc. technologies are developed. The pamphlet fails to point out that we can do without nuclear power and not have energy shortages in the short run by using already known and practicable conservation techniques. Studies have indicated that it is technologically feasible to save at least 30% of all energy used in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors and up to 50% in the transportation sector.12 By the introduction of existing energy technologies like heat pumps, solar heating and cooling, and solar water heating, even more fuel could be saved. Of course, even though these conservation measures are technologically feasible, the extent to which they are introduced will depend, to a large degree, upon their potential for generating profits. 

Taking into account all the other problems with nuclear power (waste disposal, possibility of accidents, problems with plutonium, protection of facilities, etc.) it is clear that the position of the “liberal” anti-nuclear movement is correct-that first, it is not necessary, and second, that the unresolved problems are so great that nuclear power should not be developed at this time. This was really the thrust behind the initiative-“We say it’s unsafe (and unnecessary), you say it’s safe. But if you really believed nuclear power was safe, you wouldn’t be opposed to the initiative, because you could meet its terms.” 

The pamphlet suggests that demand for electricity may not increase very much. Indeed, it underlines the statement “Energy growth is a matter of public policy, not a law of science.” We believe this statement is misleading. Corporations are forced, in order to maintain lagging profits, to continually look for new products and for new methods of marketing. To the extent that they are successful, this will lead to increased production and, in the long run, increased demand for energy, including, in particular, electricity. It is true that energy demand has not increased much in the last few years, largely due to the recession and sharply increased prices for fuels, especially oil. But with the current recovery, the situation is already showing signs of reversing itself. Consumers again are showing a perference for large cars. In recent months, oil refineries have been operating at near record levels. Futhermore, growth in electricity consumption is an essential for development in underdeveloped countries, including those which are socialist. Thus, the recent lack of increase in electricity consumption in the US is not, by itself, an argument against the development of nuclear power. 

Jobs and Profits 

We disagree with the pamphlet’s emphasis, in the section entitled “What About Jobs?,” on replacing capital intensive by labor intensive production. There are other ways of creating jobs. A better emphasis would be a demand for a six-hour day with no cut in pay. Historically in the US, important working-class struggles were built over the demands for a ten-hour day and an eight-hour day. A shortened work day would directly create more jobs. Politically, this demand sharpens the struggle between capital and labor, since the capitalists would perceive this as a direct attack on their profits. (Whether decreased profits actually would follow is not clear, because of secondary effects such as increased purchasing power, which would stimulate the economy.) It is our belief that we must continually emphasize the liberatory potential of technology to eliminate boring jobs, shorten work hours, and to improve people’s lives. It is important to bring out the contradiction between the potential of even our existing technology and the reality of the way it is used in a capitalist society. In fairness to the pamphlet, we must mention that this point is mentioned, though almost as an afterthought, in the last paragraph of the section of jobs. We quote: “We support the use of energy in liberating people from monotonous and physically exhausting work.” 

The Energy Industry and Government-Alliance Against Progress 

We agree with the emphasis in the pamphlet on the role of the energy companies. However, one is left with the feeling that the main reason for opposing nuclear power is that Exxon, Mobil, etc. are for it!! But suppose Exxon was in favor of solar power. Would we therefore be opposed to it? It might have been useful to have included some examples of how the corporations have handled other forms of energy. Have oil and coal been developed in ways that are safe, rational, and that have been beneficial to society? One needs merely note such recent events as the gross violations of safety measures in the Scotia coal mine explosions13 and the history of drilling in the Santa Barbara channel,14 or to look at the scars due to strip mining, to know the answer to this question. If the energy companies have not been able to develop fossil fuels safely and raionally, then why should we expect the same companies to do any better with the far more complicated technology of nuclear power? 



With a present generating capacity of 6000 megawatts (nuclear) compared with 38,000 in the US, the USSR is now constructing an industrial complex to mass-produce reactors-to be called “Atommash”-near the Volga and Don Rivers. Completed units will be towed on barges throughout eastern Russia and Europe. Production is to begin in the 1980s, turning out 1000 MW units at a rate of three or four a year. Many western companies are exploring possible roles in this massive effort: Combustion Engineering, Babcock and Wilcox (major US reactor producers), Mitsubishi (Japan). 

The USSR is planning a large export program, not only to Eastern Europe where commitments have already been made, but possibly also to the Third World. According to Deputy Foreign Trade Minister Vladimir S. Alkhimov, the export of uranium enrichment services is a “big new feature” with a ‘high hard-currency value return.” As for safety/environmental issues, the first full-scale breeder reactor broke down when welds failed allowing steam to mix with the liquid sodium coolant (an explosive combination). Eventually the Atommash plant will build breeders. According to Business Week, “when the respected Soviet physicist Pyotr Kapitsa dared to raise his concerns over safety at the Academy of Sciences last fall, he stirred some enthusiasm among his colleagues-as well as repeated public rebuttals from high-ranking party officials. Kapitsa’s haranguers cloaked their attacks in the guise of responses to Western alarmists, who they claimed were frequently in the pay of the oil companies, but their message was clear enough: Moscow will brook no opposition to nuclear power.”


An important missing link in the pamphlet is a discussion of the relationship between the energy corporations and the government. Perhaps the most famous episode was the “Teapot Dome” scandal of the twenties, in which Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall received huge payments from Edward L. Doheny (Pan-American Oil-now part of Standard Oil of Indiana) and from Harry F. Sinclair (Sinclair Oil) for turning over to their companies leases on naval oil reserve lands, without competitive oids. Forced to resign, Fall served as a consultant for oil interests, including Sinclair.16 

However, the ties between the energy industry and government are much stronger than a few dishonest individuals accepting bribes. The oil industry, in particular, has produced many high government officials. Andrew Mellon, whose family controlled Gulf Oil, as Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932, fought tirelessly for the oil depletion allowance, introduced in 1926.17 Later, as Ambassador to England, he played a major role in the negotiations that led to Gulf sharing Kuwait oil 50-SO with British Petroleum (then Anglo-Persian).18 Both Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson had close ties with oil interests. The late Senator Robert Kerr (Dem.-Okla.) was president of Kerr-McGee Oil, which, as well as having substantial oil holdings, is the major uranium producer and processor in the U.S.19 Present and former members of the board of directors of oil companies who have been active in government including Admiral Arleigh Burke (Texaco), Clark Clifford (Phillips), William McChesney Martin (Shell), George McGhee (Mobil), David Packard (Socal(, and Robert Roosa (Texaco).20 As pointed out in the pamphlet, many members of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), now ERDA, came directly from companies involved in nuclear power, or wound up with these companies after leaving the AEC. 

The US government has helped the energy companies in many ways. In 1950, the Saudi Arabian government was pressuring Aramco (at that time 30% owned by each of Socal, Texaco, and Exxon, and 10% by Mobil) for a 50-50 deal on oil revenues, rather than the earlier system of royalties. The Treasury Department conveniently promulgated a decree which allowed the 50% paid to Saudi Arabia to be treated as an income tax payment, rather that an expense of production, and hence to be 100% deductible from US taxes (rather than from income, in which case they could only deduct the percentage given by the corporate tax rate). This ruling, later upheld by IRS, enabled the companies to satisfy the Saudi demands without it costing them a penny!21 The money was paid by the US taxpayer. This tax loophole and the depletion allowance have enabled the international oil companies to pay practically no income taxes ever since. 

The government has also helped in other ways, such as by giving bargain leases for exploration and development on government lands and offshore, by a massive interstate highway program which increased automobile and truck use, and hence gasoline use, and by using the Marshall Plan to force European countries to shift from consuming (largely indigenous) to oil (largely controlled by American companies).22 The list is almost endless. But nowhere is the relationship between government and business any closer than in nuclear power. Here the government has paid for almost all the research and development, subsidizes the production of enriched fuel, will subsidize the disposal of wastes (if a suitable method can be found), and even passed legislation (the Price-Anderson Act) which limits the liability of reactor operators in case of a major accident. Indeed, the government supplies the major part ($500 million per accident) of this limited liability insurance. 

Nationalization—A Reform? 

Such a discussion of the influence of the energy industry on government might have clarified the discussion, which we found vague and confusing, of nationalization of the energy industry. The position of the pamphlet seems to be as follows: some politicians are talking about nationalization- we aren’t taking a position on this, but if it occurs, it should be fully democratic in structure. It then goes on to explain some of the features that such a democratically nationalized industry would have. 

In our view, this position completely ignores class struggle. This type of nationalization simply cannot occur in a society where sharp class antagonisms exist. The close relationship, pointed out above, between the energy companies and the government is simply one example of how government aids the interests of the bourgeoisie. Of course, through struggle, some concessions can be, and have been, obtained. But something as major as that proposed in the pamphlet seems to us to be so totally unattainable in a capitalist society as to appear ludicrous. 

But, one may argue with justification, a demand need not be totally attainable in order to be a “good” demand. The important question is whether or not it advances the class struggle. But even here, the pamphlet fails. It takes legitimate existing working class and middle class struggles-for open information, for health and environmental protection, and for employment-and makes them consequences of a vague, unattainable, pie-in-the-sky democratically nationalized energy industry. This doesn’t help these struggles. Rather it obscures, and may even retard them. 

We do not, at this time, have a clear analysis of the complicated issue of nationalization. However, we do believe that a key question is “What forms, if any, of movements for nationalization will advance the class struggle?” It would be useful for Science for the People to try to develop an analysis and to apply it to concrete situations. For example, what is our position on the struggles for municipalization of electric utilities that are going on in some communities? 

Concluding Remarks 

The sources of energy: water, oil, coal, are social-they belong to sociey as a whole. They have been expropriated by the corporations in order to make profits. Under capitalism, they have not been, and indeed, cannot be, developed in a rational way. Our political position should be to encourage people to regain control over what is rightfully theirs. Part of this fight is for the people to demand a voice in bow energy is produced and distributed. As pointed out in the pamphlet, the initiative deserved support as a first step in this direction. 

The other reason given for supporting the initiative- “that it supplies some needed safeguards upon nuclear operations and may help avoid some real disasters” -is harder to agree with. First, we strongly suspect that the nuclear industry, together with its cronies in the California legislature, would have found ways to circumvent its terms. Second, we believe that the industry was correct when it said it couldn’t meet the terms of the initiative. Nuclear power, by its nature, is less safe than other forms of energy, and cannot be developed safely, especially under the conditions of monopoly capitalism existing in the US today.

Energy and Environment Group
of the New York Chapter
of Science for the People

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  1. Nuclear Power, available from Science for the People, Box 4161, Berkeley CA 94704. Single copy, $.30; 20 or more copies, $.20 each.
  2. “News from NIOSH,” Job Safety and Health, Vol. 2, No. 1 (January 1974), p. 33. Cited in Nicholas A. Ashford, Crisis in the Workplace: Occupational Disease and Injury, a report to the Ford Foundation, M.I.T. Press, Cambridge MA (1976) p. 324.
  3. Man, Materials and Environment. A report for the National Commission on Materials Policy, by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences (1973). Cited in Ashford, op. cit., p. 324.
  4. Edward Baier, deputy director of NIOSH. Cited in Ashford, op. cit., p. 324.
  5. Rick Engler, “Oil Refineries,” Health/PAC Bulletin, No. 61 (Nov.-Dec., 1974), p. 7.
  6. BEIR Report: The Effects on Populations of Exposure to Low levels of Ionizing Radiation, Div. of Medical Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC (1972).
  7. The absorbed dose of radiation is the energy absorbed per unit of mass. It is measured in rads (Radiation Absorbed Dose). 1 rad = 100 ergs/gram However, biological effects depend not only on the energy absorbed, but also on the kind of radiation ( , , , neutron, etc.), and the energy of the individual particles. Biological effectiveness (dose equivalent) is measured in a different unit called the rem (Roentgen Equivalent Man). Its definition is Dose equivalent in rem = Absorbed dose in rad X Quality Factor. The quality factor, different for different types of radiation, has been determined so that dose equivalents, in rem, measure biological damage.
  8. Marvin Resnikoff, “Personnel Radiation Exposures in a Fuel Reprocessing Facility,” paper presented to American Public Health Association, Radiological Health section, Nov. 18. 1975.
  9. V.E. Archer, J.K. Wagoner, and F.E. Lundin, J. Occupational Med. 15, 204 (1973); Health Phys. 25, 351 (1973). Cited in The Union of Concerned Scientists, The Nuclear Fuel Cycle, M.I.T. Press, Cambridge MA (1975), p. 9.
  10. The element radon, chemically an inert gas, is one of the radioactive elements occurring in the natural decay series of Uranium 238, the main (over 99%) isotope in naturally occurring uranium.
  11. “Why the Russians go all-out for nuclear power,” Business Week, August 2, 1976, p. 52.