Dissent should be heard

Column: Dissent should be heard

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Early this month in India’s capital, a retired Navy admiral, a newspaper columnist and an anti-nuclear activist from Maharashtra told the press of their concerns about plans for the construction of the world’s largest nuclear-power park, in Maharashtra. Six reactors of 1,650 megawatts each would be designed and built by a French nuclear energy company.

The press conference, which I attended, was nine days before disaster struck Japan’s nuclear reactors. Speakers warned of environmental and health disasters in a biodiverse coastal farming and fishing area. The plants’ design, they said, never has been tested or cleared by any country’s nuclear regulatory agency. They also decried the undermining of democracy in the Indian and state governments’ promotion of the plan, through heavy-handed tactics including forcing the reactors on a population that doesn’t want them and then trying to silence dissent through arrests. The retired admiral, L. Ramdas, and several high courts’ former justices were among opponents banned from the area. The group charged that environmental impact information has been withheld. “Anything to do with atomic energy is secret,” said Ramdas.

The remark soon would be echoed in Japan. “Everything is a secret. There’s not enough transparency in the industry,” the Associated Press quoted a Japanese former nuclear power plant engineer as saying of that country’s industry. The Japanese are frustrated their government has downplayed the severity of radiation discharged from the damaged plants, even as U.S. inspectors had far worse assessments. They have reason to be wary, given Japan’s history of cozy relationships between the energy industry and nuclear regulators, secrecy and cover-ups.

Secrecy and heavy-handedness seem to be hallmarks of the nuclear power industry, going back to the days of Karen Silkwood. The late employee of the Kerr-McGee Corp. in Oklahoma testified to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1974 about serious violations, alleging the company had falsified inspection records. She died under mysterious circumstances while going to meet a New York Times reporter.

We’ve had enough warnings now that to move ahead on nuclear power without taking a hard look at what dangers we could be inviting would just be reckless. Recently, President Obama said he will order the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a comprehensive safety review before proceeding with nuclear expansion. Yet some Iowa lawmakers are determined to proceed with legislation paving the way for MidAmerican Energy to build a 1,000- to 1,600-megawatt nuclear plant in Iowa. The bill says nuclear power “has a long-term proven record of providing a safe, reliable and secure source of electricity in the United States.”

Former Gov. Chet Culver in 2010 signed a law allowing MidAmerican to charge Iowa customers $15 million for a three-year nuclear feasibility study. Nine Democratic senators now want a vote delay. About 100 opponents gathered, hoping to speak at a Senate subcommittee meeting, where MidAmerican’s president spoke. They couldn’t.

The industry and lawmakers can marginalize opponents, thanks in part to the money imbalance between the sides. Anti-nuclear activist Jane Magers says her group has no funds to place ads. But shouldn’t consumers, who are paying for the study, at least be heard? This isn’t a partisan issue but a health and safety one, with key democratic principles at stake.

Basu can be reached at rbasu@dmreg. com.