We’re living in E.F. Schumacher’s nightmare future.
Fifty years ago, before there was much nuclear power to worry about, before Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima, he was already worrying about it in his 1973 book “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.” The book was ranked by The Times Literary Supplement as one of the 100 most influential books published since World War II.
It’s striking that the main argument against using nuclear energy was there from the very start.
“The biggest cause of worry for the future is the storage of the long-lived radioactive wastes,” he wrote. “In effect, we are consciously and deliberately accumulating a toxic substance on the off-chance that it may be possible to get rid of it at a later date.”
No amount of convenience or efficiency — or profits — he argued “could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make ‘safe’ and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages. To do such a thing is a transgression against life itself.”
We are in that “later date” and as we know, there still is no solution to the problem of how to get rid of the radioactive waste that is a systematic byproduct of generating nuclear energy .
We are in that future Schumacher warned against.
A few years ago, when Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant was still limping along, a documentary titled “Containment” played in Wellfleet, showing in convincing detail the nuclear future Schumacher warned against, especially the ongoing problem of containment of lethal radioactive wastes.
There is no mopping up as with oil spills. You don’t flush this, clean it up and move on. There is no getting rid of the mess we’ve made. All we can do is try to contain it, on and on farther into the future than the 10,000 years often cited as the age of “civilization” — perhaps longer than our species has been around.
There’s an interesting segment in the film about attempts to come up with a sign to warn our distant descendants of the lethal mess we have bequeathed them.
Containment is the job and the company that owned Pilgrim, when it closed the plant, handed the job of cleanup and containment off to a company named Holtec, which thought it could make a go of it while making a profit for its shareholders.
Containment is the job. But only in its first year or two, Holtec recently announced, almost off-handedly, that it was considering dumping a million gallons of radioactive waste in our Cape Cod Bay. ”What?” asked many. “Can they get away with that?”
Apparently they are within their legal rights. Certainly, the company has emphasized it has no obligation to be guided by those whose lives will be most affected by it.
In reaction to the outcry Holtec has said it will put off the dumping for a spell. To make us feel better it noted that Entergy had for years, when Pilgrim was still operating, been dumping radioactive water in the bay.
Fifty years ago Schumacher wrote: “It was thought at one time that these wastes could safely be dumped into the deepest parts of the oceans…but this has since been disproved…wherever there is life, radioactive substances are absorbed into the biological cycle.”
Containment is the job. Dumping a million gallons of radioactive waste into Cape Cod Bay seems like the opposite of containment.
Once again, as with Entergy, we find ourselves in the situation of having our present and future safety in the hands of a bottom line-oriented company.
Call it a nuclear energy problem. Call it a corporation/capitalism problem. It is both.
There is a decades-long history of opposition to Pilgrim. Diane Turco and others founded Cape Downwinders in the early 1990s, a group that worked toward the shuttering of Pilgrim..
This newspaper kept Cape citizens informed with its strong coverage of the deterioration of Pilgrim and wrote editorials advocating its closure.
The closure of the plant in 2019 was considered by activists a victory and there has been a natural tendency (for people whose name isn’t Diane Turco) to become complacent about the still-dangerous site. Certainly it does seem less glamorous being the first generation of citizens, of who knows how many, to practice ongoing wariness about containment and the company in charge of it. But that’s the reality of our situation.
A place to start getting involved or re-involved is a gathering for a speak-out on Jan. 31 at 5 p.m. at Plymouth Town Hall Great Room, to be followed at 6:30 p.m. by a meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.
Brent Harold, a Cape Cod Times columnist and former English professor, lives in Wellfleet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: pilgrim nuclear plant and holtec's plan to dump contaminated water.