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Opinion: Airborne Toxic Event 

Poli Psy

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In Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, a train tank car derails, releasing its contents — a chemical called Nyodene Derivative, or Nyodene D — in a black, billowing cloud.

The narrator’s son Heinrich reports that Nyodene D has been found to cause “urgent lumps” in rats. As for humans, no one is sure. The authorities at first warn of skin irritations and sweaty palms. Soon they issue a correction: Nyodene D doesn’t cause skin irritations and sweaty palms. It causes nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath.

They also give the cloud a name: a “feathery plume.”

Later, Heinrich tells his family the cloud is no longer a “feathery plume.”

“What are they calling it?” asks the narrator, Jack.

“A black, billowing cloud.”

Searchlights scan the site. Helicopters hover. Fire engines, police vans and ambulances arrive. Men “in bright yellow Mylex suits and respirator masks [move] slowly through the luminous haze, carrying death-measuring instruments.”

On the radio, a “consumer affairs editor” discusses the effects of Nyodene D contamination: convulsions, coma or miscarriage.

The feathery plume/black cloud is again renamed: “the airborne toxic event.”

People are evacuated. It begins to snow. They wonder if the snow contains Nyodene D.

More updates arrive. The airborne toxic event doesn’t cause nausea, vomiting or shortness of breath. The symptoms of contamination are, instead, heart palpitations and “a sense of déjà vu.”

Vermonters who are watching Japan’s nightmare — Chernobyl, anyone? Three Mile Island? — might have felt a scintilla of hope when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission postponed relicensing Vermont Yankee, Fukushima Daiichi’s equally evil twin.

Unsurprisingly, the delay had nothing to do with caution.

The commissioners, it turns out, had just had their hands full chiding the Japanese for underestimating the radioactive contamination and insufficiently protecting their people’s health and safety. Then NRC chair Gregory Jaczko came home and declared before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that “U.S. nuclear facilities remain safe.”

That, Jaczko explained, is because the regulators calculate the risks by plumbing the geological and meteorological history of a reactor’s region for the worst natural disaster that could occur there, and require that the facility be able to withstand such an assault, and then some.

Gazing back so many billions of years, perhaps the commission can be excused for forgetting more recent history — which essentially teaches us that history teaches us only so much. Of the nuclear accidents so far, notes George Mason University anthropologist Hugh Gusterson in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, each “was unique, and each was supposed to be impossible.”

Typical of pronukers’ Monday-morning head slapping, Vermont’s former techie-in-chief, Tom Evslin, blogs that “it seemed like a good idea” to store the spent rods at the plant temporarily. But now, “with hindsight, it’s clear that a catastrophe which threatens the reactor may well also threaten the spent rods.” Who woulda thunk?

The horror of an unprecedented event is not always the unpredecented part, though. The 1957 accident at the British Windscale reactor — where the graphite core melted and contaminated the region for miles — ranked 5 on the 7-point severity scale, just like Fukushima.

The NRC remains confident. It has not yet conducted its 90-day investigation of the events in Japan to gather intelligence about U.S. nukes, many of which are in their dotage and similar, if not identical, to Fukushima Daiichi. Yet the commission has already concluded that the crisis in Japan does not signal the need for any major changes in regulatory practice here.

As a gesture of kindness to the American people, commission inspectors are currently checking plants to see that temporary hoses and other emergency backup equipment are in place and workers know where they are. R. William Borchardt, NRC executive director for operations, helpfully clarified the goal of this exercise: “to make sure [the measures] haven’t fallen into disuse because they haven’t been used.”

I have read the NRC’s 2001 Vermont Yankee safety evaluation supplement, the document that grants Entergy permission to work the 40-year-old horse for another two decades. A former English major, I do not claim to understand much of it. But I can read dates, and I noticed that the plant’s safety inspection was completed in 2008, two years before those tritium leaks — and the company’s cover-up — were discovered.

Revisiting that issue in 2011, the commission was satisfied with Entergy’s plans to inspect underground pipes more thoroughly and frequently in the future. There is no written commitment that company representatives will cease lying under oath.

But white lies and short memories seem to be common in this industry’s culture. On November 22, 2009, after a radiation leak at Three Mile Island’s Unit 1 containment building, the NRC said the unit was slated for decommissioning when its license expired, according to CNN. Joining Unit 1 would be Unit 2 — scene of the 1979 meltdown — which had already been permanently shut down and emptied of fuel, the NRC said. This statement was odd, as Exelon, TMI’s owner, had applied for a license renewal for Unit 1 in January 2008, and the commission had approved it on October 22, 2009, one month before the article appeared.

These are the people, both industry executives and regulators, in whose hands lies the survival of the planet as we know it.

In White Noise, the workers overseeing the evacuation during the airborne toxic event wear armbands bearing the word SIMUVAC. Jack asks one of them what it means. “Short for simulated evacuation,” the man replies. “A new state program they’re still battling over funds for.”

“But this evacuation isn’t simulated,” says Jack. “It’s real.”

“We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model.”

To watch the smooth-talking, extraordinarily smooth-headed NRC commissioner Jaczko insisting that we are perfectly safe is to wonder if any of these guys knows we are witnessing the real, apocalyptic thing. How much closer to Doomsday do we have to get before they — and we — stop trusting the massive tin cans of combustible death littering our landscape? When, I ask you, are policy makers going to evidence a modicum of appropriate dread?

Perhaps the nuclear club simply has a robust appreciation for the absurd. For instance, a large portion of the NRC’s 2011 Vermont Yankee report concerns a category of regulatory review called, with DeLillovian resonance, Generic Aging Lessons Learned.

Throughout the document the term is referred to by its acronym: GALL.

“Poli Psy” is a twice-monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact

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About The Author

Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. Her column, "Poli Psy," appears biweekly in Seven Days.


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