A letter from the leaders of the Romero Institute
Death & Destruction: The Secret Truth Behind The Private Nuclear Industry
"Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation."
Pope Francis, Address of the Holy Father On Nuclear Weapons. Nagasaki, Japan.
I’m often asked why I — and our Romero Institute — remain steadfastly opposed to the private nuclear power industry. I explained part of our reasoning in my letter to you last July. Now it’s time for you to have the full story.
My part in this began in 1975. I was the Chair of The National Labor Committee of the National Organization for Women (NOW) at NOW’s National Headquarters in Washington, DC. As the Chair of NOW’s National Labor Committee I had been publicly advocating that women workers join unions, participate in leadership positions, and work to address wage and benefit inequities faced by women workers everywhere. I was asked by a NOW member to launch a NOW campaign to win a Congressional investigation into the suspicious death and nuclear plutonium poisoning of local health and safety union leader, Karen Silkwood, who worked at the Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation in Oklahoma.
While weaving the alliance needed to take on the nuclear power industry, I met Robert (Bob) Alvarez, a nuclear industry safety expert and leader in the Environmental Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington, D.C and one of the world’s foremost experts on the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. In his capacity as a trusted advisor to United States Senators, he had assembled irrefutable evidence that nuclear power plants were created to be a source of the radioactive materials necessary to continue to build nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
It was also during this time that I met my life partner, Daniel Sheehan. Danny was the General Counsel for the United States Jesuit Order’s National Office of Social Ministry in Washington, D.C., which was leading the Order’s campaign to declare nuclear weapons to be inherently sinful. In the course of working together to bring justice for Karen Silkwood, and in our collaborations in future years, Bob, Danny, and I would discover the existence of covert international nuclear proliferation operations performed by our own government.
Danny and I in our Christic days in Washington, D.C.
The reason I want to share this additional information about the private nuclear power issue with you now is that Danny Sheehan and I, on behalf of our Romero Institute, have just signed a contract for the development of a major television series based on our past work in our predecessor Christic Institute — including what we uncovered during our investigation of Karen Silkwood’s case. These revelations will be the subject of “Season 1” of this dramatic series.
Danny and I have been laboring to make this series happen for many years because we believe that, for positive change to happen in the future, we must first understand and acknowledge the truth behind how we got to the present moment — no matter how uncomfortable that may be for many Americans. We’ve worked hard, and at times put our personal safety at risk, to root out the sources of systemic injustice for decades. And, because we’ve always been funded through donations from people like you, what we uncovered belongs to you.
While some might postulate the theory that private nuclear power can benefit global society, history has demonstrated that, in reality, private nuclear power actually plays out dramatically otherwise. To understand the full historical context of the American nuclear power industry, we have to go back to the end of World War II. The United States government used never-before-seen nuclear weapons of mass destruction against major civilian population centers to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. This unprecedented action was, rightly, met with international outrage, and a world-wide outcry against the use of — indeed, even the mere production and possession of — such destructive weapons.
With the Soviet Union starting to be perceived by our national defense establishment as our “next big competitor”, then-President Harry Truman and his administration decided that the possession of a nuclear arsenal by the United States and our allies would assure Western global dominance, with the United States as leader. They began looking for ways to neutralize the rising global anti-nuclear sentiment so as to not lose this new strategic advantage.
Our post-war national defense establishment was then tasked by President Truman with exploring the energy potential of nuclear weapons to see if this technology could be used to generate other forms of power, in addition to thermonuclear detonation. They succeeded in creating the first nuclear reactor, which also generated fissile waste products that could be used for the continued secret production of nuclear bombs — without any Congressional oversight or public interference. We were promised “free electricity — too cheap to meter.” The first electric energy-generating nuclear reactor was brought online in the early 1950’s, quickly followed by a rush of domestic nuclear power plant construction that, to this day, makes the U.S. the top producer of nuclear energy in the world.
Number of nuclear power plants by country. Source.
With our American public perception shaped by a U.S. government propaganda campaign (which was enthusiastically adopted by the private nuclear industry itself), our United States Defense Department, in partnership with our then-newly-created Department of Energy, was positioned to keep making weapons of mass destruction without further public resistance. But how was our U.S. Defense Department going to get these secret weapon-grade materials to our allies abroad, to enable them to build a Western nuclear weapons coalition without causing an international uproar?
The answer is this: by the 1950’s, the WWII-era Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had evolved into the hard-nosed (and hard-hearted*) Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); an organization that wasn’t afraid to get its hands dirty assassinating political targets, violently overthrowing foreign heads of government and generally engaging in gross human rights violations. Theodore Shackley, a top-ranking official within the CIA who violated more than his share of human rights during his career was, by 1973, running the CIA’s Israel desk when he instructed his subordinates to assist in smuggling nuclear fissile materials to the CIA’s Israeli counterpart, the Mossad. This was a strategic and timely move, as Israel in its modern form has served as a forward base for Western influence in the Middle East, giving us a military advantage against the Soviet Union and Eastern countries like China over the Middle-Eastern oil fields.
Shackley was instrumental in coordinating this international smuggling operation to Israel, which expanded to include Iran (under the Shah), Brazil (under its 1973 fascist regime), and South Africa (under its Afrikaner administration). Fissile materials used in these operations were being supplied from a few nuclear waste reprocessing plants in the United States, including the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) plant in Pennsylvania and the Kerr-McGee Cimarron plutonium plant in Oklahoma. The NUMEC plant was placed under Congressional investigation in the 1970’s for “losing” over 200 pounds of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium, with NUMEC President Zalman Mordecai Shapiro eventually being tracked by NSA satellites transferring nuclear materials via Charter Oil Corporation ships to Mossad agents. Indeed, Theodore Shackley, along with then-CIA director William Casey and Air Force Major General Richard Secord, attempted to arrange the sale of the NUMEC plant to Israel to provide an ongoing source of fissile materials for nuclear weapons but were ultimately unsuccessful.
Theodore Shackley. Source.
Meanwhile, at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron plant in Oklahoma, a young Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union nuclear safety representative named Karen Silkwood became aware of missing plutonium from the plant and of the widespread radioactive contamination of nearby communities. She attempted to investigate and bring to light the missing plutonium and reckless safety practices, but she was murdered by operatives of The Kerr-McGee Corporation and a mysterious nationwide secret political surveillance unit known as “The Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit”. She was killed while driving with a folder full of documented evidence to meet David Burnham, a reporter for the New York Times. The folder of evidence was “missing” from her car when it was found, and Kerr-McGee immediately began a smear campaign attempting to paint Silkwood as a crazed drug addict who contaminated herself with plutonium to give them a bad public image and then had simply “fallen asleep” while on her way to meet with The New York Times.
However, during the course of the ensuing investigation that Danny and I spearheaded, we revealed that Kerr-McGee had indeed been intentionally and knowingly putting their workers and the nearby neighborhoods at risk through laughably lackadaisical safety practices. For example, at trial, workers testified that, when trucks used to transport barrels of nuclear waste would become contaminated with leaked radioactive materials, it was standard practice for the facility workers to wash the trucks in public car washes where the radioactive runoff would be washed down into the local water supplies. The facility would also regularly skim dead fish out of the adjacent river into which it leaked radioactive waste, with employees donning headlamps and waders to work clandestinely through the night so as to not alarm the public.
These criminal safety practices were not limited just to the Cimarron facility where Karen worked: the Kerr-McGee Corporation was eventually found to be responsible for billions of dollars in environmental health and safety violations at facilities in nearly every state in the country. For example, in a case where the Kerr-McGee Corporation was found guilty and fined over $5 billion dollars, Deputy United States Attorney General James Cole made the telling observation:
“Between 2002 and 2006, the Kerr-McGee Corporation fraudulently spun off billions of dollars of these environmental liabilities into a different corporation called Tronox. At the same time, Kerr-McGee kept its valuable oil and gas assets to make it more attractive to investors. Four months after the Tronox spin-off, Kerr-McGee’s oil and natural gas exploration business was purchased by Anadarko for $18 billion. Tronox — saddled with environmental liabilities and not enough assets to cover them — eventually filed for bankruptcy. Had Kerr-McGee gotten away with its scheme, it would have skirted its responsibility for cleaning up contaminated sites around the country.” [Emphasis added]
Does this sound like a company that should be handling the most dangerous substances known to humankind? It shouldn’t be surprising that many private nuclear corporations are also fossil fuel companies — the same ones responsible for the global climate crisis.
Unfortunately, this kind of “profit first, safety last” approach to private nuclear power technology isn’t limited just to one — or even a small handful of — private nuclear corporations. (NUMEC successfully punted billions in environmental remediation costs to American taxpayers, in spite of ongoing controversy and local opposition.) Countries around the world are facing similar struggles trying to make sure this technology is used responsibly. Two other major producers of nuclear power, Japan and France, have both had major problems in recent years with lax safety practices on the part of their nuclear industries that have called into question the safety of the future use of nuclear power as an energy source in those countries as well.
France has been dealing with an energy crisis following a number of its aging reactors going offline during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which caused energy prices to skyrocket across Europe and abroad. Years of underinvestment in maintenance and upgrades by France’s primary nuclear corporation, EDF, caused President Macron to take steps to fully nationalize the group at the cost of billions of dollars so the government could avert further catastrophe.
In its heyday, nuclear energy accounted for close to 20% of Japan’s electricity, which dropped to essentially nothing immediately following the Fukushima disaster. This created a literal power vacuum that imported oil, coal, and natural gas quickly filled. While nuclear power has risen again to about 7% of Japan’s power mix, the façade of safety built over decades of government propagandizing may have been irreparably broken by the tsunami disaster at Fukushima. Younger generations in Japan are finally standing up in protest across the country after learning the true dangers of nuclear power; meanwhile, renewable energy sources have risen to make up more than 10% of its total electricity supply last year for the very first time as its domestic solar industry booms.
Japanese anti-nuclear protestor. Source.
In short, the modern nuclear industry is built on a foundation of deception and destruction that is denied at our peril. Originating from a quest for global power; kept in dangerous operation through covert violence; operated in a barely functional way by the extractive demands of private profit generation; constantly producing dangerous waste that will last for 500 thousand years. Private nuclear power, as actually practiced, is stealing a safe and healthy planet from future generations, both directly from the dangers of nuclear power and from its indirect funding of the fossil fuel industry that is driving the climate crisis. What sense does it make to replace one existential problem with another existential problems — especially when there are alternatives to a better future?
So there you have it. We at the Romero Institute remain steadfastly opposed to all forms of nuclear power on the grounds that thermo-nuclear technology is incompatible with a sustainable future for humanity; environmentally, economically, and politically. Our opposition extends to newer “modular” reactors as well as future nuclear fusion reactors, neither of which solve the problems of radioactive waste or resource extraction. We have alternative technological solutions like solar panels, wind turbines, and low-impact energy storage that have essentially no major downsides when deployed together in an equitable, rational manner. As the recent historic storms here in California have demonstrated, the climate crisis will demand that our critical infrastructure be more and more resilient, and cause less harm when it fails. Let’s lean into this challenge by creating a robust, decentralized energy production and distribution model that will keep the lights on when things get rough and be easy to fix when things continue to break in the face of continued global climate change.
We are going to keep walking the path toward that vision, and we hope that you will walk beside us. All governmental and economic systems on earth were created by human beings. The most important thing each of us can do is to be a good human being. Good human beings create good solutions!
This is Sara, signing off. Talk to you again soon!
In the spirit of justice, in the frequency of love,
*See, e.g. The declassified “Dolittle Report” from 1954, which declared: “There can be no rules in such a game… If the United States is to survive, long standing concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered. We must …learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be acquainted with, understand and support, this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.” Doolittle, James. "The Report on the Covert Activities of the Central Intelligence Agency"
Current events, new perspectives on history, and more
Instead of our usual Romero Report interview, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a piece of history from our archives: An original television report from 1979 on the Silkwood case! Featuring Danny, myself, and Rolling Stone reporter Howard Kohn, this brief video gives a glimpse of what being part of that campaign was like that goes beyond what I can describe to you with the written word. Be sure to check out the timestamp at 1:42 for an interview with a very stylish Danny (with cameos by me and our newborn son Danny Paul, who is now Co-director of our Lakota People’s Law Project), and my speech about rampant worker contamination at 2:30.
Highlighting important writings from around the world
Bob Alvarez, 1978
For this month’s Romero Reads I’ve selected a blog article written by our old friend Bob Alvarez two years ago, in which he breaks down the absurdity of expecting a government agency to safely store highly radioactive waste for thousands of years. I wanted to share this because it’s a good reminder that whether or not nuclear waste can technically be made safe, we are nowhere near that point. It doesn’t matter if the waste is coming from nuclear weapons or from nuclear power plants, we simply aren’t capable of handling it responsibly.
Thanks for reading! Join us again next month, and please follow us on social channels @RomeroInstitute for up-to-date coverage of our justice work.
- Danny Sheehan, Sara Nelson, and the rest of the Convergence team