July 03, 2019 Climate

A Legacy of Destruction

Written by: Jessica Leeds Richman


If you’ve been following popular culture news—specifically current television shows—then you’ve surely heard of the new miniseries from HBO: Chernobyl. The show illustrates in graphic detail the disaster and aftermath of the 1986 explosion of the fourth (and subsequently, third) reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine.

The resurgence in awareness around the risks of nuclear power brings to mind the legacy of the Christic Institute and its defense of those victimized by nuclear destruction. In the decade prior to the events at Chernobyl, Daniel (“Danny”) Sheehan, chief counsel of the Christic Institute—predecessor of the Romero Institute—was called to represent victims and their families in both the Karen Silkwood and Three Mile Island cases.

In the midst of the ongoing global debate on energy procurement, it’s important to recall this legacy and learn from it as we march toward a cleaner, safer future.


Silkwood: Nuclear Worker and Whistle Blower

In the early 1970s, Karen Silkwood was a chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant in Oklahoma. From Nov. 1972 to Jan. 1973, Silkwood and other workers went on strike against Kerr-McGee due to poor working conditions—including a disturbing disregard for worker safety.

After her election as the first woman on the local Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union’s steering committee, Silkwood began conducting an investigation into Kerr-McGee’s quality control. Silkwood and her OCAW colleagues presented evidence to Kerr-McGee charging that it unnecessarily exposed employees to plutonium radiation.

Shortly thereafter, during the fall of 1974, high levels of radiation contamination were discovered on Silkwood’s person and home. Materials containing this level of radiation in this location could have only been accessed by Kerr-McGee management. Following the contamination, Silkwood contacted a New York Times reporter and made plans to deliver evidence of her findings for the public to see.

On Nov. 13, 1974, Silkwood was killed in a car accident and the folder containing the evidence was never seen again.

Karen with her family.

Silkwood’s family filed a lawsuit following her death, charging Kerr-McGee with negligence in Silkwood’s contamination and with conspiracy to deprive her rights to organize, to speak out, and to travel freely on the highway.

That’s when Sara Nelson and Danny Sheehan got involved.

As the National Labor Secretary for the National Organization for Women, Nelson saw that Silkwood’s case pertained to both labor and women’s issues. The case seemed like a natural fit. Sheehan was called in as an attorney on the case, and together they began the process of fighting for justice for Karen Silkwood.

Spanning five years, the case concluded with a civil trial in 1979 in which Kerr-McGee was found liable for negligence. The verdict resulted in an award of $10.5 million to Silkwood’s estate, effectively ending construction of all new non-military nuclear power plants in the United States and inspiring the formation of the Christic Institute.

The Christic Institute won a record-setting $10.5 million judgement against the Kerr-McGee chemical company, effectively ending construction of all new nuclear power plants in the United States for 30 years. (Silkwood v. Kerr McGee)

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Three Mile Island: Plutonium Strikes Again

As the Silkwood case was wrapping up, another nuclear power accident was brewing on a small island in the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. On Mar. 28, 1979, Reactor 2 at Three Mile Island suffered a partial meltdown. Technicians misinterpreted the mechanical and electrical failures and exacerbated the accident. Approximately half of the reactor’s core melted and released plutonium radiation into the surrounding environment.

In order to cool down the radioactive matter, the Three Mile Island Corporation planned to dump the waste into the nearby river. Luckily, the Christic Institute legal team arrived to represent victims exposed to radiation. The legal team filed an injunction that stopped the corporation from polluting the Susquehanna. This legal action protected the residents from an estimated 50,000 cancer-related deaths over several generations.

When Reactor 2 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial meltdown on March 28, 1979, the Christic Institute legal team was called in to help oversee the legal proceedings and represent victims of the disaster.

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Chernobyl: A Disaster Felt for Centuries

In the early morning hours of Apr. 26, 1986, a test of Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine went terribly wrong. The goal of the test was to ensure that an emergency water cooling system would work if the plant were to lose power. However, human errors in the testing protocol led to dangerous reactor instability, which coupled with a defect in control rod design to cause an intense surge of power. Steam caused the roof of the reactor to explode, emitting radiation and burning radioactive debris into the atmosphere and the surrounding area.

Moments later, the reactor suffered a second explosion which started a fire in Reactor 3.

The radiation emitted from the accident at Chernobyl equated to 400 times the radiation of the atomic bomb released in Hiroshima. Today, humans cannot safely inhabit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the land cannot be used for agriculture, as the soil and surrounding plants have been contaminated. As such, the disaster had catastrophic effects on a major ecological scale. According to Ukranian authorities, people will not be able to safely live in the exclusion zone for more than 24,000 years.


Nuclear Power: A Risk to Our Lives

When looked at from a surface level perspective, nuclear power may seem like a great idea. It replaces coal and natural gas as fuel sources and provides jobs. The World Nuclear Association reports that about 11 percent of the world’s electricity is generated from 450 nuclear reactors. However, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “for every unit of electricity produced by a nuclear power plant, about two units of waste heat are rejected to the environment.” Moreover, there is no long term solution for handling and disposing of nuclear waste—waste that remains active for up to 10,000 years.

Nuclear power heightens many health risks as well. Because workers at nuclear power plants are exposed to much higher levels of radiation than non-plant workers, they are more likely to suffer from cancer, heart disease, and respiratory issues.

“The government has to shift all the subsidies from the fossil fuel industry, period. Use that money to build sustainable energy sources. Shut down the nine nuclear power stations that are all within two miles of the sea coasts, refuse to relicense the other 94 nuclear power plants, and then move in and replace their energy with solar, and wind, and geothermal.”

– Daniel Sheehan, chief counsel of the Romero Institute

Additionally, by their very design, nuclear plants threaten water resources, since they are typically located nearby to easily cool down steam released from reactors. This can lead to contamination of precious water sources used for drinking, transportation, and biodiverse habitats.

Proponents of nuclear power often advocate for it as an energy source that moves us away from fossil fuels. But not only does nuclear come with its own, massive short- and long-term environmental concerns, it also fails to serve as a bridge to truly renewable forms of energy. Access to nuclear power also comes with the inevitable proliferation of nuclear weapons and attendant threats to national security.

As each of these nuclear tragedies unfolded, shouldn’t we have learned that nuclear, whether a power source or a weapon, will only lead to mass destruction?


Looking Forward: What Needs to be Done

There’s still much work to do when it comes to preventing nuclear disasters from plaguing this planet we call home.

“The government has to shift all the subsidies from the fossil fuel industry, period,” says Sheehan, now chief counsel of the Romero Institute. “Use that money to build sustainable energy sources. Shut down the nine nuclear power stations that are all within two miles of the sea coasts, refuse to relicense the other 94 nuclear power plants, and then move in and replace their energy with solar, and wind, and geothermal.”

When it comes to nuclear power, the evidence is clear: the risks and dangers far outweigh the benefits. The possibilities for mass destruction remain as long as nuclear energy remains accessible, unreliable, and unstable. In order to move forward and prevent more tragedies like Silkwood, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl, we must look to renewable resources and work to restructure the way we approach energy as a whole.