Special Report: Obama’s nuclear energy proposal sparks debate among Black environmentalists

by Eboni Farmer

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Dr. Robert Bullard sees the red flags waving when it comes to the nuclear reactors President Obama has pledged government aid to construct in the town of Shell Bluff which is located in Burke County, Ga. The first red flag: Burke County is 51 percent African-American and already has nuclear reactors at Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle.

“After looking at environmental injustices over the past 30 years I can’t help but question why these reactors are being built in Burke County,” says Bullard, an environmental injustice expert and activist. “When a community gets something good, African-American communities are usually not the first to get it.”

In February, Obama announced a proposal of $8.33 billion in guaranteed loans to help build the first new nuclear reactors in the country in Burke County in nearly 30- years. In addition he has proposed tripling the funding for other nuclear power plants from $18 billion to $54 billion in his 2011 fiscal budget.

There are those who are weary to call the placing of the new nuclear reactors in Burke County environmental racism. Proponents of nuclear energy see the building of the reactors as more jobs and clean energy.

However, Bullard said that he cannot ignore the pattern of environmental injustices African-Americans and other minorities have faced.

The only major nuclear reactor accident to occur in the United States is the Three Mile Island accident. It took place in 1979 in Dauphin County, Pa. at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, when  a nuclear reactor had a partial meltdown. While the reactor did bring itself back under control, there was some radioactive waste released into the environment.

It is primarily the fear that an accident can occur that keeps communities from wanting to have nuclear facilities in their backyards. Residents also fear an increase in cancer rates and contamination of their drinking water.

“At this point it is institutional, everybody wants their lights on but everybody does not want to live next to a nuclear power plant,” Bullard said.

“Disproportionately people of color and poor people are the ones who have these facilities unleashed in their communities.”

Bullard’s sentiments indicate that nuclear advocates who desire to expand in the U. S. must work hard to dispel fears.

Anne Lauvergeon is CEO of AREVA, a France-based multi-nation conglomerate that is known around the world for its nuclear energy facilities, including in the U.S. AREVA has invested over $3 billion to rejuvenate the nuclear energy industry in the United States. But, Lauvergeon says she realizes the hurdles that must be overcome as AREVA attempts to expand; especially in or near racially diverse communities.

“Fears about nuclear waste, fears about the technologies are normal. We have to accept it and we have to take it into account,” she said in an interview with the NNPA News Service last summer. She says the key will be continued sensitivity, listening, communicating and coming to a mutual understanding.

“All the concerns of the people, we have to speak [to] that. We have to debate. We have to make sure that all the people understand the situation as it is,” she said after speaking to a “Women in Nuclear” conference in Washington, D.C. last July.

Bullard, who is known as the ‘Father of Environmental Injustice’, began his career in 1978 while researching where landfills were placed in Houston, Texas. He was able to conclude that 100 percent of the landfills in Houston were in African-American communities. He has spent his career tackling other instances of environmental injustice in communities in Houston and Dallas, Tex., Institute, W.Va, and Emelle, Ala.. In each of these communities he found disparities between the hazardous waste that African-Americans were exposed to and those that Whites were exposed to.

“There are certain groups of people who are deciding where hazardous waste producers are placed and people of color are usually not involved in the discussions,” Bullard said.

Bullard said that himself and the environmental injustices people he works with place nuclear power plants into the same category as coal-fired and gas power plants.

According to Bullard, 68 percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, compared to 56 percent of whites.

Bullard said that in the future he believes there will be more opposition once people realize that the placing of the power plants is disproportionately impacting minorities and poor people.

“Once the issues are uncovered and all of the variables are laid out on the table, there will be more protest,” Bullard said. “Most of the reporting on the $8 billion dollars that Obama put on the table for these power plants has not mentioned that this is a predominately Black county that has a high percentage of poverty.”

On the grounds in Shell Bluff, Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions is helping residents of Shell Bluff battle against the building of the new reactors. Not only is Shell Bluff near nuclear energy facilities, but it is also near an old super-fund toxic waste site. According to the Center for Disease Control the cancer rate in Shell Bluff is 51 percent higher than the national average. Some residents believe that the nuclear reactors and the toxic waste site are the cause for the high rate of cancer in the area.

So far there has been no definite research that links the high cancer rate in Shell Bluff to the nuclear reactors or toxic waste site.

“We’ve been fighting this for three years,” Bobbie Paul, executive director of WAND said. “The people of Shell Bluff do not need or want the new nuclear reactors.”

Paul said that some progress has been made. Most recently the Department of Energy, said that it would help the state of Georgia to fund additional independent environmental monitoring of the Savannah River Site. The monitoring will help determine whether or not the nuclear reactors have a negative impact on the health of humans and the environment.

“We still have a long way to go,” Paul said. Meanwhile, the debate heats up.

Patrick Moore, chairman and chief scientist at Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. and one of the founders of the environmentalist group Greenpeace, was once a strong opponent of nuclear energy. However, now he cannot see the future of the United States without it. He also said he would rather see a nuclear plant constructed in Burke County than a coal-fired power plant.

“The reason they are being put in the south is because that is where the population and demand for energy is growing,” Moore said. “Wind and solar energies are simply not capable of producing all of the energy that we need because they are unpredictable.”

When it comes to safety, Moore believes that nuclear plants are safer than other energy sources that people are not up in arms about like natural gas and coal. He also said that 80 percent of residents living near nuclear power plants approve of them.

“Look what happened at the power plant in Connecticut where five people were killed. More people have been killed in the United States by natural gas than by nuclear energy,” Moore said. He was referring to the massive explosion at the Kleen Energy Systems plant in Middleton, Conn. in February.

One of the reasons that the nuclear industry in the United States stopped growing is because of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

“This is the most significant nuclear disaster in the United States and there were not any deaths because of it,” Moore said. “It was actually a success because the nuclear reactors did exactly what they were supposed to do, which was to prevent radiation from escaping.”

During President Obama’s speech on the expansion of nuclear energy, he stressed the opportunity to create more jobs through nuclear energy. Emmanuel Glakpe, a professor of
Engineering at Howard University, agrees that African-Americans need to figure out how they can become a part of the nuclear movement, possibly through economic opportunities.

“As citizens of this country, African-Americans must be prepared to generate wealth by participating in all aspects of the economic spectrum,” Glakpe said. He concludes that employment is not only an economic opportunity, but also an opportunity to strengthen sensitivities and to protect communities from danger: “Availability of energy to power economic activities of the US is also a national security issue and must be controlled by citizens of the country.”

Last year, Ricardo Byrd, executive director of the National Association of Neighborhoods took a tour of AREVA’s nuclear facilities in Paris, France. AREVA, which has facilities in 43 countries, has locations in 45 states in the U. S. and it employs more than 6,000 people.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, 20 percent of power in the U.S. is generated from nuclear energy. France generates 80 percent of its energy through nuclear power.

“I do not think that within the next 50 years that the United States will get 80 percent of its energy from nuclear sources like France, but I do believe that nuclear energy is essential to the future of this country,” Byrd said.

One thing that Byrd noticed in France is that communities had an intimate relationship with the nuclear power plants. “The nuclear energy here has to be very transparent if they want communities to trust and want to have them in their back yards,” Byrd said.

He was one member of two delegations of African-American and Latino leaders who went on an AREVA-sponsored tour of its France facilities in 2008. A representative of the NNPA News Service was also a member of one of the delegations. The purpose of the trips was to help dispel myths, answer questions, explore safety issues and generally get the facts surrounding nuclear power.

AREVA has attempted to be sensitive to the barriers to racial diversity and inclusion and is trying to establish that transparency and that intimacy, said CEO Lauvergeon. “For me, that’s really a fight that I want to win.”

NNPA News Service Editor-in-Chief Hazel Trice Edney contributed to this story.




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