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Environmental Studies


Nuclear Power in America

Abstract

Background 

Current Issues

Citizen Science

References


Comments & questions to:
csikkink@macalester.edu





Citizen Science

windmill

How can people make their voices not only heard, but considered valid? Perhaps the best place to begin answering this question is to ask another: how are citizens informed about energy issues?All of the groups of people that have been discussed, with the exception of fourth-party victims within the public sphere, have the power to actively affect and influence each other on this topic. The different energy industries, for example, rely mostly on advertisement and internet sites to sway public and government opinions their way. Part of this is because power plants, nuclear ones in particular, have not had an historically good image in various media sources like news and film because these sources frequently focus on the dangers and past/present accidents of the industry 

Such representations unnerve the public, and make it wary of the nuclear industry. The Nuclear Energy Institute and NuStart Energy Consortium both have web-sites devoted to explaining the workings of nuclear power production. NEI’s main page focuses largely on nuclear power’s emissions-free attribute, while NuStart has a link on its main page entitled, “Can nuclear energy help solve global warming?” (NuStar Energy Consortium). The sites have calm, reassuring tones and quote public opinion surveys to reassure a viewer that the people around her are comfortable with nuclear power, and she should be as well. 

The Nuclear Energy Institute brings us to the next influential group: the government. The main NEI website has a link entitled  What the Experts Say
Below it is a quote: “We must expand our nuclear power industry if we want to be competitive in the 21st century. We have got to be wise -- we have got to push hard to build new plants. " -- President Bush addressing the National Association of Manufacturers, July 27, 2006. (Nuclear Energy Institute) According to NEI, the real expert on nuclear technology is not an engineer or even a member of the industry, but the figurehead of our government. So how does the government influence the nuclear industry and the public? The government includes a lot of people and a lot of contrasting opinions, but once it comes to a decision, the way that it enforces its beliefs is through legislation and court-rulings. It certainly uses campaigns and organizations to back its decisions and also find out what public opinion is, but for the most part, the government can stay away from grass-roots movements because it has the position and power to make the decision on a controversy. 

This means that if the government is to accurately represent public sentiment, the public should not, and can not, wait for public opinion polls through which to speak. Government surveys and conferences are not going to be able to properly represent the voices of all American citizens. Thus, it is important when analyzing a controversy like this to look specifically at the citizen science involved, because while public citizens may not be the ones writing or approving legislature, they are the ones whom the legislature is supposed to represent. There are various ways, however, in which the public opinion can be communicated to those who write the rules.

So then, what are some things that have actually been done in the field of Citizen Science about the nuclear power controversy?

Karen Silkwood worked in an Oklahoma plutonium plant for Kerr-McGee Nuclear Company. She was a lab technician who “uncovered evidence in 1974 of managerial wrongdoing and negligence. On 13 November, three months after providing the Atomic Energy Commission with a detailed list of violations, she was en route to deliver documents to a New York Times reporter when her car crashed under mysterious circumstances and she died. An autopsy revealed plutonium poisoning” (Mikula). It was never determined whether the poisoning was caused by exposure from her job, a sabotaging attack from someone who didn’t want her findings published or through self-ingestion as an act to self-sacrificially draw attention to the dangers of plutonium exposure. After her death, the court case it sparked went to the Supreme Court. The final decision held Kerr-McGee Nuclear Company responsible for its negligence and was forced to pay $505,000 in actual damages plus an additional $10,000,000 in punitive damages (Mikula). Three weeks into the trial, the disaster at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania occurred. The combinations of these tragedies opened the public’s eyes to the potential dangers of the production of nuclear energy, be it a major accident or accumulating low doses of exposure to workers.  

Karen Silkwood Car Crash

     photo taken from history.sandiego

Christopher Shuey is another example of citizen science. He started out his adult life as a journalist. He attended Ohio University and Arizona State University, and worked for multiple publications, experimenting with different forms of press. He was successful, but struggled internally. While working for mainstream papers, he was not allowed to cover all sides of the issues, but smaller publications are not taken seriously. He decided to move away from his field. He left the paper in 1978 and became involved with the antinuclear movement, working with like-minded individuals to start Arizonans For a Better Future. The project had difficulty in raising funds and was given up after a year. Shuey became acquainted with staffers of the Southwest Research and Information Center…while tracking down information about the high lung cancer rate among uranium miners”(Becher). This institute is dedicated to really finding information necessary to inform the public on environmental, human health and community issues. Their goal is protection, and they achieve it through the “dirty work” of research, the hands-on, in the community approach. This research depends on citizen participation and input from the community. Shuey worked with this institute as editor of its new magazine, Mine Talk. In his work he met people of the Navajo community and worked directly with them. “We want to be able to not just conduct research and give out information, but to take the next step to help people build their own expertise and skills, so it’s community people advocating for themselves”(Becher). Shuey was not a scientist or an environmental expert. He merely stumbled upon issues about which he was passionate. He used his skills as a writer to help give a voice to the Navajo community in Arizona being affected by uranium mining [link to Andrew’s site]. This is the basis for citizen science: public individuals using their specific skills in collaboration with others. The result: citizens form a voice with which to guide the direction of society.

no to nuclear

Citizen Organizations are the most powerful education and action sources. Since its creation, nuclear power has brought both local and national citizen groups together. The presence of a nuclear power plant in an area can bring out a strong not-in-my-back-yard attitude because to citizens, any risk is usually too much risk, especially when radioactive materials are involved. Ralph Nader has actually helped form such groups, raising these kinds of organized citizens to a national, more recognizable level. “He has founded numerous organizations to watch over the government or lobby Congress, including the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) and Public Citizen”(Becher). Public Citizen has published multiple books and been influential in Supreme Court cases (Public Citizen News). It is one way that citizens can participate in decisions on a national level and are given sway that they could not likely have if they appeared alone. In 1989, the organization gave Californians a voice and allowed widespread disapproval of the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant be heard. The plant was shut down. Just one year later, Public Citizen won a court case demanding the NRC require nuclear plant workers to undergo training. Keep in mind, this occurred in 1990. Up until then, there was no regulated training required of nuclear plant workers. In 1995, the organization defended a key protector of safety in American, corporate society: a whistleblower. A whistleblower is someone like Karen Silkwood, who discovers something unethical or unsafe about her place of employment. She faces fears of losing her job by reporting her findings. This is one of the most common ways that dangers in industry are given attention. Without whistleblowers, problems would go unnoticed and/or ignored until the problem became something irreparable. Unfortunately, whistleblowing, a key component of citizen science, is often detrimental to the whistleblower’s livelihood because she is released from her position and often not accepted into other institutions, for which she is qualified, because of her reputation as unreliable. Public Citizen successfully defended a whistleblower against “civil damages and criminal contempt charges” (Public Citizen News) from the tobacco industry.    

Last updated:  5/7/2007

 




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