Great Lakes radiation puts ball in our court

Michael Williams

Concerns regarding industrial nuclear-power negligence became commonplace after Japan’s devastating earthquake that fractured the Fukushima power plant and ensured oceanic contamination, with promises of radiation reaching the west coast of the United States within a few years.

Michael Williams
Michael Williams

That’s happening now. Japanese officials notoriously washed over Fukushima’s global implications to save face. Slate.com reported that Japanese government spokesman Yukio Edano purported that the radiation “posed no immediate threat to human health” within days following the earthquake. But sooner or later, they knew the effects would publicize themselves. Thyroid cancer rates have increased in Japanese citizens, particularly those 18 and younger at the time of the earthquake, according to The Japan Times. Whether or not rates will increase on the U.S.’s West Coast has yet to be seen.

This means that we in the United States are facing severe limitations to ensuring environmental, and thus public, health. Nuclear power is essentially unmatched. For the decades that comprised the Cold War, hubris encouraged political and military leaders in the U.S. and Soviet Union to test ever more powerful nuclear weapons for purposes of intimidating the enemy (and in doing so, leaving radiation traces in all of the seemingly desolate corners of the planet).

Now nuclear power is used exclusively for energy generation (save for the occasional arsenal flaunting) and it is wildly efficient, yet doubly dangerous. Despite purportedly high standards, nuclear energy remains a volatile resource on a fragile planet. That turbulence hit home in the Great Lakes region earlier this year, though with very little media buzz.

Palisades Nuclear Plant, owned by Entergy and located in Covert Township, has been leaking a gallon of radiation a day into Lake Michigan for the last year. That was until early May, when the leak was found to be larger than previously expected. It turns out 80 gallons leaked in one day, twice the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s cap of 38 gallons per day for that site.

Palisades had shut down in summer 2012 to repair a tank leak. The leak was quickly patched and the situation appeared remedied, until radioactive water began gushing from the tank. While 80 gallons may not seem like much, radiation is nothing to joke about. The impacts are typically widespread and difficult to predict. Thankfully, atop the annual monitoring that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues, they prescribed an additional 1,000 hours of monitoring this year, and for good reason.

Not too shockingly, Entergy seems eager to cut costs and maximize profit. According to the Detroit Free Press, Palisades has shut down nine times since 2011 to repair issues that may or may not have been preventable. This fact is telling on two ends. On the one hand, it shows at least a concern for mitigating problems subject to arise. On the other, it shows an inability to predict, and thus prevent, those very problems.

Understandable enough—they’re human too. However, if incapacity is defense for environmental degradation, then the cap of that logic means that a sincere “Sorry! We ain’t omnipotent.” could serve as defense in any disaster that may arise. That’s simply insufficient for the present and the future.

If the temptation of maximum profit exists insatiable for decision-makers, the requisite of safety cannot take precedence when enormous costs are mandatory for even minimal production.

And we’re talking about heavy carcinogens here.

The string of disease arising from industrial negligence is exacerbated by the near inability to seek justice for those wounds. Businesses of this stature are protected by policy (which is often approved by legislatures who happened to receive campaign donations from these very industries) and their teams of attorneys whom the majority of us cannot afford.

So what’s a college student to do?

We live in a democratic republic. That means that we do have some sway in setting policy. We can influence lawmakers to better perform their jobs, if we only choose to collectively. One whiny college student can’t do it. Many angry citizens can.

Saying that radiation in the world’s largest bodies of freshwater just isn’t right doesn’t have the effect of demanding that it is unacceptable.

An adamant, angry public body can achieve remarkable change, but it must intend to first.