The CEO Who Chained Himself to a Bridge

stordalenphoto credit:

His name is Petter Stordalen, and he’s a billionaire Norwegian property developer and the chief executive of Choice Hotels. In 2002, he chained himself to a bridge in Seascale England, demanding that the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant be shut down. I try to imagine Bill Gates chaining himself to something. Somehow I can’t quite picture it.

Stordalen is one of numerous Norwegian business executives and political leaders fighting for more than a decade to close Sellafield. Why does Norway want the British nuclear reprocessing plant shut down? Studies show that air and water currents carry Sellafield’s accidental and “operational” discharges to the west coast of Norway. The latter would also bear the brunt of a major accident, which, owing to the plant’s abysmal safety record, looked increasingly likely in 2002.

Including, but not limited to

  • between 1950-2000, 21 serious incidents or accidents involving offsite radiation release. This includes the Windscale Pile disaster, when a large heap of radioactive waste that caught fire in 1956
  • a 1999 citation for falsifying quality assurance data between 1996-1999
  • in 2003 a study commissioned by the Minister of Health revealing an increased incidence of childhood leukemia and non-Hodkins lymphoma in local residents
  • in 2005 a plutonium leak that went undetected for three months
  • in 2010 three accidental releases, with a fourth in early 2011, that were concealed from the public until a whistleblower leaked the documents to the Guardian

Why Reprocessing Plants Are Especially Dangerous

Sellafield first started up as a nuclear power station in the mid-fifties. Its mixed oxide (MOX) processing plant was built in 1996 and went on-line in 2001. Its role as a reprocessing plant means it accepts nuclear waste (spent nuclear fuel rods) from all over the world and reprocesses them for reuse. First plutonium and uranium must be separated from other fission products. One byproduct, a mixture of plutonium and uranium known as MOX, is used in thermal and fast breeder reactors. Sellafied’s reprocessing role also means that it accumulates massive amounts of “highly active liquor” (HAL), which requires constant cooling to prevent it from exploding.

Even CEOs Have Children

Few outside Britain and Norway have ever heard of Sellafield, much less the Neptune Network, an organization of Norwegian business executives turned environmental activists. Under the leadership of their executive director, long time businessman Frank-Hugo Storelv, the group has played a vital role in recruiting other Norwegian business leaders to lend their support to Norway’s antinuclear and anti-toxics campaign. In the video below, Storelv explains the urgent need for companies to operate more sustainably and be seen as good environmental citizens.

Like Petter Stordalen, Storev and other business executives in the Neptune Network were arrested numerous times for committing civil disobedience, both at Sellafield and numerous contaminated sites in Norway. In April 2011 he and four other members of the Neptune Network were arrested (under Britain’s anti-terrorism law) outside the gates of Sellafield for blocking a railroad shipment of new nuclear waste.

Victory for the Neptune Network

The MOX reprocessor at Sellafield closed August 3, 2011, after Japan (as a direct result of Fukushima) announced they would cease buying MOX for use in their reactors. The British government responded by proposing to build a new MOX plant at Sellafield, which would produce fuels for use in more modern reactors. In the face of massive public opposition, Cameron’s coalition government backtracked and committed to decommission and close Sellafield by 2018.

What’s Wrong With American CEOs?

So what’s the major difference between American and Norwegian CEOs? Why is it so hard to imagine Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, the Koch Brothers, George Soros (or any of our elected representatives, for that matter) chaining themselves to a bridge? They have children and grandchildren, just like Norwegian business executives. What’s more they all (presumably) have the educational background to understand that massive wealth won’t protect their offspring from the devastating health consequences of radiation poisoning.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths and deformed babies stemming from nuclear accidents, leaks and “operational” releases, we still have no safe method of storing and/or disposing of the mountains of radioactive waste we have already created. Surely they know all this, right?

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Horror Film About Nuclear Waste

Into Eternity

Directed by Michael Madsen (2010)

Film Review

Into Eternity is an eerie account of Onkalo, the world’s first permanent nuclear waste repository. So-called “spent” fuel rods from nuclear energy plants remain radioactive for 100,000 years. Most of the radiation that has contaminated northern Japan post-Fukushima is from spent fuel rods being temporarily stored in water pools on the roof of one of the reactors. Becoming exposed following the earthquake and tsunami, the fuel rods caught fire, releasing massive amounts of radiation.

There are an estimated 250,000 – 300,000 tons of nuclear waste lying around in cooling pools in countries that rely on nuclear energy to produce electricity. The scope of the problem is mind boggling. 250,000 tons of highly radioactive material capable of wiping out all living things and contaminating adjacent agricultural lands and future crops for 100,000 years. The amount of waste increases daily, as the US and other countries merrily churn out spent fuel rods from existing – and new – nuclear reactors.

A Security Nightmare

As Fukushima and Into Eternity make clear, these temporary cooling pools are extremely vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters (e.g. earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, wars, civil unrest). In a world on the brink of economic Armageddon, they are a security nightmare, owing to the extensive maintenance and surveillance they require. At present permanent underground storage is the only possible solution. The film briefly discusses reprocessing and transmutation as unfeasible. Both reduce, without eliminating, the quantity of permanent radioactive waste. Reprocessing reduces the total quantity of nuclear waste by transforming it into plutonium. The latter takes one million years to degrade.

The History and Future of Onkalo

The Finnish and Swedish governments are collaborating to dispose of their own nuclear waste (6,000 tons) in a huge system of underground tunnels blasted out of solid bedrock in Olkiluoto Finland. Work on the facility commenced in the 1990s. Once the spent fuel rods have been deposited, Onkalo will be cemented over, backfilled and decommissioned more than a century from now. No person working on the facility today will live to see it completed.

After outlining the immense danger posed by 250,000 – 300,000 tons of nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for 100,000 years, the film centers mainly around the debate over marking Onkalo to prevent future generations from inadvertently drilling into it. This is essential, as a new Ice Age is anticipated in 60,000 years, which will likely obliterate all Finnish cities for 10,000 years or so. Most ancient language are forgotten in a matter of centuries. Beowulf and other literature written 1,000 year ago in Old English is virtually unreadable today.

It’s mind boggling for human beings to conceptualize time spans beyond a few generations. The human species has changed drastically since it originated in Africa 100,000 years ago. If humans survive another 100,000 years, they will likely be as different from us as we are from our hairy ancestors.

More Sad than Scary

My personal reaction to this film was immense sadness, rather than horror. I cried through much of it. It forced me to confront that our planet’s 250,000 tons of nuclear waste – not catastrophic climate change or water or energy scarcity – is the single biggest factor threatening human survival and civilization. Unless some solution can be found before the global economic system implodes, our children and grandchildren will be left with a planet in which wide swathes of territory are left totally uninhabitable.

Even more horrifying than the film, is that it has received almost no mention in the US media.  I guess the corporate media prefers Obama’s solution to the nuclear waste problem: denial. Obama has recently authorized billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to build new nuclear reactors.

I wonder what his children and grandchildren will say?