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Croaking Canaries

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Joel McNally
August 12, 2008

When even Democratic politicians start warming to the idea of building new nuclear power plants, which have banned from Wisconsin since 1983, our canaries could start croaking any day.


Coal miners used to take canaries into the mines to warn them of danger. Canaries were highly sensitive to poisonous build-ups of carbon monoxide. When the canaries started toppling over with little Xs over their eyes, miners knew to scramble for their lives.


Surprisingly, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle embraced a task force recommendation to modify the ban on new nuclear plants approved by voters statewide 25 years ago.


When we hear somebody suggesting we reconsider our prescient decision to curtail nuclear power, itís usually some cartoon villain like Mr. Burns on The Simpsons or Vice President Dick Cheney.

Doyle sounded almost Cheneyian when he suggested those who refused to consider nuclear power were burying their heads in the sand.


Itís certainly true that our world has changed a lot since voters approved the ban on new nuclear plants 25 years ago. But what Doyle didnít say was that the most dramatic changes have made proliferation of nuclear power even more frightening.


When Wisconsin voters approved the nuclear moratorium in 1983, the world did not yet have the example of the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986. But that cataclysmic event sure made us look smart.


The largest release of radioactivity from a nuclear power plant in history turned an area of the Ukraine once considered the breadbasket of the Soviet Union into a wasteland that now goes by far grimmer nicknames such as the ďDead ZoneĒ and the ďZone of Alienation.Ē


Not only that, but the plume of radioactive fallout, 30 to 40 times that released by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, eventually drifted over most of Europe and even eastern parts of North America.


The other major world event since 1983, of course, was 9/11. Along with everything else that changed after that momentous event was increased awareness of all the deadly dangers around us.


That is made even more frightening because of one thing that absolutely has not changed in the quarter of a century since Wisconsin approved the moratorium on new nuclear plants.


As Wisconsin wisely decreed in 1983, new nuclear plants should not be built until there is a national or international disposal site where the deadly, radioactive waste the plants generate can be safely stored.


Guess what? Twenty-five years later, there still isnít. The Bush administration has attempted to turn Yucca Mountain in Nevada into a nuclear waste dump, but legal battles and geological questions make the site increasingly unlikely.


As difficult as itís been to secure a disposal site, thatís just the beginning. The idea of transporting deadly, nuclear waste from all over the country, through our towns and cities and countryside, certainly would require far more careful planning and competence than the current administration has ever demonstrated.


The development of nuclear power always has required a shocking human arrogance and lack of concern about the near impossibility of protecting future generations from growing stockpiles of radioactive nuclear waste that remain deadly for hundreds of thousands of years.


The age of terrorism has multiplied every danger. The nuclear by-product of plutonium can be easily converted into handy-dandy nuclear weapons by sinister movements or whacked-out individuals bent on destroying human life.


Itís been so long since weíve actually had to worry about building new nuclear plants, many people today have never heard of Three Mile Island or the Academy Award winning film, The China Syndrome, or the compelling, non-fiction book by journalist John Fuller, We Almost Lost Detroit.

Itís not surprising to hear Republican presidential candidate John McCain promise millionaire executives 45 new nuclear plants after he gets done personally drilling all of our nationís beaches for oil.


But weíve counted on Doyle and the Democratic state Senate to protect us from Assembly Republicans, who voted earlier this year to lift the nuclear moratorium.


If Doyleís gone over to the dark side, we may have to start giving our canaries CPR any day now.



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