Siting Nukes in a Poor Black Town -- If A Black President Does It, Is It Still Environmental Racism?

In the weeks since Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build new nuclear reactors in mostly black Burke County, GA, the inconvenient questions continue to pile up.
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In the weeks since President Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build new nuclear reactors next to an existing pair of nukes in mostly black Burke County, GA, the inconvenient questions, unanswered and mostly unasked, continue to pile up.

The first and most obvious questions are why nukes, and why Burke County?
The answer to "why nukes" is that discussion of the catastrophic risk inherent to nuclear power is pretty much off the table in mainstream media these days. The Obama administration likes to call it "safe nuclear energy," often in the same breath as "clean coal." Both are colossal and equally transparent lies. The 24th anniversary of the horrific nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine on April 24 passed almost unnoticed in the mainstream US media, although video of a brawl over something else in that nation's parliament made most of the networks here. Greenpeace marked the event with the release of a study by more than 50 scientists across the planet who peg the human toll of Chernobyl at a quarter million cancers, 100,000 of them fatal. Like the anniversary of the disaster itself, the Greenpeace story dropped soundlessly down the memory hole. Our amnesia is nearly perfect. I spoke to a class of journalism students at a local university at the beginning of April. Not a one of them ever heard of Chernobyl, or even of Three Mile Island. So why not nukes?

A second set of questions are why put nukes on a river that's already the 4th most toxic waterway in the nation, on a site just across from the contaminated Savannah River nuclear weapons installation? And if leaky civilian and military nukes really are the job-creating answers to poverty, shouldn't Burke County, GA be one of the wealthiest, instead of the poorest places east of the Mississippi 25 years after its first civilian nukes, and six decades after neighboring towns, some of them all black on the South Carolina side of the river, were bulldozed to create the Savannah River nuclear weapons facility?

A third set of questions are whether anybody is listening to the urgent warnings from nuclear experts that the site's planned next-generation reactors are even less safe than their leaky older cousins? Like most information unfavorable to utility companies and the nuclear industry, these warnings cannot seem to find their way into the mainstream media.

A fourth set of questions are why there are no laws requiring, and no funds to pay for, testing the air, soil, water, fish, wildlife, or the people of mostly black Burke County, who are experiencing an unexplained epidemic of cancer? The people living closest to the new and existing reactors in Waynesboro, GA depend on ground water wells for drinking and bathing water. Ground water is easily contaminated by tritium, a radioactive substance produced in abundance by civilian reactors and used on the other side of the Savannah River to produce nuclear weapons.

CNN aired a brief but excellent report from Shell Bluff, GA April 16 and 19 in which they pointed out that the cancer rate was far higher than that of surrounding communities, and that local residents have held multiple public meetings opposing the new nukes, demanding testing and answers to the widespread local cancer epidemic, to little avail. The residents of Shell Bluff don't understand, the CNN reporter said, why their water and soil is not being tested, why nobody is interested in determining why so many of their friends, family members and neighbors are sickening and dying of cancer.

Perhaps because of the vast amounts of campaign cash the nuclear industry makes available to both Republicans and Democrats, current federal and state laws allow nuclear utilities to do their own testing, and keep the methods, extent and results of that testing confidential. And since 2004 there have been no federal funds provided to the consultants that once did limited testing on the Georgia side of the river. Persistent back channel efforts by local residents and WAND, a local, grassroots and woman-led local organization, may result in some funds being released for testing, but that outcome is by no means certain. It was the tireless work of WAND activists, who are helping locals sue in opposition to the plant's construction and operating permits, which alerted CNN to the story in the first place.

The fifth bunch of unasked and unanswered questions are whether the people in Shell Bluff, GA want more nukes in their backward, and whether the US is democracy-proof enough to put them there anyway. The first part is easy to answer, as CNN discovered. They don't.

"We had protests, and we voiced our opinion," said one local resident, "and we didn't want them, but it's just, you know -- we're just the little peons."

When the CNN reporter asked asked two local women whether they thought President Obama had "...done enough to make sure that people like you are safe before new reactors are built?" they opined that the president "...doesn't know we're down here." That kind of answers the second part too, doesn't it?

The last question is whether putting inherently dangerous nukes into mostly black Burke County, GA amounts to environmental racism. I asked Clark Atlanta University's Dr. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center and the man who first coined the term "environmental racism" to characterize the frequent placement of toxic and dangerous industrial facilities into minority communities. This is what he told us:

The siting of risky nuclear power plants in Shell Bluff community in Burke County is consistent with the environmental racism pattern I documented in Dumping in Dixie some two decades ago. In Georgia, there are currently three coal fired power plants proposed for mostly black and poor communities with the promise of jobs. In reality, fenceline black community residents don't get the jobs. They get pollution and more poverty. And they get sick.

So the question hangs --- if a black president does it, is it still environmental racism?

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