My late father Charlie spent his working life in the power industry, the last two decades of it as the head of an electric utility. He was the only CEO in the industry to virulently oppose nuclear power and I thought of him this week, while recovering from a scary hospital visit and watching the nuclear plants malfunction after the disaster in Japan.
I had just undergone a kind of radiation myself, an MRI of the head (MRIs are magnetic, of course), one hour of deafening high decibel pounding of the skull, which reminded me of a recent audio work Ai Weiwei did for ArtAsiaPacific magazine, a disc which plays one long searing, unlistenable sound. In the MRI, they give you earplugs, but keeping one's noggin perfectly still while being jammed with jackhammers, high-pitched pounding and air horns, all necessary for the machine to do its work, is an Abramovician test. Back in 1962, when atmospheric nuclear testing was common, Dad made me and my late brother Will drink only powdered milk, as the radiation of the time supposedly contaminated cows worldwide and the powdering somehow reduced the danger in whole milk.
Dad was a big part of the industry, helping to design the Edison Electric Institute’s "Reddy Killowatt" pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and being part of the U.S. government’s task force into the future use of nuclear power, of which he was the sole dissenter. He was later on Nixon’s Enemies List for his anti-war work. Dad told me back in 1964 that our government’s attitude towards the effects of radiation was so benign that the USA was seriously considering putting a nuclear power device the size of a toaster in every American home as a main power source!
Instead we now have 104 nuclear reactors in this country (Dad’s company was the only one not to build one, and it has recently been absorbed by an Ohio company that does employ one), all part of the nation’s power grid. I live 15 miles from one of the weirdest, Indian Point, enjoying its sirens on a bright spring day in my garden, emergency tests, terrorist attack, malfunction, earthquakes (we get small ones in Westchester). Whatever.
The USA hasn’t funded a new nuker since Three Mile Island 30 years ago, but the Obama administration includes $39 billion for new nuclear reactor development in its 2012 budget, and even some environmental groups are supporting this "clean" energy. Aside from the fact that the half lives of nuclear waste are millions of years and that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refuses to allow burying this waste in the Salt Flats of his state, Nevada, the notion that six inches of steel and some concrete is gonna protect us from Japanese-style consequences is lunacy.
Nuclear power, whether in the form of bombs or power plants or, I fear, medical scanners, is a long, fiery noose of danger around the human race. It must be scaled back and stopped, but it won't be. The next tsunami will be manmade.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).