A Single Star Highlights Nuclear Transport Dangers 

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible…” – except when it comes to radioactive waste, which can rip asunder not only molecules in our cells and DNA, but even the bonds that unite communities and nations. This is an overarching theme in environmental attorney Stan Barnett’s first novel, A Single Star (Corinthian Books, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, 2003). This fast-paced, action-packed political thriller revolves around a train shipment of weapons-grade plutonium and highly radioactive nuclear fuel bound for the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s (DOE) Savannah River Site (SRS) that the White House forces down the throat of an unwilling state. When terrorists take advantage of the explosive situation, the consequences far surpass DOE’s “maximum reasonably foreseeable accident.” (But then, as Einstein said, “the splitting of the atom has changed everything, save our mode of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”)

                The story has interesting inter-plays with actual history. The Governor of South Carolina in 2001 threatened to use state troopers to block DOE plutonium shipments to SRS at the border. U.S. government arrogance reflects its actual treatment of Nevada vis a vis Yucca Mountain, and federal secrecy mirrors its actual modus operandi for shipping radioactive waste. A good part of the novel involves courtroom drama – just like the grassroots effort, led by attorneys Terry Lodge and Kary Love and other NIRS/WISE members and allies in Michigan in 1999, which succeeded in winning a temporary injunction against a DOE shipment of weapons-grade plutonium from Los Alamos to Canada for testing as fuel in reactors. Some of the intrigues that seem far-fetched are, unfortunately, manifested in real life: the spying upon UN offices before the US/UK invasion of Iraq; intimidation and personal vendettas at the highest levels of the White House (such as the outing of a covert CIA operative as an act of revenge on her husband for daring to reveal that the Bush Administration’s claim that Iraq sought uranium for nuclear weapons from Niger was baseless). Incredibly, once the courts bowed to DOE pressure, the actual weapons-grade plutonium shipment through Michigan to Canada in January 2000 involved an unidentified military escort and sharpshooters on rooftops – most likely US Marines on Canadian soil. DOE and Canadian authorities then undertook a reckless helicopter airlift of a transport container certified only for truck shipment, in order to fly over an awaiting Native American protest blockading the highway across an Ontario reservation. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

                Barnett presciently wrote this book long before the terrorist bombings of trains in Madrid. One of the novel’s cast of villains muses “…if security for the train was as poor as that for most shipments of fuel rods in America, taking the plutonium would not be too difficult…”. A protagonist, reflecting on the plight of US atomic veterans, and parents downwind of nuclear weapons testing (trusting the US Atomic Energy Commission’s assurances that fallout was harmless) giving their children radioactive milk in the 1950’s, concludes “…what is clear to me is that the more secrecy shrouds the handling of nuclear material, the more chance there is of our own accidents…” such as Chelyabinsk and Chernobyl.

Struggling against DOE’s obfuscations regarding the dangers of weapons-grade plutonium and high-level radioactive waste transportation, the protagonist observes “…The department simply told everyone that an accident couldn’t happen. They avoided the subject of what an accident would mean if it happened.”

In reality, this is how the US nuclear establishment in government and industry is trying to downplay the potential risks of severe accidents and terrorist attacks upon many thousands of atomic trucks, trains, and barges targeted to pass through 45 states and the District of Columbia on their way to Yucca. 

In this all-too-real world of nuclear dangers, last year the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that terrorist attacks upon nuclear facilities are “too speculative” to be considered during licensing proceedings, and DOE assures the public that volcanic eruptions at the Yucca dump are highly unlikely (while they stubbornly refuse to address the catastrophic consequences that would result if such disasters happened).

While almost all of the novel is accurate on technical details, a few glitches need to be corrected. Alpha radiation cannot penetrate HazMat suits (although gamma radiation and neutrons certainly can, and if inhaled or ingested, alpha particles can do major damage). Iodine tablets, while protective of the human thyroid gland against radioactive iodine gases released during a nuclear reactor accident, would be of no avail against plutonium and fission product releases from a high-level radioactive waste fire (the radioactive iodine gas, with its eight day half-life, having long since dissipated). And non-fissile Uranium-238 cannot be used for nuclear weaponry, although fissile U-235 most certainly can.

In light of A Single Star, I’d like to tell a little story from the real-life struggle against the nuclear establishment’s Yucca dump scheme.  Over a decade ago, at a public meeting, DOE’s arrogance towards the State of Nevada and environmental opponents of the Yucca dump was palpable. A humorous note was passed from an environmental advocate to a State of Nevada representative. It read, “Nevada should secede!” That very sentiment has found expression in the nuke dump-targeted Free Republic of Wendland (Gorleben, Germany) for over 25 years now. In 1990, residents on Anmyeon Island successfully protested a nuclear waste dump targeted at them by blocking the only bridge to the mainland, occupying the county building and police station, and announcing themselves a self-ruling republic free from the South Korean government (see WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 583.5492). Barnett’s gripping novel also raises the provocative issue of secession. But then again, who is doing the real provoking? 

---Kevin Kamps, Nuclear Waste Specialist, NIRS/WISE

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