Tower of Babel: The Nuclear Fuel Cycle

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 4, "Tower of Babel: A Special Report on the Nuclear Industry." Find more from that issue here.

“Then they said, ‘Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.’” - Genesis 11:4 


“...the proper employment of nuclear energy facilities, materials and products can assist substantially in the industrialization of the South and the development of a balanced economy for the region.” - Southern Interstate Nuclear Board, 1962 


The South has long fallen prey to the purveyor of the simple solution, the savior who would lift the region from economic stagnation to new heights of prosperity and national prestige. Our history is littered with such demagogues, and though we now sneer at them with New South sophistication, we are still often blinded by the Big Promise of renewed fame and fortune. Witness the uncritical acceptance — and prideful defense — of Jimmy Carter by even the liberal-minded Southerner. More importantly, witness the region’s love affair with nuclear power. 

Impressed by the flood of money and jobs which followed the creation of the Manhattan Project’s Oak Ridge, Tennessee, complex, Southern policy makers set out to erect an infrastructure that would support the growing nuclear industry. In 1951, North Carolina State University opened its Pulstar Reactor, the first research and training nuclear power reactor on a college campus. Pensacola Junior College in Florida later began the nation’s first junior college reactor program. Texas launched the first state nuclear development operation, and Charleston, South Carolina, became the first port in the nation authorized to handle radioactive materials. 

In 1955, Florida governor Leroy Collins issued a call for a regional conference “to deal with the feasibility of united action in the development of industrial opportunities in the South, through nuclear energy, research and otherwise.” The 1956 Southern Governors Conference organized the country’s first regional nuclear promotion agency, successively called the Southern Regional Advisory Council on Nuclear Energy, the Southern Interstate Nuclear Board and now the Southern States Energy Board. 

Private industry and the federal government responded to the lure of financial incentives and the muscle of Southern Congressmen by opening military-related facilities in the region. By the middle 1950s, Southern utilities began pooling their resources to boost the commercial uses of nuclear power. The nuclear equipment industry soon followed, opening new factories in the region to produce the building blocks essential for nuclear reactors — turbine generators, pressurizers, steam generators, fabricated fuel. 

With the welcome mat still out, it was only logical that the tail end of the nuclear fuel cycle — radioactive waste — also made the South its home. In 1962, the Nuclear Engineering Company opened a commercial low-level waste dump in Maxey Flats, Kentucky. Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas officials, with the Southern Interstate Nuclear Board, encouraged the federal government to store high-level wastes in the states’ salt domes. In 1970, Chem-Nuclear Systems opened a low-level dump in Barnwell, South Carolina. And Allied 25 General Nuclear Services began constructing the world’s largest commercial fuel reprocessing facility, also in Barnwell. 

Recent revelations of leaks and inadequate plans for long-term storage of wastes have produced the first cracks in the Southern tower of power. As South Carolina governor Richard Riley says, “All it takes to make a pro-nuclear governor anti-nuclear is to propose putting a waste dump in his backyard.” Louisiana has banned high-level waste disposal in the state, and North Carolina officially told the federal government to look elsewhere for disposal sites. 

But the promise of jobs and threat of blackouts still work on most Southern politicians. “I have said repeatedly that I support the use of conventional nuclear reactors as an important source of electrical energy,” says Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander. “In light of our reliance on an abundant supply of electrical energy, I see no alternative to the use of nuclear power production.” 

This continuing faith in nuclear technology has made the South the most nuclearized region of the country, with: 

• 19 operating reactors that produce roughly 10 percent of its electricity; by 1990, the region may depend on nuclear power for over 25 percent of its electricity; 

• a large number of nuclear-related industries whose workers are now laid off or are faced with layoffs; 

• the four key facilities — Oak Ridge, the Savannah River Plant, Pantex Plant and Pinellas Plant — essential to the production of the nation’s entire nuclear weapons arsenal; 

• well over one-half the nation’s commercial low-level wastes at Chem-Nuclear and Maxey Flats; 

• approximately 30 percent of the nation’s high-level military wastes and 40 percent of low-level military wastes at the Oak Ridge and Savannah River Plant; 

• numerous rock formations targeted by the Department of Energy as likely sites for high-level waste depositories, particularly salt domes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas; 

• an equal number of rock deposits, many in the same locations as the waste sites, which could spawn a sizable uranium mining and milling industry within the next 20 years; and 

• numerous shipments of low- and high-level radioactive materials from facilities all around the nation traversing the South’s highways each day. 

It may seem ludicrous to cite a Bible lesson to the proponents of the nuclear dream, but there is, perhaps, no better parallel for the arrogant madness with which these architects of a new order have pursued their cause. On a foundation of greed and pride, they strive to build a monument to the infallible wisdom of technology; they claim their blueprint for a nuclear future serves the common interest of all humanity, and they mask its weaknesses with tons of concrete and reams of scientific gobbledygook. 

Yet, the builders of the modern Tower of Babel have only confirmed the fallibility, and precarious existence, of the human race, as well as the devious powers of scientific management to divide people (workers vs. environmentalists, etc.) for greater private profit. 

Every day brings new revelations of the dangers and mismanagement of nuclear technology. It is not our primary purpose to add to that overwhelming evidence, but rather to reveal the scope of the industry in the South and the importance of the region to the larger nuclear dream/nightmare. By documenting the various aspects of the nuclear power industry and their impact on local communities, we hope to suggest a number of problems often overlooked in discussions of the safety or efficiency of nuclear energy — and several areas for fruitful organizing by anti-nuclear activists. 

The report is divided into three sections; the first, and largest, details the South’s involvement in each phase of the fuel cycle, from uranium mining to waste disposal. The second section focuses on the region’s private electric utility companies, which use their entrenched political and financial connections to buttress the crumbling supports for nuclear power. Charts on each utility provide a further glimpse of how the companies operate, and can be useful resource material in attacking the company’s public image and nuclear program. The section concludes with two articles on organizing situations which have involved constituencies not often part of anti-nuclear campaigns — rural Appalachians and Deep South blacks. 

The final section explores a little noticed but rapidly developing trend: public power agencies purchasing a share of privately built nuclear reactors. For years, utility activists have looked to consumer-owned power organizations — municipal electric systems and rural electric cooperatives — to provide a workable alternative to the investor-owned utilities. But in case after case, the public utilities succumb to the false promise of cheap power, bail out nuclear projects and abandon their political and economic independence from the private utilities. 

Without explicitly detailing the dangers of nuclear power, we hope that our documentation of the sheer magnitude of this concentration of nuclear-related facilities will stir Southerners to better understand and challenge the serious threat nuclear power poses for the region, nation and world. Very few people, other than utility executives, power equipment manufacturers and a handful of bankers, still believe men can use their clever inventions to twist and distort the natural order of the elements for a quick rush of profits and then control the destructive side effects for eternity. It is time, as several posters at a recent demonstration declared, to “Take the Toys Away From the Boys” — before their destructive creation falls on all of us.


Section 1: The Nuclear Fuel Cycle 


The South now hosts many of the most important parts of the nation’s nuclear fuel cycle. From uranium mining to waste disposal, this section of our report tours the region’s involvement in the cycle and the industry’s plans for future Southern operations. The last series of articles explores one of the most vulnerable points in the cycle — the transportation of radioactive wastes — and the ways local organizers are effectively challenging the entire system of nuclear power by focusing on transportation issues.