What CNN Will Not Tell You: The Atomic States Of America (Full Film And Synopsis)

The following is a synopsis of ”  The Atomic States Of America” (on Vimeo)Review the DVD, here


Shirley, Long Island, New York

After the opening credits, the film begins in Long Island, New York. The speaker is Kelly McMasters, author of ” Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town“. Shirley, Long Island, was her home town.

  • Her family moved to Long Island in 1981
  • 4th grade: first time a neighbor got sick, and died. This was followed by more, until it became the norm
  • A WPIX editorial is aired, noting the high rates of breast cancer in the area: 3-year state study failed to uncover the cause: “In Long Island, one woman in nine will develop breast cancer”
  • Kelly: She just assumed there was some sort of mysterious curse: breast, lung, and thyroid cancer were the big three
  • Kids started getting sick – “It was just part of the texture of the town”
  • It was not until Kelly was in college and friends questioned her about so many returns home for funerals that she realized that, “Things were a little different where I grew up”
  • She wrote the book
  • When she started, she had no idea what she was getting in to – the mystery started to unravel after she began the research

Brookhaven National Laboratory

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  • There were three reactors, “at a place up the road” – Brookhaven
  • What they did not know at that time was that all three leaked
  • The town of Shirley was in the “line of fire” from the three reactors
  • It took Kelly more than 20 years to understand that she grew up “in a reactor community, and I had no idea”
  • She intensified her study in to how far other communities are from reactors, health problems in  areas that may have had leaks, spills, releases, accidents,  or any other problems
  • She investigated the types of cancer associated with fallout, and looked into economics, government, and taxes
  • The rabbit hole grew
  • She realized it was not just a a problem in her home town, but a problem across The United States

The Nuclear Renaissance

Timer: 5:18 in to the video.

  • As a country, we have been against new nuclear reactors since the 1970s
  • Recently this changed – this clip was provided: it notes Obama pushing for the expansion of nuclear energy, to a cheering crowd’ He touts it as being new, safe, and clean: – January, 2010:

David Lochbaum, Nuclear Engineer, Senior Member, Union of Concerned Scientists:

  • In the late 1960s and 1970s power companies were exclusive buyers of power plants
  • One industry executive called it “a bandwagon rush to nuclear power”
  • Overall 250 reactors were ordered, but only 130 actually finished
  • 22 or 23 have been shut down due to economics, or because Three Mile Island melted down, which is a sub set of economics

Arnie Gunderson, Nuclear Engineer, Former Senior VP,  Nuclear Energy Services

  • A common misconception is that Three Mile Island ended the nuclear era
  • “I bought the last nuclear reactor, right before Three Mile Island – I was in charge of that procurement, and they were becoming incredibly expensive” – 3-4 billion dollars each, back then
  • A coal plant could be built at the time for about 400 million, “So what really stopped nuclear power was money”

Costs Of Nuclear Power

  • 1979 newscast: Since 1974, over 200 orders for reactors had been cancelled, or postponed
  • This prompted Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger to warn the year previous that the nuclear option was barely alive
  • Kelly McMasters: Not sure when the nuclear renaissance started, but:
  • “For me it seemed to begin with this chatter about green technology”
  • (They show ads about global warming that began to run at that time)
  • She remembered the time she first heard that nuclear energy was green, and thought to herself that it must be a typo
  • (They show a pro-nuclear commercial by The Nuclear Energy Institute,  touting the cleanliness of nuclear, in order to reduce dependence on foreign energy, and reduce harm to the environment)
  • Kelly notes that the window of opportunity for nuclear was seized upon

Christine Todd Whitman, Co-Chair, CASEnergy Coalition, Former New Jersey Governor and EPA Regulator

  • “Well, the emissions is a big reason why nuclear power is green. Nuclear is the only form of base power that’s that 24/7, always on power that releases no greenhouse gases while it’s producing power”
  • “It’s a industry that provides extremely good jobs, and a lot of money for the communities in which they are located, but more importantly, it is a way to help insure that we have enough energy to meet our demands, which the Department of Energy thinks will be a 29% increase in electricity demand by 2035”
  • “We have to decide how we are going to meet that. Are we going to do it by importing more foreign oil, are we going to do it by/with more coal and coal mining, are we doing it with more gas, and fracking, and oil shale?”

Cut to video of Obama, again. This time he is speaking from a dais at a nuclear power plant:

They note: Average cost of bringing a reactor online: $7 billion:

Christine Todd Whitman:

  • Because of the high costs, there must be loan guarantees
  • Lending institutions need to know that if something goes wrong during the construction, there will be somebody to “back-stop that, and they will get their money back”
  • This is what the industry needs to have to get the investment to go forward

At this point, the film makers return the above clip of Obama, pledging $8 billion in loan guarantees, “To break ground on the first new nuclear plant in our country in three decades…”

Christine Todd Whitman:

  • “What we are saying is that if you know enough about nuclear, it’s a little bit why you see an enormous support for nuclear the closer you get to nuclear reactors. The people who live in communities with nuclear reactors around them understand what it brings to their community, they are comfortable with it, they are comfortable with the level of safety, and you have an over eighty percent… the last poll that I saw done, uhm, it was an over eighty percent support for having another reactor where you already have one”

Three Mile Island – Middletown, PA (10 minutes, 33 seconds)

Eric Epstein, Chairman, Three Mile Island Alert

  • This community was strongly supportive of nuclear power
  • He notes the town is in the Bible belt, and not known as liberal, and that they never really questioned nuclear power, as it was a decision that had been made in the 1950s and 1960s., “We are going to go down this path”
  • He spoke of being there as a kid, and feeling safe with his father’s assertions that they were benign; this combined with belief in nuclear as a wonderful, magical technology that had come to rescue us
  • “We thought it could warm homes at a price too cheap to meter. Everybody bet the house on atomic energy “
  • All of these things came in to question on March 28, 1979 4:00 A.M.

Warnings are issued by fire deparments (loudspeaker), and media… everything is under control… there is and was no danger

The “experts” in the field :  “smugness, the arrogance”, and quite annoyed that they should have to answer questions, or justify any of their actions.

At this point, there is a montage of news coverage of the melt down (although they remained in denial that it was a melt down until they were able to get a camera in there, and the melted core became visible).

  • Eric Epstein notes that within just a few days, the community had completely lost trust in the government and the company
  • News comes out that the problem was worse than people were led to believe
  • Radioactive xenon gas discharge that would last for several more days
  • Fighting over whether or not it was a melt down. The industry was in denial, so they never called it a melt-down
  • Camera footage of proof of full melt down
  • Eric Epstein questions why Three Mile Island (“TMI”) never comes up when people talk about a nuclear renaissance

Basics of reactors are covered, re: how they generate steam. The down side is noted. 100 tons in reactor core can generate power for millions of homes for two years. The technology is enticing, but the costs can be great. The waste is radioactive for thousands of years, and accidents happen.

1986 Chernobyl

1991  WSJ: The Soviet Union reported that the costs of cleaning up after Chernobyl would exceed the economic benefits derived from all of the reactors in the Soviet Union, combined.

The risk-reward is much greater for nuclear. “One bad day at one facility can wipe out decades of good days at dozens of other facilities”.

Regulating The Atom

  • Globally there are around 350 commercial, nuclear reactors
  • They provide 16% of global demand for electricity
  • 80% of electrical power in France comes from nuclear (17 minutes, 15 seconds)
  • Japan: 30%
  • The United States has more nuclear plants than any other country: 104 (Meets 20% of demand)
  • 16 laboratory research plants, man of which have their own reactors
  • 19 defense plants
Red: Commercial nuclear plants Blue: Laboratory research reactors Green: Defense plants
Red: Commercial nuclear plants
Blue: Laboratory research reactors
Green: Defense plants

Neil Sheehan, Spokesperson, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Indian Point Nuclear Emergency Simulation
  • Inspectors speak and sound official about how they do their work
  • Neil speaks about all that has been done to upgrade safety, including post 9-11 safety

We are taken back to Eric Epstein at Three Mile Island, as they take video of him walking right up to the deserted security guard station, at the southern entrance – i.e. NO warnings to stay away!

Plants do their own monitoring and inspections, and they are inspected for that. “RIMP” report. Professional and glossy. Required every year.The terrestrial garden they used to monitor TMI was due-east of the plant, which sent its fallout to the south.

Eric Epstein, re: what is it going to take:  “It seems humans respond to catastrophe, in a positive way.”

Fukushima Happens (22 minutes)

Montage of news coverage of earthquake, tsunami, accident, then melt down.

  • On Eric’s door: “Treat everyone you meet with dignity and respect, but have a plan to kill them just in case.”
  • He notes isotopes from Fukushima were discovered shortly after in Massachusetts
  • The talk is of half-life of radiation, when it should be half-life of memory – people were willing to buy the myths
  • There was not a 24/7 news cycle in the 1970s – Now we have a lot of information, but many of the facts gets confused (this is before we knew of how much they had lied)
  • Radiation is abstract, and it is difficult for people to grasp

Eric Epstein notes they have the ability to do monitoring, independent of government. (27 minutes)

  • Radio genetic cancers can take decades “Nobody was killed at TMI”
  • No matter what we are told, there are no safe amounts of radiation
  • There are leaks at nuclear power plants, every day, yet no public outcry

The Sky Is Falling (28 minutes, 33 seconds)

Dr. Helen Caldicott, Co-Founder, Physicians for Social Responsibility

  • No radiation is safe; background radiation already produces 20-30 % of the cancer we always see, and always has
  • Her nickname was Henny Pen. “That’s what I’ve done; isn’t that funny”?
  • Dr. Caldicott discusses radiation dosages, and “rems”:

There are many types of radiation.

  • X- rays
  • Gamma rays – Like x-rays, they are non-particulate, and travel right through the body They do not make you radioactive, but the instant they go through you, they can mutate a gene
  • Alpha – Particulate. (Plutonium, Uranium) – They do not affect you if they land on your skin, but if inhaled, or ingested, they can give a whopping dose of radiation to any cell where they land, causing cancer
  • Beta – Electrons that are smaller than alpha particles. They do the same thing: damage genes, that could result in cancer, two to sixty years later
  • Radiation is cumulative, with each dose increasing odds of cancer

Radioactive Isotopes: Strontium-90, Cesium-137, Radioactive Iodine, Plutonium, and Tritium

  • Tritium: Dr. Caldicott: “It’s a really nasty substance”
  • It is absorbed through the skin
  • Tritium is emitted “all of the time by reactors”
  • Dr. Caldicott expressed frustration that the industry denies they are causing cancer

We return to Kelly McMasters. She proceeds to document how tritium was the root of the excessive cancer rates in Shirley, Long Island:

Randy Snell of Long Island talks about his daughter’s diagnosis with Rhabdomyosarcoma, and her treatment. Again, I recommend watching the film. His descriptions of all of the children who died is heart breaking.Rate of rhabdomyosarcoma: One in 4 million. There were several kids on one street who had it.

After plotting cancer and locations of nuclear plants, Randy discovered that rhabdomyosarcoma was also common in Brookhaven (Shirley, Long Island)… Kelly McMasters points out “death row” in a neighborhood where every home was affected by cancer…

Back to Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island

  • It was built directly on top of an aquifer, allowing toxins to spread
  • 1.3 million residents of Long Island receive their water from the same aquifer
  • Randy went on Montel Williams show, and others. Kelly and Randywere aware of each other
  • Randy joined “Standing for truth about radiation”
  • Brookhaven admitted that Tritium was found, but denied the extent of it
  • Kelly showed their own report that stated there were Tritium plumes in off-site, residential wells. She notes she did not have to write anything up, because it was their own report (around 1991), right out of their own library
  • They trespassed, and took their own samples, which were positive for Tritium
  • Brookhaven was discovered to have been leaking for years

Laura Snell, Randy’s daughter, describes her experience. (41 minutes, 40 seconds)

Brookhaven never admitted wrong-doing, but when they did not open the reactor back up, it was taken as an admission of guilt. No reactors on top of a source of water for so many people (this time, more than 2.5 million.. ?)

Godley, Illinois (43 minutes)

Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station

Joe Cosgrove, Director, Godley Park District

Kim Cole

  • In 200,  a pipe broke in the plant, and it leaked thousands of gallons of diesel, prompting local residents to look in to safety
  • Joe went to Illinois EPa – they had no authority, as it is regulated by the NRC
  • October 31, 2002: Joe’s work on their own tests – they found excessive Tritium, from a ground-water well (it was in an impoverished neighborhood) – The well was similar to the ones used by the 261 residents in the area
  • Tritium is measured is picocuries per liter

Mike Sheck

  • Exelon executives denied there were health hazards, and stated it was found only in one well
  • Exelon began buying up houses (some quite nice) and bulldozing them over, yet they still denied everything

A direct path via the water supply from the plant to the Kankakee River

Ilene Clark and Shirley Cavanaugh: They lived a bit more than a mile apart, but both were surrounded by neighbors who died from cancer.

“The NRC and Exelon are working together” (48 minutes)

Steven Orth, Division of Reactor Safety, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  • He states that they require amounts of radiation released to be limited, and under set numbers
  • (The Department Of Energy regulates the laboratory system, their reactors, and defense plants’ reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates all private sector/commercial reactors)
  • When the community asked why there had not been an independent investigation, they were told that each plant operator(licensee)  is responsible for their own testing, and reporting
  • The NRC serves to rubber-stamp reports submitted to them
  • In 2006, internal Excelon  documents uncovered by residents  revealed that the plant had been leaking for nearly a decade
  • The NRC knew about the contamination in 2000
  • Steven Orth admits that the NRC knew about the 2000 leak, in 2000 (during a town hall meeting, continued from earlier), and that it was a matter of public record
  • The water is still not safe; residents have to bring water in (cannot bathe in Tritium, either…)
  • People want to leave, but have been told that they are not effected, and they will not buy their houses
  • They have not fined anybody for any of it

Nuclear Turds

Ultimately, the story comes down to waste

  • Review of fission waste products that are being created
  • Plutonium: 1/2 life of 24,000 years, but this is not the same as saying when something is no longer dangerous
  • Plutonium is dangerous for 240,000 years
  • Waste has been piling up for 30-40 years
  • Waste is being stored near reactors

J. Samuel Walker, Historian, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  • Waste has been a problem since the Manhattan Project
  • The Atomic Energy Commission believed the vast deposits of salt in Kansas would be perfect for storing waste; however, scientists at the University of Kansas discovered it was “extremely unsuitable’ – the AEC should have known, but they did not do their homework
  • Outcry for permanent storage continues, but little movement
  • 1982- Congress took up the matter, but no States wanted the waste
  • Yucca Mountain?
  • 2000: Bush approves Yucca site – It still did not happen
  • 2009: Obama administration: storing waste at Yucca Mountain is off the table, due to costs (after 27 years)
  • New science reports that Yucca Mountain is not safe, after all (after 27 years)
  • Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary: New science reveals the area is not safe, and we should listen to science
  • It was noted the Senator Harry Reid is opposed to the project
  • Yucca Mountain costs: 14 Billion; NRC weighs options of restarting the project
  • Gregory Jaczko (former staffer to Senator Reid) , Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission made a brief appearance: “It was a difficult decision”
  • Yucca Mountain rejected in 2010

The nuclear waste from 100+ plants is being stored on-site, near the reactors (1:01:44:00)

Magical thinking: some propose to leave the waste where it is, and in 100 years or so, we will have figured out a way to get rid of it.

Lessons Learned

  • Review of radiation contamination at Fukushima, which we know now is much greater than just last year when the film was made
  • Germany to phase out nuclear by 2022
  • Protests are growing
  • Italy soundly rejected nuclear energy after Fukushima, just as they were gearing up for expansion
  • Kelly McMasters: After Fukushima, she thought the nuclear option was definitely off the table
  • The Obama administration has not changed their position on nuclear power

Video: Rep. Joe Barton, Texas, questions Steven Vhu, Energy Secretary, about whether or not funding for nuclear power is still sought, in light of what was learned by Fukushima: Yes.

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  • They are asking for $36 billion in loan guarantees to continue to be supported by Congress
  • Exelon spent $11.5 million on a new water treatment plant for the village of Godley, IllinoisExelon maintains that the water has always been safe to drink
  • Money and politics prevent us from using cleaner forms of energy
  • The Three Mile Island unit was de-fueled in 1990, at a cost on $1 billion – with an estimated $836.9 million to decommission, and decontaminate the plant – THE PLANT OPERATED FOR A TOTAL OF 90 DAYS


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