Garrison Society?

On 9/11 the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission posted a chilling notice, announcing that subject to a formal rulemaking it would allow nuclear plant operators to “apply for permission for their security personnel to possess and use certain ‘enhanced weapons.’ These weapons are machineguns, short-barreled shotguns or short-barreled rifles….Previously, with limited exceptions, only federal, state or local law enforcement could lawfully possess machineguns.”

If ever there was to be a national, industry-wide exemption from the rules governing who gets to carry machine guns in the United States, it is no surprise that it turned out to be for nuclear plant operators, particularly given the failure of the NRC and its licensees to achieve anything like real security at nuclear reactor sites. (For example, there was the 1993 intruder at TMI who crashed through security gates and took four hours to find and, more recently, the snoozing guards at Pennsylvania’s Peach Bottom plant, caught on video and subsequently televised.)

But what of the larger meaning of this decision? Isn’t the NRC effectively telling us that in exchange for a certain amount of electricity we must tolerate military-style nuclear encampments in our midst?

In his book, The Nuclear State, Robert Jungk predicted three decades ago that it would come to this, and worse — that following the “hard path” of nuclear energy would inevitably push society toward a system “dominated by prohibitions, surveillance and constraints, all justified by the magnitude of the danger.” In the extreme, he foresaw “garrison societies” where there would always be “the strong possibility of clashes between rival units, of coup d’etats, of those units who guard the nuclear installations using, or threatening to use, the materials under their control.”

The government has long been aware of this danger but civilian nuclear operators have historically resisted extreme security measures because of the harm it would do to the image of “peaceful nuclear energy”. The problem is, nuclear energy isn’t and never was truly peaceful. That term was coined by promoters of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace era.

They, along with the Soviets, left us another dangerous legacy — some 165 research reactors fueled with bomb-grade uranium in countries all over the world, including Libya, Romania, Serbia, Peru and Indonesia, where terrorism, civil war and coup d’etats are not unknown. The US government has been working with other countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency to upgrade security at these facilities. Of necessity, they must be turned into guarded encampments – you can read more in a new General Accounting Office report. Or its summary.

Of course, perfect internal security can never be achieved because as Jungk put it there can be “no guarantee against nuclear blackmail” or the “possibility of internal revolt.” The prospect of electricity-generating garrisons in or near American towns and cities should make people wonder: wouldn’t we rather have our kilowatt hours from safer alternatives that don’t require guards with machine guns to protect them? Can we afford to let nuclear operators tamper with the norms of civilized society as their machine-gun wielding guards prepare for combat on our doorsteps?

Leave a Reply