The nuclear industry has promised the world cheap, safe, and clean energy for over 60 years.

As the Japanese government continues to extend its nuclear evacuation zone around the Daiichi nuclear complex in Fukushima, the pushers of nuclear power–including President Barack Obama–still demand that Congress approve ever-larger subsidies for new reactors.

Wishful thinking about energy generation has apparently induced both temporary blindness and long-term amnesia about the history of nuclear “mishaps.”

In 2009, the government subsidized the nuclear industry with $18.5 billion in loan guarantees, which failed to anticipate the total costs of “the next generation of plants.” The Nuclear Energy Institute–the industry’s lobbying group–now wants $20 billion more in loan guarantees to get the so-called “nuclear renaissance” underway.

Before ramping up funding for the nuclear gang, lawmakers should look beyond the current catastrophe and into some of the numerous U.S. nuclear accident reports.

In 1999, The Washington Post reported that “thousands of workers were unwittingly exposed to plutonium and other highly radioactive metals” at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant in western Kentucky. The uranium workers “inhaled radioactive dust while processing the materials as part of a government experiment to recycle used nuclear reactor fuel”–a failed experiment that lasted 23 years.

In July 2000, wildfires near the Hanford facility in Washington spread to highly radioactive waste disposal trenches, raising the fear of airborne plutonium radiation levels in Seattle.

Compare those “little accidents” with the Chernobyl catastrophe–Fukushima has now reached that level–or the folks who got cancer from the Three Mile Island “mishap.” What steps were taken to prevent further incidents following the numerous “little” leaks, fires, and “mishaps” that occurred routinely at the Rocky Flats and Hanford nuclear installations?

In 1981, PBS aired a documentary we made, Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang. In it, we documented how government officials obfuscated their failure to provide the “cheap, safe, and clean” energy they promised.

Jacobs reported on how the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and its successor three-letter agencies lied about, distorted, and even classified official reports on the health impacts of low-level radiation.

In the film, we interviewed Sergeant James Gates, who was present at early nuclear weapons test sites. He described how men positioned near the government’s test site in Nevada covered their eyes during a blinding nuclear explosion. Gates said: “the blast threw me 15 feet into the air. It made all of us sick.” In 1978, he had terminal cancer.

Jacobs interviewed “downwinders” who described how hot hailstones pelted them after atomic tests in Nevada. In the 1950s and again in the early 1970s, he inspected the government’s claims. In his award-winning articles featuring interviews with “downwinders” in St. George, Utah, a city in the path of the tests’ fallout, Jacobs found inordinate numbers of cancer cases and a nuclear-nervous public.

He described how he surreptitiously acquired a classified document from a public health office in Las Vegas revealing how the Atomic Energy Commission knew “low-level radiation” constituted serious health hazards. Later, he found declassified internal memos indicating why the government classified the health report: to keep the public from having to choose between nuclear tests and not getting cancer.

In 1977, Jacobs’ doctor and his friend Linus Pauling (a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry) concluded that Paul, a non-smoker, developed lung cancer during his exposure to “low-level radiation” around the Atomic Test Site.

After 60-some years, the words “cheap, safe, and clean” sound more like an ad for an electric toothbrush than a believable promise from the nuclear gang.

Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow and Jack Willis is the co-founder of Link TV. They won an Emmy in 1981 for their documentary Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang.

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