“Black communities get more promises than jobs — and they get pollution and they get sick”
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Systemic racism in the nuclear industrial complex has endured for decades. Every community of color has been affected. As we confront the wider impact of centuries of racism in the US, we take a closer look specifically at discrimination against African Americans in the nuclear power sector.
The shackles of slavery may be gone, but there is now a knee on the neck of African American voices, whether literal or metaphorical, when it comes to challenging injustice. And it is there when confronting the bias of the nuclear power industry and other lethal polluters. It is quite deliberately there. It is there not only to oppress — and in the case of George Floyd to kill — but to silence and disenfranchise. To stunt movements for change.
That is perhaps how the NAACP’s A.C. Garner, felt after the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) dismissed black concerns over a proposed new nuclear power plant in Mississippi in 2005. It was, he said, like “posting a ‘WHITES ONLY’ sign on the hearing room door.”
Garner’s statement was a reaction to a January 19, 2005 decision by the NRC to grant permission for a second nuclear reactor to be built at the Grand Gulf site in Mississippi. It was to be built in the poorest county in the state, itself the poorest state in the union.
It would join Grand Gulf Unit 1, opened in 1985 in the Claiborne County city of Port Gibson, and would be known as Grand Gulf Unit 3, as all there is of Unit 2 is an empty concrete pad— the plant owners, Entergy, having asked the NRC to revoke that planned reactor’s license in 1991.
Grand Gulf 1, the largest single unit in the country, with an output of around 1,500 MW, is located in a community that is 87% African American, with a poverty rate of 46% according to census data. The median household income in Claiborne County is $24,601 per year. At least 35% of the population depends on Medicaid. The Covid-19 infection rate there is still headed on an upward trajectory.
Back in 2005, the county was already ill prepared for a health crisis of any sort. It had just one crumbling hospital, struggling to meet the needs of a deprived community and with zero capacity to handle a nuclear emergency. Evacuation routes were washed out and impassible. The police force was completely under-equipped.
“The county doesn’t even have a hospital that’s open 24 hours, and there’s only one fire station in the entire county,” Rose Johnson, chairwoman of the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club, told the Jackson Free Press at the time. “The situation should send chills down the spines of anyone who lives within a 100-mile radius of Port Gibson.”
Why such deprivation? Why weren’t Port Gibson and Claiborne County flush with the tax revenues the plant should have brought in? Because in 1986, fearing price hikes for the “too cheap to meter” electricity generated by Grand Gulf nuclear Unit 1, Entergy succeeded in getting the predominantly white Mississippi legislature to pass a bill to redistribute more than 70% of those tax revenues to 47 other counties in the state. It is the only reactor community in the country that does not reap the lion’s share of its nuclear plant tax dollars.
The law left an already poor black community even more desperately deprived. But it pre-empted any complaints about increased electricity costs from whiter communities elsewhere in the state.
By the time of the 2005 NRC decision, the agency had also conveniently ruled that issues of environmental justice such as racism, fairness and economic equity would not be considered litigable during reactor licensing proceedings. It was a move clearly designed to silence black voices. “Whites Only” was indeed firmly nailed to the door.
It’s an old story, one of systemic racism throughout the nuclear sector.
It began with the uranium mining conducted largely by Native Americans, without protection and unaware of the health risks. It continued with the Trinity test, irradiating downwinders, many of them from Native American and Hispanic communities.
Then the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an act of racism that did not pass unnoticed by the African American community, many of whom — including Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, James Baldwin, and Marian Anderson — came out to join the nuclear freeze movement.
The US atomic tests carried out overseas blasted the atolls of the Marshallese, treated as guinea pigs and described by a US official as “more like us than mice.” The domestic tests were conducted on land belonging to the Western Shoshone.
The British tested their bombs at Maralinga in Australia, on Aboriginal homelands. The Belgians mined their uranium in the African Congo. The French tested atomic weapons on Algerians in the Sahara, then moved to the South Pacific islands.
Back in the US, Hispanic communities such as Sierra Blanca, TX were targeted for nuclear waste dumps, a trend that has continued; with the choice of Yucca Mountain, on Western Shoshone land, as the place to host the country’s high-level nuclear waste; with the imposition of unwanted new nuclear reactors and the huge nuclear weapons complex at the Savannah River Site, which would poison black communities. And on and on.
It is a culture and a practice that have never changed. In a 2016 paper — Emerging Environmental Justice Issues in Nuclear Power and Radioactive Contamination — published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, academics Dean Kyne and Bob Bolin noted that the NRC’s “growing constraints” in public participation spoke to “who is or is not recognized as worthy of inclusion in decision-making regarding the allocation of hazard burdens.”
They described the culture at the NRC as reinforcing “a tradition of secrecy, denial, and misinformation that has long been part of the nuclear industrial complex.”
They further noted that while “federal agencies are mandated to identify and address adverse human health and environmental impacts on minority and low-income populations,” this does not apply to the NRC, for whom it is “not mandatory” but merely “voluntary.” In allowing this level of discretion over what issues may be considered an environmental justice concern, “not surprisingly, 76 percent were labeled as being of ‘small significance’,” the authors wrote.
“The NRC once again bowed to its master — the nuclear industry — to pave the way for construction in an area where they expect least resistance,” said Garner of the Grand Gulf 3 debacle. (As it turns out, Entergy canceled Grand Gulf 3 in February 2015, when its lousy economics finally wouldn’t stand up).
The forced imposition of a dangerous and polluting industrial installation on a poor community of color in desperate need of jobs remains an age-old tactic of corporations and governments. In challenging Grand Gulf 3 before its cancelation, residents of Port Gibson rightly asked why, if a new nuclear power plant was such an economy-boosting bonanza, the area was still the poorest in the country two decades after the first reactor came on line?
Residents of Burke County, Georgia, are asking similar questions. The county itself is about evenly divided between black and white populations, but the communities of Shell Bluff and Waynesboro, poor and black, have been the hardest hit by nuclear installations in the area. Today, 40.9% of the children there live below the federal poverty line, with a higher rate of childhood poverty than 86.8% of U.S. neighborhoods. Waynesboro is 70.4% black.
The poisoning of surrounding communities began in the 1950s, when an entire town was relocated to make way for the massive Savannah River Site (SRS) atomic bomb factory just across the river and state line, near Aiken, SC— the place where tritium and plutonium was produced for nuclear weapons.
In the 1980s, a whistleblower named William Lawless revealed how the US Department of Energy, which owns SRS, had been dumping cardboard boxes filled with nuclear waste into trenches, where the boxes had leaked their deadly inventory into the groundwater.
In 1987, two nuclear reactor units came on line at Plant Vogtle, just 10 miles from Shell Bluff and 18 miles from Waynesboro. Cancer rates started to creep up. Then, against the objections of the local black community, the green light was given for two more reactors to be built at Plant Vogtle.
The decision was made all the more painful given that it was Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, who came in person to announce the Vogtle 3 and 4 go-ahead, sweetening it with a $8.3 billion federal loan guarantee and flanked for his big media moment by two white guys. Meanwhile, Vogtle 3 and 4 are both still under construction, wildly over budget and way behind schedule and with a micro-epidemic of Covid-19 cases among the workforce.
Like Claiborne County in Mississippi, Burke County, GA remains one of the poorest corners of the state. As Robert D. Bullard wrote in Facing South in 2010 when Vogtle 3 and 4 had just been funded:
“The nuclear power plant is being promoted as providing jobs for local residents. However, numerous studies show that few low-income and people of color residents actually get jobs at these plants. Black communities get more promises than jobs — and they get pollution and they get sick.”
Reverend Charles Utley, one of the leading community organizers opposing Vogtle 3 and 4, agrees. As he told Courthouse News in a January 2018 article, “it’s only in the construction phase that they’re employed. After the construction phase, they’ll all be unemployed. That’s what happened with 1 and 2. It was the booming icon for employment. After that, it was a desert.”
A desert with rising cancer rates. “One thing we’re seeing is the amount of cancer-related illnesses in the area,” said Utley in the Courthouse News article. “Before the building construction within the last three decades, Burke County [had] one of the lowest cancer rates in the nation. Now we’re one of highest… It came from exposure.”
But where the NRC has simply ridden roughshod over African American objections, the nuclear industry has taken a more subtly insidious tack, deftly playing the asthma card.
This is what African American senator, Cory Booker (D-NJ), a veritable pro-nuclear evangelist, has bought into, given his constituency, centered around Newark, NJ, has the highest asthma rates in the state (one in every four children) and with a population that is 47% black.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s lobbying arm, claims in its so-called fact sheets and other propaganda that “green” nuclear power is the antidote to asthma, says Colorlines in a May 2011 article.
That prompted the creation of an African American-led front group, SHARE, to oppose the shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear generating station just 30 miles from New York City, arguing that its closure would mean greater fossil fuel use and, therefore, an increase in asthma rates. But, says Colorlines, SHARE is essentially “an arm of Entergy’s PR department.”
“There are dozens of other groups that have been influenced, because they’re only getting half the story,” Clearwater’s Manna Jo Greene told Colorlines in 2011. (Indian Point Unit 2 closed on April 30 and Unit 3 is scheduled to shut in April 2021.) Those groups included New York NAACP, One Hundred Black Men, and African American Men of Westchester.
The Indian Point example was yet another skillful and stealthy maneuver designed to keep the black agenda on side with the very nuclear industry that harms it. And to keep the voices of African Americans out of the anti-nuclear movement.
As Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and policy advisor, expressed so eloquently in a recent Washington Post opinion piece looking at the absence of African Americans in the climate movement, “How can we expect black African Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our own streets, in our communities, and even within our own homes?” she asked. “How can people of color effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive, life-shortening racism?”
And yet, as she points out, diversity is desperately needed in these movements, “because black people are significantly more concerned about climate change than white people.”
And significantly more hard hit. So it is within the nuclear sector, too. But the door is still closed, and we haven’t torn that “WHITES ONLY” sign off it. Yet.
Headline graphic by By ducu59us for Shutterstock