Beyond Nuclear International

Work of artist who opposed nuclear war finally finds recognition

A son refuses to let his father’s art slip into the shadows

By Linda Pentz Gunter

By day his life could not have been more utilitarian. He was a “Hod Carrier,” hauling bricks and mortar on his back up ladders; mixing sand and cement; clocking in and out as a member of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA).

But by night, Paul Martin Butkovich reignited the true flame of his inspiration. He made art. Lots of it, almost to the day he died aged 76 on January 8, 1996.

It was only then that his family uncovered dozens of drawings rendered in crayon, pastels, pencil, chalk and markers, on subjects that ran the gamut from racehorses to nuclear warfare. The existence of Butkovich’s art was not a surprise. But the volume was. Yet, he had never attempted to sell a single piece.

Butkovich exhibition poster

Butkovich was a basement artist. In 1939, he had spent one year at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC, before being called home to help with the family business while his older brothers served in the military. His career as an artist never took flight, even as he harbored dreams of becoming a political cartoonist. (A friend even submitted his work for consideration for a Pulitzer Prize.) Living and working in Madison County, Illinois, not far from St. Louis, MO, he was inspired by then St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial cartoonist, and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, Daniel Fitzpatrick.

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Two performances inspired by Fukushima

A bedazzling multi-media reverie and a kitchen sink debate on ethics, each capture the tragedy of nuclear disaster

By Linda Pentz Gunter

As we’ve seen in an earlier post, the Fukushima nuclear disaster has already inspired theatre among those who experienced it — along with the tsunami and earthquake — first hand. But it has also inspired those further away, in whom the confluence of these three tragedies invoked a profound curiosity.

Jessica Grindstaff of the New York theatre and puppetry group, Phantom Limb Company, decided to travel to Japan to film the aftermath and interview those who had lived through the triple disasters, with a particular focus on the nuclear catastrophe. 

British playwright, Lucy Kirkwood, imagined the moral quandary of nuclear physicists in the UK, responding — or not — to a near identical nuclear disaster for which they bear some responsibility.


Falling Out. (Photo courtesy of The Phantom Limb Company)

Grindstaff’s piece, Falling Out, is a multi-media project combining movement, dance, music, puppets and a video backdrop, all of which blend together into an experience of profound, lyrical sadness and beauty that is very hard to describe in words. It is an overwhelmingly sensual piece, the life-size puppets — manipulated and sometimes cradled by the dancers — becoming lifelike in their movements and the feelings these express. The puppets, says Grindstaff,  represent “the people who were lost in the disaster and the puppeteers are always trying to reconjure their memory.”

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Total eclipse

Nuclear power regulation slips deeper into the shadows

By Paul Gunter

On July 17, 2019, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held its regularly scheduled information exchange meeting with the nuclear industry’s Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) at NRC Headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.

INPO is a secretive industry task force headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, led by the nation’s senior nuclear utility executives. Industry watchdogs often refer to INPO as “the shadow regulator” of the U.S. atomic power industry.  

It is significant that NRC management chose this brief hour-long meeting in July with INPO to make a public announcement that the nation’s federal regulatory agency is proposing to dramatically cut back its “Regulatory Oversight Process” in what is being called a “transformative process.” 

The NRC proposal announces staff recommendations that, if adopted by the Commissioners, hands over yet more of its oversight authority to the financially failing and aging U.S. nuclear industry. The industry cost-saving recommendations include a reduction in the scope and frequency of NRC baseline reactor safety inspections and radiation protection inspections. They also include undercutting requirements and the issuance of mandatory orders in favor of industry “self-inspections,” “self-assessments,” and “voluntary initiatives”.   

NRC inspection Fermi

NRC inspections, such as this one at the Fermi 2 nuclear plant, will become ever rarer as the agency hands oversight to the industry itself. (Photo: US NRC)

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The false promise of nuclear power

Nuclear power is not clean, efficient, economical or safe

By Robert Jay Lifton and Naomi Oreskes

Commentators from Greenpeace to the World Bank agree that climate change is an emergency, threatening civilization and life on our planet. Any solution must involve the control of greenhouse gas emissions by phasing out fossil fuels and switching to alternative technologies that do not impair the human habitat while providing the energy we require to function as a species.

This sobering reality has led some prominent observers to re-embrace nuclear energy. Advocates declare it clean, efficient, economical, and safe. In actuality it is none of these. It is expensive and poses grave dangers to our physical and psychological well-being. According to the US Energy Information Agency, the average nuclear power generating cost is about $100 per megawatt-hour. Compare this with $50 per megawatt-hour for solar and $30 to $40 per megawatt-hour for onshore wind. The financial group Lazard recently said that renewable energy costs are now “at or below the marginal cost of conventional generation” — that is, fossil fuels — and much lower than nuclear.


Unlike nearly all other technologies, the cost of nuclear power has risen over time. (Photo: Tilia44 for WikiCommons)

In theory these high costs and long construction times could be brought down. But we have had more than a half-century to test that theory and it appears to have been solidly refuted. Unlike nearly all other technologies, the cost of nuclear power has risen over time. Even its supporters recognize that it has never been cost-competitive in a free-market environment, and its critics point out that the nuclear industry has followed a “negative learning curve.” Both the Nuclear Energy Agency and International Energy Agency have concluded that although nuclear power is a “proven low-carbon source of base-load electricity,” the industry will have to address serious concerns about cost, safety, and waste disposal if it is to play a significant role in addressing the climate-energy nexus.

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Her town hid a secret

Some of the world’ most radioactive uranium was processed there. Then they dumped the waste there, too.

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Early on in Uranium Derby, the new film from first-time filmmaker, Brittany Prater, you get a creeping feeling of deja vu. Haven’t we seen this story before?

Not that this takes away any of the power of Prater’s very personal film, a documentary set in her hometown of Ames, Iowa, a town, she comes to learn, she knew little about, and which harbored a dark, and maybe even deadly secret.

In the modest-sized, very white and very traditional town of Ames, population a touch over 58,000 today, work went on in the 1940s and ‘50s processing uranium for the US nuclear weapons program. In an anonymous grey house, nicknamed “Little Ankeny,” now demolished and replaced with a stone marker, some of the world’s most radioactive uranium was handled by about 14 men working in secret for the Manhattan Project. This was the dawn of the Ames Laboratory, then called the Ames Project. Wikipedia summarizes its early purpose, as does the film:

“Its purpose was to produce high purity uranium from uranium ores. Harley Wilhelm developed new methods for both reducing and casting uranium metal, making it possible to cast large ingots of the metal and reduce production costs by as much as twenty-fold. About one-third, or around 2 tons, of the uranium used in the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago was provided through these procedures, now known as the Ames Process. The Ames Project produced more than 2 million pounds (1,000 tons) of uranium for the Manhattan Project until industry took over the process in 1945.”

Watch a trailer of Uranium Derby below:

The radioactive debris and detritus resulting from these activities had to go somewhere. And where it went, as the film narrates it, is pretty much all around town, on ten sites including the airport, a cemetery, under a highway overpass, and at the intersection of two residential streets. 

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