The T-P Syndrome for Debate Avoidance

by Martin Harris

Some areas along the Appalachian chain-of-hills (mountains? not really) have more in common than they admit. Cases in point: Vermont at the northern end, eastern Tennessee at the approximate mid-point. Both have a local small-scale nuclear industry (for various reasons, Oak Ridge and its WWII history aren’t included here) approved by some and disapproved by others; both are the focus of argument over beyond-the-property-line environmental pollution; and in both situations the two sides are engaged in the “Talking Past” behavior pattern, using a narrow sector of their argument which, indeed, has an internal logic, as if it were the entire question before the public, and quite deliberately ignoring the broader sector, because it would make their set of points less relevant. Talking Past the opposition’s argument by ignoring it seems to be a preferred choice of non-debate any more, perhaps in the expectation that the wider public audience can be better persuaded if inconvenient facts can be set aside for non-recognition.

In the Northeast Corner of Tennessee (not called a Kingdom, but, just as in Vermont, consisting of Washington County and three more, further North and East) the local nuclear industry is Aerojet’s AOT (Aerojet Ordnance Tennessee) facility in the tiny village of Telford, an off-the-main-roads hamlet with a one-block business district on the western fringes of the so-called Tri-Cities Region, composed of the major urban areas of Bristol, Johnson City, and Kingsport and various suburban, exurban, and commercial inter-urban developments, old and new. The bulk of its business is military, involving mid- to large-size artillery shells containing tungsten and unspecified applications of Depleted Uranium, specified by the US Army for its armor-penetration capabilities, with a recent history of use in the Middle Eastern theatre of operations. As in Vermont, anti-nuclear advocates are charging that nuclear pollution has been found beyond the property-line –in Vermont, the major identified heavy metal is strontium– and that quantities found exceed allowable standards. As in Vermont, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given periodic approvals to industry operation; critics haven’t shown exactly what pollution standards have been violated. Not as in Vermont, in Tennessee the critics haven’t (yet) resorted to throwing manure (oops, make that “compost”) during NRC approval hearings.

As in Vermont, some of the anti-industry charges in Tennessee are based on theoretical situations –for Vermont Yankee, think the annual water-temperature cycle for the Connecticut River and whether, during possible summer-time low-water/high-temperature situations VY’s cooling tower water discharge might cause fish distress– which might occur. For AOT’s use of Depleted Uranium, the public isn’t told that, only when the artillery shell is actually used in combat, does the explosion cause some of the DU to vaporize in an aerosol, meaning that potentially-lethal-to-humans alpha particles might be inhaled by soldiers and civilians, if the wind is right. Instead, the public is told that DU generates lethal alpha particles, period. That’s true; what’s left out is that alpha particles have a very limited penetration capability under normal (non-explosive) circumstances, “…about six (human) cells…”, according to studies from Northern Arizona University which also explain how, when used against hardened-armor targets (none of those in Telford) DU-enhanced cells create “…debris from a Uranium fire on the battlefield…an invisible metal fume, often called an aerosol…once inhaled, it provides a chronic source of Uranium heavy metal and contact radiation poisoning…” and so on. There’s a parallel here to the arguments once used against see-in-the-dark wristwatch faces: “when you (inevitably) remove the glass and lick the face you will die”, not “use the watch for time, not taste.”

While anti-nuclear activists in both VT and TN use such theoretically possible but highly improbable situations to claim “hazard” and demand plant shut-down, pro-industry voices are curiously reluctant to confront such Talking Past tactics. Their main arguments are verifiable facts: both VY and AOT create local investment which pays taxes and local jobs which pay wages, both quite welcome anywhere along the Appalachians where subsistence farming is economically feasible only for those who have a trust-fund check on the side. Even these conventional economic-growth arguments are made only rarely and don’t at all address the highly improbable chain-of-events and omission-of-facts, like the normal-circumstances harmlessness of alpha particles, heavily used in the anti-nuclear hazard scenario. They don’t even quote the EPA assurance that alpha particles can’t penetrate clothing or skin surfaces.

The T-P Syndrome, so widespread when opposing sides argue environmental questions, has fairly deep historical roots: one well-known example is the Hooker Chemical Love Canal site, in Niagara Falls, near Buffalo, NY. Planned in the early 1900’s as a hydro-power resource using diverted Niagara River water, it failed economically long before going on-line, and by the ‘20’s was a City and industrial dumpsite. Closed in 1953, capped over and “sold” to the City for $1 for specified permanent park use, before the end of that decade the City was nevertheless selling house lots and authorizing construction which would perforate the dump-fill encapsulation. When health hazards emerged decades later, only Hooker was blamed. City culpability still isn’t widely understood because, in the pollution argument, City involvement wasn’t widely identified. In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency sued Hooker, not Niagara Falls. Hooker, a once-profitable company destroyed, and since 1968 a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. Niagara Falls is still there. Moral: Talking Past the opposition and avoiding the inconvenient facts can be more lethal to businesses, debaters, and the public than addressing the real points, all of them.