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Citizen Empowerment and Y2K Nuclear Safety


From: Tom Atlee <>
Sept 30, 1999

Dear friends,

Last night I attended a meeting of the local Y2K WASH (World Atomic Safety Holiday) group to hear from the inspiring WASH co-founder Yumi Kikuchi (who, incidentally, is returning today to a Japan embroiled in a major nuclear accident). (For those unfamiliar with WASH, it is urging that all nuclear power plants be put on stand-by during the rollover, that all nuclear plant backup energy systems be beefed up, and that US and Russian nuclear weapons be de-alerted.) Our meeting last night gave birth to an intriguing activist program which I believe may have broader applications. Here's what emerged:


Part I: Grassroots advocacy

At first we explored the normal grassroots citizens campaign strategies, particularly
-- writing letters to various government officials,
-- getting Y2K-nuclear issues aired on talk shows (with interviews and call-ins) and
-- supporting full-page ads in The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Then we got a bit more creative and sophisticated with ideas like
-- getting small children to send postcards to the Bennett/Dodd Senate Y2K committee and to John Koskinen,
-- establishing personal relationships by phone with Bennett/Dodd staffers and
-- proposing official letters that city and county officials could sign and send to nuclear officials or Koskinen.

(You can call the office of John Koskinen, Chair of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion at 202-456-7171 and the Senate Y2K Committee office at 202-224-5224 to remind them to act now to ensure our safety from y2k-related nuclear accidents.)


Part II: Lawsuits

Then Cynthia Beal suggested that we connect up with Paloma O'Riley's new Y2K Public Safety Accountability Project (email:, web: or, which is exploring how threatening lawsuits may help officials to take more responsibility for Y2K. As Paloma wrote ten days ago:

"September 25th 1999 I'll be leaving the Cassandra Project
to follow up related interests. For many months I've been
disturbed about the lack of concern and appropriate level
of response by municipalities, etc., across the country.
Cajoling, debating, etc., has had little effect. The one
strategy that does seem to successfully elicit a response
is the specter of personal accountability."

She explains further on her new site:
"It is unconscionable that a person whose responsibility includes safeguarding public health and welfare, should allow personal opinion or fear of ridicule to take precedence over their professional obligations. If Y2K problems result in preventable personal harm, then these individuals should be held accountable."

Her new project's stated mission is "to motivate officials, administrators and individuals whose responsibility includes safeguarding the public, to develop contingency plans and public awareness campaigns for potential Y2K problems."

Since nuclear safety is a major Y2K public safety issue, Cynthia was suggesting that WASH connect up with Paloma's project, to give WASH demands some teeth.


Part III: Citizen monitoring

Then Mark Robinowitz (email:, web: ) suggested that there should be a network of citizens with geiger counters (Mark had a small $300 model) all over the country and the world to track nuclear releases. As long as there is a functioning Web, they could put their collective findings on one or more publicly-accessible websites. If there isn't a functioning Web, they should be connected through local short-wave (Ham) radio networks. Nuclear power reactor facilities (of which there are more military than civilian in the US) often deny radioactive releases; this would not be possible if there were documented grassroots evidence of increased radioactivity. The patterns of radioactivity recorded by different sources could pinpoint the source. This is a powerful model of citizen monitoring. Y2K community groups could raise the money for a geiger counter.

Mark notes: "Cheap geiger counters can be acquired at Geiger counters DO monitor gamma radiation, [but] they do a more poor job w/alpha and beta radiation."


Part IV: Synergy

During the meeting, some of these ideas were proposed as alternatives to each other, and there was a bit of bickering about which strategy was the best and why ("officials ignore letters," "no one's going to buy geiger counter," etc). But what became clear to me as the meeting proceeded was that there was tremendous potential synergy among all three parts, as embodied by the next sentence, which is what the whole WASH campaign could be telling nuclear and Y2K officials, collectively:

"We are going to tell you what you need to do to be responsible to the public (and this will establish a standard for what lawyers call "due diligence"), and we are going to track what you do. If you mess up, we're going to sue you." [I've been thinking this morning that we could also add a carrot: "If you do well, we will reward you" -- for example, with some public recognition for social responsibility.]

Experts, public officials, and corporations SHOULD be a resource for the democratic efforts of the people to ensure their common welfare. (Unfortunately, it is usually the other way around: ordinary people are a source of wealth and power for corporations, public officials and experts.) The organizing model stumbled upon in our WASH meeting offers an interesting way to set things straight -- one that extends far beyond Y2K.



In a conversation after the meeting, Cynthia noted that many nuclear power plants are surrounded by food production (e.g., farms) or processing (e.g., canning) industries. If their food is irradiated -- AND IF THAT FACT IS KNOWN TO THE PUBLIC -- then that food is worse than worthless, and the name of the company that made it is tarnished. Therefore, it is very much in the interests of the food producers to make sure that no nuclear accidents happen at nuclear power installations in their vicinity. A few calls from the CEOs of local food producers to the CEOs of local power plants saying, "If you release any radioactivity that endangers our food, we're going to sue you for damages" would make a lovely complement to messages from local citizens saying "If you release any radioactivity that endangers our health and children, we're going to sue you. And we'll be watching you carefully."

I am no lover of our adversarial legal system. It is not designed to create optimum solutions for all. However, in our imperfect world, the use of coercive people-power and threat of legal action to support the common good provides a vital corrective feedback mechanism to balance the profit-maximizing tendencies of the market and the SYA dynamics of our adversarial political culture.

Maybe someday we'll have co-intelligent institutions through which public wisdom can guide the affairs of our societies. Until then, I hope more communities and activities try out the kind of synergy represented by this model of activism stumbled upon by our little WASH meeting last night. I encourage anyone interested in becoming part of these larger efforts to contact the email addresses and websites given below.





For WASH, visit or write

For the Y2K Accountability Project, visit or write

For the Citizen Radiation Tracking Network or information about acquiring geiger counters, contact Mark Robinowitz at

PS from Cynthia Beal:

Downwinder plumes are quite capable of reaching everyone
just where they are. Grass eaten by cows downwind of places like Three
Mile Island results in milk chocolate products that have bits of stuff in
them folks wouldn't normally choose to eat if they knew they were there.
If just 1,000 people worldwide had geiger counters (which they do)
downwind of nuclear facilities and there was a website to log readings
into that was run by citizens, this could be an instantaneous early
warning sytem that would help alert others to problems, similar to the
firewatchers for the Forest Service, or any of a number of citizen alert

The general populace doesn't need to believe there is a y2k problem for
the CEO of General Mills or Hershey Chocolate Company to recognize that
their food stuffs may be at risk from Nuclear (or water or chemical)

And don't forget that thousands of warheads are trained upon you and I at this
very moment, set to fire upon notice *by a computer* if it thinks the
property/people it's guarding have been fired upon. Nuclear safety
standards are being relaxed. Everything hasn't been checked out,
because there was not enough time.

De-alerting and de-coupling, as well as implementing double or triply
redundant power supplies for emergencies, are what the WASH campaign is
calling for. [Although] the general public is not perceiving a
problem, that may have something to do with the fact that CBS and NBC
are owned by the two largest nuclear producing companies, General Electric
and Westinghouse. (just guessing about the connection between the
ownership of the networks and the informational content in them, you
understand...) If our congress people are going to opt for disinfo in
order to keep the public calm, that's no excuse for them to lull their own
selves to sleep, as well.