By Linda Pentz Gunter / CounterPunch
Note: During a visit to Japan, including to the destroyed Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant site, US Representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken Democrat from Queens, New York, made a series of Instagram posts. Despite being loaded with errors of fact and science, her pronouncements were seized upon by the nuclear power propagandists, heralding her as the latest defector from the “Left” to the pro-nuclear power cause — even though nuclear power is in fact not a partisan issue; a majority of elected Democrats support it. AOC did not state overtly that she supported nuclear power. But her errors are costly — to her credibility, as well as to the climate cause.
In April, Ralph Nader’s new newspaper, the Capitol Hill Citizen, printed Linda Pentz Gunter’s article, republished below, specifically about AOC’s descriptions of reprocessing. (AOC also made errors about Japan’s energy situation in her other Instagram posts from her trip.)
Capitol Hill Citizen comes out in print only. To subscribe or purchase single copies, click here.
The progressive Democratic congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has 8.6 million followers on her Instagram account, a number identical to the online readership of the New York Times.
With her rock star-like AOC moniker and plenty of adoring fans, what the U.S. representative from Queens, New York writes or says has an impact. And it needs to be accurate. Presumably that is why Members of Congress deploy a slew of aides, tasked with delivering the details on a likely sometimes overwhelming array of topics.
When it comes to nuclear power, however, the Congresswoman from New York appears to be flying solo. Either that, or her aides are failing to do their homework. AOC’s stance on nuclear power was as confusing — and arguably as confused — during the introduction of the short-lived Green New Deal four years ago as her latest venture on Instagram after her February 2023 trip to Japan.
In 2019, after a February 7 joint press conference to roll out the blueprint for a Green New Deal alongside fellow Democrat, Senator Ed Markey, AOC’s office published details of the plan with nuclear power explicitly excluded. There was an immediate backlash, after which the reference to nuclear power’s exclusion was abruptly deleted. Asked to explain the switch, AOC told reporters that the Green New Deal “leaves the door open on nuclear so we can have that conversation” and that she herself did not “take a strong anti- or pro-position on it.”
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From Japan earlier this year, AOC delivered a series of bubbly Instagram updates, mostly expressing her delight with Japan’s bullet trains. After her visit to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, site of the devastating March 2011 explosions and triple meltdowns, she put up a series of informational posts, then stumbled badly on the final question, which asked: “France uses nuclear power. How do they manage it differently? They don’t have earthquakes….”
For reasons that remain unclear, other than the French connection, AOC used this opportunity to launch what sounded unmistakably like praise for the end phase of nuclear power production — reprocessing. Only she called it “recycling”, a deliberately misleading industry term that masks the highly polluting operations involved in reprocessing, which takes irradiated reactor fuel and separates the plutonium from uranium in a chemical bath.
She then made a series of points, all of which were either factually or scientifically inaccurate, or both. We reached out to AOC’s press office for a response, but as of press time there was none.
These missteps begged the question as to the source of the Congresswoman’s information. Her use of the term “recycling” suggests that she, like most of her colleagues on the Hill, defers to the nuclear industry itself to sell her a highly sanitized version of its activities.
This is particularly frustrating coming from an elected official whose raison d’être is to serve as the people’s champion. Had her staff instead opened the door to eminently qualified academics on the subject, such as Princeton physicist, Frank von Hippel, never mind independent experts from the NGO world, they could have saved their boss considerable embarrassment.
Instead, AOC posted that “France recycles their nuclear waste,” even embedding the recycling logo in her text. But reprocessing does nothing of the kind.
Of that irradiated reactor fuel reprocessed at the La Hague nuclear center on France’s Normandy coast, 95% of it contains uranium products too contaminated for further use. This is trucked south for conversion and storage at the Pierrelatte/Tricastin enrichment facility, although for a time, some was shipped to Siberia. Of the remaining 5%, 4% of it is vitrified into glass logs and stored at La Hague. So is almost all of the separated plutonium, 1% of what’s left, now amounting to more than 80 tonnes.
A tiny fraction of that plutonium is “recycled” into something called Mixed-Oxide Fuel (MOX), used in 24 French reactors licensed to carry a 30% MOX fuel load. After fissioning, during which plutonium is once again produced, that waste is again shipped back to La Hague for storage.
AOC went on to explain that France’s “recycling” of nuclear waste had increased “the efficiency of their system.” It is not clear what this vague allusion means, but there is no debate about the extra costs incurred by France in choosing the reprocessing route. As a May 2007 analysis prepared for Public Citizen concluded: “The cumulative cost difference between full reprocessing and no reprocessing amounts to about $25 billion.”
AOC then wrote that French nuclear waste “recycling” was responsible for “reducing the overall amount of radioactive waste to deal with.” In fact, reprocessing irradiated fuel increases the volume of radioactive waste, while reducing only the level of radioactivity. This results in enormous discharges of so-called low- and intermediate-level but still highly radioactive wastes in the form of gases and liquids into the air and the English Channel. It is this that makes reprocessing arguably the dirtiest and most carcinogenic phase of the entire nuclear industry.
AOC also noted that “Japan sends its waste to France and the UK for recycling”. This practice was suspended some years ago, but when it was happening, it comprised more than 160 ship transports of at least 7,000 tons of lethal radioactive cargo, including plutonium, the trigger component for nuclear bombs, an inviting target for terrorists. Most of the reprocessed fuel was then returned to Japan, either in vitrified form or as MOX.
Surely none of this qualifies as recycling?
Needless to say, the pro-nuclear lobby seized on these pronouncements, turning AOC into the latest enviro-convert to the pro-nuclear side. She even garnered headlines in the French press, including in the conservative daily, Le Figaro, where a columnist exhorted French environmentalists to take inspiration from AOC’s epiphany and “abandon their anti-nuclear ideology”.
Newsweek characterized AOC’s Instagram posts as indicative of “The Left’s Changing Position on Nuclear Energy,” in its headline and suggested that “her appraisal of the fuel that provides 19 percent of Americans’ electricity seemed almost warm.”
All of this attention, whether invited or unwanted, prompted yet another ambiguous statement from AOC’s communications director, Lauren Hitt, who told Newsweek “We don’t have any changes in the Congresswoman’s policy posture re[garding] nuclear to announce as of now.”
But what exactly is Rep. Acasio-Cortez’s policy posture on nuclear power? That remains exasperatingly unclear.
Linda Pentz Gunter
Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.