and Nuclear Energy
Where it all began
They gathered from across the land
To work in the secrecy of the desert sand
All of the brightest boys
To play with the biggest toys
More than they barginned for...
"Achtung! Alles Lookenpeepers! Das reactinmachine is nicht for gefingerpoken und mittengrabben. Ist easy schnappen der spingenwerk, blowenfusen, und poppenkorken mit spitzensparken. Ist nichg for gerwerken by das dumkopfen. Das rubbernecken sightseeren keepen hand in das pockets. Relaxen und watch das blinkenlights!"
December 3, 1990
Introduction Summary of Parts I & II, state position Intro to Part I Silly People: A look at grounding I.A. Individual human rights I.A.1 Life, liberty, and other fables I.A.2 The right to power & domination I.A.3 Future generations I.B. Environmental concerns I.B.1 "I speak for the squirrels!" I.B.2 Man's place on the energy chain I.B.3 Responsibility I.C. The proper role of government I.C.1 Hide our worries, any ugliness I.C.2 Standard of living I.C.3 Regulation (NRC-AEC-DOE-etc) Intro to Part II Nuclear Energy: Our newest toy II.A. Safety II.A.1 Notable exceptions II.A.2 The value of a life II.A.3 How safe need they be? II.B. Utility II.B.1 "Too cheap to meter" II.B.2 The value of life II.B.3 Environmental soundness II.C. A shady future II.C.1 Weapons race still going strong II.C.2 Economic failures II.C.3 Space: the final landfill Conclusion Progress, progress, progress
Human beings in general, and American humans in particular, have always been fascinated by power. The power to control their environment, to fulfil their dreams, to "make things go." With the Industrial Revolution, Western culture embarked on a power trip that rivaled anything in human history, as old assumptions about the limitations of human power were cast down and refuted again and again. As a species, we achieved speeds beyond those given any of nature's children; built cities that competed with geological formations in size and wonder; and walked through remote lands that had never known the touch of paw or boot. With each new achievement, as we broke past each old barrier, came a new burst of technological know-how. We came to rely on science to give us the key to open whatever door we found balking us--a key, or at least a ready axe. The pioneering work of doctors Einstein and Oppenheimer, Fermi and Curi‰, has provided us with our newest tool in the daemon of nuclear energy. I think that upon examination, nuclear energy will be found to be a perfectly reasonable and efficient means of generating American electricity, given the value our country currently places on the well-being of the individual and environment.
Is nuclear energy really any different from previous tools we have developed and mastered, and if so, how? Anti-nuclear activists would have us believe that it is different, magnitudes greater in danger to both its wielders and our less developed charges. I find that difficult to accept, not because of any inherit safety in nuclear energy--if anything, it is potentially far more dangerous than protestors make it out to be--but because people tend to forget how much damage humanity has already wrecked in the world, in the name of our own progress towards total environmental domination. Dr. John Gofman, in his essay "George Orwell Understated the Case" (Kaku 56), listed several issues of grounding which need settlement before the details of implementing or dismantling a nuclear industry can be addressed. Among them are: the identification of human rights, as held by the individual and the masses; and the proper role of government. To this list I would add concern for the environment, in terms of what value we do and should place on its care. By looking at how we assign terms of value, we can perhaps best determine what a fitting response shall be, whether our uncorked djinn be master or slave.
"Rights of the individual." What a mad m‚lange of causes have been called to war under that bannerhead! Who is to determine what rights any individual or group of individuals can be said to possess, or even warrant? Classical American idealism might point back to our nation's Christian roots, mayhap listing the Ten Commandments as the ultimate public guideline. However, I suspect that a quick look around us, at the people and faces among us, would fast put such hopes to rest; how well are even the first five Commandments followed by the citizenry on a daily basis, completely ignoring the second half (as we so often do)? Others look to laws of social welfare in determining what rights should be accorded every man, woman, and child. Such psychologists may be able to construct fabulous visions of utopian societies, but are oft ill-equipped to implement their fantasies in a self-serving, greed-stricken world. For myself, I would rather take my example from the creatures of nature surrounding us: any "universal rights" we might possess would likely be shared with them, and could be best found in their undiluted and unpolluted primal interactions.
Regardless of the individual's grounding and beliefs, some elements will always be shared or forced upon the citizen by society, often in the form of written laws. Americans share a heritage marked by three notable rights, as expressed in our initial Declaration of Independence from our British overlords: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [humans] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (Smith 26). Fortunately, these rights are not repeated in the Constitution, so we are not bound by law or quality of citizenship to uphold or partake of them. I say this is fortunate, because I find these three notions personally noxious, and more to the point, because they are inconsistent with my position r‚ nuclear energy. On the other hand, what we are legally bound to do is "form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" (Smith 41). These several rights, or value statements, are clearly oriented towards a large nation of people, and bear little mention of or relevance to individual welfare.
Well then, what rights does the individual have? Again looking to our natural cousins, the bird on its the branch or the bass in its brook, I would say only those pertaining to survival and advancement of the self. Assuming that humanity as a species bears no special brightness in God's eye, that we are just one more race roaming the globe of Gaea, what right have we to happiness, when the chick is devoured daily by the fox? Or how do we claim the right to liberty, when the zebra is penned within the very plains of the African grassland, imprisoned to a life of fear and flight whenever the scent of pride grows nigh? We have no rights save the right to power and domination, the same right the lioness feels within her breast as she brings down a young foal to feed her cubs. The right to exact our will upon whatever world and environment we find ourselves in. Weak individuals lack leverage to work their will on a massive and resistant world, so band together to work for mutual supremacy--but they never forget that their alliance is one of convenience only, that their union lies only in the continued assurance of increased power and authority passing to the majority of its members.
Is there no concern, then, for the welfare of others? Shall we completely disregard the well-being of our companions in conquest, each content in her or his own little shell of power? In particular, what of future generations? Must our callousness toward seasonal comrades extend as well to our offspring? Remember our pledge from above, to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." We must secure for ourselves those blessings we are not given by virtue of just being "us," and claim that we are also sworn to retain those benefits for our successors. So in this case at least, can we safely extend the concept of individual rights to another party, one related to ourselves but whose advancement does not directly affect us? Is this possible exception, rare as it is in the human example, indicative of a saving grace? Perhaps, were it fully realized, but the truth is that it often gets swept under the rug with the rest of our options which don't suggest an immediate profit. Our coal and oil industries sap the marrow from Mother Earth's bones, leaving a sadly crippled skeleton for our children to support; we strip the soil from the world's most arable fields, leaving a barren surface for our children to graze upon; we pour poisons and pollution into the very air we breathe, leaving an acrid atmosphere for our children to gasp in. No, when the time comes don't disparage nuclear energy on the grounds that it spoils the garden for future generations; we've been doing that for too long to pretend it isn't already second nature.
Given that individuals have only what rights their society deems fit to leave them, subject to approval and arbitration from a majority or Political Action Committee (PAC), is there room in this dim model of human affairs for environmental concern? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Firstly, all we've discussed to this point is what rights the individual may possess, not what goals she or he may chose to pursue. It may be that care for the environment is of extreme importance to an individual, provided that they recognize that they neither deserve to have been left with a rose garden, nor should they feel compelled to leave one. But as a matter of choice, of the freewill every one of God's children possesses, they can most certainly devote themselves in whatever degree to the preservation and/or cultivation of the environment. Secondly, the holistic nature of the universe will suggest to the most self-serving fool that one had best grant a minimum of concern to the environment, lest its fall bind you as well. The universe is too tightly bound together through its most minute particles for the destruction or decline of any significant portion to pass unnoticed. And "significance," as any environmental scientist will tell you, should be used in its most sensitive and delicate sense in this context. Perhaps the conversion of vast amounts of Uranium-238 into Plutonium-239 doesn't strike you as significant, maybe the changing of huge quantities of an element with a half-life of 4.5 billion years to one with a half-life of only 27 thousand years doesn't figure into your quarterly profits, but such changes can rarely be made to the environment without causing some major ripples in ponds that may affect you--like increasing your own chances of contracting bronchial cancer.
So what value shall we place on the lifespan of a squirrel, or the habitat of a rare primate? What kinds of cares should be taken to see that our festive cousins survive mankind's manifest destiny? Ted Geisel, writing as the ever-allegorical Dr. Seuss, created a character called the Lorax, who "spoke for the trees!" Whenever the evil industrialist, who represented human avarice and all the waste that goes with it, would attack a stand of truculent Truffula Trees in his endless greed for Thneeds, the Lorax would magically appear atop a bleeding stump and advocate Tree Rights. The Lorax has at various times been called an avatar of Jesus Christ, a post-medieval dryad, or a shorter and yellower Ralph Nader (see "The Industry's Worst Enemy," Kaku 141). Regardless of who he symbolizes in human terms, the Lorax poses some very awkward questions, happily in as influential a source as children's books. Basically, he asks of what value is a tree, or a fish (Red or Blue), or a duckling? Surprisingly, he leaves the final decision up to the reader, implying that those things have only the value we as individuals place on them. That they do not in fact have a right to peace, or freedom, or even to life, but suffer those pleasures only at our leisure. However, Mr. Geisel pulls some very strong emotional chords to suggest that he ranks their importance very high indeed. And any one of us who claims to care for their well-being, he warns, had best take a strong stand in their defence, for you will be running against the tide of human endeavor and history. But no one, and I must concur with this, is under any more obligation to care for their welfare than for his own. The freedom to lay waste to our environment is ours, implicit in the fact of self-determination, and we may do so at will, though it be at our peril.
At this point, I should like to touch on a particular quality unique to mankind, apparently in the whole of the Earth. Humanity seems to be the only truly endothermic species on the planet. I should clarify my term "endothermic" to avoid possible sources of confusion: all beings exist in a state of interaction with their environment, and are interconnected through if nothing else then by the exchange of energy with the world around them. When the trade balance of energy is biased towards the environment, implying that the entity in question outputs more energy than it receives, it is said to be exothermic. Such creatures and races rapidly expend their own sources of energy and are then said to be extinct. When the trade balance is weighted the other way, and the entity receives more energy than it outputs, one of two things can happen. One, the environment (in this case the Earth, or perhaps the Universe as a whole) can shrivel up and die, having spent all of its precious energy on the demands of one power-mad race; or two, the environment can look ahead towards its own demise, and in angered response turn on its greedy progeny and destroy them, perhaps simply by cutting off their supply of energy. For almost 100,000 years, humanity existed in a rough equilibrium with its environment, giving back most or all of what it took from the Earth. The past century or so, however, man has embarked on an entirely new relationship with his mother world, having apparently decided that the time for fairness was past and, in effect, demanding the sum of his inheritance immediately. Now I must repeat that this was not necessarily wrong--man has the right, as does every other creature, to seek and dominate as he wishes. But this choice was perhaps not made consciously by the majority of souls involved, and so I would warn them here (as elsewhere) that they must either rescind their decision, or pay an uncertain but likely hefty penalty.
In essence, the central question of environmental concern is one of responsibility. To whom shall we be responsible, and how will we let it affect our own desires? My premise is that we should first be responsible to ourselves, then to that which we have claimed as our own. Children, pets, the sweeping grasslands and buffalo Wendell Berry so misses, the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, all are valid subjects for which we may express concern and take responsibility. Each individual may pick among the myriad matters available today as she or he wishes, but would be advised to chose topics which reflect the interconnected relationships stretching throughout the world. Environmental concern is a logically valid subject for anyone who has claimed an interest in the future of the world or in any peoples who may inhabit it. Having taken responsibility for any given issue, such as the environmentally active have done, one is then impelled to support and uphold a position on that issue. I support environmental conservation for a variety of reasons, most importantly because it encourages autonomy of self and species, meshes well with my fondness for Generational Humanism (cf Zieg 11/26/90), and presents an interesting technical challenge. Having taken a stance for the preservation of our global reservation, I am now obliged to explore various responsible courses of action regarding nuclear energy.
Yet there is one more question deserving reflection before the details of nuclear proliferation can be discussed. Having examined the rights and responsiblities of the individual, what shall be the proper role of the government? American government, though supposedly elected by the people with the intention of representing and enacting the wishes of the people, so often distorts or manipulates the attitudes of the people that it may best be regarded as a seperate entity, not necessarily dependent on the will of the masses. Yet the government holds enormous power over many industries which directly affect the people, among which is commercial nuclear power. What role should the government play in the battle currently being waged over the acceptance and endorsement of nuclear energy? A clearly defined response to this doubt is vitally important, because the federal government is perhaps the only participant in the debate with sufficient funding, media support, and executive power capable of making or breaking the issue with a single decree. Presently, and in the recent past, the government has expressed extreme support for the nuclear establishment, and has been properly called the sole subsidizer of nuclear energy (see "The Economics of Electric Power Generation--1975-2000," Murphy 55). However, industry embarrassments such as Three Mile Island (TMI) and Chernobyl have left a strong impression on the public's perception of plant safety, leading many prominent government agencies to withdraw their support from the nuclear movement. Just how this shift will affect the future of American nuclear power has yet to be determined, but it suggests a closer inspection of what we the people feel the government's proper function to be.
Typically, the American people don't seem terribly interested in expressing their views about nuclear power to the government, where said views could presumably be implemented as legislation and executed from a position of sovereignity. Rather, they would use the government as a cloak, to shield them from the technical hassles, human effort, and essential ugliness of generating the electricity they daily demand. How the government goes about supporting and regulating the privately owned utility companies isn't really something they care to hear about. The American people have assumed a basically Hamiltonian view of government, if indeed the Jeffersonians ever grew enough to constitute a majority. People seem to accept that things like arms exchanges for hostages, deficit spending, and high-level nuclear waste management have to exist, but have come to depend on the government for handling such unpleasant activities behind closed doors. To be sure, there are always activist groups huddling around polarized extremes of any major issue, but those issues which become controversial are consistently ones which threaten interests individuals have taken responsibility for--in this case, a responsibility for the individual's or public's health, or for cheap and abundant electricity. In general, however, most people take responsibility for as little as possible, so are willing to let a distant, photogenic government handle as much of the worry as possible.
What the people do demand from their elected and highly-paid representatives is assurances that their standard of living will rise endlessly, or at least never drop. A large part of what makes life in modern America so desirable to its citizens is the freedom given the individual by the profusion of power. Be it electrical, fossil, or natural, we feed on fuel like gluttons, and protect our trough like rats when cornered. For example, take the current situation with Kuwait in the Middle East. Americans were generally benevolent towards Hussein, as he was good enough to throw bombs at that nasty Khomieni. However, once Iraq stepped on American oil interests, we underwent the most remarkable reversal in attitudes. Suddenly, Saddam becomes the Antichrist, antithesis of all that is wholesome, good, and American. What happened? Americans were threatened with loss of their precious power, in the form of rising petroleum prices at the local Stop'n'Go. I suspect that the same reaction might occur should anti-nuclear sentiments ever seriously threaten the American thirst for energy. The American people is willing to let the government waffle on its nuclear position at the moment, because right now nuclear power plants generate only 17% of the electricity fed into the public grids, and that could be easily made up through increased coal and gas consumption. But should those natural reserves ever falter, and environmental activisim ever begin to cut into the availability of cheap electric power, history shows what the people's probable response would be.
For the moment, then, the primary function of the Federal government should be regulation and monitoring of the status quo. Early government offices such as the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE) over the years evolved into the modern Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA, which later merged into the Department of Energy) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), but maintained their original purpose of baseline observation and guidance. These bureaus spend the majority of their time and budget allotment on surveying existing sites, performing extended radiation studies, and funding research into future energy sources, but are generally warned not to make too many waves. Troublesome results such as the 1970 Rasmussen report (also known by its AEC number, WASH-1400), a $3 million study which indicated that the probable dangers of an operative fission plant far outweighed any potential energy benefits, were quietly suppressed and "de-toxified" (see "Second Thoughts," Kaku 97). At the present, the government is attempting to maintain the current delicate balance, by insuring active plants against damages in the case of a disasterous meltdown, while funding research into radiation poisoning and faults in plant emergency safety systems.
Hopefully we have now established some common grounding from which to discuss the literal facts of nuclear energy. By defining such value terms as individual rights, environmental concern, and governmental action, we can enter into a productive debate without engaging in a pointless contest of clashing assumptions. So what are the primary issues involved in nuclear energy? I believe they can be narrowed down to three main points of interest, namely safety, utility, and future implications, without oversimplifying and losing sight of the larger picture. It is important to keep all three of these facets in mind whenever considering a prospective decision on nuclear power, for between them they cover most of the banes and blessings involved in atomic pile buildup. Nuclear power is mankind's newest and greatest techno-toy, unleashing unimaginable amounts of energy. But is the yoke being placed on the proton or on people? Are we binding ourselves to an energy source we may one day have cause to curse? Is there, as the anti-nuclear activists claim, a qualitative as well as quantitative difference between this and other potentially dangerous technologies? These are the questions we must now answer, as we face directly into the core of the controversy.
Probably the greatest single fault protestors have with the nuclear industry is reactor safety. No one has denied that a functional, fully operative power station poses little active threat to the surrounding community (and planet). The radiation given off by the largest and leakiest plants never results in an exposure of more than 170 millirems per year to any given population sample (a millirem is a unit of radiation tissue damage, where 1000 millirems will likely induce cancer). Normal radiation levels (released by commercial, not military, nuclear plants) are accepted by protestors and promoters alike, for they really don't threaten the public. What causes nightmares for both activists and utility companies is the prospect of an accident, some unforeseen release of radiation into the surrounding countryside. Throughout the fifties and sixties, nuclear plants were thought to be unquestionably safe by Federal, commercial, and university inspectors. There had never been even a slight leakage, and no one really thought that one could occur. Then in the seventies, the government sponsored a series of reports giving an in-depth evaluation of plant safety. Surprisingly, what the investigators found was that previous probabilities of plant failure, initially given at one major malufunction per million reactor-years, fell far short. The WASH-1400 report (q.v.) upped that figure to one in a few thousand reactor-years, and even Rasmussen is now thought to have been over-optimistic. Working with figures pruned from government, industry, and his own studies, Jan Beyea forcast in 1982 that "a meltdown in the next decade...is highly likely" (see "Second Thoughts," Kaku 97).
Not four years later he was proved right, as the Chernobyl explosion rocked the world. On April 26, 1986, Soviet reactor Unit No. 4 blew a cloud of radioactive dust into the atmosphere that was felt as rainwater and debris from Seattle to New York. Resulting in forced evacuation and radiation testing for many Soviet citizens in the Kiev area, this "biblical calamity" (Greenwald 44) was exactly the sort of disaster American protestors had waited for and feared. Nor were protestors without domestic example, as the TMI incident proved. On March 28, 1979, just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a small pump valve stuck open, allowing too much cooling water to drain out of the reactor core. This relatively commonplace failure became crucial when, for unknown (or unreleased) reasons, the plant operators decided to shut off the station's emergency cooling systems. As a result, the core was left exposed for over ten hours, roughly thirty minutes less than the time estimated for a serious meltdown. Although no dangerous levels of radiation were released, what most impressed (and terrified) inspection officials was how close the plant safety systems came to cracking. Pro-nuclear lobbiests point to TMI as proof that given even a potentially disasterous sequence of machine and human failures, the backup systems contained the malfunction. Anti-nuclear activists instead focus on how far the chain of breakdowns progressed before it was halted. A point which disturbed both parties is that the accident, one included in the WASH-1400 report, happened nearly 400 years before it was statistically expected.
But no lives were lost at Three Mile Island, and while data on cancer fatalities and radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl accident will take years to collate, activists seem willing to accept that the fault lies with inferior Soviet design and standards rather than with the technology involved. Still, it becomes hard to deny that some lives will inevitably be lost as humanity strives to master the nuclear dervish, and many of those will likely be relatively innocent civilians. Here it becomes necessary to define, if possible, the value of a human life. (I am ignoring the value of animal and organic life, because the cattle and logging industries, to give two very small examples, fully describe the attitude America has taken toward care for individuals within our biosphere.) Nothing I have said will earn as much outcry with the public as my position here, but I must say that the value of a human life is virtually nil. Whether it began that way or not I cannot know, but I believe that the insolent disregard our species has expressed for other races on the globe can only be repaid by displaying the same unconcern for our own well-being. As I see no essential difference between our race and our plant and animal brethren, and since we have apparently determined that our cousin species exist solely in deference to ourselves, I conclude that humanity collectively and as individuals has no discernable merit. As such, the only value we may ascribe to the advancement of humanity (or sub-groups within it) comes through responsibility we, as individuals, chose to accept. Personally, I have taken responsibility for the advancement of humanity as a technological culture, in fragile hopes of some day elevating it to a point where it may redeem itself for its past mistakes and possibly add something beautiful to the Universe. To the many individuals who may fall by the way as mankind struggles to achieve that vision, including myself, I give no thought.
How safe, then, need a reactor be? Not very, by the statements of value and vision I have just made. Even the most speculative detractors of nuclear energy (not weapons, mind you) doubt that it will ever result in as many deaths as, for example, highway accidents (see "The Safety of Nuclear Energy," Hoyle 56. And if you have trouble swallowing the worth I place on human life, look at how many people still don't bother to wear seat belts and tell me that they value even their own lives.) Even in a worst-case full-scale meltdown, nuclear power plants simply don't have the wherewithal to do serious harm to the human species; at the moment, the AIDS virus poses more of a threat to our collective survival (not that that's a good arguement for promoting nuclear power). The "China Syndrome," a fanciful concept popularized by the movie of the same name, is a technical impossibility--even should a "hot" core melt through the floor of the containment chamber, it would cool and entomb itself in bedrock within fifty feet of the surface. And the genetic dangers associated with radioactive contamination, what of the threat they pose to our offspring? Almost none, it turns out, and far less than the damage we do to our genes ourselves every day. Living a year on the outskirts of a nuclear waste processing facility, possibly the dirtiest locale a young couple could choose to start a family, would increase the likelihood of genetic mutation by approximately the same degree as the constrictive and heating effects of the father wearing pants normally for 22 days (see "Exaggerating the Risks," Kaku 69). In summary, nuclear plants offer no serious danger to the future of our species, and even in their earliest, most accident-prone years have done less damage to the environment than all the oils spills and coal burning which fell during the past fifty years.
Having glanced at the dangers of nuclear energy and effectively dispensed of them, what are the possible boons to be had from harnessing the atom? Electricity that is "too cheap to meter" ran a catchy slogan back in the fifties. Although it was soon proved false as rising plant construction and maintence costs bit into production bills, power management engineers still insist that nuclear energy can be cheaper than any other consumptive source, and more efficient than cleaner solutions such as solar or hydroponic. Nuclear power should also prove environmentally sound (for those who chose to care), once a Federal waste depository site is finalized. Until such time as science figures out a way to neutralize fission by-products or by-pass the fission process altogether, a sealed waste facility (possibly entrenched in deep salt formations) would be an acceptable temporary holding place for all of the excess isotopes we've generated in fifty years. Beyond those wastes, a conversion to nuclear powered electricity could keep thousands of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere each year, and generate hopes of one day escaping our dependency on fossil fuels. And for those who fear that mankind is fast depleting our planetary energy reserves, take heart: given current levels of power consumption, we've enough nuclear fuel to run our planes and trains for millions of years yet--long past the point when new sources of energy should be available (such as the astroid belt, or Jupiter's atmosphere; see "Settlements in the Oort Cloud," Dalby 25).
Free electricity--a heady concept, for today's fast-paced power-mad culture. Nuclear power wouldn't provide it, but it could create an energy source independent of price fluctuations due to such extraneous concerns as diplomatic relations and third-world foolishness. Before the utility companies can begin to deliver such performance, however, America needs to make a commitment to nuclear energy. People have accepted the fact that highway driving at seventy miles-per-hour increases their chances of dying in a traffic accident, pollutes the environment, and guzzles fuel--but they do it anyway, because they have chosen to care more for optimized travel time than for those other risks. As Anthony Nero points out regarding nuclear energy:
...the net risk to society is small compared with other risks that we accept routinely. For example, airline accidents can also kill hundreds of people, and these occur with notable frequency. The consequences of dam failures could be even larger, thousands or tens of thousands of deaths, and these have higher probability than large reactor accidents. Ironically even these large-consequence accidents contribute, on the average, only a few hundred deaths per year of the over-100,000 total accidents suffered by the U.S. public annually. These arise almost entirely from relatively high-probability small accidents: automobile collisions, fires, falls, etc. Even if the average risk from nuclear accidents were as much as ten deaths per year for each reactor, similar to the liability from an ordinary coal-fired plant, this would contribute very little risk to the public ("Safe Enough," Kaku 86).
Americans have yet to accept responsibility for nuclear proliferation largely because to give in too readily, accede too quickly to the suggestion that their greed for power will inevitably endanger the lives of their children, might cause them to take too sharp a look at their own standards and values, something they don't really want to do. Acceptance of nuclear power will come slowly, but it will come, because humanity in general, most notably in the American instance, has always placed convenience and power over responsibility for others. When we want the power badly enough, picket signs will be left to rot by the roadside.
Once more, it is worth inspecting the value of life--this time, not the value we place on the actual entity and its continued ability to grow, reproduce, feed, feel, and love, but on those qualities and activities of life we sense are important. Given that the existence of a single person may not be of any significance to the world at large, what is it within her or his life that makes being special? Must it always be the aquisition and consumption of power? Surely not, as a perusal of human literature and poetry--the dreams of a people written out, as it were--will reveal. Our ideals outwardly continue to soar, holding that romance and altruism, philanthropy and generosity are what make life really worth living. Emotion, not energy. Passion, not power. That is what we like to belive, what we keep telling ourselves. But look around. The Holocaust happened, not once, but a thousand times in human history. People regularily dump poisonous waste into reservoirs and rivers just upstream of swimming children. Not just money-hungry executives and C.E.O.s, either--those trucks are driven by Real Working Class Joes, who probably have a brat or two in the schools themselves. We all act like we care, as if children and family unity were the most important things in the world, but do we act out any of those supposed concerns? I think that before we hold rallies in front of nuclear plants and government offices, groups who are only trying desperately to supply the power we endlessly demand, we accertain that we are protesting on the basis of our actual beliefs, the ones we live out every day, and not just the ones we tell ourselves, in the dead of night, when we try to fight off haunted dreams.
One belief nuclear energy can perhaps salvage unravaged is concern for the environment. Even with all of the filth you may hear about nuclear waste products (it's mostly true), nuclear power production is still easier on the environment than coal-burning plants, or any other energy source we've found that can match the huge demands made by the American people. The biggest holdup in terms of environmental safety, in fact, is waiting for the government to build its long-promised Federal Waste Depository; a wait which has been only lengthened by people protesting government subsidization of the nuclear industry! Once that facility has been established (a site is currently in the last stages of inspection in the Northwest), there is no reason why we couldn't see a pair of concave water towers peeping out over every major city, rather than hordes of smoke-stacks belching tons of chemicals into the air. If protestors would only hold off for a bit, I think they would find that we are very close indeed to achieving a safe (relative to other accepted dangers), eco-conscious (relative to the coal-burning plants), and conservationist (relative to any other consumptive industry on the planet) nuclear energy source.
But they may not be willing to wait that long. Already the future of nuclear energy looks dim. Most nuclear research is still devoted to military purposes, and atomic bomb testing forms a ready focus for activist fanatics who wish to close down the plants for safety reasons. As the NRC is forced to change plant license specifications again and again, often in the middle of construction, plant costs climb and scare away potential buyers. One of the most lucrative new markets for the besieged industry, space exploration and exploitation, may soon be closed off if protestors have their way. I have faith, however, that nuclear energy will become a dominant force in the near future, if only because humanity has yet to figure out how to bottle a demon once released. It may just take time for the public to realize that a published technology can never be wholly forgotten, or to conclude that enough protest has been lodged that they can tolerably forgo additional complaint and use the power they desire without appearing to be social monsters. This is undeniably a crucial stage in the development of large-scale nuclear power, and a major domestic accident at this point would certainly set the industry back on its heels for some time to come. But as long as America remains a free state, there will be nuclear research at the university and private level, and should it ever come under a harsher rule, the same research will no doubt take place behind closed government doors. Regardless, science will progress, and eventually an avenue of safe nuclear power will be discovered and implemented.
The atomic age began with the military, and has never been able to fully pull away from the Department of Defence's grasp.
In the dying days of a war
A weapon that would settle the score
Whoever found it first
Would be sure to do their worst
They always had before...
Unfortunately, the military has retained a virtual bottleneck on many crucial elements of nuclear research, making life extremely difficult for the struggling commercial sector. By classifying entire fields of study, companies such as Westinghouse and General Electric (two of the largest nuclear contractors) must rely on their own limited research, which cuts their profits and pushes up costs, and wait for whatever elements of state-funded university research might pass their way. It has been the hope of many that recent shifts in Soviet domestic policy would result in huge cut-backs in nuclear armament. Indeed, that did seem to be the case when Presidents Bush and Gorbachev met and agreed to disassemble all of their intermediate-range nuclear forces; however, those warheads were simply taken back to the processing plants to be used for more military research. On October 24, 1990, Russian citizens off the coast of Novaya Zemlya felt the blast of the first Soviet atomic bomb testing in over a year. Two weeks later in the South Pacific, the French detonated one of their first atomic bombs as they prepare their own nuclear strike force. Obviously, nuclear energy is still seen as a primarily military issue by much of the civilized world, and until that mindset is broken (only by an even bigger bomb, of course) the nuclear industry will be simultaneously buoyed and suppressed by its military regents.
The industry is further harrassed by its own internal overruns. When the first few plants opened, one could be had for the meager sum of $200 million dollars and a six to seven year construction plan; now plant managers can only grimace as they are handed a bill of lading after nearly $2 billion dollars and a thirteen year wait. Every year protestors can hold up a station's turn-on date appends $100 million to the plant cost, and such delays can be added easily enough by: pressuring labor unions to strike; convincing the NRC to pass some new safety legislation at the last moment, requiring all-new design and construction specifications to be drawn up; or simply sponsoring a noisy press release about radiation leakage and waiting for federal inspection crews to pour over old plans and further hamper the process. Some utility companies, tired of the endless quibbling and ready to retire gracefully, have even expressed a desire to shut down operative plants, but have not done so because they can't think of a way to do it without losing billions more (see "The Effects of a Nuclear Phase-Out," Kaku 160). Once more, these cost overruns should not be seen as an intrinsic fault of the technology or American engineering ability; rather, they are the product of countless delays engendered by the anti-nuclear lobbyists who delight in tying up plant construction and licensing at every feasible legal point. What people have not yet realized is that nuclear power is here to stay and that all we can do is learn to deal with it responsibly. By blocking plant construction and cutting funding for further research facilities such as the Special Power Excursion Reactor Test (SPERT) and Loss Of Fluid Test (LOFT) stations, activists are only pushing back the development and refinement of the technology we need to make nuclear power a safe and durable energy option.
The final horizon in the future of nuclear power is just that: the horizon. That thin line seperating our planet from the dark reaches of outer space. In the early sixties, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had great hopes for nuclear energy; they foresaw it being used to power everything from orbital platforms to lunar bases to intersystem spacecraft. Many of those hopes were allowed to vanish as NASA entered its post-Apollo slump, a black era which was only starting to dissipate when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up. In fact, it was that tragedy, more than any technical difficulty, that nearly halted the advancement of human nuclear energy into the solar system. Parents and concerned citizens from across the continent wrote in to their congressmen, asking that radioactive cargo be banned from future Shuttle flights. With such recent flops as the Challenger and the Hubble Space Telescope clouding its own future, NASA seems unlikely to go out on a limb for the endorsement of a nuclear-powered space program. Fortunately, the European Space Agency (ESA) is apparently willing to step into the gap with its nuclear-powered Ulysses, a space probe designed to explore the surface of the Sun (itself a huge nuclear reactor). When the Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off from Cape Canaveral with Ulysses in its cargo bay, it signalled a singular victory for both space- and nuclear-enthusiasts, as the two industries finally came together in a spectacular collaboration.
Nuclear power has the potential to be man's greatest tool in his quest for expansion and expression. It represents quantities of power we haven't even begun to apply, and opens doors that we perhaps haven't matured enough as a species to pass through. But it is power, and we have it, and regardless of what some may insist, we will never knowingly turn down such puissance. "Nuclear power certainly involves some risk," admitted Floyd W. Lewis, Chairman of Middle South Utilities, Inc., "but I know of no other high-technology industry which can point to the most serious accident in its history and say truthfully that no one was killed or injured" (Kaku 32). "If you're worried about the dangers," Dr. Bernard L. Cohen suggested, "then worry instead about people being poor and miserable from lack of energy" (Kaku 85). Given the value our country currently places on the well-being of the individual and environment, nuclear energy is a perfectly reasonable and efficient means of generating American electricity. We have it, we will use it, so we might as well bear down and look at solving the technical and social problems that still exist within it. "People resent probabilities," concluded Dr. Harold W. Lewis, "but it's only fair to deal with these things quantitatively. Those who say 'there shouldn't be one life lost' may enjoy the chest beating, but it's just plain silly" (Kaku 85).
When it all began
The pilot of "Enola Gay"
Flying out of the shockwave
On that August day
All the powers that be
And the course of history
Would be changed for evermore...