To the Editor:
I should like to express my appreciation to COMMENTARY and Samuel McCracken for “The War Against the Atom” [September], . . . a welcome addition to the popular literature on this important topic. Misinformation pervades the nuclear controversy at all levels of discussion. . . . What bothers me most about this problem is the extent to which the mass media (TV documentaries in particular) have presented almost exclusively the truth according to Ralph Nader . . . and company. TV producers appear to have succumbed once again to the temptation to acquire a larger audience by spreading the story that thousands are going to be killed rather than presenting scientific explanations in excess of three sentences which indicate that this might not happen. A recent petition campaign by those opposed to nuclear power, in which thousands of dollars were spent, received 2,300 scientists’ signatures and was given extensive press coverage. Meanwhile, a privately-circulated petition supporting nuclear power received 50,000 scientists’ signatures but almost no press coverage. What explains these performances by those allegedly committed to the public’s “right to know”?
Albuquerque, New Mexico
To the Editor:
I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read an article like Samuel McCracken’s, refuting the distortions presented by the anti-nuclear groups. . . .
To the Editor:
Samuel McCracken’s patient and knowledgeable plea for developing our nuclear power capabilities deserves the highest praise. When he gives short shrift to the chances of tapping other energy sources, however, he leaves himself open to rebuttals. In the September 16, 1977 issue of Science, two authorities on solar energy, A.F. Hildebrandt and L.L. Vant-Hull, convincingly argue in favor of mirror systems in 100-megawatt units for which the sun-drenched deserts of the Southwest are a first-site choice. Transmission of electrical energy to population centers 1,000 miles away is, of course, no problem. Since, according to the article, one 100-megawatt plant covers about 1.4 square miles, 1000 megawatts (Mr. McCracken’s figure) can be produced by mirrors and towers covering 14 square miles and not 50 square miles, the figure cited by Mr. McCracken. It is clear, however, that even 50 square miles is a mere fraction of the land surface available in the U.S. for mirror systems, once they are backed up by the necessary industrial capacity for installing them.
To the Editor:
I wish to commend Samuel McCracken for his excellent article. Those of us who are familiar with nuclear power have been distressed by the many one-sided, often sensational, anti-nuclear articles which have appeared in the press. Replies to these attacks are often deemed not newsworthy and are buried in the back pages or not published at all. I hope that Mr. McCracken’s well-reasoned defense of nuclear power will be carefully read by many who adopted the anti-nuclear viewpoint on the basis of limited or biased information.
I must, however, disagree with Mr. McCracken on one point: the superiority of the Canadian heavy-water reactor [CANDU] to current U.S. reactors. Although the reactor core of a CANDU reactor consists of a great many relatively small high-pressure pipes, containing coolant, these pipes are gathered together by headers. The CANDU reactor coolant then flows in very large pipes to heat exchangers where steam is generated. The likelihood of one of these pipes rupturing is very, very low, but no lower than the likelihood of one of the coolant pipes of the U.S. design rupturing. A rupture of one of the large pipes in either design would have about the same consequences to the system. Emergency core-cooling systems may be expected to protect the public in both cases.
The CANDU system has been studied widely by manufaturers and utilities in the United States. All of these studies have concluded that, under U.S. conditions, a CANDU plant would have power costs considerably above those of current U.S. designs. There is no point in building a U.S. demonstration plant when utilities consider such a plant financially unattractive and when large operating plants in Canada are readily available for study.
Department of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering
University of Cincinnati
To the Editor:
The issues of nuclear energy—the extent of our current and future need for it, the problems of its safe expansion as a substitute for fossil fuels, the special questions associated with the widespread international dissemination of the technology and facilities for production of plutonium or highly enriched uranium-235, both capable of use as explosives—these are very complex issues, too serious to be treated in the flip and supercilious fashion adopted by Samuel McCracken. Certainly one does not need to be a nuclear physicist to understand and analyze these issues; but a minimum adherence to the facts would seem to be required of those who wish to influence public decision-making in this realm.
It is not the purpose of this letter to detail the numerous scientific errors in the article (radioactivity is not neutron emission; thorium is not a fissionable element; the first experimental nuclear power reactors were not breeders; there is no physical law that prohibits the production, in a reactor, of more fuel than is consumed; etc., etc.). Mr. McCracken is after all not a scientist, let alone a nuclear physicist. But he should surely be expected to check his journalistic sources. Thus, his reference to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as one of the “organizations . . . active in opposition [to nuclear power]” exhibits a woeful lack of familiarity with the sources he professes to have studied.
Any perusal of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists over the last few years would reveal at least as many articles in favor of nuclear power as in opposition—indeed, the entire spectrum of views on the future of nuclear power has, to the best of the ability of the editors, been covered in the most factual and dispassionate fashion of which the editors have been capable. Unfortunately, with the current polarization of views, such knee-jerk conservatism as Mr. McCracken’s—where one is either on the side of the establishment or automatically suspect—seems to be in the ascendancy. It would be a tragic loss to American intellectual life if the traditional open-minded approach of the American intellectual and academic community should be preempted by the zealots now pretending to speak on our behalf.
Bernard T. Feld
Editor-in-Chief, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Department of Physics, MIT
To the Editor:
. . .“The War Against the Atom” by Samuel McCracken . . . is replete with statements that pose as scientific truth but are in fact half-truths and errors. I have attempted in this lengthy letter to point out many of these statements . . . [but] a proper criticism would require a letter much longer than the original article. . . .
I will discuss in detail one example, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and then point out, briefly, the very many errors and half-truths which appear in the article.
Environmentalists, arms-control people, and most Americans are concerned with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The danger of diverting plutonium, were it separated from spent fuel, is real, and the possibility of its use as a nuclear bomb is also real. This is a problem which responsible persons take seriously. What does Mr. McCracken have to say?
Mr. McCracken downplays the usefulness of reactor-grade plutonium as a bomb source, and blames environmentalists for spreading lies. He claims that building a bomb from reactor-grade plutonium is difficult because such plutonium “is heavily contaminated with Pu-240, which can cause a bomb to explode prematurely and fizzle.” He goes on to add that it doesn’t “matter whether plutonium is an ideal substance for terrorism as long as enough people think it is,” and, for that, “prospective terrorists are getting a good deal of help from those who go about spreading lurid falsehoods . . . about the ease with which the plutonium in reactors can be made into bombs.”
Mr. McCracken is wrong. Reactor-grade plutonium of simple design can make a bomb. The methods for making such a bomb and the quantities needed are documented in the unclassified literature. The distinction between military and civilian plutonium is essentially false. According to a study by California’s Lawrence-Livermore Laboratory, even relatively simple designs using any grade of plutonium could produce “effective, highly powerful” weapons with an explosive yield equivalent to between 1,000 and 20,000 tons of TNT. . . . Richard A. Bowen, of the Division of International Security Affairs of the Energy Research and Development Administration [ERDA], has stated that the U.S. has indeed detonated a device fabricated of reactor-grade plutonium. . . . Responsible persons would say, therefore, that plutonium needs to be safeguarded both here and abroad, or, in the alternative, that it ought not to be separated from spent fuel. The latter is the position of the Sierra Club. If plutonium is safeguarded, the methods must be adequate and yet consistent with the ideals of a democratic society. It is untrue and malicious to state that establishing a repressive mechanism to track down terrorists who make false claims is a problem which is “largely the creature of the anti-nuclear movement.”
Mr. McCracken believes that it would not be easy to smuggle plutonium out of a reprocessing plant because gram quantities are detectable. But there are better methods of smuggling plutonium out of a reprocessing plant than taking gram quantities in one’s thermos. It is far easier to build up the noise level in the accounting system by removing kilogram quantities from the process lines, secreting them within the plant, and reinserting them in the process lines. After doing this several times, several kilograms could be taken at once. The material could leave the plant with the radioactive trash. A reading of recent Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] documents on plutonium accountability and my knowledge of reprocessing plants make me believe that this scenario is credible.
I might add, in passing, that plutonium is not the only material which must be safeguarded, if separated. My favorite is neptunium-237 which has no stray neutrons, will not detonate prematurely, is not toxic, and is therefore easy to work with. . . . In addition, several americium and curium isotopes also have a rather small critical mass. Yet no mention of any of this is made in Mr. McCracken’s article.
Next comes a series of statements by Mr. McCracken, followed by my own comments.
1. Radiation Dangers (Routine Operation)
Mr. McCracken’s view of radiation dangers during routine reactor operation is that the radiation emitted is small compared to background radiation, and that the evidence that small amounts of radiation produce genetic damage and cancer is inconclusive. It is my opinion that the only proper evaluation of health effects is in comparison with alternative methods of generating, or conserving, electricity. Contrary to Mr. McCracken’s view, I believe that the health effects due to coal and nuclear generation during normal operation are comparable and that there is substantial proof that small amounts of radiation produce genetic damage and cancer.
McCracken: If one lives next to the property line of a nuclear reactor, the NRC permits an added [radiation] exposure of 5 mrem a year . . . —in practice, no reactor comes near the permitted maximum.
Comment: The boundary dose due to both liquid and gas discharges is 10 mrem a year. . . . This limit does not include direct radiation from solid radioactive waste. It one were to stand at the ME gate of Nine Mile Point Unit 1 in Oswego, New York, for a year, one would receive a dose of 1437 mrem (year 1976); I have not studied other reactors. . . .
If more than one reactor is sited in an area, then the allowable dose is multiplied. In Oswego, New York, there will be three reactors operating shortly and the allowable dose will be three times the 10 mrem a year limit.
Mr. McCracken does not discuss the occupational exposures at a reactor and at other components of the nuclear-fuel cycle. But they should be included since they contribute to the health effects due to reactor operation and contribute to the genetic effects in the general population. The industry-wide average for occupational exposure is 1000 “person”-rems due to a 1000-MWe reactor operating for a year. This is a much greater contributor to health effects than the 10 mrem per year boundary dose.
It is not only the releases from a reactor itself which must be considered, but from all support facilities as well, since they are integral to reactor operation. After all, if one includes the health effects due to mining coal, one must include the health effects due to mining uranium, etc. Effluents from uranium mill tailings, and reprocessing and high-level waste solidification, if recycling of plutonium is allowed, must also be included, and the health effects must be counted for the full radioactive life of the emitted radionuclides. . . .
McCracken: If one moves from Dallas to Denver, the additional annual exposure is nearly 100 mrem . . . [yet] Colorado’s cancer incidence is lower than the national average.
Comment: As is well known, there are many factors responsible for cancer incidence, among these, air and water quality and food additives. The cancer incidence in Buffalo, New York, is twice the national average, due primarily to the effluents from the steel industry. Environmentalists, and the Sierra Club in particular, are concerned with all environmental pollutants, including radiation. Perhaps the cancer incidence in Colorado would be lower still but for the additional natural background radiation.
McCracken: It is not generally realized that this assumption [that minute amounts of radiation result in genetic damage to human beings] rests on laboratory results with animals that appear to be contradicted by actual experience with humans.
Comment: This statement by Mr. McCracken is wrong. I cite the following studies:
Mondan, et al. (“Radiation-Induced Head and Neck Tumors,” Lancet, February 1975) examined the records of 11,000 migrants to Israel who had been administered X-rays in order to control tina capitis of the scalp (ringworm). They found a very high risk of thyroid carcinoma . . . and the mean dose was only 6.5 rad.
Alice Stewart, et al. (“Radiation Dose Effects in Relation to Obstetric X-rays and Childhood Cancers,” Lancet, June 6, 1970) studied many thousands of children who received in utero doses of 0.2 to 0.8 rad and found mortality from leukemia and other forms of cancer to be 50 per cent higher on the average among these exposed children than among the unexposed controls.
Irwin Bross (in several papers discussed in the “Proceedings of the Congressional Conference on Low Level Radiation,” Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., May 4, 1976) has shown that there are groups in the population with a very high susceptibility to radiation damage. Children with diseases such as asthma, hives, eczema, allergy, pneumonia, dysentery, or rheumatic fever have a 5000 per-cent greater risk of leukemia as a result of exposure to X-rays than do children not so exposed.
Mancuso, Stewart, and Kneale in a study of 35,000 workers at the Hanford storage facility in Washington over a twenty-nine year period showed a statistically significant increase in four types of cancers (myeloid neoplasm, breast cancer, pancreatic tumors, and lung cancer). The results are about sixty times greater than those predicted by the National Academy of Sciences in the . . . BEIR report. . . .
McCracken: Nuclear reactors, routinely operated, are among the most negligible emitters of radiation, and thus among the most negligible causes of cancer from radiation.
Comment: Most environmentalists would agree that “reactors, routinely operated, are among the most negligible emitters of radiation.” However, occupational exposures and other fuel-cycle emitters must be included in the calculatons, and the associated health effects of these are not negligible. Let me consider just one of these factors, uranium mill tailings. Reactors need uranium ore; the residue is left in a uranium mill-tailings pile. These tailings release radon gas and will do so for very long periods of time. The NRC evaluates the healths effects due to the tailings pile for a period of forty years; the number of health effects, in this case lung cancers, is 0.144 for each year’s operation of a 1000-MWe reactor. This is not too serious. But what is the scientific justification for assuming that no health effects occur after forty years? If, instead, one considers the health effects over the full radioactive life of the mill-tailings pile, assuming a constant population, one obtains the number 396 health effects. . . . It is possible to reduce these mill-tailings health effects at a very minimal cost, but this is not the present practice of the industry.
McCracken: This . . . is the cost per year of one large coal-fired plant: between 31 and 111 lives a year. These deaths . . . are of actual people who die every year in order that coal-fired plants may be operated. In contrast, when we calculate all the deaths caused by a 1000-MWe light-water reactor—including all those killed by the fuel cycle, by the operation of the reactor, and by waste disposal—we arrive at a total of one-half a death a year. . . . The hypothetical deaths of nuclear energy are still no more than that. But the actual deaths caused by other technologies are countable and many. . . . Far from being our most dangerous source of energy, nuclear energy is our safest.
Comment: The calculation of one-half a death a year from nuclear plants is based on erroneous assumptions and is not a prudent estimate for health-planning purposes. The NRC unjustifiably evaluates health effects over a forty-year period, though the radiation produced will be present in the environment for very long periods. . . .
In addition, nuclear cancers don’t wear flags—that is, it is difficult to identify those cancers specifically caused by nuclear energy, except for cancers which occur in uranium miners, a unique type of cancer. But to call nuclear-caused cancers, which contribute to the general cancer rate, “hypothetical,” is irresponsible; these deaths are as real as, and as comparable in magnitude to, those caused by coal. . . . The deaths caused by reprocessing and high-level waste solidification are hypothetical because these facilities are hypothetical; there are none operable at present. . . .
McCracken: A typical coal-fired plant has a level of radioactive emission greater than that allowed for a nuclear plant. . . . If the NRC had responsibility for regulating our coal-fired plants, they would have to be shut down.
Comment: Coal does contain uranium. The average uranium concentration is one part per million. In the operation of a 1000-MWe coal plant for one year, about 3 million tons of coal are burned containing 3 tons of uranium. This is to be contrasted with 162 tons of uranium mined to generate electricity from a 1000-MWe nuclear reactor for one year. Thus, the health effects are about fifty times greater for nuclear plants. . . .
McCracken: The solid wastes carted away to the dump from coal-fired plants total tens of millions of tons a year. . . . These contain not only such non-radioactive poisons as mercury, selenium, vanadium, and benzopyrene, but radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium in amounts that would be impermissible for emission from a nuclear plant.
Comment: It is not well understood that the wastes from the nuclear industry are comparable in volume to those produced by coal. The fly ash resulting from burning coal is about 3 x 105 tons due to operation of a 1000-MWe coal-fired plant for one year. The mass of the mill-tailings pile due to one year’s operation of a nuclear reactor is 105 tons per year; there are additional waste sources in the nuclear fuel cycle. Therefore, the waste volumes are comparable. As indicated, the uranium mill tailings contain much more radioactivity than that contained in a fly-ash pile. If one used a large part of the foreseeable resources of uranium, 2 million tons, and continued the present disposal philosophy, the expected number of lung cancers would be 45 per year due to mill tailings, and this death rate would continue for tens of thousands of years. . . .
Solar vs. Nuclear:
McCracken: Solar power is less promising as a means of central generation. . . . [The use of mirror systems that boil water to spin conventional turbogenerators is] at present too expensive to contemplate. Additionally, the photo-voltaic system requires very large land areas. With luck, a 1000-megawatt plant would occupy 50 square miles.
Comment: Solar power is most promising as a decentralized energy source for heating and cooling homes. Of course not much additional land area is required since houses need roofs anyway. But what about generating electricity in central locations? The plant which is “too expensive to contemplate” is being built in Southern California as a joint project with ERDA and a local utility.
It has been the frequent complaint of nuclear zealots that central-station solar generation would require enormous land areas. If one compares the land area requirements to generate electricity in the next twenty-five years, one finds that solar requires about twice as much land area as nuclear; this figure was developed by the NRC staff. . . . However, the land figures for nuclear power do not take into account the fact that land occupied by mill tailings will be occupied essentially forever, nor do the figures take into account the fact that “solar” land can be used for the next twenty-five years with no increase, whereas more and more land would be required for nuclear generation. . . .
Coal vs. Nuclear: . . . From my perspective, the economics are not very clear because of the large uncertainties in both fuel cycles. Utilities at the present time are building both coal and nuclear facilities. Some utilities claim that coal is cheaper, . . . some that nuclear is cheaper. What is true is that the closer the coal plant is to the coal fields, the more the scale tilts toward coal. However, future uncertainties appear to override these cost differences.
Contrary to Mr. McCracken’s remarks, environmentalists have in a very minor way increased the construction time for nuclear reactors and therefore the costs. This has been well researched by Irwin Bupp of Harvard University (Technology Review).
The rise in electric rates that our senior citizens, those on fixed income, and poor persons must pay is a national disgrace. . . . It is my belief, and economists may disagree with me, that the electric-rate structure does not take into account properly the fact that this sector of the population conserves electricity and is not responsible for the addition of new facilities, which is the reason for the rising rates in the first place; they don’t own appliances with which to “burn” electricity. . . . If long-run, incremental-cost pricing were instituted, the “fat cats” who increased consumption would pay more for each unit added and the rate structure would be inverted. This would force large users to conserve as well. To blame environmentalists, who are in support of conservation, for the plight of the poor is a bad joke.
3. Radioactive Waste Disposal
McCracken: The technology Cor disposal, which has been demonstrated in a pilot project at Hanford, and actually used in Europe, involves first “calcining” the waste to a sand-like substance of greatly reduced hulk, and then using this “sand” as a component to make glass,
Comment: Radioactive wastes from the military program have been generated at Hanford for over thirty years now and there is still no viable program for removing these materials from the living environment. These materials must be continually watched. Since over 10 per cent of the tanks have leaked, ERDA has embarked on a program of drying the material to a salt cake within the tanks while removing the short-term high-heat radionuclides. While this action has “solved” the problem in the short term, what will happen to the remaining toxic material within the tank? The material will remain toxic for very long periods of time. Will the material be placed in a salt mine? How will this be done? ERDA has said that the material will be moved to a Federal Repository salt mine near Carlsbad, New Mexico, at a cost of about $60 billion. What about the commercial high-level wastes which sit in a tank at West Valley, New York? That material is much more toxic than the Hanford wastes, and the tank has a useful life of forty years. The company, a subsidiary of Getty Oil, has asked the state of New York to take over the whole problem. The estimated cost for disposal, by methods yet to be developed, is $0.5 billion.
So much for the bad news. Now for the bad news. The calcination method has been demonstrated in a pilot project at Idaho (not Hanford, as Mr, McCracken states). The fuel was low burn-up (much lower in radioactivity than commercial fuel), the amounts were not large, the detailed radioactive releases to the environment have not been published. If this is the prize project of the industry, why is it being kept “under wraps?”. . . .
Since radioactive wastes have been generated for over thirty years, another question might be, why haven’t these facilities been constructed already?. . . .
McCracken: If there were an immediate need for such storage [in a Federal Repository], it would no doubt have already been implemented. But the fact is that there are not now enough wastes in inventory to make such a process economical, and there will not he for some years.
Comment: There is a very pressing need for a Federal Repository to accept spent-fuel elements from nuclear reactors; several reactors may have to close down in the next few yean; because of this nuclear constipation problem. Besides, there are many, many tons of military high-level wastes at Hanford, Savannah River, and Idaho. There is a considerable amount of calcine material at Idaho. A lot of research and development can be done. Exactly what amounts of radioactive waste would make the process “economic”? It appears to be a poor excuse for the past thirty years of inaction.
After discussing this “fact-is-stranger-than-fiction” article at some length, I remain perplexed as to why it was published. It is not an objective analysis of the industry. It is nothing more than a pro-nuclear advertisement.
Chair, Nuclear Subcommittee of the Energy Policy Committee
Buffalo, New York
To the Editor:
. . . Samuel McCracken’s piece is a puzzle, full of half-truths and distortions. As one of those whom he labels a “scientific illiterate,” I will not comment on the technical inaccuracies of the article, leaving that task to knowledgeable, accomplished anti-nuclear scientists who will surely rise to the occasion.
What disturbs me, however, is Mr. McCracken’s application of such labels to others when his own credentials seem to lack the scientific literacy he claims is a prerequisite to an intelligent discussion of nuclear power. Can a man who, according to his brief biography, has published articles on an encyclopedia scandal, on classroom quackery, and on something called the population controllers actually consider himself a scientific literate in comparison with the recognized scientists who are speaking out cogently for their beliefs on the nuclear issue?
While I make no claims to scientific literacy, I can claim some expertise at editorial literacy—enough to recognize that an article whose every mention of nuclear opponents must be accompanied by such phrases as “anti-nuclear dogma . . . suffused with ignorance, sensationalism, and downright dishonesty. . .” is relying less on rational and cool argument than on refutation by emphatic denial.
Mr. McCracken’s swipes at those he disagrees with do nothing to bring forward a balanced view of the controversy. It would have been a better service to your readers if COMMENTARY had refrained from printing an article that adds more “routine yelps of hysteria”—to use Mr. McCracken’s words—to an already muddled issue.
San Francisco, California
To the Editor:
COMMENTARY has performed a useful service in presenting points of view on controversial matters, and no one can fault it for publishing an article favorable to nuclear energy. However, “The War Against the Atom,” is far from dispassionate. . . .
The validity of the article is demolished by its tone. With trigger words the author dismisses opinions that differ from his, and with ad hominem arguments disparages opponents. His case is not supported by such phrases as “extremely ignorant,” “suffused with ignorance,” “sensationalism,” “downright dishonesty,” “melodramatic piffle,” “a classic Big Lie,” “Ralph Nader’s secular sanctity,” “an advocate whose concern is not with truth but with propaganda,” “anti-nuclear advocates should wish to perpetuate the lie,” “statistical demagoguery,” “perverse use of the facts,” “spurious ground,” “constant misstatements to the contrary by people who should know better,” “false nostrums,” etc.
Mr. McCracken would have us believe that all opposition is conducted by a “lobby” of emotional people and is without scientific formulation. Yet among the opponents are nuclear physicists, geneticists, and medical experts such as, for example, Nobel Laureates Harold Urey (one of the developers of atomic fission), George Wald, James D. Watson, Linus Pauling, and Hannes Olof Alfven. In addition, there are Dr. John W. Gofman and Arthur R. Tamplin (who worked for the Atomic Energy Commission for many years), David R. Inglis, Paul R. Ehrlich, and John T. Edsall. Dr. Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, stated that he considered a nuclear bomb “a relatively safe instrument” compared with a nuclear power plant. Dr. George L. Weil, a former colleague of Enrico Fermi, involved in the Manhattan Project, pointed out the dangers of nuclear plants and their waste of energy.
Each of these men has opposed nuclear plants because of their inherent danger, because of their effect on the environment, the risk to which they put human health and life, or because of the unsolved potential horrors from nuclear wastes. And let us not forget the engineers of the General Electric Company who resigned because they did not feel nuclear power plants could be made safe, and the man in charge of security who did not believe nuclear materials were adequately protected.
Mr. McCracken assures us that the problem of long-term storage of nuclear wastes, the plutonium in which has a half-life of some 250,000 years, can easily be solved. Storage in salt mines in Kansas was hailed as a solution a few years ago until it was discovered that water seepage from a nearby salt mine might spread the pollution from the wastes. This is just one example out of many of human fallibility in such a critical area and of the dangerous slighting of environmental factors. . . .
Mr. McCracken ignores the 1960 statement of the National Academy of Sciences pointing out the improper disposal of nuclear wastes and the “job of finding safe, permanent disposal sites.” There has been little progress made in this area since that statement. Ignored is the statement by the Government Accounting Office to the effect that after decades of work neither the AEC nor the Energy Research and Development Agency has demonstrated acceptable long-or short-term means of storage and/ or disposal of high-level wastes. . . .
Mr. McCracken makes the argument that after all we are subject to radiation from outer space and uranium in the earth. In effect he is saying: so what’s a little more from nuclear plants? The point is that flora and fauna, including the human race, have adapted to these forms of radiation implicit in the environment in the course of evolution. But when you add man-made radiation you are adding something to which animals and vegetation have not had to adapt in their evolution. It is a bit like saying that because you can drive safely with one drink you can drive safely with three.
Mr. McCracken fails to consider that over the years the AEC, step by step, reduced the amount of radioactivity to which a human could be safely subject. Like Mr. McCracken, the AEC pooh-poohed independent scientific criticism; nevertheless, it had to change its standards.
One of the great dangers which Mr. McCracken pooh-poohs is that plutonium might be used by terrorists. From the literature available it has been shown that a college student can make a bomb and that only a few pounds of plutonium are necessary for such a bomb. Granted it might not be the most efficient bomb. Nevertheless, we know the extremes to which terrorists have gone to blackmail nations in the last few years. They can make bombs. They can blackmail nations with such bombs. Contrary to Mr. McCracken’s optimism, there has been a deficit found in the inventories of nuclear materials in the hands of United States agencies and at least one of its contractors.
According to Mr. McCracken, “The most common assertion one hears . . . is the flat statement that we do not know how to dispose of high-level wastes which must be isolated from contact with the biosphere for many thousands of years.” He flatly states, in spite of all the evidence, that “this challenge has already been met,” and that its endless repetition is the equivalent of “a classic Big Lie.” In addition to some of the scientists already referred to, the “big liars” include the National Council of Churches. He dismisses their opposition as an “intrusion of theology into science, which awoke echoes of Galileo’s encounter with the Inquisition.” Now, really! What the National Council of Churches was pointing out was that to protect humanity (and the entire eco-system in which humanity lives) for thousands of years would, in the long run, lead to a police state, the end of democracy, and the end of freedom of thought, just the reverse of the Galileo situation.
Enough has been said now to demonstrate the biases, anti-social tone, and irrelevance of Mr. Mc-Cracken’s article. There are a number of other errors and omissions in the piece, but space is too limited to consider them. Another fifteen-page article would be necessary.
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . In a footnote on p. 36, Samuel McCracken identifies us as “General Electric engineers who resigned over the issue of nuclear safety” and cautions his readers to be skeptical of us. He states, moreover, that “members of a para-religious organization” had guaranteed us an income “should our anti-nuclear activities prove insufficiently lucrative.” That statement is false. None of us was guaranteed an income by anyone, and none of us has continued to be a participant in the General Electric Profit Sharing Plan, though we do continue to own a small number of shares of GE stock. We request a retraction.
It is indeed regrettable to us that, after having gone through the obvious effort of researching a field in which he apparently has had no experience and little technical understanding, Mr. McCracken missed the opportunity to do something really constructive about the widening gap in the nuclear debate. . . . Instead, his article is belittling and demeaning to many reputable people in this country and amounts to more rocks being thrown to the benefit of no one.
Richard B. Hubbard
Dale G. Bridenbaugh
Gregory C. Minor
MHB Technical Associates
Palo Alto, California
To the Editor:
Samuel McCracken’s article on nuclear safety is a well-prepared compendium of the nuclear industry’s arguments in defense of itself, but as such it suffers from the defect of ignoring criticisms to which the industry has been unable to develop a reponse.
Nowhere in the article is there mention of the very serious charge, which has been repeatedly made and documented by most of the critics whom Mr. McCracken attacks, that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission) is under the thumb of the nuclear industry and has allowed plants to be designed and operated in an unsafe manner.
Mr. McCracken’s failure to address this charge is illustrated by his casual reference to the most serious and revealing nuclear accident of recent years. He dismisses the accident with the single sentence: “It is often said that . . . in 1975 a fire in the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama came very close to causing a meltdown. . . .” I suppose he uses the phrase “It is often said . . .” to imply that there is doubt about the statement’s validity. As one who has investigated and written about the Browns Ferry fire in detail, I can assure him that the the plant did indeed come close to a meltdown. However, a far more important fact about the fire is that it revealed gross incompetence and negligence on the NRC’s part in enforcing safety standards not only at Browns Ferry but throughout the nuclear industry. Here are some of the facts that the fire revealed:
1. Instead of inspecting the operation of nuclear plants, the NRC allows the licensees to do their own inspecting and in the process to ignore many NRC rules. The Browns Ferry fire was caused by the careless action of workmen engaged in a major construction job in a critical room of the reactor while it was in operation. (The room was the so-called “cable spreading room” that exists in every reactor, where control cables from all over the plant converge before being fed into the control room, which is located directly above. This is perhaps the most vulnerable spot in every plant, its Achilles heel.) . . .
Though this dangerous job had been going on for several weeks before the fire—and though prior to the big fire there had already been a half-dozen smaller ones that spread—the NRC’s safety inspectors were not even aware that any work was being done in this critical room. This is because NRC inspectors don’t inspect plants. They merely visit the plants’ management offices and inspect management’s records, which they depend on to reveal safety problems. (As far as can be determined, no NRC inspector ever went inside the Browns Ferry spreading room. One inspector visited the plant the day before the fire, but when he left the premises he was in complete ignorance of the construction job.)
The fact that the plant’s operator, the Tennessee Valley Authority, did not inform the NRC either of the job in progress, or of the fires it had caused, was a violation of one of the NRC’s most important safety rules. . . . Subsequent to the fire, the NRC did not find TVA guilty of a “violation” of its rules, which could have carried severe penalties. Instead, it merely wrote a letter to TVA citing it for an “infraction,” which carried no penalties of any kind. . . .
2. In order to help keep nuclear construction costs down, the NRC allows its licensees to incorporate unsafe design features in their plants. One of the basic safety principles of nuclear design is the concept known as “separation.” This demands that all primary safety devices (pumps, generators, etc.) be physically separated from their emergency back-up units so that a single accident cannot knock them all out; for the same reason, the various devices’ control cables must be routed to the control room along separate paths. In 1973, two years before the Browns Ferry fire, the NRC’s (then AEC’s) Director of Regulatory Standards wrote a memo saying . . . there was an “urgent need” to split control cables between two separate spreading rooms, and he put an “A-plus” priority on the necessity for a rule requiring dual spreading rooms.
However, an industry technical association, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers [IEEE], refused to okay the two-spreading-room requirement, since two rooms would cost more than one; as a result, no such rule was written. . . .
At the Browns Ferry plant, which in 1975 was brand-new and was considered a model of advanced design and construction, the spreading room was so jammed with cables (tens of thousands of them, filling the space wall to wall and floor to ceiling) that there was no room for safety aisles for firefighters. . . .
3. The NRC allows plants to be built with specific items of equipment that it knows to be defective. At the time of the Browns Ferry fire, the only standard for judging the combustibility of cables was drawn up by the IEEE. As was well known at the time to both the NRC and the nuclear industry, this standard, called IEEE-383, allowed highly combustible cables to be classified as non-combustible. Nevertheless, the NRC allowed the industry to use IEEE-383 as its sole criterion for cable combustibility. This was the reason the Browns Ferry fire spread so rapidly; many of the “non-combustible” cables acted literally as kindling, sending flames shooting up to the trays full of cables only a few inches above them and splattering flaming drops of molten plastic on other trays only a few inches to the side or below.
These are just a sampling of the instances of NRC dereliction that were revealed by the Browns Ferry fire. Since all of this happened two and a half years ago and has been fully documented in a half-dozen reports by insurance companies, the Underwriters Laboratory, and the NRC itself, one would think that by now the agency would have changed some of its defective rules and practices. But it has not done this. Its basic inspection policy is the same: to allow licensees to inspect themselves and to depend on them for information about dangerous conditions. It still has no rule requiring dual spreading rooms, and almost all plants now in the design and construction stage have single spreading rooms. Its sole cable combustibility standard continues to be IEEE-383. Thus, not only do currently operating plants still suffer from the same defects as those revealed at Browns Ferry, but plants will continue to be put into operation for many years to come with the same defects.
Incidentally, Mr. McCracken cites the AEC/NRC-sponsored Rasmussen Report as proving that the chance of a meltdown accident is extremely remote. He might be interested to learn that the Rasmussen Report—which was issued before the Browns Ferry fire and purported to analyze every conceivable “accident chain” that could lead to a meltdown—failed even to mention the possibility of a fire occurring in a spreading room.
I would be interested to learn from Mr. McCracken why his article ignored the charges of NRC negligence and misfeasance in safety enforcement that have been made by Ralph Nader, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others whom he accuses of demagoguery. I would also be interested to hear whether, in view of the facts revealed by the Browns Ferry fire and its aftermath, he believes that U.S. nuclear plants are built and operated as safely as they should be.
James Nathan Miller
Pleasantville, New York
Samuel McCracken writes:
Edmond Edward has pinpointed a very serious problem that becomes more apparent the more one studies the nuclear debate. Not only do the media themselves seem almost universally anti-nuclear when stating opinion, but their preference is clearly manifested in their factual coverage.
The Boston Globe, for example, now regularly uses the highly charged label “nuke” on headlines and editorial titles. A recent story in the same paper reporting the bare fact that the government had exploded some sort of device using reactor plutonium began with a lead that the story itself did not support, announcing that the explosion had erased all doubts about just how useful reactor plutonium might be for bombs.
Recently, ABC broadcast a documentary on nuclear power divided into two separate productions, one against and one for. The brilliantly done pro-nuclear half, narrated by Jules Bergman, publicized a large number of important facts that normally never appear in media discussions of nuclear power. (A team of army assault commandos was shown taking fourteen hours to blast their way into a plutonium repository with high explosives, and there were photographs of trucks carrying plutonium shipping casks crashing into walls at 80 miles an hour without damage to the casks.) But even more striking was the anti-nuclear half. It was freed of the necessity to balance the argument, and yet aside from an animation showing a loss-of-coolant accident that simply ignored the emergency cooling systems, it was barely distinguishable from the conventional coverage on TV, which is not balanced at all.
It is difficult not to agree with so generous a critic as Ludwig Seligsberger, but I am not so persuaded as he of the utility of mirror solar plants. Although they take up less space than non-mirror plants, 14 square miles is still very much larger than the area required by a nuclear plant. As a fellow-townsman of Mr. Seligsberger’s, I am acutely aware that there is no desert within a couple of thousand miles of where I live. Moreover, the cost projections for such plants remain dismaying. No one would be happier than I were central solar generation to prove successful in the long run, but I don’t think it’s wise to base national policy on the hope that it will. Nuclear power already works.
Joel Weisman’s comments are very useful, but I remain a little perplexed as to why CANDU reactors work in Canada and won’t work here, and I still wonder whether Edward Teller is not right in diagnosing their fatal disease as the NIH syndrome—Not Invented Here. I suggested that nuclear opponents worried about proliferation urge the acquisition of a CANDU reactor for research purposes primarily as a more useful activity to occupy them. But there also seems to me to be great promise in the thorium-cycle heavy-water reactor, and we ought not sit back unless we assume that it will be developed anyway, and as fast as possible, in Canada.
Having denied that he plans to detail my “numerous scientific errors,” Bernard T. Feld details four truths implying four errors on my part.
“Radioactivity is not neutron emission.” I never defined radioactivity thus or indeed in any other way. Although neutron emission is a form—far from the only one—of radiation (whence the neutron bomb) the only type of radiation I specifically identified as such was alpha particle emission. A minimum adherence to the text of an essay would appear to be required of those who wish to criticize it.
“The first experimental nuclear power reactors were not breeders.” Although Mr. Feld neglects to tell us what he considers to have been the first experimental reactor to generate power, he appears to be simply in error on this point. The first generation of power in a nuclear reactor occurred in 1952, by the AEC’s EBR-1 reactor in Idaho. F’or the details, I refer the interested reader to The Atomic Shield, by R. G. Hewlett and F. Duncan. A minimum adherence to the historical record would likewise seem to be required of critics.
“There is no physical law that prohibits the production, in a reactor, of more fuel than is consumed.” Quite so. That is what I said in my article. I denied, correctly enough, that a breeder reactor can create more fuel than it consumes. I then went on to say that a breeder “can produce more plutonium from U-238 than it burns.” Again, I wish Mr. Feld were a more careful reader than he appears to have been.
“Thorium is not a fissionable element.” As it happens, I did at one point carelessly refer to thorium, which is fertile, as fissionable. I did not repeat this inconsequential error in my discussion of reactors using thorium. None of the other “errors,” had they in fact been such, would have been consequential. I presume that had Mr. Feld thought he found errors that actually affected the argument, he would have cited them.
“Etc., etc.” Such vague allegations of further error are a shabby tactic, foreign to respectable intellectual controversy. No doubt Mr. Feld is aware that there is no way to rebut an unspecified charge of this sort. As soon as I received a copy of his letter, I wrote him asking for a specification of these other errors. In his reply he presented what he called a “total list.” It contained no errors but rather a list of truths. Four of the nine duplicated his list above, but he has withdrawn his inaccurate claim that the first experimental power reactor was not a breeder, now noting accurately but pointlessly that the first commercial reactors were not breeders. His other statements are, with one exception, true statements about nuclear power that either agree with my article or which are not contradicted by it. The exception is my regrettable but inconsequential omission of the brief existence of neptunium-239 in the series of reactions by which Pu-239 is produced from U-238. Thus, Mr. Feld finds my work scientifically accurate save for unimportant errors.
I am sorry that Mr. Feld was so offended by my characterization of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I meant not to characterize the balance of editorial selection, of which there is some, if one understands that despite the magazine’s title, the pieces against nuclear energy are often written by people who are not scientists at all, let alone atomic ones; I meant, rather, to characterize the editorial policy. Mr. Feld himself is the author of an editorial that praises the Carter energy policy, that is, which accepts a substantial portion of the anti-nuclear dogma.
Mr. Feld’s reference to “knee-jerk conservatism” would be merely laughable to anyone who knows my work. As a matter of fact, if one considers the issue in ideological terms, the conservatives—indeed, the reactionaries—are those who wish to dismantle a new energy system and replace it with an older one. And the key issues are not ideological, but technical: whether or not nuclear fission is an acceptably safe form of power generation. Mr. Feld does not address this issue. Even had he got my ideology right, he should not judge my views on that basis, any more than I ought to judge the scientific quality of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists merely because it criticized Israel for the raid on Entebbe.
I am puzzled by his bizarre claim that I pretend to speak for the American intellectual and academic community. Nonsense. I speak for myself alone and he can cite no word of mine to the contrary.
Although the labor is arduous, I cannot beg off dealing with Marvin Resnikoff’s many errors—and worse.
He begins by hopelessly entangling two issues that are quite separate. The first is nuclear proliferation, i.e., the acquisition of nuclear weapons by states that do not have them. As I said, I believe that the spread of breeder technology makes such proliferation possible. I also believe the spread of breeder technology to be inevitable, whatever the United States does about it. Our present policy denies us the benefits of breeders without preventing proliferation. But this issue is irrelevant to reactor-grade plutonium. Any nation with a light-water reactor can operate it so as to produce weapons-grade plutonium. It would be even simpler to produce weapons-grade plutonium in research reactors, as the Indians appear to have done.
The second issue is whether terrorists could acquire reactor-grade plutonium from the fuel cycle and use it to make bombs. Contrary to Mr. Resnikoff’s statement, I did not assert the impossibility of such bombs, merely the great difficulty.
I am not quite certain what he means by “reactor-grade plutonium of simple design.” Plutonium itself has no design, simple or complex. Perhaps he is trying to say that a bomb of simple design can utilize reactor-grade plutonium. The Lawrence-Livermore report he mentions is still classified except for the fact that a device has been exploded; thus I cannot comment on it. Perhaps he has had a peek.
And the fact that ERDA has exploded a device made from reactor plutonium tells us nothing about the usefulness of reactor plutonium for terrorist bombs. Nothing could be more likely—or less relevant—than that an advanced nuclear power should be able to make some sort of explosive device out of reactor plutonium. Mr. Resnikoff does not note that the yield, efficiency, and size of the “device” are still classified. The fact that ERDA called it a “device” is strongly suggestive that it was not a practical bomb.
I never suggested that plutonium ought not to be safeguarded, merely that it can be safeguarded by methods consistent with a democratic society. The fact that we have safeguarded the plutonium used in weapons production without repressive measures is persuasive evidence for this belief.
Mr. Resnikoff’s vague scenario for stealing plutonium is no more than that. His mere assertion that he finds it credible does not pass for serious argument on the matter.
I did not deal with such fissionables as neptunium-237 because no one is proposing to separate them from reactor fuel. It should be noted that this separation is not something that can be done by a mad terrorist in his basement—it would require an expensive reprocessing plant suited to the purpose. When and if someone proposes to undertake such separation, it will be necessary to develop safeguards.
Having thoroughly obfuscated the question of plutonium, Mr. Resnikoff launches into an extraordinary series of half-truths and untruths.
- I nowhere expressed doubt that radiation can cause cancer. Indeed, since I stated in so many words my belief that it can, I wonder whether Mr. Resnikoff and I are referring to the same article. I also maintained that the total number of cancer deaths caused by nuclear energy is very low, much less per megawatt than the number of deaths caused by coal.
- Mr. Resnikoff is correct in pointing out that my figure for the maximum public dose was for gaseous emissions, but when liquid emissions are included, the total is not 10 mrem but 8. That is, the permitted level is greater by an amount less than the extra radiation one absorbs flying across the country, or that a resident of Dallas might get from a three-week visit to Denver, or that anyone might get from six months working in a building faced with granite.
The boundary dose does not include direct radiation from solid waste for the good reason that this radiation does not reach the boundary. One might assume from Mr. Resnikoff that the ME gate at Nine Mile Point is the main entrance, but it is not at the boundary, but well within the plant, at the internal boundary between Units I and II. It is about fifty feet from a waste-storage building. To say that if one were to stand at this gate solidly for a year one would absorb 1457 mrem is like saying that someone who keeps his head in a pail of water for a year will die. The remark is true but irrelevant. People don’t stand at the gate for a year, but drive through it; and their total yearly exposure must be within limits that vary as to age, previous exposure, and other factors but which are always substantially lower than Mr. Resnikoff’s figure.
Finally, his figure can be put into perspective by realizing that a full set of back X-rays might expose one to the equivalent of 32,000 mrem in a few minutes—more than most nuclear workers receive in a decade.
The 10-mrem limit is a reactor-design figure, set to establish targets for designers. In a sense, then, Mr. Resnikoff is correct in saying that when there are three reactors at a site, the design maxima can be multiplied by three. But only in theory, for as part of the licensing process, the NRC establishes limits for each site, taking into account its special characteristics, such as closeness to a city. These site limits are not expanded by the addition of another reactor. Mr. Resnikoff ignores this, as well as the fact that if a plant should actually reach 4 per cent of its permitted emission, it must conduct an investigation and report to the NRC.
- I did not deal explicitly with occupational doses at nuclear reactors, although they are included in the figures I cited for deaths caused by a 1000-MWe nuclear reactor. Considering the 100 coal miners or so killed each year, and the thousands who die from black lung disease, I am surprised that Mr. Resnikoff raises the issue at all. Nuclear energy is occupationally far more benign than the only practical alternative source.
- I clearly cited Colorado’s low cancer rate to indicate the comparative insignificance of radiation as a cause of cancer, not to deny its existence.
- Mr. Resnikoff quotes my statement that there is no evidence from actual experience with human beings that radiation causes genetic damage to them, and then cities four studies purporting to contradict me. Incredible as it may seem, not one of these four studies deals with genetic damage. I hardly know which is more disturbing: to think that Mr. Resnikoff does not understand what genetic damage is, or that he does understand it and cites these studies knowing that they are irrelevant.
There is a further unintended irony in the first two studies: the mean dose given the Israeli children is said to be “only” 6.5 rad—a dose equivalent to 6,500 mrems, or 650 times the exposure allowed at the boundary line for a nuclear reactor by the NRC’s design guides, and 650,000 times the exposure incurred from living within a 50-mile range of a nuclear reactor. This exposure, it should be remembered, is itself only 1 per cent of the exposure from color television. One needs to appreciate that: the average American is more threatened by the radiation from color television than from nuclear reactors. The doses reported in the Lancet article, ranging from 300 to 800 mrems, are still many times the exposure permitted at the boundary of a reactor. These X-ray exposures are, of course, low-level radiation, and that they are so much greater than the radiation from nuclear reactors shows how minimal reactor radiation really is.
The issue here is not whether people will get cancer from nuclear energy. Of course they will. But they will get very much less of it than from the alternative: coal.
- Next, Mr. Resnikoff alleges that I did not consider health effects from the fuel cycle. But I did, for these were calculated in the figure cited for the total health effect of a 1000-MWe plant. Further, he engages in a weird bit of numerology, conflating total cancers and cancers per year. If the NRC were to claim—as it does not—that the health effects of a tailings pile were limited to a forty-year period, there might be some point to Mr. Resnikoff’s objection to the figure of 0.144 lung cancers a year. Mr. Resnikoff does not note that by burning up uranium a 1000-MWe reactor also reduces the amount of radioactivity in the biosphere. Bernard Cohen has pointed out that nuclear reactors burn up considerable amounts of U-234, a major source of radon, and that any true accounting of the medical effects of nuclear generation must include these credits as well as debits. Cohen suggests that over a 500,000-year span, one 1000-MWe nuclear reactor would save 130 lives through the burn-up of U-234. It might be remembered that through 500,000 years of operation a 1000-MWe coal-fired plant would kill between 15,000,000 and 55,000,000 people.
With regard to reducing the risk from mill tailings, I naturally support any reasonable measures to lower the already small health risk from nuclear power. But I am opposed to proposals vastly to increase our health risks by abandoning nuclear power.
- In his next comment, Mr. Resnikoff continues his conflation of yearly figures and total figures. The “hypothetical” deaths to which I referred were not deaths from cancer, which do occur, if not in numbers comparable to those caused by coal, but from reactor accidents, some of which will, inevitably, occur over a very long time span, and which must be figured into the total.
- Mr. Resnikoff’s discussion of the relative radioactivity of coal and uranium would be merely amusing if it did not come from a scientist. First of all, uranium is not the only radioactive element in coal. There is also radium, polonium, and thorium. More important, the radioactive material in a nuclear reactor is not blown out of a smokestack, but carefully contained within the reactor with only minor emission permitted. The fact is that coal-fired plants emit considerably more radioactive material into the atmosphere—by one estimate, several hundred times more—than is permitted for nuclear plants. The amounts are in either case trivial, and I cited those for coal only to suggest the inconsistency of the anti-nuclear lobby.
- Even by Mr. Resnikoff’s reckoning, a coal-fired plant produces approximately three times the solid waste of a nuclear plant. And as much as 10 per cent is disposed of as landfill, little of it in locations as remote as the typical uranium mill. But mill tailings are not an inescapable part of a nuclear economy. A breeder economy could be run for hundreds of years on the U-238 tails now left from the enrichment process; there would be no need for further mining; and existing tailings could be buried.
- Mr. Resnikoff’s statement that a centralized solar plant “is being built” in Southern California is false. No construction contracts have been let for this facility, which is estimated to cost some $125 million for a plant of 10-megawatt capacity. That is to say, this plant, when completed, would supply approximately 1 per cent of the electricity produced by a contemporary nuclear plant. To equal the capacity of such a plant would require 10 such solar plants, costing—if there are no overruns—$12.5 billion, a capital cost at least ten times the nuclear equivalent. If there are economies of scale in making large, single plants, they are not demonstrated in plants “being built.” One must remember that nuclear power is frequently attacked as being too capital-intensive. These data are a commentary on the practicality of such plants, as well as on Mr. Resnikoff’s disturbingly carefree approach to facts.
- On area requirements for solar power, Mr. Resnikoff’s technique is to inflate the area required for a nuclear plant by adding the mill-tailings area and then to claim that solar plants require “only” twice as much space He ignores the fact that the uranium mills are located in comparatively remote areas, while many of the solar plants would have to be located near centers of population.
- Mr. Resnikoff claims that environmentalists have contributed very little to the delay in constructing reactors and thus to reactor costs. He then cites an article by Irwin Bupp of Harvard in support of this claim. Anyone who turns to the Bupp article (Technology Review, February 1975) will find that Mr. Resnikoff’s claim is a shocking misrepresentation. The Bupp article contains these statements: “. . . intervention of concerned organizations and individuals at the public-hearing stage of the AEC’s licensing procedures has directly caused delays of a year of longer in the construction of certain reactors—Vermont Yankee, San Onofre . . . another delaying and costly development was the so-called Calvert Cliffs Decision, which established that nuclear plants, like all other projects, had to file thorough environmental impact statements . . the ruling contributed significantly to nuclear plant construction-cost increases.” Bupp notes that the cost of a given reactor is closely dependent on the length of the licensing period, and gives an example of how, in a single case, intervenors raised the cost of the Millstone #2 reactor in Connecticut by some $5 million. And, finally, the article refers quite explicitly to “the crucial role of the opponents of nuclear power in the cost picture.”
- He is wise to suggest that economists may disagree with his claim that the old and the poor do not own appliances. He does not trouble to cite any evidence for this bizarre assertion, although given his ingenious use of the Bupp article, just about anything—Gilgamesh, probably—would serve. To suggest that incremental cost pricing, which would drive up prices and taxes, would somehow benefit the old and poor, is Mr. Resnikoff’s own bad little joke.
- He roasts most of the ancient chestnuts on waste disposal. The military wastes at Hanford are in any event irrelevant to the future of nuclear power. They are already there and will have to be dealt with no matter what is done about power generation. As it happens, the majority of the high-level wastes at West Valley are not commercial but military, reprocessed out of material from a government plutonium reactor at Hanford. The problems at West Valley are at least partially attributable to a premature move into a disposal process when there was no urgent need to do so. These problems too will be with us whatever happens to nuclear power, and may in fact prove useful in further refining existing processes.
- Some educational progress has been made when a nuclear critic actually admits the existence of the calcination-vitrification process, but Mr. Resnikoff treats it with a fierce skepticism that he would not and does not apply to solar technology.
- The problem of storing spent fuel elements is, in the short run, irrelevant to the development of final storage facilities. The fuel-rod problem could be solved either by restarting fuel reprocessing or by building larger storage facilities for the fuel rods themselves. In the absence of reprocessing, even a fully functioning calcination and vitrification process could do nothing to relieve the fuel-rod problem.
Mr. Resnikoff’s letter demonstrates with dreadful clarity the intellectual confusion and shabby practice that pervade anti-nuclear extremism.
I have not called Frances Gendlin a scientific illiterate, but if she wishes so to identify herself, I cannot dispute the characterization.
Although she will not specify them, her illiteracy does not keep her from seeing darkly hinted inaccuracies in my article. Perhaps Mr. Resnikoff is the knowledgeable and accomplished anti-nuclear scientist of whom she speaks.
Miss Gendlin appears to believe that the world is divided between professional scientists and scientific illiterates. But there is of course a middle ground. Miss Gendlin holds the curious view that certain of my articles prove by their very topics that I cannot be scientifically literate, although she does not indicate how this may be. Certainly I am not as qualified as the body of scientists who have spoken out against nuclear energy. On the other hand, neither am I as qualified as the even larger and more precisely qualified body of scientists who have spoken out in support of it. I am surprised that Miss Gendlin would suggest that we laymen ought to sit back and listen to the scientists, because if we do that, we will support nuclear energy.
Miss Gendlin is apparently unaware of the fact that no Nobel laureate in nuclear physics opposes nuclear energy, while several Nobel physics laureates with qualification in the nuclear area, including Hans Bethe and Eugene Wigner, support it. She also seems unaware that the American Health Physics Society, with a membership of 3,400 scientists who are experts on the biological effects of radiation, has endorsed nuclear power, as has a large number of other professional associations in the relevant fields. In 1975, 25,000 scientists and engineers presented a petition supporting the development of nuclear energy to the President.
The scientists opposing nuclear energy are, on the whole, qualified in areas far from nuclear energy. Apparently Miss Gendlin and James Marshall naively believe that qualification in one area of science is qualification in all, a position equivalent to believing that if one knows sociology one also knows French. Mr. Marshall’s list includes several biologists, several chemists, and an astrophysicist. The preeminent nuclear authority on the list is Dr. Edward Teller. What are we to make of Mr. Marshall’s claim that Dr. Teller is anti-nuclear? Teller, who travels about at his own expense opposing nuclear moratoria!
Unable to dispute me on content, Miss Gendlin disputes me on tone and is joined in this by Mr. Marshall. It appears that people judge my tone by whether they agree with me; several of my commentators and correspondents, nuclear physicists among them, have praised my dispassionate tone. If Miss Gendlin and Mr. Marshall will reread me a little more carefully, they will see that I reserve my passion not for discussions of facts but for those who distort them. Miss Gendlin and Mr. Marshall reverse this process.
In dealing with waste disposal, Mr. Marshall simply repeats arguments already refuted in my article. If he disagrees with this refutation, surely it is up to him to show how and why.
The concept of “man-made” radiation, Mr. Marshall’s novel contribution to the nuclear debate, has no scientific basis. Radioactivity is, after all, an entirely natural phenomenon, a fact that has, oddly enough, not endeared it to the customary proponents of the “natural.” And Mr. Marshall’s arithmetic is shaky. Nuclear energy does not multiply background radiation by a factor of 3; rather, it increases it at most by about twelve-thousandths of 1 per cent.
Mr. Marshall’s discussion of terrorists does not get around the essential problem I propounded in my article: if it is really so easy for a gang of terrorists to develop a nuclear capability, why does it appear to be so hard for nation-states?
Mr. Marshall’s final paragraph is a good example of the carelessness of many nuclear opponents. He begins by implying that I cited the National Council of Churches on the question of radioactive waste. But I did not; the statement of the Council I quoted was on the use of plutonium as fuel. He then says that the Council “pointed out” that protecting us from nuclear wastes “would, in the long run, lead to a police state.” But the Council’s claim that this would be the result of using plutonium for fuel is no more than a claim, one that is contradicted by the fact that we safeguard weapons plutonium without any such repressive machinery. The nuclear debate is badly served when people like Mr. Marshall repeat unsubstantiated claims as if they were fact.
In Company with other critics, Messrs. Hubbard, Bridenbaugh, and Minor provide a minimum of specificity, preferring to make accusations of “belittling” and “demeaning” rather than grasping the technical and scientific issues involved.
In my statement abut the income available to the three engineers I was following a report in the September 8, 1976 Energy Daily, which reported such an arrangement with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Project Survival, and the successor to Californians for Nuclear Safeguards. I understand from a highly-placed source at MHB Technical Associates that its principals did in fact have a consulting contract with at least Project Survival that provided them with a monthly income of $1,500 each, this figure having been chosen as being what they needed to live on, and I learn from the Union of Concerned Scientists that MHB continues to do consulting work for it. I suspect that the difference of opinion between us may hang on the word “guarantee.” I did not mean to imply that there was any agreement to provide a life sinecure.
I am reassured to learn that it is through stock ownership, rather than through the GE profit-sharing plan, that Messrs. Hubbard, Bridenbaugh and Minor continue to share in GE profits. It makes all the difference in the world.
It is curious that James Nathan Miller should call my article a “compendium of the nuclear industry’s arguments,” since I did not go to the industry for my arguments. His objection is in large part to my having written an article on the topic I did rather than on another one. My primary concern was not with remediable defects in the regulatory structure, but rather with the extremist view that nuclear energy is too dangerous to be used, and the manifold errors underlying this claim. I mentioned the problem of insuring adequate regulation in passing while discussing the nuclear referenda.
As for the Browns Ferry fire itself, “coming close to a meltdown” is really not a very precise term. I would agree with Mr. Miller that there was an extraordinary amount of human error involved, not only in the design of the plant but also in the initiation of the fire and its aftermath. Nuclear technology is regularly held to be fragile and unforgiving, to be unable to tolerate any error. Yet at Browns Ferry it forgave and tolerated much. As Petr Beckmann has pointed out, the real victims of the Browns Ferry fire have been those killed by the coal-fired generation made necessary during the repair of the reactor.
If Mr. Miller had read my article more carefully, he would have noted that I expressed reservations about the Rassmussen Report, including its possibly inadequate attention to common-mode failure, probably the most dangerous element in reactor fires.
I do not believe that anything in this world is done as well as it should be. Arguing that nuclear power is too dangerous to permit, however, is likely to make it more rather than less difficult to improve its excellent safety record.