The Three Mile Shadow
As the United States debates its energy future—with a new strategic option emerging almost monthly, now biomass, now a vastly increased burning of coal, now the production of synthetic fuels, now nearly painless cutbacks in the amount of energy consumed per capita, now windmills—a shadow hangs over the one tried and functioning substitute for oil and coal: atomic energy. It is, of course, the shadow cast by Three Mile Island.
To opponents of atomic energy, the Three Mile Island accident proved that the genie in the reactor vessel is alive, and banging his knees against the eight-inch steel walls that seem to imprison him. He almost got loose on Three Mile Island. Luck, simply and alone, according to Richard E. Webb, Ph.D.,1 prevented a major disaster, releasing radiation on a scale that, Dr. Webb says, could “ruin” agriculture in a territory half as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River and cause at least one million human cancers. Most nuclear scientists dismiss this figure as absurd, but even a less excitable and specialized opponent of nuclear power—like Russell Peterson, president of the Audubon Society and one of the members of the presidential commission that investigated and reported on the accident—has written that his experience on the commission confirmed his view that atomic energy could never be sufficiently well controlled to make it a safe option for the nation’s energy future.2
On the other side of the argument stand those to whom Three Mile Island proved that the design factors built into a modern nuclear-powered generating station are more conservative and more effective than they were thought to be, and that nuclear power, as tested by the accident, is less prone to the risk of disaster than had been feared. The problem they see is that so few people are prepared to believe them.
The President of the United States reacted to the Three Mile Island accident in the time-honored tradition of Presidents reacting to unexpected and deeply troubling events that impinge on national policy. He appointed a commission, in this instance composed of twelve Americans picked to reflect major interest groups in the general population, and chose John G. Kemeny, President of Dartmouth College, for its chairman.
The commission’s frame of reference was the Three Mile Island accident, how it happened, and which of the agencies involved bore responsibility for which parts, if any, of the accident. After examining these facts, the commission was directed to report findings and make recommendations for improvements.
The Kemeny commission did its work in six-and-a-half months, releasing its findings on October 30, 1979. Its report was based on public hearings, depositions, interviews, and staff research. Staff reports on what the commission described as “most important information” followed the commission’s own report, while the documents collected and transcripts of interviews and testimony were said by the commission to fill a library shelf 300 feet long.
As the Kemeny report preface states, the commission was careful to limit its recommendations to items directly related to the Three Mile Island accident. It did not consider itself competent to discuss or analyze the role of nuclear power in the nation’s energy program. It was not asked to examine the military use of atomic energy, or the disposal of atomic waste, or the proliferation of atomic energy. Its findings cover 33 pages; its recommendations, 18.
In general, it found that the Three Mile Island accident was caused by small malfunctions of equipment to which the operators of the plant responded improperly. What should have been a minor matter, scarcely worthy of comment, and surely beneath the level of public attention, became instead a major problem that at the very least caused severe psychic stress to the public and may ultimately cost more than a billion dollars in cleanup and repair expenses, and to replace the lost nuclear-generated electricity with power from other sources.
The commission, however, did not stop with criticism of the operators’ actions. It also criticized their training, which it said contributed to their mistakes; the design and layout of the control room of the plant; what it described as the inattentiveness of utility company management to safety as a primary problem; and the suppliers of the plant equipment, including Babcock and Wilcox.
Primary blame for the conditions exposed by Three Mile Island was placed by the Kemeny commission on inadequacies in the regulatory process, and it demanded that the process be stiffened and toughened. At the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency charged with licensing and supervising all U.S. atomic-energy plants, hired a New York law firm, Rogovin, Stern, and Huge, to conduct its own inquiry and make its own report on Three Mile Island. While it is much easier to read, the Rogovin report does not greatly differ from the Kemeny report. Both agree that the five-member NRC should be replaced by an agency headed by a single administrator reporting directly to the President. Like the Kemeny report, the Rogovin report urges the NRC (or its successor agency) to pay less attention to licensing and more to detailed supervision of nuclear-plant operations.
A two-sentence summary of the difference between the two reports might read as follows: the Kemeny report thinks that the atomic-energy industry can function with the degree of safety the public should expect only if the NRC does a much more detailed, all embracing, and tougher job of regulation. The Rogovin report asks how the NRC can be expected to do a better job after Congress established it in such half-baked fashion.
Despite many cogent observations and specific attention to details of operations that must be improved, however, both reports neglect the basic industrial context into which the nation is putting these new technological developments. And both reports tend to underemphasize the political atmosphere that has gathered around nuclear energy and that no one in high office has been sufficiently daring to deal with.
The main point about Three Mile Island that everyone seems to forget is that it is an electric-generating plant. Its purpose is not to split atoms or create a chain reaction in uranium; its purpose is to produce electric power in a form that can be transmitted economically to users who may be hundreds of miles away from the plant and who tap their power from a vast interstate grid.
Like most other large electric plants, Three Mile Island produces steam to drive turbines connected to large electric generators. The major difference between an oil- or coal-fired plant and a nuclear-power plant is that while the two older types of plants make steam from water by using the heat produced by the burning of flammables, the nuclear plant makes steam from water by heating it with the energy released by the continuing controlled fission of uranium nuclei.
Nuclear-power generation cannot be understood until one recognizes that much of its equipment is exactly the kind of equipment found in a coal- or oil-fired station. Pipes carrying hot water or steam at very high pressures are common to both systems; so are many of the pumps, valves, and other fittings; and so is much of the instrumentation that brings information concerning temperatures, pressures, and chemical constituencies to the control room where the plant’s small crew of operators is stationed.
The Three Mile Island trouble did not start in the atomic-heating part of the plant. It started in the conventional steam-making, turbine-driving section of the plant when pumps used to propel water from the condenser to the steam generator stopped functioning. (The reasons are not crucial to Three Mile Island—they could have occurred in any electric-generating station.)
When the pumps stopped, valves automatically closed, as they were designed to do. Immediately, also as designed, the reactor itself was automatically shut down. The chain reaction stopped exactly as it was intended to do. A safety valve automatically opened—again as designed—and pumps soon began automatically to provide new, cooling water to the circuit.
Then came the act that caused the accident: the operators turned the pumps off. They had reason to believe that the relief valve had closed and that there was plenty of water in the primary circuit to cool the core of the reactor. They were wrong. So were some of the instruments.
This narrative, which omits many events that were significant but not intrinsically connected with the basic accident, emphasizes a single point, obvious in the retelling but still apparently obscure to many Americans, including those who formulate public policy. The accident did not originate in the nuclear part of the process. The accident was caused by the failure of part of the steam circuit common to almost every generating station that uses superheated steam, and by the failure of that most banal piece of equipment, a safety or relief valve. It opened when it should have but failed to close when it should have. This malfunction threatened the core cooling system by letting water escape from it. The consequent mistake by the operators who shut off the automatic water replacement brought about the critical overheating of the core, and the melting of the fuel. Although the accident ultimately involved the reactor vessel and the nuclear fuel, it would not have occurred but for the malfunction and shutdown of the plant’s steam turn-on generating system.
It is quite easy to imagine exotic accidents arising not from the failure of the piping and pumping systems, but from the nuclear end of the operation. Thus Richard Webb has suggested that there is a mathematical possibility of a runaway chain reactor. Others disagree with his mathematics. In any case, there has never been such an episode, here or abroad, in any of the commercial or military reactors that have been in operation for years.
In an article in Scientific American, Harold Lewis, professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and chairman of the Risk Assessment Review Group established by the NRC to review its own safety study (known to many as the Rasmussen report), speaks of friends who ask him to describe the worst thing that could have happened at Three Mile Island. His response:
The worst that could have happened is that a series of other misadventures could have befallen the reactor—a massive electrical failure, an earthquake, a fire, or the like—leading to a core melt. The molten core could then have interacted with the water in the pressure vessel or in the containment building, leading to a steam explosion that could have torn off the roof of the containment building. Then all the radioactivity could have gone into the atmosphere at the very moment a tornado came by to pick it up and proceeded to wander through the Northeast, dropping just the right amount on each city to annihilate its inhabitants. Indeed this could have happened.
Professor Lewis reports that his friends are angered by the conjecture because they recognize that the occurrence of such a combination of events is unlikely and far-fetched They have, he says, asked the wrong question. The question they should ask is: how likely is the worst thing that could happen, and what are the probabilities? Every day people make judgments that are explicitly or implicitly based on assumptions of probability, and doomsday scenarios like Professor Lewis’s concatenation of wind, explosion, earthquake can be composed on any subject.
Thus the worst thing that could happen to a high-risk office building is that a leak of water somewhere near the corner of an upper floor could find flaws in the concrete covering several of the structural columns, that these particular columns could have been carelessly painted, that they could be attacked by rust that would reduce their bearing strength, that a heavy computer could be installed in the corner office over the weakened columns, that a hurricane would apply eccentric wind loads, that the columns would shear, that the upper part of the building would collapse, hitting the buildings across the street, etc., etc. Indeed these things could happen, and some have, particularly in the early days of structural steel (just as some new technologies for wide-span roofs over auditoriums in several American cities have clearly been flawed in one way or another). But no one would restrain high-rise office building construction today because of such imaginative scenarios of disaster.
Since there have been few actual cases, the realistic possibilities of an accident in a nuclear-generating station affecting human life are perhaps best analyzed not by studying the details of what happened at Three Mile Island but by looking at the causes of technological accident in general.
The first and most important of these causes is a fundamentally flawed technology; and the first and most important thing to say about such a technology is that it usually reveals itself soon and in unmistakable terms. There is, for example, the case of the rigid-frame dirigible, regarded in the 1920’s as a promising technology for long-range air travel. The United States Navy ordered four dirigibles, of which three were destroyed within a very short time. The Navy then prudently decided that the dirigible was flawed and got out of the business.
Another, more recent, instance of flawed technology appeared in the case of the British Comet, the first commercial passenger jet airplane. In striving for lightness, the designers did not adequately reinforce the shell. Three of the planes exploded in mid-air because they were unable to tolerate the difference between the internal air pressure and the low atmospheric pressure at high altitudes. It took only a few years of flying to reveal the flaw which—in contrast to the dirigible’s weakness—was then corrected.
After more than twenty years of commercial nuclear-reactor operation, Three Mile Island gives no evidence that the use of uranium oxide to heat water to make steam to generate electricity is a flawed technological process. In fact, the heating end of the electric-generating process is considerably simpler than the same process in a fossil-fueled plant, particularly a coal-fired plant. The equipment for handling immense tonnages of coal and for pulverizing it for complete combustion; the process of extracting particulate matter and sulfur compounds from the smoke stacks, and of removing ashes and slag from the furnace pits—all these are unnecessary. Except for the apparatus that drops control rods into place when it is desired to cut off the fission chain, there are no moving parts in the reactor. The quenching system—the emergency core cooling system—is operated by gravity, by pumps with an independent course of power, and by duplicate systems of pipes. No part of these systems is “exotic”; they represent the same kinds of apparatus found in ordinary power plants.
Of course, the critics of atomic power can point to the price of a malfunction of the core cooling systems—a price that cannot be precisely described because it has never had to be paid—as requiring a wholly different standard of safety from that imposed by other power systems. And of course they are right. But that is precisely the type of protection provided by the reactor vessel, the containment building, the air-filtering system, the waste gas collectors, and the emergency core cooling systems.
In technologies like medicine and agriculture, in which a key element is the interaction between biology and invention, flaws can be much slower to reveal themselves. This fact argues strongly for caution in the appraisal of the health effects of radioactivity. Yet radioactivity is not produced by nuclear-generating stations alone. It is a common experience of all life on the planet, and its effects have been studied and its dangers quantified by many students. While some, like Professor Ernest Sternglass of Pittsburgh and Dr. Helen Caldicott of Boston, continue to believe it is so critical that any unnecessary exposure is too dangerous to justify, theirs is a minority position in the field.
In any case, it is agreed by all official health bodies that the Three Mile Island accident did not involve releases of significantly increased radioactivity to the environment. Even the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an organization generally skeptical of the benefits of nuclear power and sensitive to what it considers its dangers, found that the venting of slightly radioactive krypton in the course of the plant clean-up would pose no physical health problem to the neighboring population. The UCS recommended an elaborate procedure of using a balloon for releasing the gas far above ground. That, they said, was scientifically unnecessary, but they hoped it would lighten the psychological burden of fear.
A second major cause of technological accidents is the appearance of weather or other natural phenomena that diminishes the designed factor to a level that overstrains operator capability. The line between flawed technology and operator overstress may sometimes be hard to draw in the abstract, but it becomes apparent in cases like the Fastnet yachting race of 1979, in which all the sailing vessels were subjected to immense and unusual stresses; some survived, others did not.
With regard to this cause, the basic design of the nuclear-generating stations certainly guards against any predictable meteorological disturbance. Protection against the risk of earthquake is implicit in the whole licensing process. On the evidence, this does not seem a significant factor in nuclear-generating station accidents.
A third major cause of technological accidents is gross incompetence on the part of the operators, such as drunkenness, egregious stupidity, lack of discipline, psychological incapacity for the operating responsibility. Examples of such accidents are the Johnstown flood of 1889 and the General Slocum tragedy.
The Johnstown flood was caused by the collapse of a private dam in the hills above Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The dam’s owner, Colonel B. F. Rush, who acquired it from a club to fish in the lake behind it, knew nothing of dam technology, and adamantly refused to cut a spillway despite unusual rain that greatly increased the customary quantity of impounded water. Without the spillway, the dam could not withstand the full weight of water, augmented by a heavy storm on May 31, 1889, and simply collapsed, killing between 8,000 and 7,000 people in the valley below.
The General Slocum, an excursion steamer whose captain was wholly unqualified for his job, caught fire on June 15, 1904 while taking several thousand German-American mothers and their children out for a picnic. The crew did not know how to put out the fire. The captain steered the vessel in the wrong direction, so that the wind caused the fire to spread. Over 1,200 people were killed.
The operating crews of nuclear-power plants have shown no such personal shortcomings. To be sure, there have been incidents of difficulty created by improper maintenance procedures. But the incidents did not result in damage or radiation leakage, because the operating crew took proper steps.
Nevertheless the selection of staff to operate nuclear plants remains a not-quite-solved issue. The basic notion of the government when, in the years after World War II, it sought to encourage the use of atomic energy for electricity generation, first as a means of propelling submarines and then for the production of electricity, was to place the responsibility for ownership and operation of electric plants in the hands of the utility industry. There is ample sense in such a position, but even after having established that basic policy, the government found it could not treat the nuclear-powered plant in the same way fossil-fuel plants were treated. Initial costs were too high (and fossil-fuel costs too low) to interest private industry without subsidization. Subsidization also brought government insurance, because the total lack of experience with which to evaluate the risk of a nuclear plant, and the combination of heavy plant cost and great public liability in the event of a truly disastrous occurrence, made nuclear power uninsurable in the normal market. If uninsurable, the plants could not be financed in the private capital market.
Even if these financial issues had not arisen, there would inevitably have been a public demand for intense government scrutiny of atomic power, federal licensing, and federal assumption of safety responsibility. From time to time over the years there have been suggestions that the operation be in government hands. This demand is based on the theory that profit maximization is inconsistent with safety, and it is buttressed by the remarkable safety record compiled in the Navy’s nuclear fleet. But there are important differences between Navy and civilian operation. The Navy’s plants are more compact, and of much lower power ratings than the stationary electric plants. The Navy men are actually moved through the water by the equipment they operate; they are the prime beneficiaries of the power, and they understand that their progress homeward or outward bound depends on the same teamwork that must characterize their shipboard life. They are much closer physically to the supervising officers who, presumably, have mastered the theory as well as the technical layout of the equipment on board ship.
In the wake of Three Mile Island—where the operators employed by its managing owner, Metropolitan Edison, turned what should have been a minor inconvenience into probably the most costly non-fatal accident in history—both the Kemeny and Rogovin reports urged deeper government involvement in operator training and selection. Yet there is no evidence that operators trained directly by the government will be qualitatively different from workers trained by private industry. In fact, many current plant operators received their initial training in the nuclear Navy. There is no shred of evidence that psychological or personal problems played any part whatever in the Three Mile Island accident; though at times confused by the conditions they faced, the operators earned general respect.
It should be added, however, that the responsibilities of nuclear plant operation do impose a peculiar psychological burden—long periods of boredom or concern with repairs not serious enough to warrant plant shutdown alternating, at long irregular intervals, with moments of confused excitement with little or no warning. It goes without saying that not everyone is capable of surviving the boredom and the excitement, not to mention the alternation of the two. But such people do exist and it seems likely that they are the ones who will seek work of this type and survive the competition.
A fourth cause of technical accident is communication failure. Ordinarily this brings to mind accidents produced by the collision between two moving vehicles or vessels. One of the worst of all maritime disasters was the explosion of a munitions-carrying freighter in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in November 1917. From 1,600 to 3,600 people were killed in the blast, and 8,000 injured, while many homes were destroyed. The accident resulted from a misinterpretation by the pilot of one vessel of the signal sent by the pilot of the Mont Blanc, carrying explosives to Europe. Instead of turning away from each other, they turned into each other’s paths.
This type of communication problem explains the puzzlement that radar does not eliminate collisions between ships in fog, although they can now see and plot each other’s position. The present position provides only a clue to the future position of the ship observed, while communication intended to clarify each navigator’s intention remains subject to misunderstanding. Obviously a stationary nuclear plant is not subject to the same kind of error. Nuclear plants do, however, remain peculiarly liable to two other kinds of communication errors. The more crucial in the case of Three Mile Island is the error in communication between the machines and the operators.
In ordinary life, everyone comes into contact with signals that transmit an erroneous message. Every motorist is familiar with the experience of following a car whose rear blinker light appears to be frantically signaling its driver’s intention of turning. But the driver may have put the turn indicator on a while ago without making a turn sharp enough to cause it to shut itself off. Its present flashing may be no indication of the state of mind of the driver. It does not take long for the average driver confronted by an anomalous contrast between the signal and the performance of the car to decide that the signal is in error and demands to be ignored. Similarly, when the red-green traffic signals are not working, the line of traffic that is penalized senses when something has gone wrong, and relentlessly moves forward, correctly, having perceived the miscommunication.
It is also possible that two contradictory sets of signals can be transmitted simultaneously. While a car’s signal light may be indicating a turn in one direction, the driver or a passenger may be waving an arm to indicate an intention of turning in the other. This ambiguity occurred at Three Mile Island: while one set of signals indicated (falsely) that the cooling system needed no water, other signals were telling the operators (accurately) that the cooling system needed water desperately.
Faced with conflicting messages, a recipient must choose between them on the basis of his experience and expectations. The Three Mile Island operators responded as utility-company personnel, whose attention was fixed on those plant systems that were left in control of the utility company.3 The reactor, seen by them as primarily a government responsibility, was signaling its need for water; but the operators gave priority to signals suggesting that more water might lead to less efficient operation of the electrical-generating system.
Such an unfortunate response at a crucial moment may be the natural outcome of two separate authority systems—the government regulatory commission and the utility enterprise. A similar unfortunate response may well occur again in similar situations unless a single authority, founded on a unitary view of the whole process, trains the operators and teaches them how to interpret the messages from the plant.
Thus the failure to receive correctly the communications that the plant was sending to its operators cannot properly be blamed on the innate stupidity of their operators. But it is partly ascribable to the failure to design a control room providing the simplest means possible in which the operators could respond to the plant’s language.
Most of the recommendations of the Kemeny and Rogovin commissions have therefore dealt with ways in which the control room can be redesigned, and ways in which the regulatory agency can be reshaped so that the operating utilities will be brought by threat, by closer supervision, by better initial training, by more effective organization of the regulatory agency, and by efforts of the atomic-energy industry itself to avoid the misapprehensions that made Three Mile Island possible.
A second communications problem scarcely involves the plant operators, although they, of course, are the ultimate victims of the failure to solve it. This is the extraordinary lack of communication among different utilities reporting their operating experiences to each other, exchanging information on remedial techniques, on training components they have found necessary, and on nuances in the communication between atomic energy plants and their operators.
The regulatory body, by trying to develop reports from licensees about events that might be of interest to other licensees, has stimulated a great flood of mail that no one had had the time or the energy to sift through until the recent establishment of an industry office, the Nuclear Safety Analysis Center, supported by the power industry and devoting itself to the analysis of all “non-normal events” occurring at reactors. This is the beginning of what should have been undertaken long ago.
It seems likely that as long as the public regulatory agency and the power industry follow separate paths, there will continue to be cracks through which important precautionary measures can easily be swept. The light-water pressurized reactor, prototype of the overwhelming majority of American reactors, cannot be cut in two, with one part labeled safety-related and the other not, because the interactions between the two parts themselves have significant safety-connected implications. Therefore, the suggestion, sometimes seriously made, that all atomic reactors be run by a government-employed corps of technicians-somewhat the way airport, safety landing systems are run—seems impractical.
Instead the government should consider eliminating the gap by combining its own efforts with those of industry, recognizing the industry’s own technical and safety agencies as the delegates of the United States, empowered to discipline, inspect, observe, and evaluate the operating nuclear-power stations and to make recommendations for their improvement.
Obviously, government should not authorize the quasi-official status of the industry group unless presidential designees sit on its board of directors, and its staff contains at least some of the government’s present employees in this field. The ensuing semi-public, semi-private regulatory institute of atomic power would be partly supported by public, partly by private funds.
There are existing self-regulating public-private agencies, like the National Association of Security Dealers. Any organization that fails to meet its standards is subjected to direct government regulations. In much the same way, a utility company that failed to meet the standards of the institute would be required to surrender its operating licenses to another qualified utility or to the institute itself. Representing in one body both the government regulatory interest and the private interest in making atomic energy work, such an institute would be capable of closing the present regulatory gaps and enabling the machines and their operators to talk in a continuous, common language.
It should astonish no one that in order to develop nuclear power with a widening margin of safety, unique contributions should be needed from government, and a unique collaboration between government and the developing industry should have to be devised. Government subsidization of new industries in the United States dates back to the earliest days of the republic. Most of the over-fifty generation, at least, were taught to cluck in horror at the immense land grants offered to the nascent railway companies to help persuade them of the profitability of traversing the continent. Fewer of us have read the revisionist economists who, comparing the efforts of modern developing countries to stimulate new enterprises under state capitalism, write that the United States got a bargain when it swapped undeveloped land for the effort of collecting and energizing capital to build railways.
The objections to government’s connection with atomic power, however, are inspired less by the economic argument that government subsidization helps to line private pockets (although this argument is sometimes made by anti-nuclear protesters), than by the contention that government’s connection with atomic power increases the people’s exposure to risk. The present population does not expect this of government. In the present climate of opinion, government exists not to increase risks, but to minimize them. It checks the products of private industry to make sure they do not poison, cannot injure, have therapeutic value if they claim to have it. It warns people against smoking, lest they develop cancer or expose themselves to heightened cardiovascular risks; it polices the workshop; it oversees the designs of automobiles, and specifies the contents of their exhaust fumes, even if the changes it insists on decrease the number of miles cars can travel per gallon at a time when it is also seeking to increase the number. Can anyone imagine that such a government, so conceived, would have consented to the development of the automobile, knowing that the invention would cost about 40,000 lives a year?
The only basis on which a government charged with reducing the risks of change to human health, to environmental integrity, and to full employment could excuse its support of a new technology that might, in the course of an accident, however improbable, cost human lives (particularly in a way so subtle as to defy detection for perhaps twenty years), would be by arguing that these risks offset even greater risks.
That, however, was not the argument the government put forward in favor of atomic-energy development thirty years ago. Then, the argument was that nuclear power would be cheaper than coal. This argument has gone by the board and support for nuclear power now depends on a second argument: that the world’s supply of fossil fuels is dwindling, that they are becoming far more expensive than anyone ever expected they would be, and that the expense might include the cost of war. The trouble is that a nation unwilling to believe that the petroleum shortage is not only “real” but the propelling reason behind its rise in price, may also be unwilling to believe that developing atomic energy is less risky than continuing to rely on the alternatives.
For this reason, the government is being politically prudent in not wanting to become too closely affiliated with the development of nuclear power, even though, as the Three Mile Island accident has made clear, the negative sanctions of a purely regulatory agency cannot accomplish the achievement of nuclear power with minimal risks. Nor can the industry, without government collaboration, impose adequate negative sanctions to insure that only capable operating enterprises run nuclear stations, and that they are staffed with appropriately trained and educated personnel, backed up by sound technology.
The political judgment that discourages the federal government from reaching for a new collaboration with the industry is amply reflected in the refusal of President Carter to move forward vigorously with the development of nuclear-power-station development. It seems incredible that American power policy in 1979 should have been more effectively determined by an expensive, but non-fatal, accident in Harrisburg than by the loss of the oil supply of Iran to American markets, an event whose duplication elsewhere in the superheated politics of the Middle East seems all too possible.
In opting for what amounts to neutrality on nuclear power—despite his call for a warlike mobilization to achieve energy independence—President Carter follows a line of political sapience marked out in the so-called Energy Project of the Harvard Business School edited by Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin.4 Describing the nuclear situation in the United States as a “stalemate,” the editors explain that the opposition to nuclear energy is so powerful that the construction of light-water reactors and even the continuing operation of some present reactors are uncertain. While emphasizing that their pessimism is grounded in some technical questions, including the need for further study of the effect of low-level radiation, the editors urge a massive program of conservation as America’s best hope for surviving the shrinkage of its energy resources.
But how much room is there, really, for conservation? Comparisons showing that we have a much higher per-capita energy consumption than other industrialized nations are misleading. The United States has far lower population densities than those of the industrialized nations of Europe and the Far East; it has very high agricultural productivity; its climate, untempered like Europe’s by the Gulf Stream, produces intense cold and heat. Entire industries have developed around these facts of American life: the automobile, agricultural machinery, fertilizer manufacture and distribution, home heating and cooling, all the activities of intra-national travel, hotel-keeping—the list is endless. Conservation on the scale required must therefore mean a radical alteration and lowering of the standard on which Americans live.
So long as conservation of power is seen merely as an abstract ideal, involving the elimination of someone else’s waste, its political acceptability is high. But when people more generally discover, as the automobile workers have already learned, that someone else’s “waste” is what employs them, the political problems of conservation will rise (as they did briefly during the gasoline shortage in the summer of 1979), and may well outweigh the political problems of developing nuclear power.
All this is not to say that there does not exist strong opposition to the construction of further nuclear-generating stations and the continuing operation of those already in place. But the opposition seems less powerful than it did only a few months ago, when Three Mile Island was fresher in the mind. Moreover, the opposition seems concentrated in certain regions of the country, as well as in certain defined circles of society. Most referendum tests on atomic energy have resulted in defeats for the anti-nuclear movement. In Montana, where its power did succeed in forcing a state referendum before any nuclear station could be built, the anti-nuclear movement is roughly comparable with the local anti-coal mining movement, both being based on regional resistance to what some Montanans call the despoliation of the real West for the benefit of the urbanized East.
As among the development of hydroelectric power, coal mining, and nuclear energy, the last would impose the smallest risk of environmental change. But the point around which the resistance to nuclear power coalesces is its symbolic identification with the very heart and essence of the technological society. It is high technology, and high technology is bad because it contains the seeds of human destruction; no matter that none of the 74 operating reactors has had a fatal accident, what the opponents of nuclear energy know of its dangers transcends mere evidence.
For those groups in American society for whom opposition to nuclear power offers a central meaning to their lives—a separation from the mainstream that, however, need not be made more intense by giving up any of the comforts and amenities of American life one happens to find congenial—political conciliation would seem to Be a waste of time.
But for millions of other Americans who fear nuclear power because they genuinely consider themselves subject, to the dangers of explosion or the more insidious long-term risk of slow death by radiation, or who fear that property values will be adversely affected by the proximity of a present or proposed plant, political support by the President can be effective.
If energy independence is as important as war, what the nation needs from the Presidency is a declaration as electrifying as the statement by Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 6, 1942 that the nation could and would produce 100,000 combat planes a year now that it was at war. If the political problems of nuclear power overawe some, one wonders how they propose to deal with the political problems of the Middle East, and with declining employment and inflation in America. Even in the shadow of Three Mile Island, developing nuclear energy is both less intractable politically and—though many continue to doubt it—less risky than continuing to rely on oil.
1 Nuclear Lessons, ed by Richard Curtis and Elizabeth Hogan, Stackpole Books, 284 pp., $16.95.
2 In a letter to the New York Times, March 17, 1980.
3 “For instance, some procedures emphasized avoiding equipment or component damage over keeping the core covered and cool. . . . Procedures seem to be written to minimize ‘outage’ and maximize ‘plant availability.’” (From the Staff Report of the Technical Assessment Task Force to the Kemeny Commission, Vol. I, page 38.)
4 Energy Future: Report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School, ed. by Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin, with I.C. Bupp, Random House, 1979.