The War Against the Atom
Most discussions of nuclear power are conducted in a haze of misinformation: there are few areas of public controversy where so much of what everyone “knows” is not really so. Let us begin with a discussion of a few of the least controversial facts about the processes by which nuclear power is generated. These are neither many nor complicated, but it is essential they be understood as a basis for discussing the somewhat complicated issues that grow out of them.
The Promises and problems of nuclear energy rest on the fact that the atoms of some forms of each element are inherently unstable. Each atomic nucleus (except the common form of hydrogen) contains two sorts of particles: protons and neutrons. Protons have a positive electrical charge and neutrons have no charge. In a stable form of an element, the protons and neutrons stay closely bound together in the nucleus. Such forms will remain as they are forever, and are not radioactive. In an unstable form, or isotope, neutrons escape from the nucleus, with two important consequences. The first is that the atom is no longer what it was: it has become a different substance. The second is that the departing neutrons may hit something, with a variety of results. The result that is of interest in the present case is that when a neutron strikes a nucleus of the class called “fissionable” (those of uranium and plutonium are the best known), it may enter the nucleus and cause it to split.
There are three consequences of that split: the atom breaks down into two lighter atoms, known as fission products, typically highly unstable and therefore highly radioactive; other neutrons escape from the nucleus; and there is a release of energy. The other escaping neutrons may strike other nuclei, and these too will split; if enough fissionable material is present, there will be a self-sustaining chain reaction, releasing great amounts of energy. If the mass of fissionable material is great enough, such a chain reaction can, with considerable difficulty, be contained so as to produce an explosion.
A nuclear-power plant of the type now being built or scheduled to be built through this century uses the chain reaction as a source of heat to make steam to operate turbines which spin generators. Apart from the reactor itself, a nuclear-power plant is much like a coal- or oil-fired one.
The fissionable material in most common use is an isotope of uranium: U-235. (The number denotes the total protons and neutrons in the nucleus.) Only .7 per cent of all uranium is of this type; the overwhelming proportion of all uranium in nature is a non-fissionable isotope, U-238. In order to use natural uranium as a fuel, it is necessary to raise the proportion of U-235 in it by a process known as enrichment. Uranium for bombs must be enriched to nearly 90 per cent U-235. In the power reactors used in this country, 3 per cent will do. The enrichment process is extremely complicated and expensive, consuming vast amounts of capital to build and vast amounts of electricity to operate. It also leaves large amounts of non-fissionable U-238 for which there is at present no use.
Among other fissionable elements are thorium, which is more plentiful in nature than uranium, and plutonium, which does not occur in nature except in traces, but which is easily produced in reactors as a by-product. All uranium-burning reactors produce some plutonium incidentally, and plutonium breeder reactors produce it in large quantities deliberately.
There is a considerable variety of possible reactor designs, and the choice among them has become a major issue of public policy. Most of the nuclear reactors in the world today (and, with one exception, all those producing power in the United States) are light-water reactors. In these, ordinary water is circulated around the reactor core and heated by the nuclear reaction, thus serving to cool the core. In one type of light-water reactor, the cooling water is allowed to boil into steam which is piped directly to the generating turbines. This is known as the boiling-water reactor. In another type, the cooling water is kept under pressure, preventing it from boiling, and is piped to a separate steam generator. This is known as the pressurized-water reactor. Water also serves the necessary purpose of slowing down the neutrons flowing through the reactor core so that they will be able to split nuclei. For this purpose, the water is called a “moderator,” and its presence is no less essential to a chain reaction than the fuel itself. At present, light-water reactors are fueled with U-235, although they can also use plutonium or a mix of plutonium and uranium.
Getting the fuel for a light-water reactor is complicated. Uranium ore must be first processed to produce uranium oxide, known as “yellowcake.” This is then converted to uranium hexafluoride, a gaseous form essential to the enrichment process. After enrichment, the uranium hexafluoride is converted to uranium dioxide, and this is fabricated into fuel rods. This series of processes makes up the so-called “front end” of the cycle—that is, before the reactor. Each of these steps in the front end is, with present technology, mandatory for light-water reactors.
After an optimum period in the reactor, spent fuel is ready to be either discarded or reprocessed. It contains, in addition to wastes, unburned uranium and plutonium. In a complete “back end,” the uranium and plutonium would be separated from the wastes and fabricated into new fuel that could be used in several ways. The wastes proper would then be disposed of. Currently, however, no fuel is being reprocessed, and it is the position of the Carter administration that none shall be. So the back end of the cycle consists now simply of disposal, and this process is currently being held to its first stage, in which the spent fuel rods are maintained in pools of cooling water at the reactor site.
The light-water reactor is the basis of the U.S. commercial nuclear-power industry; it is also now the most common form in use worldwide. But the first experimental reactors used to generate power were breeders. In a plutonium breeder reactor, the fuel can be either U-235 or Pu-239, used to produce a chain reaction just as in the light-water reactor. But the core of a breeder reactor is surrounded by a “blanket” composed of U-238. Because it can be transmuted by neutron bombardment into plutonium, U-238 is called a “fertile” material. Neutrons escaping from the chain reaction are absorbed by U-238 nuclei, transmuting them first into a highly unstable isotope of uranium, U-239. Almost immediately this decays into a much more long-lived and fissionable isotope of plutonium, Pu-239. This substance is as useful for reactor fuel as U-235.
A plutonium breeder reactor is sometimes said to create more fuel than it uses, something which it of course cannot do without violating physical laws. What it can do is to produce more plutonium from U-238 than it burns. And this has made it both enemies and friends. There are other types of breeder reactors of which the most developed uses the common element thorium to breed the fissionable isotope U-233.
Beyond these facts, we enter the world of controversy. The opponents of nuclear power are more or less agreed as to what is wrong with it, and their charges are quickly summarized. These charges have been specified at impressive length in many sources, but as yet there has been no single influential exposition of the case against nuclear power as successful as, say, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Ralph Nader’s definitive statement, The Menace of Atomic Energy,1 has just been published. It is a thorough summary of the case contra, and Nader’s name on the spine will no doubt assure it a prominent place on the anti-nuclear bookshelf. It is an extraordinarily tendentious work (the “suggestions for further reading” list only firmly anti-nuclear authorities) and I will have something to say about its specific faults later. There is a good deal of useful information along with some dubious analysis in a recent Ford Foundation-sponsored work, Nuclear Power: Issues and Choices.2 This work appears to underlie most of the Carter administration’s nuclear policy. An organization active in opposing nuclear power nationwide has been the Union of Concerned Scientists, based largely at MIT, which, despite its name, does not require one to be a scientist to join and does not record how many of its members are in fact scientists. A Ralph Nader organization called Critical Mass, the Sierra Club, the Friends of the Earth, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have also all been active in opposition. The summary that follows is assembled from these and other sources, since most versions of the critique are interchangeable.3
- The routine operation of power reactors and their fuel cycle is said to be dangerous because such reactors release small amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, and it is said that there is unacceptable danger to humans from any amount of radiation, no matter how small.
- It was once alleged falsely that nuclear plants posed the additional danger of accidentally exploding like an atomic bomb, but this charge is now rarely heard, although it is sometimes implied on the jackets of anti-nuclear books. Instead, the most common risk talked about with regard to light-water reactors is that of “meltdown,” an accident which may be initiated if the water cooling the reactor core stops flowing. In such an accident, the loss of water removes the moderator and stops the chain reaction itself, but the inherent heat of the radioactive fuel and fission products, if not cooled, by water, will cause an inexorable rise in temperature that will eventually melt the fuel and everything beneath it, possibly leading to a serious release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. In 1965, an Atomic Energy Commission report estimated that the worst possible meltdown accident would kill 27,000 people, injure 73,000, and cause $17 billion in property damage. It is often said that in 1966 the Enrico Fermi reactor near Detroit went into a “partial meltdown” and that in 1975 a fire at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama came very close to causing a meltdown.
- Plutonium breeder reactors, besides producing plutonium, a fuel alleged to be too dangerous to permit in society, are also said to impose a risk of nuclear explosion.
- It is pointed out that homeowners’ insurance policies exclude nuclear accidents, and it is claimed that the risk of such accidents is so great that no company will insure against them.
- Waste disposal sometimes appears even to those who consider nuclear power safe in every other respect to be not only an insoluble problem but so dangerous as to be a sufficient cause for the abolition of nuclear power. The perilousness of nuclear wastes is widely asserted: the fission products of a nuclear reactor are said, besides being uniquely dangerous, to be “the longest-lived” substances known to man, and plutonium, not technically a fission product, has been called “toxic beyond human experience.” It is often pointed out that there have been leaks of wastes from the government storage facility at Hanford, Washington, and it is widely contended that there now exists no technology to deal with the wastes that will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, and that none is now foreseeable. Barry Commoner has spoken of the need for a “nuclear priesthood,” dedicated to the safeguarding of nuclear wastes into the infinite future.
- Critics of nuclear power say that nuclear plants are guilty of “thermal pollution,” that is, they can raise the temperature of the cooling water they discharge into lakes, rivers, and oceans by many degrees, with catastrophic consequences for aquatic life.
- Critics of nuclear power widely allege that nuclear power is uneconomical, partially because its routine costs are believed to be much higher than for other forms of power generation, and partially because nuclear plants are supposedly much less reliable than other types.
- Nuclear critics claim also that plutonium is a potential boon for terrorists in two ways: first of all, as a poison (a few kilos of plutonium, properly dispersed, could allegedly kill everyone in the world). Secondly, it is often said that a dedicated band of terrorists could acquire enough plutonium to construct their own atomic bomb, with predictably horrific results. To thwart both these dangers, it is maintained that it will be necessary to construct security systems that will amount to a garrison state.
- Finally, it is said that a nuclear-power industry is inextricably tied up with nuclear-weapons proliferation because nations that do not currently have a nuclear-weapons capability will be able to attain one by using plutonium-reactor fuel to make plutonium bombs. The best-known advocate of this view is the person best situated to build it into policy: the President of the United States.
These charges against nuclear power would be terrifying if true. Indeed, were no more than half of them true—or even plausible—nuclear power would almost certainly be too dangerous not only to be a solution to the energy crisis but also too dangerous to be allowed to continue at the present level. If these charges were true, there might even be some sense to the idiotic slogan, “Split wood, not atoms.” But they are not true.
The belief that a functioning nuclear reactor and its fuel cycle pose a radiation threat illustrates a common habit among the anti-nuclear lobby: holding nuclear reactors to a standard of safety that if generalized would forbid not only all other forms of power generation, but also most of the things man makes or finds in nature.
The standard measure of the biological effect of radiation upon humans is the “roentgen equivalent man,” abbreviated rem. The most commonly used sub-unit is the millirem, abbreviated mrem. The International Commission on Radiological Protection’s limit for annual exposure per person is 500 mrem a year. This is a conservative limit, and there are areas in the world where people are naturally exposed to as much as 1,500 mrem a year without apparent damage.
The first thing to understand is that exposure to radiation is an inescapable consequence of living on the earth: we are all exposed to “background radiation” from natural sources, including radioactive minerals such as uranium, and cosmic rays. In the United States this exposure ranges from as high as 175 mrem a year to as little as 50, depending on location. The U.S. average is 130 mrem. Radioactive materials such as granite, which is—in these exquisitely sensitive contexts—highly radioactive, add 10 mrem or so a year. Petr Beckmann of the University of Colorado4 has pointed out that if Grand Central Station were to be held to the Nulear Regulatory Commission standards for reactors, it could not be licensed. There is, additionally, approximately 120 mrem a year more in man-made radiation. Most of this comes from x-rays and other medical sources. Fallout accounts for 4 mrem a year, and color television for about 1 mrem. Nuclear plants add, in the United States, approximately .003 mrem a year. Without nuclear plants, the average American absorbs 250 mrem a year; with nuclear plants, he absorbs 250.003 mrem.
It is often argued by nuclear critics that radiation is so dangerous that no addition to the natural background is tolerable. If this be so, then it is a little hard to know why the critics are concentrating on nuclear plants. If one lives next to the property line of a nuclear reactor, the NRC permits an added exposure of 5 mrem a year. The added risk of cancer is equal to that imposed by smoking one cigarette a year.
These doses are perhaps put in perspective by the fact that a single chest x-ray adds some 50 mrem, and simply flying from New York to Los Angeles 5 mrem. Worse still, if one moves from Dallas to Denver, the additional annual exposure is nearly 100 mrem: that is, 20 times the radiation permitted to the neighbor of an operating nuclear plant. This is simply the consequence of Denver’s altitude. The practical effect of all this extra radiation is perhaps to be noted in the fact that Colorado’s cancer incidence is lower than the national average.
Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh5 has provided a neat illustration of the real risk from the emissions of a nuclear reactor. If one lives at its property line, and wishes to move away in order to escape the risks of the 5-mrem-a-year which is the maximum emission permitted—in practice, no reactor comes near the permitted maximum—one must take care not to move to a house more than 500 feet further away from one’s place of work. If one does, the increased risk from auto accident will outweigh the decreased risk from radiation.
Although the opponents of nuclear power talk as if it were generally accepted that minute amounts of radiation result in genetic damage to human beings, it is not generally realized that this assumption rests on laboratory results with animals that appear to be contradicted by actual experience with humans. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thousands of humans were exposed to levels of radiation that not even the harshest critic of nuclear power believes can come from a reactor. Thirty years later, there has been no detectable increase in genetic damage among the offspring of this population.
There are undoubtedly risks of cancer from exposure to radiation. That they are in any event tiny is evident from the fact that any number of highly radioactive (but non-industrialized) sections of the country combine high background radiation with low cancer rates. The important point is that nuclear reactors, routinely operated, are among the most negligible emitters of radiation, and thus among the most negligible causes of cancer from radiation.
The truth is that cigarette smokers pose a greater risk of cancer to their neighbors than all the nuclear plants in the country: and any smoker who opposes nuclear power on the grounds that it is carcinogenic lives in the grip of a potentially explosive contradiction.
So much for the dangers posed by routine operation of a nuclear reactor and the fuel cycle; those posed by accidents are a more complicated matter. By far the most serious accident possible in a light-water reactor is the so-called meltdown. A meltdown would begin with a break in one of the pipes carrying heated water or steam from the reactor core to a heat exchanger or a turbine. All reactors have redundant systems to supply emergency cooling water, but if all these were to fail, even though the lack of a moderator would shut down the chain reaction, the heat growing out of the fission products contained in the core would no longer be carried away, and the fuel would begin to melt. The stainless-steel pressure vessel, covering the reactor proper, is designed to contain the effects of this, but if it should fail, the domed containment structure is made to hold in the various radioactive products dispersed within it. Only if this containment structure fails—and it is designed to withstand the impact from a crashing jetliner—would there be a release of radioactive material into the atmosphere. What would happen next depends on the location of the reactor and on the weather. The consequences would range from none to very serious ones indeed. There would be none if a minimum of radioactivity were released and it were widely dispersed over sparsely populated areas. And there would be very serious results if a great deal of radioactivity were emitted and it were dispersed in a concentrated fashion over densely populated areas.
Now, although there is some disagreement as to the precise magnitude of casualties in the worst possible meltdown disaster, all parties agree that the worst possible meltdown disaster would be a major one. The real disagreement comes on probabilities, which are essential to understanding the real risk of anything. In general, the worse the accident the less the probability. The worst possible airline accident, for example, would be something like a fully-loaded 747 crashing into the Rose Bowl on New Year Day, an event which might kill perhaps 30,000 people. The worst possible electric-power generation accident would be not a nuclear meltdown but the failure of a hydroelectric dam at the head of a heavily populated valley. This might kill as many as a quarter of a million people and destroy many billions of dollars’ worth of property. If such an accident were very much less probable than a meltdown, we might discount the fact that it threatens a much higher death toll. As it happens, the dam accident is substantially more likely than a major meltdown accident.
In 1975, the Atomic Energy Commission published a study that attempted to calculate the risks of a meltdown, the Reactor Safety Study (RSS), known at the Rasmussen report from its director, Norman Rasmussen of MIT. The RSS concludes that the maximum credible light-water reactor accident would result in 3,300 deaths immediately, with 45,000 deaths from cancer over a period of thirty years, and $14 billion in property damage. It also concludes that the chance of such an accident is vanishingly remote, perhaps 10,000 times smaller than similar death tolls from such disasters as dam failures and tropical storms. The probability that, with 100 reactors operating, 1,000 people would be killed in a single accident is the same as for 1,000 people being killed by a single meteorite—once every billion years.
The RSS has been subjected to very severe criticism from both the American Physical Society and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Among the most telling claims made against it are that the system of analysis it uses was developed to predict relative, but not absolute, safety, and that the report pays inadquate regard to the possibility that failure in one component may lead to failure in another, as when water spilling from a broken pipe disables a safety device. It is not necessary to accept all the criticisms made of the report (for instance, that it ignores sabotage) to see that its critics have raised substantial questions about the validity of its predictions.
If the probabilities predicted by the RSS were not themselves so remote, however—that with 100 reactors operating, one person would be killed by them once every two centuries—the criticism would be more disturbing. As it stands, there is much sense in the conclusion reached by the Ford Foundation report, which is that although the risks of a meltdown may be greater than indicated in the RSS, they are still very remote. Moreover, they are not greater in likelihood and intensity than risks society already accepts and has learned to live with. In this century, the Ford Foundation report notes, the United States has already seen two hurricanes that have taken over a thousand lives each and resulted in billions of dollars of property damage.
Still, it should be obvious that we need a reactor-safety study in whose judgments there will be widespread confidence. Such a study, moreover, should compare the relative risks of light-water reactors to other types. If whatever risks inhere in the light-water reactor turn out to be substantially idiosyncratic to it, rather than typical of nuclear power, we need to know that.
The plutonium breeder is alleged to present even more serious safety problems than the light-water reactor. The principal allegation about the operation of the reactor itself is that should it suffer a meltdown, it is possible for the melted plutonium fuel to reassemble itself in such a way as to achieve critical mass and undergo a nuclear explosion. The technical community is divided on this issue, and it would be foolish in the face of such division for a layman to maintain that it could not happen. But it is important to understand what it would involve and how unlikely it is.
There is as yet no body of data on operating plutonium breeders that would allow any hard assessment of the risks of a meltdown. But the design of such reactors makes it very unlikely. The liquid sodium coolant is circulated at very low pressure, which makes a pipe rupture less probable in prospect and less serious in actuality. So a loss-of-cool-ant accident is very unlikely, as is the prospect that all emergency systems would fail. Even if they did, it is not certain that the fuel would reassemble so as to form a critical mass, and any explosion that did occur would be of a different order from a bomb explosion. Reactor-grade plutonium is heavily contaminated with Pu-240, which makes it a bad weapons material. (Nuclear critics consistently mislabel reactor plutonium as “weapons-grade.” While it can be used to make bombs, they are highly inefficient and likely to explode prematurely. There is a weapons-grade plutonium, but it is pure Pu-239, and’ it is not produced in power reactors.) Further, since much of the art of making an atomic bomb lies in the elaborate mechanisms to contain the explosion long enough for it to build up, an accidental reassembly would lead to a fizzle rather than a real explosion. It is probable that such an “explosion” would be held within a containment structure. The risk of such an explosion occurring and releasing radiation must be akin to that of being hit by a meteorite.
An overheating incident in 1966 at the Fermi breeder plant near Detroit has been the subject of John G. Fuller’s extremely ignorant and sensational book, We Almost Lost Detroit.6 Space and life are too short to catalogue the errors of this work, but it is perhaps sufficient to note that Fuller regularly characterizes the liquid sodium coolant, actually less viscous than water, as “syrup-like,” and he paints a picture of the site of the plant, eight years after the accident, still contaminated by radioactive sodium. In fact, the preponderant and most dangerous isotope created in a breeder’s coolant, Na-24, has a half-life of fifteen hours. It was effectively nonexistent a month after the reactor shut down. Even the much less dangerous Na-22, produced in far smaller quantities, has a half-life of only thirty months and was thus greatly reduced in amount after eight years had passed. Others have followed and expanded upon Fuller’s errors in this work. One is often told that the accident nearly involved a meltdown, although the plant did not yet contain enough fission products for this, and that it is now inoperative, without being told that it was an experimental reactor closed only after having been successfully repaired and restarted.
The tale of the Fermi reactor is the tale of a major reactor that suffered a very serious accident without a single human injury, much less a death. Citing it as proof that nuclear energy is too dangerous is like trying to prove that cars are too dangerous by citing examples of safety belts working.
But the case for the breeder is more than a negation of the case against it. The true potential of the breeder is almost never conceded by nuclear critics. For it could do more than allow us to outlast the present supply of uranium in the ground. Since it allows the conversion of our presently useless stock of already mined U-238, it would allow us to generate electricity for several hundred years without mining another ounce of fuel. This is what an all-breeder generating capacity would mean—true energy independence for the United States and the saving of thousands of lives in the mines.
The principal of the half-truth is nowhere better illustrated than in the anti-nuclear movement’s discussion of insurance. It is true that homeowners’ insurance policies exclude damage because of nuclear accidents. But this is because nuclear accidents are separately covered under insurance set up by the Price-Anderson Act. Under the Act, a coverage is established of $560 million per accident. A portion of this—currently $140 million—is covered by insurance purchased from private insurance companies. The balance is covered by insurance purchased from the federal government. By 1980, the private companies will have gradually taken over the entire coverage, and as new plants are built, the limit will be raised. And should an accident occur, all operating plants will be assessed a retrospective charge of $5 million.
The critics’ perennial question—“If a major accident that would cost $17 billion is so extraordinarily remote, why won’t the insurance companies sell insurance for it?”—is easily answered. Although the extreme case is highly unlikely over any span of years, it could—however unlikely this may be—occur tomorrow. Although no premium would have been paid remotely covering the cost, the cost would have to be paid. And because a major nuclear accident would make the death of the whole industry a high probability, there would be little chance of recovering the cost out of future premiums. A similar principle applies to the insuring of fireworks displays: the premium drops proportional to the experience and future stability of the firm lighting the fuse.
Should a nuclear accident occur beyond the insured limits, it seems very likely that the Congress would provide retrospective compensation. It must also be noted that Price-Anderson insurance is superior to other insurance in two respects: for the great majority of likely accidents, it would pay full compensation to the victims, and unlike all other disaster insurance, the premium is paid not by the beneficiary but by a third party.
It is evident that the single most frightening charge made against nuclear energy is that it produces extraordinarily dangerous wastes that must be guarded for millions of years. The anti-nuclear lobby calls on us to remember our obligations to our descendants, and regularly tells us that we have as yet devised no means to deal with the waste problem. No part of the anti-nuclear dogma is more suffused with ignorance, sensationalism, and downright dishonesty than this charge.
To begin with, the actual danger posed by these wastes is grossly exaggerated. The wastes are of two general types. Fission products, elements lighter than uranium and highly radioactive, are the debris of the split nuclei and have comparatively short half-lives. These are also called “high-level wastes.” Transuranics, elements heavier than uranium, are caused by its irradiation and have long half-lives. These are also called “low-level wastes.”
The best-known of the transuranics is plutonium, and it is also the most sensationalized. It is said to have been named for “Pluto, the god of hell,” a statement which is erroneous as to fact (it was named by astronomical analogy as the element beyond Neptunium) and ignorant of the Greco-Roman notion of Hades. It is regularly said to be the most toxic substance known to man, and sometimes even to be toxic beyond human experience. It is hard to disagree with Petr Beckmann’s characterization of such statements as “melodramatic piffle.”
It should be first observed that plutonium is a waste substance only if it is not used as a fuel. If it be a waste substance requiring long-term storage it is only because we make it so. Plutonium is of course a very toxic substance, but it is not uniquely so. Bernard Cohen has estimated that if the entire electric-power industry of the United States operated with fast breeder reactors, the annual production of plutonium would, if dispersed with maximum efficiency and then inhaled, be sufficient to cause 1 trillion deaths. This indeed sounds terrifying. But two things must be remembered. First, the annual production of plutonium could not possibly be dispersed with such efficiency. Second, we routinely handle far more dangerous substances: our present annual production of hydrogen cyanide, if similarly dispersed and inhaled, would cause 6 trillion deaths; our annual production of ammonia, 8 trillion; our annual production of phosgene, 18 trillion; and our annual production of chlorine, no fewer than 400 trillion deaths.
Cohen also points out that there is more danger to us from the radium deposited in the earth’s crust than from prospective plutonium production. Specifically, if all the present generating capacity were fired by fast breeder reactors producing as much plutonium as they consumed, the total amount of plutonium in existence would be no more radioactive than the radium that already exists in a little over half a foot of the earth’s crust. Even this comparison overstates the danger from plutonium. When ingested, naturally-occurring radium is 40 times as toxic as plutonium, and it is a source of the dangerous radioactive gas, radon. If we correct for this, we will see that all the plutonium produced by an all-breeder power system would, if dispersed throughout the earth’s crust, be no more dangerous than the radium occurring naturally in 4 mm of that crust. It should hardly need pointing out that this plutonium would not be dispersed throughout the environment, but would be in reactors and processing plants.
Nor, in looking for things that are more poisonous than plutonium, need one confine oneself to naturally occurring radioactive substances. Arsenic trioxide when ingested is 50 times more toxic than plutonium, and we import this insecticide in quantities that would exceed the wastes from an all-nuclear economy. And we spray it about very nearly at random and have no plans whatsoever for disposing of it in any manner.
Plutonium is, additionally, often characterized by such terms as “searingly radioactive,” a phrase recently applied to it by Time. This is exceptionally ignorant and misleading. Plutonium radiation consists of alpha particles, and these are stopped by a sheet of paper or a few inches of air. Indeed, they are stopped by the epidermis, and pose a threat to humans only when ingested or inhaled. Their principal threat is as a carcinogen, and there is general agreement that in this regard plutonium is extremely potent. The depth of the extremity is a matter for debate, but no one regards the problem as something to be ignored. For a society that tolerates cigarettes to use this hazard as an excuse for rejecting the extraordinary benefits of plutonium is lunatic.
Further, a great deal is made of plutonium’s half-life of 24,000 years. (This is the half-life of its most common isotope, Pu-239. Its other isotopes have half-lives ranging from less than a second to 80 million years.) It is, on this basis, frequently called “one of the longest-lived substances known to man.” This characterization is particularly idiotic. For one thing, it obscures the fact that the longer-lived a radioactive substance is, the less dangerous its radiation is—for it emits radiation at a lower rate. Fission products—high-level wastes—have comparatively short half-lives because they decay at so furious a rate. But the characterization obscures something even more important: radioactive poisons are the only poisons that have half-lives as short as 24,000, or even 80 million, years. Stable isotopes are eternal and have infinite half-lives. A gram of plutonium will eventually end up as slightly less than a gram of lead. A gram of arsenic will always be a gram of arsenic.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has issued a brochure which describes the alleged qualities of certain high-level wastes, and then cites, as if it applied to these same wastes, a government estimate for a very large amount of nuclear wastes to be created by the year 2000. But the UCS suppresses the fact that the government’s estimate applies not to high-level wastes, but to low-level wastes, which are so feeble in radiation that they can be buried in trenches.
But these confusions and misstatements pale beside those made about the state of waste-disposal technology. A principal stock-in-trade of the anti-nuclear lobby is a series of leaks of high-level wastes from storage tanks at the government’s Hanford, Washington facility. These leaks, deplorable enough in themselves, are regularly cited as representative of the risks in current techniques. One is never told that the tanks in question are of early postwar design, and have long since been superseded. It is as if the safety record of the railroads in 1845, when accidents were very common, had been used in 1925 to justify closing them down.
The most common assertion one hears in this area, however, is the flat statement that we do not now know how to dispose of high-level wastes, which must be isolated from contact with the biosphere for many thousands of years. This challenge has already been met, and the endlessly repeated statement that it has not is the nearest equivalent in the debate over nuclear power to a classic Big Lie.
The technology for 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 bulk, and then using this “sand” as a component to make glass. The resulting glass is radioactive but chemically inert. It can then be buried deep in geologically stable salt formations, where no water has flowed for millions of years. It will require no surveillance, let alone a “nuclear priesthood.” If there were an immediate need for such storage, 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 be for some years. It thus makes good sense to keep existing wastes in temporary storage and to hold up on final disposal while an already adequate technology is improved.
Most anti-nuclear prophets simply ignore this process or lump it together with a number of purely speculative suggestions, such as launching wastes by rocket into the sun. Nader and Abbotts ignore it except to quote an outdated press release of the Energy Research and Development Administration noting that it will not work for ERDA’s inventory of weapons waste. The problem has now been corrected by a new process developed at Hanford. But in any event, Nader and Abbotts conveniently omit to note that this problem was never applicable to existing or prospective wastes from power reactors. And although they cite the problem as an example of ERDA’s inability to manage “its own” wastes, they do not note that the neutralization of military wastes that led to the problem was carried out long before there was an ERDA. It is this sort of thing which raises grave doubts about Ralph Nader’s secular sanctity. The best that can be said for such tactics is that they belong to an advocate whose concern is not with truth but propaganda.
Elsewhere in their discussion of waste disposal, Nader and Abbotts make the claim that technology cannot guarantee geologically stable areas in which to deposit wastes. This is true but irrelevant. Nature provides such areas and technology can locate them. Nader and Abbotts misleadingly suggest that a false start at finding such an area in Kansas means that none exists. Had Nader been operating in the early 19th century, the railways would have had a very hard time getting started.
It is not surprising that anti-nuclear advocates should wish to perpetuate the lie that wastes are an insoluble problem. As they themselves often note, the issue is perhaps the strongest they have going for them, and it must be a terrible thought that some interfering scientist somewhere may have gone and solved it.
The “thermal pollution” charge laid at the door of nuclear power plants is a mixture of half-truth, exaggeration, and gross sentimentality. First of all, the root phenomenon is not peculiar to nuclear plants. All thermal-power plants waste a great deal of heat and must dispose of it, generally into bodies of water or through cooling towers into the atmosphere. Light-water reactors have a slightly lower thermal efficiency than fossil-fuel plants, and therefore discharge more heat, but breeder reactors are at least as efficient as fossil-fueled plants. If “thermal pollution” is really an argument for rejecting nuclear energy, it is also an argument for rejecting most of our electricity.
The most commonly attacked “thermal pollution” involves the discharge of waste heat into bodies of water. The critics are fond of citing the temperature rise at the discharge exit, which may be as high as 70 degrees. They are less fond of citing the temperature rise over a few hundred square feet, which will be only a degree or two.
But even this slight change will have an effect on the aquatic life near a reactor, as it makes the water an unsuitable environment for some species. In doing so, however, it makes it more suitable for other species. Lobsters, for example, thrive in the slightly warmed water near a reactor.
When a reactor shuts down, as for refueling, a species that has moved into warm water may have difficulty in surviving a temporary cooling of the water. Much has been made of the fact that menhaden, fish important in fertilizer and pet food, are enticed into the slightly warmed waters near reactors located on the Atlantic and then killed off when the water cools during a shutdown. A not dissimilar phenomenon occurs when the elderly of the species homo die of cold during a natural-gas shortage, but of this we hear little. If we had no need of energy, it would perhaps be possible to let our hearts bleed for the menhaden, who no doubt prefer ending up as fertilizer or cat food to death by thermal pollution. But the fact is that our need for safe energy is crucial, and it is only those who have never known what it is like to be without energy who can seriously contemplate a brutal policy of sacrificing human interests to those of fish. In a related piece of folly, the opponents of the Sea-brook plant in New Hampshire have opposed its cooling system on the grounds that it would inhale and destroy a certain diet of aquatic life each day. The amount involved is about what three or four whales consume, but one does not hear the same people urging a moratorium on the existence of whales.
“Thermal pollution,” in short, is a bugbear invented to cover for the embarrassing fact that nuclear-power plants do not assault the environment with the same ferocity as such putatively safe energy sources as coal. “Thermal pollution” is common to all thermal plants; it can be taken seriously only by indulging a studied contempt for human welfare in the interests, real or otherwise, of marine life.
The economic argument against nuclear power is made in multifarious ways. Sometimes it appears to grow out of simple ignorance, as when the utilities are alleged to prefer expensive nuclear plants because with great capital investment higher rates can be charged, quite as if that capital did not have to be recovered out of income. Sometimes it is based on the implied assumption that the government ought never to subsidize the development of a new technology, as when it is objected that the government does not make a profit on its fuel-enrichment operation. Those who make this charge have not been heard to object to the government subsidy of mass transport through Amtrak and the Urban Mass Transit Administration. Sometimes it is based on manipulation of the facts, as when figures for Western low-sulfur coal burned near the mine in comparatively cheap power plants are misapplied to plants burning high-sulfur coal in very expensive scrubber-equipped plants. And sometimes it is based on the lurid charge that the total energy needed to build and operate a nuclear plant is greater than what it produces—that the nuclear industry has made no net addition to the nation’s energy supply. In fact, building and operating a light-water plant, including the enrichment of its fuel, uses 6 per cent of its lifetime output. A coal-fired plant uses between 6.7 and 7.8 per cent, depending on whether it burns surface or deep-mined coal. There is hardly a better example of the disparity that exists between the anti-nuclear gospel and simple reality.
But the most reprehensible form of the argument is that nuclear plants are less reliable than other types. Part of this charge is based on a half-truth, namely, that stringent safety standards require these plants to be shut down for comparatively trivial reasons, and that the discovery of a problem in one plant may lead to a temporary shutdown in all plants of the same general type. Such incidents are sometimes badly misreported: thus, when a hairline crack, releasing no water or radioactivity, was discovered in a standby cooling pipe at the Commonwealth Edison Dresden plant near Chicago, 23 plants with similar standby systems were ordered to close down for inspection. No cracks were found in any of them, but the incident was reported widely as one in which 23 plants had been shut down because of cracks in their cooling systems. Less widely reported is the fact that Commonwealth Edison’s nuclear plants have proved just as reliable as its coal plants.
Still more dubious is the practice of stating reliability factors for nuclear plants in isolation, without comparing them to other types, and comparing them to much smaller conventional plants.
The fact is that over the nation, nuclear reactors are about as reliable as fossil plants of equivalent size. There are two basic measures of reliability: the availability factor, which measures the proportion of the time a generator is actually ready to generate electricity, and the capacity factor, which measures the proportion of capacity actually used. It is the capacity factor that is significant for the economics of power generation. In 1975 and 1976, nuclear plants used to generate base loads attained a higher capacity than either coal or oil plants used for the same purpose. In the same years, the nuclear plants attained availability factors a few percentage points less than coal and oil. And if fossil-fuel plants were held to safety standards as rigorous as nuclear plants, they would post a still lower availability factor. Indeed, as still unreliable scrubbers become more common on coal-fired plants, this is just what will happen.
In their summation of the economic issues, Nader and Abbotts maintain that
a definitive statement on nuclear economics is the number of plants that have been cancelled or deferred. By November 1975, 130,000 megawatts-electric had been cancelled or deferred, representing over two-thirds of all cancellations or deferrals of power plants within the industry.
This is statistical demagoguery; such figures are meaningless except in context. First of all, when a utility defers a nuclear plant, it does so because it plans to delay the adding of new capacity that had already been planned for. Recently such deferrals have occurred because the rate of growth in demand has finally slowed and we are not going to need capacity that before the energy crisis it seemed reasonable to plan for. But a deferral is not a vote of no-confidence in nuclear power: to the contrary, it is a statement that when there is adequate demand to employ a new plant, it will be nuclear rather than otherwise. Nader and Abbotts thus make an especially perverse use of the fact that nuclear plants have been deferred. And although utilities cancel power plants for a variety of reasons, most do so because of reduced demand projections. Had the electric industry, in the days when it was placing orders for future demand, regarded nuclear power as the only form worth ordering, it would have placed even more orders for nuclear plants, and would now be cancelling even more nuclear capacity. But the fact that “100 per cent of all capacity deferred or cancelled has been nuclear” would then derive from the industry’s confidence in nuclear power as opposed to other forms, not its mistrust of nuclear economics.
The statistics that really would be indicative of such mistrust would be the megawattage of nuclear capacity cancelled and replaced by some other form of generation. We should not hold our breath waiting for Nader to publish this figure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that no utility, having applied for a permit to build a nuclear reactor, has ever cancelled the nuclear plant in favor of a fossil-fuel plant. That is the measure of the industry’s confidence in nuclear power.
Nor should we expect Nader to publish an accounting of the net cost to householders of “environmentalist” delaying tactics. Each stage in the approval and construction of a nuclear plant is now routinely opposed by organizations of nuclear critics. The heavy legal fees thus incurred by the utilities end up on the electric bill. Still worse is the inflationary cost exacted by delay. Almost as sure as death and taxes is the continuing rise in construction costs. The anti-nuclear lobby delights in quoting cost overruns, but rarely notes the influence on these of the delays which they work to cause. These costs too are borne by consumers and are cruelly regressive upon the poor, a bit of brutal condescension from the middle classes where anti-nuclear sentiment is strongest.
The anti-nuclear lobby works to ban plutonium—that substance which contains more energy for its volume than any other—on the spurious ground that it will inevitably be stolen and used by terrorists. Plutonium is alleged to be a ready tool for these gentry in two forms: as a poison and as bomb material. The difficulties in acquiring a stock of the substance are the same in either case.
They are immense. The only time plutonium is vulnerable is after it has been separated in a reprocessing plant and before it is loaded into a reactor. At any other time, it is so poisoned by fission products as to be both dangerous and useless. It would be practically impossible to smuggle plutonium out of a facility in little bits. Because it is radioactive, plutonium on the person is detectable in amounts as small as a gram. In order to extract the minimum ten kilograms needed for a bomb, a smuggler would need to execute at least 10,000 separate thefts.
A recent demonstration in which an army assault team using mortars and high explosives required fourteen hours to get into a plutonium depository suggests the unlikelihood of covert theft from stationary deposits. This means that the plutonium would have to be hijacked from a convoy. The difficulties here are extraordinary. Hijacking a shipment of plutonium on the way to a reactor would, oxymoronically, have to be a covert semi-military operation. Plutonium has long been shipped in this country as part of weapons production, and formidable precautions have been developed. These include radio tracking of the trucks, devices that disable the trucks if hijacked, and escort vehicles carrying armed guards. A group of terrorists equipped to overwhelm such a convoy would be better advised to steal a tactical nuclear warhead ready-made. They would be mad to expend their energies on stealing unsatisfactory material for a bomb design that might not work and that might well explode prematurely and blow them up.
For it is essential to realize that building a plutonium bomb is a feat that has to date been accomplished by only a handful of nation-states. It ought to be readily apparent that there is very little likelihood of a small band of terrorists accomplishing what India accomplished only with difficulty.
As a matter of fact, building a bomb from plutonium-reactor fuel is a task even more difficult than that accomplished by the Indians. For reactor-grade plutonium, although primarily composed of Pu-239, is heavily contaminated with Pu-240, which can cause a bomb to explode prematurely and fizzle. The original discovery of Pu-240 very nearly ended the Manhattan Project.
One disturbing fact is that it probably will not matter whether plutonium is an ideal substance for terrorism as long as enough people think it is. If most people in New York City can be persuaded to believe that a few kilograms of plutonium can be so distributed as to kill them all, it will be appreciably harder for any government to resist demands made by terrorists allegedly wielding substantial amounts of plutonium. It can be seen that prospective terrorists are getting a good deal of help from those who go about spreading lurid falsehoods about the toxicity of plutonium and the ease with which the plutonium in reactors can be made into bombs.
A related fright widely merchandised is that safeguarding plutonium from terrorists requires a police state that will inevitably destroy our civil liberties. This view ignores the fact that we are already shipping plutonium around the country in substantial quantities for military purposes, that it is not hijacked, and that we have had to establish no repressive mechanism to achieve this result. It is possible that establishing a system to track down terrorists who make sensational but false claims involving plutonium as a poison or a bomb might require such a mechanism, but that problem will exist whether terrorists acquire plutonium or not, and is in any event largely the creature of the anti-nuclear movement.
Nuclear proliferation is, of course, an excellent thing to be against because so few people are for it. The problem is that it is very doubtful that U.S. energy policy can have any effect whatever on the course of nuclear proliferation. The most obvious reason for this is that those countries that lack a backstop of coal and oil—France first among them—will develop breeder technology for their own needs whether we do so or not, and will finance that development by exporting breeder technology. There is simply no possibility that the United States can prohibit the worldwide production of plutonium by sitting on the breeder reactor. Indeed, it cannot sit on the breeder because the French, with their Superphénix, are rushing to commercialize it.
Moreover, diverting plutonium from a power reactor is a highly inefficient way of making plutonium suitable for weapons. It is far more efficient to use a research reactor for the purpose, and as a matter of fact that is precisely how the Indians appear to have made the plutonium for their bomb: in a research—not a power—reactor supplied them by Canada. This fact is obscured by constant misstatements to the contrary by people who should know better, including the New Republic’s TRB. And the United States, having no monopoly on research reactors, is just as powerless to prevent nuclear proliferation by putting an embargo on them.
The prevention of nuclear proliferation is a very serious problem, but it must be solved on its own terms if it is to be solved at all. It cannot be solved by false nostrums that require the adoption of a suicidal energy policy. It might be solved, though, by the adoption of reactor systems that do not lend themselves at all to bomb production. One of these, the gas-fueled reactor, is fueled only with non-fissionable material, and never has more than a few kilograms of fissionable uranium in its core at one time. This is still in the design stages, but there is another reactor design that is not only very hard to adapt for bombs but is actually now in use and development: the Canadian heavy-water reactor known as the CANDU. This reactor has a form of water as coolant and moderator that contains deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen, rather than normal hydrogen. The superior moderating abilities of heavy water permit the employment of natural unenriched uranium, useless as bomb material, as the fuel, and such a reactor needs no expensive and complicated enrichment plant. Because it uses pressure tubes in its boiler rather than the tea-kettle design common to light-water reactors, even the theoretical likelihood of a loss-of-coolant accident is tiny, and its possible consequences far smaller. The CANDU core design also enables it to be refueled without being shut down, thus allowing a theoretical availability of 100 per cent. There are a number of CANDU reactors generating power in Canada at extraordinary proportions of capacity.
The CANDU design is adaptable to a number of fuel cycles. The Canadian nuclear industry is now turning its attention to modifying the CANDU to operate on the thorium-uranium cycle. In this cycle, the plentiful fertile thorium is bred to the fissile uranium which is then burned as fuel without being removed from the reactor. Such a CANDU reactor could gain the advantages of the plutonium, breeder while avoiding even the residual dangers of plutonium.
If the anti-nuclear lobby were genuinely and intelligently interested in safer energy sources that do not raise even hypothetical problems of nuclear proliferation, it would be urging ERDA to acquire a CANDU reactor for demonstration-and-development purposes.
If the risks of nuclear energy are very much less than its critics allege, they are still not negligible, and indeed would be sufficient ground for its rejection if there were a workable technology with fewer risks. But it is in comparison with the alternative that nuclear energy really begins to shine. Far from being our most dangerous source of energy, nuclear energy is our safest.
The widely-held impression to the contrary depends on a habit of forgetting the actual deaths caused by existing technologies, and comparing the void thereby created with hypothetical deaths caused by nuclear energy. As we have seen, the hypothetical deaths of nuclear energy are still no more than that. But the actual deaths caused by other technologies are countable and many.
We can begin with coal. Coal-fired electricity now costs a great many lives each year, a figure, even on the most conservative estimate, well into the thousands nationally. The electricity generated by a 1000 mwh coal-fired generator carries two price tags, one in dollars and one in lives. D. J. Rose and colleagues at MIT have calculated this second price tag. If we add up the number of coal miners killed in accidents, coal miners killed by “black lung” disease, and workers killed in transporting coal from the mine to the power plant, we see that each such plant kills at least 11 people a year. One can imagine how quickly the nuclear industry would be shut down if a single plant killed 11 people a year. Furthermore, if we add in the people killed by pollution from the plant, the exact number of which is a matter of controversy, we see that the price tag will list between 20 and 100 more human lives. This, it must be remembered, is the cost per year of one large coal-fired plant: between 31 and 111 lives a year. These deaths, it also must be remembered, 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 mwh 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. This half-death, by the way, is still largely hypothetical, since it includes amortized figures for a number of accidents that have not yet happened. While a few uranium miners are killed each year, no one has ever been killed by a commercial power reactor.
The death ratio between the two systems of power generation is thus seen to be between 60 and 225 to 1, favor nuclear. It is not surprising, given such figures, that nuclear critics rarely dwell on the dangers of coal. Nader and Abbotts engage in a particularly neat bit of footwork, in which an attempt to conceal the truth is paraded as an attempt at candor:
It should be pointed out that, compared to workers in other energy industries, particularly those in the coal fuel cycle, the numbers of workers injured by the atomic industry are smaller. But it should also be recognized that nuclear power produces much less of the nation’s energy than coal power. Moreover, because the occupational dangers of nuclear power include cancers which will not become evident for several years, the full toll of the atomic industry can only be estimated.
This sleazy evasion suggests that the numbers of workers killed in the coal cycle are approximately in proportion to the amount of energy produced from coal, and that the occupational hazards of coal mining are limited to those killed in accidents. The facts are quite otherwise, and the fact that Ralph Nader could put his name to this scandalous paragraph suggests that his admirers overrate either his intelligence or his integrity.
It is one of life’s little ironies that coal contains small amounts of radioactive elements, mostly radium and thorium, and that the 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.
The anti-nuclear lobby implies that waste disposal is a problem uniquely of nuclear power. The fact is that coal-fired plants solve part of this problem by disposing of their wastes into the air and thence into our lungs, and the rest by dumping. The amount disposed of into the atmosphere comes to some thirty pounds a year for each American. The solid wastes carted away to the dump from coal-fired plants total tens of millions of tons a year: some 36,500 truckloads a year for a 1000 megawatt plant. 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.
It has been misleadingly suggested that the airborne disposal of coal wastes can be prevented in a benign fashion by the use of “scrubbers,” expensive and unreliable devices that remove pollutants from smokestack effluents and trap them in millions of tons of sludge, itself a major form of pollution. This is the sort of “solved” waste-disposal problem that the anti-nuclear lobby wishes to saddle us with.
A massive commitment to coal would raise yet another problem, the possibility that a substantial increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide would lead to a long-term warming of the earth—the so-called “greenhouse effect.” A recent report by a blue-ribbon panel of the National Academy of Scientists under the chairmanship of Roger Revelle estimates that the worldwide temperature might, within two hundred years, be raised as much as 11 degrees by this effect. The possible results for agriculture and for marine life thoroughly justify the panel’s conclusion that the consequences of increased coal use would be “highly adverse.” There is a pathetic irony in the sight of self-proclaimed “environmentalists” proposing to tamper with the earth’s climate in this fashion.
Compared to coal, almost any technology looks safe, including oil. But even if political and other considerations made oil a reasonable source for generating power, it would pose terrible dangers. High-sulfur oil is environmentally far from benign, and when stored in large tanks, all oil poses a very serious hazard. The Bayonne fire of 1973, in which tankers and shore tanks caught fire, produced clouds of smoke that, had the wind carried them over Manhattan, and had there been an inversion, would have made the London “killer smog” of 1952, with its nearly 4,000 deaths, seem tame. The same can be said for the Brooklyn fire of 1976.
While natural gas produces minimal pollution, its potential for explosion is very considerable, and has killed people in the hundreds. There is considerable evidence that we are learning to handle natural gas safely, but had uranium built up a record similar to that of natural gas, we would never have gotten the chance to learn how to live with it.
Even hydropower, which is environmentally pretty benign as long as everything goes right, has great potential for catastrophic accident. The Vaiont disaster in 1963 killed 2,000 people, and a University of California study has identified a number of dams the failure of which would cause tens of thousands of deaths. One of these is estimated to have a potential of 260,000 deaths. This is in fact a larger death toll than anyone has ever suggested might result from a nuclear reactor accident, and its probability is substantially greater than the most serious nuclear accidents.
Sometimes nuclear critics, conceding that existing non-nuclear sources of energy are unsatisfactory, propose certain innovative technologies. Although all of these are safer than coal, and some even rival nuclear power in this respect, all have the disadvantage of being unworkable.
Solar and wind power are the most commonly promoted of these. Both have a place in a rational energy plan, but neither can fulfill the claims made for it by less critical supporters.7
Solar power is most useful for heating hot water and, in the proper climates, providing heat for houses. At present this use of solar power is so expensive as to be competitive only with electric heat. When it comes to providing electricity itself, cautious optimism suggests that solar power may one day be an option for individual homes—exploiting the one great advantage of the sun as an energy provider, that it is delivered to the doorstep—but the technology for such individual systems is now prohibitively expensive.
Solar power is less promising as a means of central generation. Solar energy for this purpose can be captured in two ways: by mirror systems that boil water to spin conventional turbogenerators, and by photovoltaic cells that produce electricity directly. Both types are at present too expensive to contemplate. Additionally, the photo-voltaic system requires very large land areas. With luck, a 1000-megawatt plant (comparable to a large nuclear installation in capacity) would occupy 50 square miles.
Although wind power has real promise for very small demands at exotic locations, such as mountain-top weather stations, it too has been over-touted by nuclear critics. ERDA is sponsoring the construction of a very large wind-rotor that will produce all of 1.5 megawatts and cost $7 million. Producing as much electricity as a conventional nuclear plant would require 666 150-foot high towers, costing nearly $5 billion and completely dependent upon the weather. Only fantasists imagine such a technology as a significant source of energy.
The most promising source of energy under development is the fusion process. In fusion, the energy release occurs when two light atoms are fused together to make one. Because the fusion requires an immense amount of energy simply to maintain itself, any defect in a fusion reactor shuts it down; moreover, the basic fuel is almost limitlessly available in seawater. The disadvantage is that we do not yet know how to make the process work. Researchers now work with microscopic reactors that have only recently begun to generate more energy than is needed to sustain them. It is clear that commercial use of the fusion process at best is very distant, and there are those who doubt that it will ever pan out.
The fact is that for the foreseeable future our choice is between nuclear fission and coal. All our choices should be so easy.
The anti-nuclear movement has mounted campaigns to abolish nuclear power in seven states, and has failed in each case. Probably because polls indicate that the majority of Americans favor the development of nuclear power, none of the referenda was candidly drawn or promoted as a ban on it. Rather, each was drawn and promoted as a nuclear-safeguards proposal which would make nuclear energy safer rather than nonexistent. And each was loaded with standards which no nuclear reactor, present or projected, could ever hope to meet. The effect of these referenda would have been to stop the development of nuclear power in six of the states and to close the industry down entirely in a seventh.
One provision in the California referendum hypocritically required that all reactor-safety systems, including the emergency core-cooling system, undergo tests on an operating reactor. That is, it would have been necessary to initiate a loss-of-cool-ant accident in an operating reactor, an accident which the proponents of the referendum tell us is too dangerous ever to risk. Another section of the California referendum (substantially duplicated in the other states) required that the legislature certify that no radiation from waste escape with harmful effect into the atmosphere or the land. No coal-fired facility could meet an analogous requirement that no sulfur dioxide escape into the atmosphere. Indeed, no coal plant could meet a requirement forbidding it to emit radiation.
In the seven states, 20 per cent of the population of the country had a chance to vote on nuclear power. But in discussing the rejections of these referenda, Nader and Abbotts treat them as victories rather than as defeats, and adopt the cynical explanation that the opponents outspent the proponents. That is, the people really are too dumb to be trusted with such decisions.
These referenda have in the long run probably done actual harm to the cause of nuclear safety. An intelligent California referendum need have done little more than propose some new teeth for present federal regulations, such as fines so great for noncompliance with safety regulations that utilities would find compliance cheaper than defiance. There is of course no excuse for $10,000 fines for noncompliances that save $200,000. As it stands, such referenda have been given a bad name as disguised moratoria, and it is likely that their failure will make development of genuine safeguards legislation and referenda more difficult. It is the old story of the mindless extreme destroying the sensible middle.
Far from being cast down by its failures in these referenda, the anti-nuclear movement appears to be metastasizing. The spring of 1977 saw the sudden development of a new direction to the nuclear debate, the birth of a movement dedicated to stopping nuclear power through the tactics of civil disobedience.
By April 1977, the proposed nuclear plant at Seabrook, New Hampshire was already in trouble as the result of environmentalist suits and Environmental Protection Agency rulings on its cooling system, which was alleged to be harmful to clams;8 on April 30, it became the target of a group of activists under the name of the Clamshell Alliance. Several thousand of these occupied the construction site, and when about 1,400 refused to move along, they were arrested for trespass. These the State of New Hampshire foolishly refused to release before trial on their own recognizance, but held them at various locations where before they were finally released there assuredly occurred much effective organization of the anti-nuclear movement.
The Boston “alternative” press reported on the incident with immense relish, announcing that the activism of the 60’s had returned and that nuclear energy was going to become a domestic Vietnam. It could hardly have been happier news had the United States gotten involved in a new war in Southeast Asia.
The infant direct-action movement is patently and passionately anti-democratic. The construction of the Seabrook reactor is already regulated by laws passed by democratically elected legislatures and signed into law by democratically elected executives. These laws have been administered by constitutionally appointed officials and judges. The whole process has been a model of democracy and reflects the fact that a majority of Americans favor the development of nuclear power. But with the Clamshell Alliance and its like, the bottom line is that democracy has come up with the wrong answer, and so much the worse for democracy. The issue must therefore be decided riot through democracy but through the physical actions of an elitist and highly organized minority that takes over for the degenerate and plutocratic state. Sam Lovejoy, the leading spirit of the alliance, has been quoted as putting it neatly: “No Jaw ever closed down a nuke.” What Lovejoy wants, he must have, whatever the law says. The legal arm of the movement, however, is nearly as peremptory; its flavor is admirably conveyed in a quotation attributed to an “environmentalist” lawyer: “It’s about time we put the Seabrook reactor out of its misery.”
Judged in the light of the Zeitgeist, nuclear power is the perfect demon. Kick it and you kick large corporations, the government, and technology, all with one blow of the foot. Since almost no one yet understands that his welfare depends on nuclear power—even though the welfare of many already does—moral indignation against it comes unusually cheap. The movement is also rather callous, as evidenced by its calm willingness to sacrifice the lives of coal miners—that is, the actual lives of the actual coal miners who are killed over the decades in their thousands—to prevent the hypothetical deaths of hypothetical people from nuclear power. Endangered individuals, especially if they are mere humans, appear to be much less worthy of protection than endangered species. The Seabrook reactor may fall victim to the interests of the clam, and the Dickey-Lincoln hydroelectric project in Maine has been stymied to save a few specimens of an otherwise extinct plant called the furbish lousewort, which appears to be, not to put too fine a point on it, a noxious weed having nothing to recommend it but its name.
The anti-nuclear movement combines a number of strands that have come to the fore in the last decade or so. One of these is the Manicheanism that can only see technological development as a choice between savage despoiling of the earth and apocalyptic risk on the one hand and a concern for “the environment” that puts clams before people on the other. Because we are in the early stages of the environmentalism fueled by this Manicheanism, none of those now calling the dance has to pay the piper, and indeed many may be able to escape altogether, leaving the problems they have created to their descendants.
Another is a kind of fashionable semi-Luddite fear of the unknown that fixes on certain new examples of industrial society as horrid and to be dispensed with while silently embracing all the others. This is entirely consistent with the history of Luddism, which has been by and large a conservative movement that seeks fresh targets when familiarity has put to rest its fear of the new and unknown over old ones.
Uneasiness with affluence has also bred a similarly selective asceticism that has become a commonplace perhaps best exemplified in communards who take their stereo sets—and hence a considerable proportion of modern technology—into the hills with them. This makes it easy for well-heeled suburbanites to preach a more restrained use of energy when all it means to them is giving up their electric can-openers. Such people in effect tell the billions in the undeveloped world who have only begun to sight liberation by the industrial revolution that they must give up cake.
Critics of nuclear power generally set great store by conservation as a means of reducing demand and thereby the need for new nuclear capacity. The first problem with this position is that it is not in any event desirable to generate all our power with fossil fuels. That is, over the long run, nuclear power is needed not only to add to the present capacity, but to replace it. The second problem is that all too often among the critics of the atom “conservation” is a euphemism for “de-development.”
There is no way to argue against genuine conservation. Waste—that is, the unnecessary expenditure of anything—must be one of the most indefensible of all categories, and there clearly are a number of ways in which the United States could engage in genuine conservation, i.e., the elimination of true waste. But much of the waste alleged by the anti-nuclear lobby is in fact simply expenditure on ends they do not approve (like air-conditioning).
One chestnut beloved by the lobby is that the Swiss and the Swedes maintain our standard of living but use only half as much energy as we do. Ergo, half our consumption must be waste. The short answer to this is that in common with the rest of the industrialized world, the United States has an extremely low energy consumption for its GNP, and our use in fact lies on the curve of lowest consumption. A somewhat longer answer has been given by Beckmann, who points out that we could get by with less energy if we had no energy-intensive industry and instead made watches and wrote insurance, imported most of our food, and arranged to acquire a new topography that would allow us to generate most of our electricity with falling water. Like so so much of the economics of the critics, the thought of Scandinavianization turns out to be a romantic fantasy.
The critics of nuclear power have concentrated on alleging that it is unsafe. Although no large-scale energy conversion can ever be totally safe, we have seen that on the critics’ own criterion, nuclear power is to be preferred to the available alternatives.
But safety is not the only grounds for preferring nuclear energy to other forms. One reason is of course political. A nuclear economy based on breeder reactors, whether on the plutonium or thorium cycle, would make the United States forever safe from energy blackmail. Thorium is one of the most abundant elements in nature, and the existing U-238 supply already mined would feed an all-breeder economy for several hundred years.
Furthermore, pace the anti-nuclear lobby, nuclear power is especially desirable if we mean to fulfill our obligations to our descendants. That movement is informed with a very tender concern for generations yet unborn, and regularly asserts that our obligation to these generations prohibits us from leaving them with an insoluble waste-disposal problem. This is true but irrelevant: as we have already seen, we are not leaving them any such problem. But we are leaving them a negative legacy much more serious. For we are consuming vast amounts of petrochemical feedstocks—coal, oil, and gas—as fuel. It happens that it has been our good fortune to find a substitute for these materials used as fuel. For their use in the fabrication of much of our world, we have developed no replacement, and if we go on using coal, oil, and gas as fuel we shall insure that at some point in the future our descendants will run out of petrochemicals. Had we any real sense of responsibility in these matters, we would be working to make the term “fossil fuel” seem ludicrous. Our present behavior will very probably force our descendants to return to the industrial economy of the early 19th century. Our waste of their heritage is the more scandalous because it is unnecessary.
Recently a funny thing happened at the National Council of Churches, a division of which has declared plutonium morally dubious and called for a moratorium on its use. Defenders of this bizarre intrusion of theology into science, which awoke echoes of Galileo’s encounter with the Inquisition, explained that because the scientific community was split down the middle on plutonium, the theological community ought to have a deciding vote. Plutonium, they said, was not a technical or scientific issue, but a moral one.
It is of course always very much easier to argue for or against anything in the soft morasses of “moral issues,” and one can hardly blame the plutonophobes for trying to get the discussion into this marsh. The problem is that the alleged split within the scientific community finds, almost without exception, all those with the relevant expertness—the specialists in nuclear physics, health physics, and radiation medicine—for, and scientists from almost every field that does not bear on the problem, against. This is as true for nuclear energy in general as for the carefully controlled use of plutonium.
The real importance of the National Council’s nuclear ukase, however, is to recall that some years back it had actually endorsed nuclear energy as a gift from God. And so it seemed then, and so it would still seem had our society not long since learned to believe that such gifts must be unambiguously delightful, harmless, and without serious inconvenience or challenge.
The fact is that historically such gifts take considerable courage on the part of mankind if they are to be grasped and used for benefit. We remember with amusement those who opposed the railroad because it would stop the cows from giving milk and because the human constitution could not endure speeds as great as thirty miles an hour. Our amusement will be no more than condescension, however, if we think that we are safe from similar attacks of ignorant terror. If we are lucky, our descendants will be no more than amused by the nuclear Luddism of our time.
1 With John Abbotts, Norton, 414 pp., $10.95.
2 Ballinger, 418 pp., $6.95 (paper).
3 The nuclear bookshelf is growing wider. Among works not mentioned elsewhere in this essay, the most noteworthy—sometimes for useful information, sometimes as specimens of pathology—are Sheldon Novick’s The Electric War, Sierra Club, 376 pp., $12.50, a very highly undisciplined work whose publisher seems to regard editing as anti-ecological; Jacqui Srouji’s Critical Mass, Aurora, 409 pp., $11.95, a mixture of good sense, extreme naiveté, and courage, but as undisciplined and unedited on the pro-side as Novick on the anti-; John J. Berger’s Nuclear Power: The Unviable Option, Ramparts, 366 pp., $4.50 (paper), a canonical brief work against nuclear power; The Fight Over Nuclear Power, by Fred H. Schmidt and David Bodansky, Albion, 154 pp., $4.95 (paper), a highly informative and lucid work by two distinguished physicists; Peter Faulkner’s The Silent Bomb, Vintage/Friends of the Earth, 282 pp., $3.95 (paper), an anthology of snippets, not very clearly identified as such, from other anti-nuclear old-reliables, plus connecting material by Faulkner with some curious scientific errors, a preface by Paul R. Ehrlich which is itself a syllabus of anti-nuclear errors, and a very useful and fair-minded list of the sources of information.
4 Beckmann publishes Access to Energy, a witty and profoundly informative newsletter on the nuclear debate and new energy technologies. His book, The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear (Golem Press, 190 pp., $10.95 hardbound, $5.95 softbound), combines vigorous polemic and a wealth of information. Both the newsletter and the book are available from Box 2298-H, Boulder, Colorado 80302.
5 It is symptomatic of the situation that Cohen is not a better known figure outside his professional field. A distinguished physicist who has been president of the nuclear division of the American Physical Society and who is also a graceful, lucid, and thoughtful writer, Cohen has published a number of devastatingly thorough analyses of nuclear safety. These have attracted much less popular attention than routine yelps of hysteria from scientific illiterates. It is especially regrettable that Cohen’s Nuclear Science and Society (Anchor, 1974), an admirable introduction to the subject, should have gone out of print.
Curiously, some nuclear opponents make a virtue of ignorance, maintaining that experts in the nuclear area have a commitment that prevents objectivity, and that experts in nuclear industry should stay out of the debate because of conflict of interest. This attempt to exclude the opposition conveniently overlooks the fact that many leading opponents of nuclear energy themselves earn their living by opposing it. Although a nuclear engineer will not advance his career by becoming a nuclear critic, he need not become a nuclear publicist in order to draw paychecks. A professional critic, by contrast, lives quite directly by opposing nuclear energy. He is like a public-relations officer in the nuclear industry, and one ought to apply some skepticism to his alleged disinterestedness, as well as to that of “environmental” lawyers. One should be especially skeptical of anti-nuclear “martyrs”: speaking of three General Electric engineers who resigned over the issue of nuclear safety, Paul Ehrlich praises their “sacrifices.” He does not note that when they resigned they had become members of a para-religious organization that guarantees them an income should anti-nuclear activities prove insufficiently lucrative. They are also reported to be continuing their participation in the General Electric profit-sharing plan.
6 Ballantine, 288 pp., $1.95 (paper).
7 The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for even more exotic forms such as geothermal power and wave power.
8 The EPA has recently reversed its regional administrator and approved the cooling system, a decision that has been appealed by the Friends of the Clam. In a related action, some of them went to the site and deposited thereon a quantity of dead fish and clams, who no doubt were glad to die that others might live. It was a scene anticipated a century ago by Lewis Carroll: “I like the Walrus best,” said Alice, “because he was a little sorry for the poor oysters.” “He ate more than the Carpenter, though,” said Tweedledee.