The Energy Debate
The War Against the Atom.
by Samuel McCracken.
Basic Books. 206 pp. $18.50.
Nuclear Power: Both Sides.
by Michio Kaku and Jennifer Trainer.
Norton. 279 pp. $14.95.
by Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C. Bell, Rory O’Connor.
Sierra Club. 282 pp. $14.95.
Anyone old enough to remember Hiroshima will also remember that in the welter of conflicting emotions stimulated by the destruction of that city through atomic power came one particular ray of hope—the hope that this immense power could be put to work for peaceful purposes. For many Americans today (though not for most) that hope has faded. Of all the dreams that were entertained for atomic energy, there remains only one area in which it has been used on a wide scale with major beneficial results, and that is in the generation of electricity.
But even this, of course, one would hardly know from reading the daily press, since the heat generated by nuclear fission also warms public debate. Particularly in the United States, controversy rages over the value of nuclear-power plants when weighed against their costs and risks. The three books considered here present the alternative points of view on this subject, with varying degrees of success.
Samuel McCracken’s The War Against the Atom is pro-nuclear. It argues that using nuclear fission to power the production of electricity offers industrialized civilization the cheapest, safest, and environmentally most desirable method of continuing and improving upon our material standard of living. McCracken takes up the objections to nuclear power, and answers them. He also compares nuclear power with its competitors, and finds in its favor. Finally he peers into the future of atomic electric power.
In Nuclear Power: Both Sides, Michio Kaku and Jennifer Trainer take no position on the value or danger of nuclear power. Rather, under headings defined by the more important subjects of public debate, they present the pro and con sides of the atomic “war.” The battlegrounds are radioactivity, reactor safety, economics, waste disposal, and societal consequences. The firepower on both sides is heavy; as might be expected, however, the quality of the essays is uneven.
As for Nukespeak, it is a frankly anti-nuclear book that ostensibly makes its case against nuclear power simply by quoting and highlighting some of the more far-fetched and ridiculous things that supporters of nuclear power have said.
Where Nukespeak is couched in the shrill tones of the young reporter on the trail of a miscreant public official, Samuel McCracken in The War Against the Atom takes the reader gently by the hand, and with only a mild push on the back from time to time, guides him through the attacks on nuclear power to a fair appraisal of why its dangers are not excessive. Of course there are dangers, but as McCracken demonstrates, the dangers are greater in almost every other industrial process that seeks to harness energy, from erecting dams and living downstream of them, to mining coal and breathing the effluent of the chimneys beneath which it is burned. There are dangers in drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and in burning it, or in burning natural gas. Just recently a fire has been raging in an oil-fired power plant in Venezuela, and 40 or 60 people have been killed; whichever the number, it exceeds by exactly that amount the number of people who have been killed by radiation in commercial nuclear-power plants in the United States, where 72 such plants are licensed to operate.
McCracken discusses the several types of reactors in common use, and those still in an experimental stage. He sets forth fairly the objections made to them. He describes the risks of radioactivity and compares the reality with the popular misconceptions that gain credence in the press. He discusses the problems of waste disposal and plant decommissioning with a patience that probably reflects the fact that he is not a physicist at all, but a humanistic scholar who went into the subject in detail because he wanted to find out about it for himself. He passes along his discoveries in a lucid exposition that makes clear to the nonspecialist reader what McCracken has first taken the pains to make clear to himself.
Underlying McCracken’s cogent refutations of the anti-nuclear arguments are several assumptions which, to me at least, seem self-evidently true. Thus, he postulates that people all over the world desire to maintain or to better their material standard of living. He assumes that people will choose a mode of generating electricity on the basis of economy, not politics, and therefore that a society will elect what is cheapest, least likely to depend on exhaustible raw materials, and least likely to require special skills on the part of the normal user. He does not believe a society will knowingly choose a pattern of electric generation that involves a high degree of human dispersal and the decentralization of economic relationships, or simply because the raw materials involved happen to be unattractive to terrorists. The counterarguments put forward by some anti-nuclear critics are either simply wrong in their description of the technology or else they are not arguments at all, but expressions of a desire for a simpler world.
McCracken devotes considerable space to examining alternative sources of power. Particularly effective is his indictment of coal and its problems, including the dangers to life and health it poses and its technological challenges, especially in the area of keeping the air clean and disposing of the vastly greater amounts of solid waste produced by coal as compared with nuclear power. He challenges the advocates of the sun, both as a direct source of heat and as an indirect source of motive power through wind. He discusses the shortcomings of oil, a problematic source both because of its limited supply and because of the political and other noneconomic constraints that limit access even to the supply that exists.
In a remarkably fair gallery of portraits, McCracken explores and systematically refutes the views of the major opponents of nuclear power. (One of these is Dr. John Gofman, the most persistent and best-qualified critic of the dangers of radioactivity, whose own views are set forth in Nuclear Power: Both Sides, where they are also, less effectively, rebutted.) I stress the fairness of McCracken’s appraisals of those with whom he disagrees because it contrasts so sharply with the tone in which the authors of Nukespeak characterize the pro-nuclear figures whom they catch in exaggerations or misstatements (or whose words they simply garble and distort).
What McCracken for all his valiant effort cannot do is wholly allay the residual fears connected with nuclear power. But perhaps no one can. In part these spring from irrational premises that lie beyond effective refutation, based as they are on a revulsion against technology itself.1
The fear of something going wrong inside the steel reactor, into which no one can look, defies rational analysis because the nuclear process itself seems to awaken a sense of guilt over tampering with nature’s ultimate secrets, a feeling that intensifies the essentially reasonable fear that something might go wrong, allowing radioactivity to escape and wreak a horrible revenge. McCracken deals with this matter calmly, admitting the possibility of a terrible accident, just as there is a possibility that Manhattan Island could suffer a horrendous earthquake, but pointing out that rational people govern their lives by the calculation of likelihood, not abstract possibility.
One aspect of this issue which seems to me particularly relevant, but which McCracken does not discuss, is the American framework within which nuclear power was developed. A major element in the public resistance to nuclear power is our historic abundance of fossil fuels, which makes it difficult for Americans to believe that a new source of power is needed at all. Beyond that, however, there is the fact that, as I noted at the outset, the development of nuclear power started with the Manhattan Project during the war, and clearly involved public dangers so great as to impose a clear-cut need for government regulation. The difficulty here was that the regulatory system had to be developed at the same time as the technology—in contrast to the sphere of building regulations, for example, which could rely on centuries of experience with building successes and, more important, building failures. Simultaneously, government was needed to provide a stimulus to this new industry whose economics depended in large part on projected shortages of fossil fuels and rises in their costs. And the development of the technology, with some government help, had to take place against a constantly changing set of worries and assumptions about geological safety, reactor design, proximity to population concentrations, and so on.
Another subject that goes undiscussed by McCracken has to do with some of the detailed technical problems that now trouble the nuclear industry, such as the useful life of the steel-reactor vessels, and also of the steam generators. Both the advocates and the opponents of nuclear power are currently tangled in controversy over whether the design of these vital pieces of equipment can be improved, and whether the shortcomings that have been discovered in practice are dangerous or merely expensive to correct.
But these are minor faults in a book that deserves to be vigorously applauded for its seriousness, its intellectual courage—and its fine prose. Unfortunately few of these qualities are evident in Nuclear Power: Both Sides. Many of the essays in the collection are interesting, but since they were written independently, with no opportunity for either of the two or more writers on the same theme to confront the work of the writer with whom they disagree, the arguments have a way of slipping by each other without touching.
As for Nukespeak, it not only makes no pretense to objectivity, its authors and compilers seem to believe they can destroy the nuclear-power movement magically, by incantation. Samuel McCracken, who has no faith in the magic of the word to erase his opponents, nevertheless puts them to shame by his determination to address their arguments not at their most foolish but at their strongest, and then by systematically and definitively answering them.
1 By a curious inversion, some detractors of nuclear power decry it as a manifestation of capitalism, forgetting that the Soviet Union has an extensive nuclear-power program, in which far less attention is paid to public safety than here, while France's nuclear program, soon to produce as much as 75 percent of that nation's electricity, is entirely government-owned and operated.