Before it's too late...
Nuclear Renewal: Commonsense about Energy is a clear cut and fact based objective assesment of the world's, and especially America's, nuclear choices by the acclaimed Richard Rhodes (who I had the pleasure of meeting and actually talking to for a few minutes last year). Compared to his other works, this one is a short one. But just like in his other volumes, Rhodes does not mince any words. He clearly sees that the present American disdain of nuclear power for electricity, remarkable for a nation who started it all in the first place, stems from a combination of public paranoia, bad management and a tendency to oversell on the part of nuclear managers.
It all started in the 50's, when the US Navy, spurred ahead by star Admiral Hyman Rickover's (See Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence) initiative, became the first one to harness nuclear power in their submarines. Quite disastrously, almost the same reactor model was carried over by overambitious Cold War public policy makers and managers, into the public arena for which it was anything but fit. Promises of nuclear technology and reactors were cheerfully oversold, with huge initial investments made, that were mostly based on optimistic future assesments rather than realistic present estimates. The result? Most reactors that were born of this bravado had to decomissioned after only a few years, because the then used models simply were not efficient, and could not pay off the initial investment that had been ceremoniously put in. By the 1970s, America's practical nuclear advantage was stalling. In 1979, Three Mile Island made matters worse, and fuelled a public fear of the word "nuclear" that continues unabated till the present moment (that is why they had to name it Magnetic Resonance Imaging instead of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, which after all is the basic principle from which the medical technique stems; no person would allow himself to be put into a contraption that sported the title "Nuclear").
The most revealing part of the book is the discussion of foreign reactor technologies and economies that Rhodes presents, especially France and Japan. Compared to the US (about 25%), 40% of Japanese electricity and 70% of French electricity comes from nuclear power. Ironically, most of the Japanese reactors are built using US technology. Why the glaring difference? Rhodes's answers and investigations are sobering and again go a long way in telling us how the simplest of human measures can lead to a better world. In Japan, there's simply much better housekeeping in the reactors. Basic things like safety valves and pipes are regularly checked by human beings (quite a telling fact, given the Japanese dominance in automation). The simplest of objects such as bright green fluorescent labels serve as warning signals at crucial points. In case of France, the main approach is different, and a powerful reminder to the opponents who are lobbying the Yucca Mountain project in the US. The French have superior spent fuel reprocessing plants, and care is taken so that the maximum amount of fissile material is recycled. Note that these are the same kind of spent fuel rods, currently sitting in huge water tanks in the US, that US policy makers are planning to actually bury leading to an enormous waste worth billions of dollars, as well as an environmental hazard that would be seen to be almost painfully crafted in an intentional way.
But the most important point, which I thought really highlights man's relation, and conflict, with technology, concerns the basic assumptions that were made in constructing US reactors. Reactor makers right through the 50s sought to make their inventions perfect and infallible. This led not only to an inordinate amount of time in their development, but to painstaking attention to a goal that was absurdly unachievable. The Japanese, on the other hand, never assumed in the first place that their reactors would be perfect and infallible. With this in mind, they instituted double the number of safety measures, as well as easy human entry to the reactors' environs, which would make manual shutting down of the reactors much easier. Faith in human infallibility born of hubris comes, it seems, at the cost of pragmatic failure.
The public's eternal paranoia, almost a morbid fascination with nuclear power, is exacting a heavy toll on future nuclear options, possibly the only thing on the near horizon that can save humanity from the fuel and oil crisis. I remember reading an article by Paul Slovic and others in the December 1991 issue of Science in which they gave an account of a survey, in which people were asked to imagine the general scene that would ensue if a 'moderately serious' nuclear reactor accident happened near their homes. Shockingly, most people's descriptions of the consequences of such an accident more closely resembled the aftermath of a nuclear war, paralleling descriptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is wildly absurd, given the fact that many many times more people have died because of industrial pollution than from nuclear radiation, let alone nuclear accidents. Also, a 'moderately serious' reactor accident may, if anything, mostly lead to a temporary evacuation of personnel in the immediate vicinity. The image of civilians sprawled dead and dying from such an accident is almost science fiction. The physicist Bernard Cohen has written an eye-opening book ('Before it's too late', 1983), in which he makes a plea for nuclear energy. In the book, Cohen gives an estimate of risks that would be incurred from various random and common events in our lives, including nuclear accidents. It is quite clear, that the risks of me (and you) dying of heart disease, road accidents, pollution, and electric shock, are many hundred times more than those of me (and you) suffering death due to radiation poisoning, no matter if a nuclear reactor continuously runs within a mile of my house for the next fifty years. The public's fears, as Rhodes notes, are simply unfounded, and mainly made more pernicious by the ravings of the anti-nuclear lobby. Similarly, the hazards of burial of nuclear waste are minimal, and can be completely averted if the spent fuel processing noted above is vigorously pursued. This spent fuel processing will essentially leave only either very short lived nuclides which will decay fast, or extremely long lived nuclides, which will decay very slowly, and thus can be safely buried without any significant risks. Clearly, the public needs to be educated as a whole.
The book is not without hope, however (as nothing can ever be). Experiments conducted with a prototype reactor in Idaho in the 80s promise a cheap, renewable, and completely safe source of nuclear energy. Public education about nuclear energy, of the kind vigorously pursued in Japan (they even have regular high-school trips to nuclear power plants) hopefully promise a manifest change in the public's attitude. All that remains is for the public apprehension to subside, and for politicians and policy makers to start looking objectively at the nuclear world, and not simply as yet another political salvo in their foreign policy exegeses.
The real problem is that the word "nuclear", like the word "holocaust", has been so thoroughly and negatively ingrained in our mind, that it has become a painfully evident and constant part of popular culture. We need to take a fresh and detached look at this companion of ours, to whom we are surely bound for eternity. He holds promises on which depend our future and our hopes.
P.S: Rhodes also has written a very informative article in the January/February 2000 issue of 'Foreign Affairs', in which he makes a sound case why nuclear electricity is actually much more feasible and promising than the usually discussed alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power.