A scientist's view; Coal, nuclear power: we can't manage without them
I am a research scientist turned administrator. My professional goals are to increase our knowledge about the basic laws of nature and the way they govern the universe. As an experimental physicist, my specific interest was the investigation of the structure interest was the investigation of the structure and properties of atomic nuclei, from which derive all matter and energy. In the realm of practical uses of science, my major involvements have been with the application of science and technology to health care and to national security.
My immediate overall concern is that the world in general, and our country in particular, follow paths which avoid nuclear war and domestic upheavals. Either of these catastrophes can lead to the other, and severe energy shortages, in my view, are likely to lead to both. The chancellor of West Germany recently warned that if we do not quickly develop nuclear energy, we will have war over oil and gasoline. Should this escalate into nuclear war, the present concerns about radioactivity will appear absurd. My long-term concern is that my grandchildren not fault me for doing too little to avoid foreclosing a decent standard of life for them and their children. So much for my philosophy. Now for the purpose of this communication.
I am distressed, discouraged, and alarmed by the nature of the "energy debate" now raging across our land. It seems that many of our citizens are coming to the conclusion that they would prefer energy shortages to lessthan-ideal energy sources. Others seem to feel that if they refuse to accept energy sources which are presently feasible, better ones will be forthcoming in a timely fashion and at reasonable cost. Still others appear determined to accept almost any real and immediate danger resulting from energy shortages in order to avoid what appears to me to be the quite acceptable consequences of nuclear energy.
The present reaction to high technology and economic growth in general, and to the use of coal and uranium as energy sources in particular, appears to reflect as little reasoning and foresight as did the great crusades of the Middle Ages. The levels of emotional involvement are also comparable.
How long must be the gasoline lines; how large must be our balance of payments deficit; how severe must be our unemployment; how desperate must be our inflation before we will wake up to the fact that without adequate and economical energy, our future is bleak? It is true that many of us have sufficient personal resources and long-term financial security that we could survive in the face of massive unemployment and the inflation that would come if the cost of energy triples or quadruples in the next 20 years. But what about the tens of millions in our country who could not cope with such conditions? Will they meekly accept immobility, malnutrition, and severe discomfort? I think not. . . .
The questions which must be answered have to do not with one form of pollution, but with all forms, with the impact of all pollutants and with their control. These problems can be solved by scientific investigation and ensuing regulations. But in doing so, we must bear in mind that there are nonphysical pollutants which also must not be permitted to get out of hand -- these are the pollutants of hunger, disease, unemployment, and severe creature discomforts. One must strike a balance between the two sets of pollutants, and compromises must be made.
And then there is the question of ethics. How much nobility or compassion do we display if we, the most technologically advanced country in the world, become paranoid about our technology and engage in frantic competition with the underdeveloped and underfed billions of this earth for the remaining fossil fuel resources? And how long will we retain our friendships in Western Europe, Japan , and on our own continent, if we continue to insist that our 6 percent of the population is entitled to one-third of the world's oil and gas supplies? Nor do we conserve our oil and gas to fuel our vital petrochemical industry. We burn much of it to produce heat and electricity even though nuclear energy is at hand at lower cost and with less environmental impact. Is such behavior in harmony with our Judeo-Christian value system?
During this century, we have developed the capacity to overwhelm the natural resources of our planet, including its ability to absorb insults; and we will do just that if we do not curb our appetite for the joys of a throw-away economy. But even assuming we accomphish that, we still must have adequate, clean, and economical energy. It would be marvelous if we could harness the sun or the wind or the tides, and we must continue our efforts in those directions. But these are not yet feasible on a large scale, and should not be counted on as major sources of energy for at least the next 50 years. Soft technologies -- whereby each home or group of homes or town is made energy self-sufficient -- may be viable in certain regions, provided the capital for construction and the technical skills for maintenance are available and affordable. But soft technologies can hardly be a general solution for highly industrialized societies. The large industrial complex, which is the foundation of our economy , requires large concentrations of energy production.
I greatly sympathize with those who are suffering genuine psychological pain as a result of the Three Mile Island accident. They are the innocent victims of shortcomings in our industrial construction and management sector and also in our education and news-media systems. For the latter two shortcomings, scientists must share a substantial part of the blame.
But to me, Three Mile Island can be a tremendous blessing in disguise.It can teach us how to better design and better manage nuclear installations. It also taught us that, even in the face of imperfect management and maintenance procedures, even with seriously inadequate training for the reactor operators, even with design and construction flaws, even with all these deficiencies, nobody was killed, nobody was seriously injured, and the public health was insignificantly affected. Furthermore, no conceivable explosion could have ruptured the containment vessel, which is made of six-inch stainless steel.
No technology in recent history has been developed with fewer missteps, fewer injuries, and less damage to public health and property than has nuclear technology. The record is nothing less than phenomenal. Yet we are witnessing a mighty attack, mainly in the United States, but in some other countries as well, to force abandonment of this source of energy, even though it may well be vital to our survival for the next 50 or 100 years. We hear emotional arguments about the effects of low-level radiation on our health and our progeny. The debaters are not even embarrassed by the fact that the radiation from a modern coal-fired power plant (because coal contains radioactive elements) is usually as high, and often higher, than the radiation emitted by a modern nuclear plant. The fact that there may be a limit to how much fossil fuel may be burned before the carbon dioxide byproduct sets in motion a disastrous greenhouse effect seldom enters the debate. The fact that the disposal of radioactive waste is much less a problem than disposal of chemically toxic waste bothers few people, unless they read journals such as Science. The following is quoted from an article entitled "Toxic Waste Disposal a Growing Problem" in the May 25, 1979, issue of this respected publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I quote as follows:
"It is true that some of the more reactive chemicals will be degraded after a few months or a few weeks of storage. But the more stable materials, such as PCBs, may retain their chemical identity -- and their toxicity -- for decades, perhaps for centuries. Still other toxic materials are permanent hazards -- a cadmium atom or a beryllium atom will remain that forever. From this perspective, the much-bruited half-lives of radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants seem almost transient. The volume of nuclear wastes also seems small in comparison. Only about 5,000 metric tons of nuclear waste have been accumulated since the beginning of the nuclear era, four orders of magnitude (10 ,000 times) less than the amount of toxic wastes generated in one year."
Because of our military requirements, the problem of radioactive wastes must be dealt with, whether or not we have nuclear electric power. However, there are many acceptable solutions. Just recently there came news from Australia and also from Pennsylvania State University of an elegant method for incorporating nuclear wastes in a highly stable synthetic rock. It can then be stored above ground or in salt or rock formations safely and economically. In fact, the nuclear waste problem appears to be far less severe than that of disposing of industrial chemical wastes or city wastes. The problem of radioactive waste disposal is reduced in severity by the very fact that, unlike some other toxic waste materials, it is easy to determine when you are doing something wrong just because of the radioactivity.
The worry about nuclear weapon proliferation appears also to be confusing the central issue which is that, no matter what we do, other nations will go ahead with development of nuclear power. Japan, West Germany, and France have even less choice in this regard than we do. If we wish to have a voice in international control of nuclear materials, we had better maintain a position of leadership in the use of these materials.
The extent of our timidity has recently been emphasized by a Russian announcement of their intention to build nuclear power plants within large cities so that they may make use of the waste heat. Anatoly P. Alexandrov, president of the USSR Academy of Sciences, has recently noted that nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union are "so safe that it will be possible to place them directly in residential neighborhoods. The building of such atomic heat-supply stations has already been started." He went on to point out that nuclear stations generate energy more efficiently than conventional plants and "calculations show that their cost will be recouped within four to six years." What Alexandrov did not say is that these nuclear plants will enormously decrease air pollution, which I have observed in some areas of the USSR to be almost as bad as in Los Angeles or Tokyo.
The current style and standard of life in Western civilization can probably not be maintained no matter what action we now institute. It may simply be too late. More importantly, without very strict conservation of energy and other precious resources, I see a very difficult future. These things we must do. But let's not make our situation hopeless, and thereby jeopardize our political freedoms, as well as our physical well-being, by abandoning one or both of the only two sources of energy (coal and nuclear) that can see us into the next century.