Reactor safety -- the urgent question

The debate over nuclear power sometimes approaches the ferocity of a religious war, and most of the books published on the subject, either pro or anti, are best suited to serve as sermons of exhortation to the converted.

Conveniently, no matter what you might choose to believe about fission-to-electricity technology -- that it is safe or perilous, cheap or exorbitant, necessary or inanely misguided, liberating or oppressive -- you can find an expert somewhere, or at least a writer, who supports you with sonorous arguments and fancy numbers. That each set of numbers is contradicted by another set, that one expert is always rebutted by another, needn't concern you if you are just looking to tooth up the jaws of your predisposition.

Two established classics among this genre are "Poisoned Power," by John Gofman and Arthur Tamplin, and "The Health Hazards of Notm Going Nuclear," by Petr Beckmann. A pair of more recent examples are Commonsense in Nuclear Energy , by Fred Hoyle and Geoffrey Hoyle (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman & Co. $7 in hardcover, $3.95 in paperback) for those who are bullish on nukes, and Atom's Eve: Ending the Nuclear Age, an anthology compiled and edited by Mark Reader (New York: McGraw-Hill, $5.95 in paperback) for the committed opponents.

The Hoyles's score a few debate points by arguing in favorm of nuclear power from what they define as their environmentalist viewpoint; "Atom's Eve" contains several useful pieces, notably a chronology of nuclear events and mishaps since the Alamogordo bomb test in 1945, and an account of the Karen Silkwood case. But the Hoyles's book is thin and glib, and "Atom's Eve" reads mainly like a collection of speeches made at an antinuke rally.

If your mind is still actually open on the subject, you will probably want something more illuminating, and more interesting, than this sort of rhetorical broadside. For different reasons in each case, four more books are recommended.

Three Mile Island is a good place to start. Some people claim this was the watershed occurrence in the history of nuclear power -- but is it so easy to say which way the waters are now flowing? The accident that mangled Metropolitan Edison's Unit 2 reactor on Three Mile Island is aptly representative of the state of the nuclear industry overall, and of public attitudes toward the industry, in that it can be taken as evidence in proof of almost any position whatsoever. Disaster or reassurance are in the eye of the beholder.

Nuke proponents not proudly that no one died at Three Mile Island, that the secondary safety systems functioned (more or less) as planned; opponents point to multiple system failures, multiple operator goofs, and multiple company prevarications that may together have brought many thousand Pennyslvania residents within a few hours of catastrophe. Certain people even argue that it all chiefly demonstrated, just as the fall of Richard Nixon did, the pernicious power of the media.

This ambivalence of the TMI event, and the justice that both two new books do to that ambivalence, make each book worth reading.

Daniel Martin's Three Mile Island: Prologue or Epilogue? (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publishing Company $14.50) is the more detailed on technical and operational matters and (despite the title of the next book) gives the fuller picture of precisely what happened, hour by hour and minute by minute, inside the reactor vessel, the labyrinthine plumbing, and the crowded control room at TMI-2.

It turns out to be an amazing story, a black comedy of errors, full of small slimy villainies and quiet heroisms played out at high stakes, plus not a few frightened and confused engineers trying hard to appear calm. If you thought the coverage in weekly news magazines was all a person needed to know, you'll be surprised how often Martin's account makes your jaw drop. From the union official's extortion demand in 1968 that caused a reactor designed for New Jersey to be built instead on an island in Pennsylvania, to that Sunday afternoon when Jimmy Carter toured Unit 2 while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Emergency Management Team remained frantically convinced that the reactor was about to explode, there is great human drama in this tale of a machine gone haywire. And Martin's treatment of it is objective, persuasively documented, thoughtfully analytical -- without being dry.

Mark Stephens's Three Mile Island: The Hour-By-Hour Account (New York: Random House, $11.95) contains more smell of greasepaint and roar of crowd. He portrays the accident not just as a technological and bureaucratic crisis, but as also a personal trauma in the lives of individual Pennsylvanians, and a great national media event. "The story of Three Mile Island," Stephens says, "is generally one of information -- its presence, absence and evasive nature." And his book is particularly good on the dynamics among (1) the technicians and engineers who were desperately trying to get information about what was going on inside the reactor, (2) the reporters who were trying to broadcast that information, and (3) the corporate officials and bureaucrats who were trying to withhold it.

Both Jeremy Bernstein's Hans Bethe, Prophet of Energy (New York: Basic Books, Inc. $12.95) and David B. Lilienthal's Atomic Energy: A New Start (New York: Harper & Row, $8.95) are less concerned with information than with wisdom. Both are notable not just for what is said -- though some of that is freshly illuminating -- but more especially for who is saying it.

Hans Bethe is the venerable physicist who won his Nobel Prize for discovering the cycle of nuclear reactions that power the sun, and Jeremy Bernstein's book is based on a series of interviews in which Bethe recounted his early years in Germany between the wars, his work on the American A-bomb and H-bomb projects, and finally his views on the world energy problem, which he has studied extensively since his retirement from teaching. In rough summary, Bethe believes that nuclear power is necessary in the short run and fairly safe, though not as safe as it should be.

On the other hand David Lilienthal, who was the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and one of the foremost early promoters of the light-water technology upon which the American nuclear industry is now totally dependent, today repents his own boosterism, and says: "Now it is time to recognize as a matter of national policy that the method [fission reactors as built in the US] is not good enough, not safe enough, not the right answer." [Lilienthal's book was reviewed in more detail in the Monitor's monthly book section Aug. 11, 1980. ]

Across the whole spectrum of partisanship over nuclear power, one thing has changed recently, especially since Three Mile Island. Five years ago writers were posing and answering this question: Is there any reason to doubt that nuclear power is ingeniously engineered, scrupulously administered, and virtually foolproof? Today the chief question seems to be: Given our current extremity, are the defects tolerable or intolerable?

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