Recently disclosed data suggests irresponsibility at NRC; New Light on debate over atomic power plants; Nuclear Power: Both Sides, edited by Michio Kaku and Jennifer Trainer. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 279 pp. $14.95. Three Mile Island: Thirty Minutes to Meltdown, by Daniel Ford. New York: Penguin Books. 271 pp. $5.95 (paperback). The Cult of the Atom, by Daniel Ford. New York: Simon & Schuster. 256 pp. $14.50 .
''People are not necessarily opposed to the technology; they just want to know that nuclear power is safe, and that those who run the operations are trustworthy. . . . When the facts are presented accurately and comprehensively, people can judge for themselves the risks and benefits of nuclear power.''
This is the conclusion of editors Michio Kaku and Jennifer Trainer, who have collected in ''Nuclear Power: Both Sides'' 21 essays covering the basic issues on both sides of the debate over the public hazard of nuclear power generation. The contributors are experts prominent in the nuclear debate. As a check on fairness and validity, their essays were read and appraised by other contributors with the same point of view. As a result, the editors were successful in avoiding the excesses seen too often in the debate. With just a few exceptions, facts are presented fairly here, opinions are recognizable as such, and opposing arguments are discussed without self-serving exaggeration.
For the reader seeking unbiased information, the most useful parts of the book are the excellent introductions provided by the editors for each chapter. The introductions were approved by all writers, both pro and antinuclear, whose essays appear in the chapter.
''Nuclear Power: Both Sides'' begins with a brief history by reactor physicist Boyd Norton, who concludes that the burden of proof of safety is now on the nuclear establishment.
The exchange of views then begins in Chapter 2, ''Radiation,'' with four essays on the effects of radiation on human health. Though there is relative agreement on the effects of high doses of radiation over short periods of time, the editors point out, ''. . . no one knows precisely the effects of low-level radiation over long periods of time. . . .''
In their discussion of reactor safety, the editors comment that ''expert opinions are not always valid when they are not based on a large body of experience.'' This observation could also apply to the subjects ''Nuclear Waste Disposal'' and ''Economics,'' in which unpredictable human activity in the future presents large unknown factors. Fred A. Donath, a geologist, stresses that ''criteria (for safe and secure burial of high-level nuclear waste) must not be compromised by nontechnical (social, political, or economic) considerations.'' In the opposite vein, Tony Velocci, a senior editor at Nation's Business, asserts that the future of nuclear reactors will be determined by prudent business decisions.
The debate over the necessity of nuclear energy carries over from the chapter on economics to Chapter 6, ''Beyond Light-water Reactors.'' Here the prediction emerges that we will probably run out of known uranium reserves in 40 years. Amory and L. Hunter Lovins suggest it's desirable to reduce energy usage by conservation and increased efficiency without employing high-technology solar alternatives or making drastic social changes. Other options discussed include existing solar alternatives, fusion, and the breeder reactor.
The breeder reactor produces additional plutonium, which might be used for making bombs. This fact leads directly to the concern over proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, discussed in the final chapter, ''Where Do We Go From Here?''
The essays in this chapter are less useful to the reader looking for a balanced view, because some of the essayists indulge in condescending writing and make some unsubstantiated generalizations, such as David Dellinger's statement: ''The antinuclear movement flows out of the antiwar, civil rights, environmental, and social justice movements.'' This kind of remark serves no useful purpose for readers who are asking specific questions about such things as waste disposal or the Three Mile Island accident of March 28, 1979.
The editors' introduction to ''Reactor Safety'' contains an excellent description of water-cooled reactors, the possible results of serious accidents, and the history of the reactor safety controversy. It is recommended reading for those who wish to delve into Daniel Ford's book ''Three Mile Island, Thirty Minutes to Meltdown,'' a detailed analysis (based on official reports) of that event.
At times, ''Three Mile Island'' reads like a catalog of specific defects in water-cooled reactors and their possible corrections. The reader is left with three stark impressions: (1) water-cooled reactors are extremely complex; (2) obvious safety features were neglected to save on construction costs; and (3) human error has been a major contributing factor to reactor accidents, both in their operation and in their regulation and management. Because of its detailed treatment of safety details, ''Three Mile Island'' enables the reader to appreciate Ford's arguments in his newest book, scheduled for publication next month.
In this book, ''The Cult of the Atom: The Secret Papers of the Atomic Energy Commission,'' Mr. Ford, an economist specializing in nuclear-policy questions and the former executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, summarizes case after case of internal safety reports neglected by the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. ''A. E. C. internal files,'' he says, ''. . . document the safety controversy within the A. E. C. . . . To study these private A. E. C. records . . . is to understand how the program grew into an unprecedented national enterprise - and why, ultimately, the whole undertaking got into serious trouble.''
Ford devotes an entire section of the book to the controversial Rasmussen Report (The Reactor Safety Study of Jan. 19, 1975, also discussed in ''Nuclear Power: Both Sides''). He discusses the memos and accident files of safety adviser Stephen Hanauer, and ends his story with mention of recent events, including the NRC's '' 'quick fixes,' rather than major, long-term safety improvements,'' and President Reagan's disbanding of the Nuclear Oversight Committee, established by President Carter to oversee the NRC's upgrading of its safety program.
Ford claims that it required three Freedom of Information Act petitions, a lawsuit, and demands from Congress before he could see the Hanauer memos. His study suggests that government accountability and the integrity of its regulatory function are as much at issue as is reactor safety.
The reader looking for hard information soon realizes that Ford does not emphasize the positive safety features of water-cooled reactors and their actual safety record, which is excellent. He also mixes his own conclusions and views into the narrative with such a good sense of story that it is often difficult to discover where the data end and his opinion begins.
In any case, his thesis is clear from the beginning: Safety in the design and operation of water-cooled nuclear reactors is not adequate, because the former AEC and current NRC have left the responsibility for regulation in the hands of industry and have routinely ignored warnings of possible hazards.
Nowhere in these books is there mentioned the possibility suggested by David E. Lilienthal that a new and better reactor design might be developed to replace water-cooled reactors. (See ''Atomic Energy, A New Start,'' by David E. Lilienthal, New York: Harper & Row, 1980, for a thoughtful overview.)
Nor is there any mention of the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor used in England, which has many safety features that differentiate it from the water-cooled reactor. (See ''Gas-cooled Nuclear Power Reactors,'' by Harold Agnew, Scientific American, June 1981.)
At least this much is clear: It is no longer useful to make generalizations, such as talking about nuclear reactors as if they were all the same; nor is it helpful to look for comfort in shared opinions. The public has had enough of emotional diatribe and rhetoric. To ensure their credibility, future writers on this issue should concentrate on specific discussions that can lead to detailed solutions.