For anyone who has toured a reactor site nuclear power seems like a pretty harmless kind of thing. Enormous concrete and steel buildings; lots of dials, gadgets, pipes and incomprehensible electronic equipment; clean lines, polished surfaces, a pristine, well-scrubbed appearance. All systems integrated to feed electricity to homes and factories. It's the kind of scene that instills a quiet confidence in the achievements of modern science.
The irony is that nuclear energy may be the last addition to a growing list of scientific success stories which are disasters for human beings. Napalm, agent orange, red dye no. 2, strontium-90, thalidomide, dioxin, mercury pollution, acid rain, cruise missiles, square tasteless tomatoes, nutritionally-useless processed foods: all are the end result of science and technology and all are reasons to undermine our faith in scientific progress.
The experts say nuclear power is safe: but Three Mile Island has left the public unconvinced. It's supposed to be cheap. At a billion dollars an average plant that's just not credible. They say if we don't go nuclear we will all freeze in the dark. There is a surprising lack of evidence to support that view. Yet nuclear supporters cling to it as if their lives depended on it.
The prime advocates of nuclear energy occupy the heights of power. They are elected government officials, energy bureaucrats, business executives, manufacturers who supply the industry and scientists whose expertise developed the technology. A formidable phalanx of guardians whose careers, livelihoods and self-image are threatened when the nuclear apple cart is jostled.
Our progress, our prosperity, our survival as industrial nations depends on secure access to greater and greater injections of energy. Or so the experts say. That is the premise on which our commitment to nuclear power has been based - an assumption that has come under increasing attack over the last decade. Because it begs the most important aspects of energy use.
People have begun to seriously question the assumption of energy at any cost. Can we afford to keep stripping the earth of fossil fuel resources in order to drive machines that foul the air and water and produce mountains of consumer goods? How long can the world's richest nation, the United States, with six per cent of the globe's population continue to consume 70 per cent of the earth's energy?
Nuclear power raises these concerns even more forcefully. It is a Western technology nurtured in a hothouse atmosphere of government subsidies and cloaked in scientific mystery. Experts defined the problem, divined the answer, then set about putting theory into practice. What they ended up with was a neatly-packaged technical solution to the wrong question. But by that time the game had gone too far; the stakes were too high.
It didn't matter that in a society which normally puts efficiency on a pedestal, using nuclear power to create electricity is both inefficient and illogical. Says physicist Amory Lovins, 'It's like using a forest fire to fry an egg'. The real problem is to use energy appropriate to the task at hand. Electricity is only a small portion of our overall energy needs - about ten per cent. There are a lot simpler, safer and saner ways to meet our remaining needs than nuclear power - alternate sources which Lovins and others like him have done much to prove both feasible and practical.
There are many hard-nosed reasons to oppose nuclear power:
Stymied at home by widespread public outcry, a slackening of energy consumption and inflated construction costs the Western nuclear industry is placing more emphasis on Third World sales. The U.S., France, West Germany and Canada are stumbling over each other in haste to bail out their domestic nuclear industries. Heavily subsidized exports to developing nations are now the norm with taxpayers in the West picking up the tab.
These and other anti-nuclear arguments are dealt with in this New Internationalist. So we urge you to pass on this issue to friends and order further copies.
Until the early 1970s the dangers of nuclear power were generally unknown and unchallenged. Much of the credit for the recent growth in awareness goes to those public interest groups that continue to prick the publicity balloons of the nuclear industry. Try as they may, nuclear defenders can not cover up the legacy of accidents, near disasters and plant breakdowns.
Nuclear power may be a future technology whose time has passed. But Western governments and corporations have too much status, money, manpower and pride invested to pull out willingly. It's up to us to hasten that demise of nuclear energy and to ensure its passing is painless as possible for those who now depend on it for their livelihood. Otherwise the industry will lie low, hoping for an occasional Third World sale, licking its wounds and waiting for the storm clouds to pass. That is the real danger.
Sources : All facts, statistics and other figures quoted on the following pages come front the nuclear energy publications listed on page 27.
This special report appeared in the the case against nuclear energy - special cartoon issue issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.