Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Facing up to Nuclear Power

"Facing up to Nuclear Power" (edited by John Francis and Paul Abrecht): A Review
This book contains a number of papers from many distinguished contributors (ranging from Atomic Scientists and Economists to Theologians and Philosophers). Unlike so much that is published on the subject of nuclear power, this book does not attempt to present a unified stance either for or against the nuclear industry. Some of the writers are more biased towards nuclear power, and others against, but they have sought to listen to and learn from each other rather than adopt a more rigid and intransigent opposition. Moreover, the book does not seek to give all the answers - only to make clearer some of the facts, options and problems posed by nuclear power. As the modest subtitle puts it, it is simply "a contribution to the debate on the risks and potentialities of the large scale use of nuclear energy. "
As particularly important, I would single out the contribution by Dr A.M. Weinberg, of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Dr Weinberg assures us that "a properly operating nuclear power plant and its sub-systems (including transport, waste disposal, chemical plants, and even mining) are far less damaging to the environment than a coal fired plant would be." In particular any form a major failure can be mitigated by having "two entirely independent safety systems that work on totally different principles." However, Dr Weinberg does see the increasing volume of waste as a problem. The problem is not where to dump the highly toxic waste products - he would place them in specially dug mines - but how to ensure their continual safety. His method of disposal, while feasible, would require "some kind of surveillance in perpetuity."
This point is taken up by Professor Shinn, who asks the following question about the security restrictions necessary for surveillance: "What happens to personal freedom in an age when technological operations are so intricate that concentrated authority must impose controls?" Even after the nuclear disaster in Russia, this question is at least as important as to the debate about safety factors in nuclear plants. It certainly seems to be the case that Government aided nuclear industries, such as British Nuclear Fuels, are becoming more concerned with preventing leaks of information than leaks of radiation - ostensibly because BNF does not want to spread undue alarm about events which have been blown up out of all proportion.
What is worrying about reported leaks of radioactive material is not whether the conflicting claims are true or false, but the measures taken to prevent any genuine investigation of what has actually occurred. Instead, the problem has been seen by the nuclear industry simply as one of poor public relations and bad security. When the industry has the backing of the state, this might well lead to what Professor Shinn calls "a heightened authoritarianism that bears down unduly on the weak."
This is an interesting and lively book, with many different points of view. On the whole, it is optimistic about seeking future energy requirements from nuclear power. However, I think that one of the contributors has a good point when he warns against overweening optimism, quoting Herbert Butterfield: "The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine they can control things in a sovereign manner - reaching out into the future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness, and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake."

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