In the mid-1980s, nuclear power seemed to be an idea whose time had come and passed. The public seemed to have rejected it because of fear of radiation. The Three Mile Island accident was still fresh in their minds, with annual reminders from the news media on each anniversary. The Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union in April 1986 reinforced the fears, and gave them an international dimension. Newspapers and television, on several occasions, reported stories about substandard equipment and personnel performance at nuclear power plants.
Newly completed plants were found to have been very costly, making nuclear power more expensive than electricity from coal-burning plants for the first time in 20 years. Who needed them anyhow? We already had an excess of electricity-generating capacity.
As we enter the 1990s, however, many things have changed. Environmental concerns have shifted dramatically into other areas like global warming due to the greenhouse effect, ecological destruction by acid rain, air pollution of all types but particularly from coal burning, and chemicals of various sorts, from insecticides to food additives. A succession of record-breaking warm years in the 1980s convinced many that the greenhouse effect was not just a scientific theory but might already be responsible for droughts and other agricultural disasters. Some scientists are predicting that these problems will get worse at an increasingly rapid rate in the years ahead. The president, Congress, and other politicians seem to be battling for positions of leadership in programs designed to stem the tide of the greenhouse effect. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is giving the matter a high priority. Nuclear plants produce no greenhouse gases, while the coal- and oil-burning plants they replace are the most important contributors.
The acid rain problem is getting increasing attention and is generating strong anti-U.S. resentment in Canada. It is also stirring up trouble in Scandinavia and Germany. Coal-burning power plants are among the worst offenders in causing acid rain, while nuclear plants avoid that problem completely.
After a decade of relative quiescence, air pollution is being reborn as a top-ranked environmental issue. The Bush Administration's Clean Air Act would require that sulfur dioxide emissions from coal burning plants be cut in half by the end of the century, but that just scratches the surface of the problem. Nuclear plants, of course, emit no sulfur dioxide or other chemical pollutants.
The public's greatest phobias seem to have shifted away from radiation to chemicals. We have had highly publicized scares about Alar in apples and cyanide in Chilean grapes. Dioxin, PCB, EDB, and chemicals with longer names have become household words, while we hardly ever hear about plutonium anymore. The media have been carrying fewer stories about radiation and even these get little attention. In a continuing series of national polls by Cambridge Reports, the percentages of those questioned who had recently heard news about nuclear energy and who interpreted it as unfavorable shifted from about 62% and 42%, respectively in 1983-1985 to 50% and 25% in 1989. A 1988 Roper poll found that the U.S. public considered it no more dangerous to live near a nuclear plant than a chemical manufacturing plant.
In the late 1980s, the American public learned that the radioactive gas radon was invading their homes, exposing them to many hundreds of times more radiation than they could ever expect to get from nuclear power. In fact, in some homes it was thousands or even tens of thousands of times more. But still only about 2% of the American public bothered even to test for it (at a cost of about $12), although their exposure can easily be drastically reduced. The public has perhaps grown tired of being frightened about radiation. Maybe they have caught on to the fact that after all the scare stories, there have been no dead bodies, and not even any injuries to the public. There must be a limit to how often the cry "wolf" will be heeded.
The dramatic oil spill by an Exxon tanker near Valdez, Alaska, and the ensuing long and expensive clean-up drew constant attention to one of the environmental problems associated with a major competitor of nuclear power oil burning. The use of oil to generate electricity is rising rapidly, and there is every reason to believe its rise will accelerate in the 1990s. A single nuclear plant can replace the oil carried by that Exxon tanker every 6 weeks.
Of course, oil spills are not the biggest problem resulting from our heavy dependence on oil. Growing concern is arising about the imbalance between our imports and exports that is gravely threatening our national economy. Imported oil is the principal villain in this matter, and the public recognizes that fact.
Lots of publicity surrounded the activities of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf to protect oil supplies during the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war. American lives were threatened, which set up a situation that could have led to grave consequences. Such perils are part of the price we were paying for our heavy reliance on imported oil.
Last, but far from least, of the new developments is a growing need for more electricity-generating capacity. Our expanding population and production output requires ever increasing amounts of energy, and during the decade of the 1980s, electricity's share of our total energy supply increased dramatically. There is every reason to expect this increase to continue. Serious shortages are sure to develop.
In some sections of the country, the pinch is already hurting. Brownouts (reductions in voltage which cause lights to dim, motors to turn slower, etc.) have already occurred in New England, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Chicago. Utilities in New York State have had to appeal to the public to reduce use of lighting and air conditioning, and to postpone use of dishwashers, clothes driers, and ovens. The Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest has restricted its sales of power to Southern California. A lead story in Fortune Magazine (June 1989) was titled "Get Ready for Power Brownouts." A Standard and Poor publication stated "Electricity is becoming a scarce resource . . . Power shortages in the Northeast threaten to derail the region's strong economic growth." Wall Street brokers are recommending stocks of electrical equipment suppliers because they predict a big surge in new power plant construction. Clearly, our days of excess electricity-generating capacity are at an end.
There was a prime-time TV special report on how well nuclear power is serving France, where 70% of the electricity is nuclear. The rest of the world has continued to expand its nuclear power capacity, while we have been standing still. The United States, which pioneered the development of nuclear power and provided it to the world, now ranks behind more than a dozen other nations in percentage of electricity derived from that technology. Our strongest competitor, Japan, was heavily burdened by memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and hence got a very late start in nuclear power, but has now far surpassed us and continues to accelerate its development.
We have well over a hundred nuclear power plants operating in the United States, and they have been steadily improving. The frequency of reactor shutdowns by safety systems has been substantially reduced. There has been little bad publicity about events relevant to nuclear safety for the past few years.
The nuclear industry has been developing a new generation of reactors that are cheaper and safer than those currently in use. They should make the concept of a reactor meltdown obsolete and make nuclear power substantially cheaper than electricity from any other source. US News and World Report featured an article on these reactors entitled "Nuclear Power, Act II." Other newspapers and magazines have carried similar stories.
All of these developments have not been lost on the American public. Attitudes toward nuclear power have been changing. A variety of public opinion polls has shown that the public is now ready to accept a resurgence of nuclear power, and indeed expects it. The stage truly seems to be set for "Nuclear Power: Act II."
Still, a decision to commit something like a hundred billion dollars to provide a substantial fraction of our nation's energy supply for the next half century through a particular technology should not be based on current whims and perceptions. These are certainly important, but they have changed in the past and can easily change in the future. The more vital questions deal with the soundness of the technology. How sound is nuclear power from the standpoints of public health and safety? of technical capability and performance? of economic viability? The American public must be educated on these matters. Its perceptions must be based on solid information to keep them from shifting unpredictably. Cycles of public acceptance and rejection of a technology designed for many decades of service are extremely expensive. We cannot afford them.
The purpose of this book is to provide this information. Most of it is scientific, obtained from sources that are generally accepted in the scientific community. Some readers may be surprised to learn that nearly all the important facts on these issues are generally accepted (within a degree of uncertainty small enough for the differences of opinion to be of no concern to the public). In the past, the media has often given the impression that there are large and important areas of disagreement within the scientific community on these matters. Actually, in spite of such attempts to dramatize it, long-standing controversy is rather rare in science. This is not to say that different scientists don't initially have different ideas on an issue, but rather that there are universally accepted ways of settling disagreements, so they don't persist for long.
Let us see how this system works. The basic instrument for scientific communication is the scientific literature, which consists principally of many hundreds of periodicals, each covering a specialized area of science. In them, scientists present research results to their colleagues in sufficient quantitative detail to allow them to be thoroughly understood and checked. They also contain critiques from researchers who may disagree with the procedures used, and replies to these critiques from the original authors, although only a few percent of the papers published are sufficiently controversial to draw such criticism. The whole system is set up to maximize exchange of information and give a full airing of the facts. On the other hand, most people would not consider the scientific literature to be interesting reading. It is written by research scientists not usually skillful writers to be read by other scientists in the same field. It makes extensive use of mathematics and specialized vocabulary, with little attention to techniques for holding the reader's attention. That function is provided by the scientist's professional need to obtain the information.
In addition to communication through the literature, specialists in each field frequently get together at meetings where there is ample opportunity for airing out disagreements before an audience of scientific peers. After these discussions, participants and third parties often return to their laboratories to do further measurements or calculations, developing further evidence. In most cases, controversies are thereby settled in a matter of months, leading to a consensus with which over 90% of those involved would agree. Where scientific questions have an impact on public policy, there is an additional mechanism. The National Academy of Sciences and similar national and international agencies assemble committees of distinguished scientists specializing in the field to develop and document a consensus. Only very rarely do these committees have a minority report, and then it's from a very tiny minority. The committees' conclusions are generally accepted by scientists and government agencies all over the world.
Since controversy is the rule rather than the exception in human affairs, many find it difficult to believe that science is so different in this respect. The reason for the difference is that science is based largely on quantities that can be measured and calculated, and these measurements and calculations can be repeated and checked by doubters, with a very heavy professional penalty to be paid by anyone reporting erroneous results. This ability to rapidly resolve controversy has been one of the most important elements in the great success of science, a success that during this century has increased our life expectancy by 25 years, and improved our standard of living immeasurably.
A minority of the material to be discussed in this book is nonscientific, and even political, covering areas in which I have no professional expertise. For this I depend on my reading of the general literature and attendance at lectures over many years. I cannot vouch for this material's reliability, but fortunately it is largely non-controversial.
When specialists present information to the public, they can easily convey false impressions without falsifying facts by merely selecting the facts they present. It is my pledge not to do this. I will do my utmost not only to present correct information but to present it in a way that gives the correct impression and perspective. To do otherwise would seriously damage my credibility in the scientific community and thereby depreciate the value of my research, which is largely what I live for.
Since your faith in this pledge may depend on what you know about the author, I offer the following personal information. I am a 65-year-old, long-tenured professor of physics and radiation health at the University of Pittsburgh. I have never been employed by the nuclear industry except as a very occasional consultant, and I discontinued those relationships several years ago. My job security and salary are in no way dependent on the health of the nuclear industry. I have no long-standing emotional ties to nuclear power, not having participated in its development. My professional involvement with nuclear energy began only when the 1973 oil embargo stimulated me to look into our national energy problems. I have four children and eight grandchildren; my principal concern in life is to increase the chances for them and all of our younger citizens to live healthy, prosperous lives in a peaceful world.
To those who question my selection of topics or my treatment of them in this book, I invite personal correspondence or telephone calls to discuss these questions. I feel confident that through such means I can convince any reasonable person that the viewpoints expressed are correct and sufficiently complete to give the proper impressions and perspective.
Other scientists have written books on nuclear energy painting a very different picture from the one I present. Ernest Sternglass,1 John Gofman,2 and Helen Caldicott3 are the names with which I am familiar. Their basic claim is that radiation is far more dangerous than estimates by the scientific Establishment would lead us to believe it is. This is a scientific question which will be discussed in some detail in Chapter 5, but the ultimate judgment is surely best made by the community of radiation health scientists. A poll of that community (see Chapter 5) shows that the scientific works of these three scientists have very low credibility among their colleagues. Their ideas on the dangers of radiation have been unanimously rejected by various committees of eminent scientists assembled to make judgments on those questions. These committees represent what might be called "the Establishment" in radiation health science; the poll shows that they have very high credibility within the involved scientific community. In a secret ballot, less than 1% gave these Establishment groups a credibility rating below 50 on a scale of 0-100, whereas 83% gave the three above-mentioned authors a credibility rating in that low range. The average credibility rating of these Establishment groups was 84, whereas less than 3% of respondents rated the three authors that high.
The positions presented in this book are those of the Establishment. In comparing this book with those of Sternglass, Gofman, and Caldicott, you therefore should not consider it as my word against that of those three authors, but rather as their positions versus the positions of the Establishment, strongly supported by a poll taken anonymously of the involved scientific community.
Another approach for distinguishing between this book and theirs is the degree to which the authors are actively engaged in scientific research. The Institute for Scientific Information, based in Philadelphia, keeps records on all papers in scientific journals and publishes listings periodically in its Science Citation Index Sourcebook. The number of publications they list for the various authors, including myself, are:
|J. W. Gofman||2||3||0|
|E. J. Sternglass||5||9||4|
|B. L. Cohen||65||53||37|
It might be noted that most of the papers by Gofman were his replies to critiques of his work, and most of the entries for Sternglass were papers at meetings which are not refereed (the others were on topics unrelated to nuclear power). Only a small fraction of my papers are in these categories. Since 1982 I have been directing a large experimental project involving measurements of radon levels in 350,000 houses. This has reduced the number of papers I have produced.
Of course, many books about nuclear power have been written by professional writers and other nonscientists. They are full of stories that make nuclear power seem dangerous. Stories are useful principally to maintain reader interest, but they don't prove anything. In order to make a judgment on the hazards of nuclear power, it is necessary to quantify the number of deaths (or other health impacts) it has caused, or can be expected to cause, and compare this with similar estimates for other technologies. This is something that the books by nonscientists never do. They sometimes quantify what "might" happen, but never quantify the probability that it will happen. If we are to be guided by what might happen, I could easily concoct scenarios for any technology that would result in more devastation and death than any of their stories about nuclear power.
With these preliminaries out of the way, let us begin by asking, "Do we need more power plants for generating electricity?"