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Even as We Tie the Knot Tighter, Nuclear Power Remains Ungovernable

March 27, 1989|MARK READER | Mark Reader is an associate professor of political science at Arizona State University and co-author of "Atom's Eve: Ending the Nuclear Age," (McGraw-Hill, 1980)

The prime difficulty with nuclear power today is the same as it was before the Three Mile Island reactor accident 10 years ago. A radiation-producing energy source is simply ungovernable by any ordinary human measure.

This is true whether one thinks about fission-produced electricity or bombs.

As events in recent years remind us, nuclear reactors are not immaculately conceived. Whether part of a larger radiation-producing fuel or weapons cycle, the 700 research and commercial reactors currently in operation throughout the world create a number of critical health and environmental hazards that simultaneously demand, and yet resist, human solution.

Several challenges arise for a society dependent on the fissioned atom. As the nuclear industry expands, we have to find a way to protect more of the Earth's limited fresh water supplies and arable land from radioactive contamination. We must insulate ever-changing social and ecological systems from unwanted interactions with dangerous and centuries-old radioactive wastes. We have to find a way to offset the many physical- and mental-health problems that emerge in the aftermath of "unscheduled" releases of radioactive materials anywhere along the overlapping nuclear fuel and arms networks. We need to ask if there is a way to justify to an increasingly skeptical public the morality of randomly passing on cancer deaths and/or radiation-related birth defects to innocent persons over the generations. We must reduce the often disastrous consequences of human error within the nuclear weapons and fuel systems without deeding life-or-death decisions to equally fallible, and often less flexible, computers. We need to halt the spread of proliferation of thermonuclear and biochemical weapons, as well as the anti-democratic imperatives they engender, by severing atomic weapons from the commercial atomic-power industries.

Even if we manage to accomplish all that, can we shield nuclear critics from economic and political reprisals so that their frequently well-placed warnings of radiation danger can be used to forestall predictable disasters?

Quite evidently, each of these problems has been aggravated in the years since the radiation accidents at Three Mile Island and, more recently, Chernobyl.

Indeed, the opening months of 1989 carry with them ominous signs of humanity's deepening nuclear bondage. There are many examples:

--The Soviet press reports a doubling of cancer rates among adults and of thyroid illnesses among more than half of the children in the Chernobyl damage area.

--American and Soviet policy-makers are rushing to bring additional reactors on line and to introduce supposedly "melt-down-free" models for the 1990s. They hope to shore up their troubled economies and reduce acid rain and greenhouse effect problems posed by the burning of fossil fuels.

--Radiation-related leaks at Hanford, Rocky Flats, Fernald and Savannah River are forcing the shutdown of major parts of the U.S. nuclear arms industry at an estimated on-site clean-up cost of at least $80 billion over the next 60 years.

--Iran, Iraq and Libya seek to stockpile chemical weapons to offset Israel's strength and the West's nuclear superiority in that hapless region.

--Technocrats are considering the launching of more and larger nuclear-powered satellites into Earth's orbit for military as well as scientific purposes.

--Respected environmental groups, like Worldwatch Institute, caution that the globe may be awash in plutonium by century's end as nations reprocess highly toxic spent reactor fuel to either extend their energy supplies and/or make atomic bombs.

Tragically, we have not yet learned that the threats of nuclear war and radiation accident require us to control the potentially devastating properties. In order to guard against nuclear accident or war, we have divided the human community into nuclear "haves" and "have nots." This division itself has given rise to the very conflicts that must be avoided if serious nuclear breakdowns are to be prevented.

The need to resolve this seemingly fatal paradox has been at the heart of those tragedies already experienced in the nuclear age. The paradox is complicated by the fact that radiation accidents of the kind first experienced at Three Mile Island remind people of their own complicity in the making and maintenance of a world that neither they nor their children can sustain or endure.

These accidents tell people that in return for the Faustian promise of an infinite supply of energy, wealth and military security, they must saddle their children with a highly versatile radiation killer.

And so, a decade after what might have been the beginning-of-the-end of the nuclear age, humanity slips deeper into its common nuclear nightmare, humiliated into accepting the rule of a lawless nuclear elite that it alternately worships and dreads.

But matters could be otherwise.

Were people honest about it, they might admit that their newly proclaimed search for a safer and cleaner environment will come to little unless they change their habit of valuing convenient consumption over conservation.

Taking Einstein's injunction seriously--that we need to change our mode of thinking to survive the Atomic Age--probably requires us to abandon the nuclear game entirely and to link the quest for nuclear disarmament to the delivery of safe and ecologically sound energy systems.

It would seem the only way out of the world's mounting nuclear dilemma is to cut the Gordian knot, as did a young Alexander, thereby announcing the passing of the old and the beginning of a new global economic and political order.

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