Science in Christian Perspective
Nukes or No Nukes? A bsolute Thinking
in a Relative World
David L. Willis
Dr. 'Willis, a former President of the ASA and editor of Origins and Change,
is Professor of Radiation Biology, General Science Department, Oregon
State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331.
From: JASA 32 (June1980): 102-108.
A public controversy over commercial nuclear power has boiled along throughout the 1970's. Anti-nuclear groups, at first only local, have coalesced into a national movement. Their tactics and rhetoric often appear borrowed from other causes of the 1960's. The nuclear industry, on the other side, lobbies forcefully for the nuclear option as both safe and cheap. A dialogue of the deaf ensues to the confusion of the general public. Scientists have been enlisted 00 each side. However, few if any authors with appropriate technical expertise have addressed the issues involved in Christian publications prior to this issue of the Journal ASA. This article is a small contribution in that direction.
First, some personal background may reveal at least minimal competence in certain aspects of this controversy. My teaching and research for nearly two decades have centered on radioactivity and radiation in the environment (radioecology). I've coauthored two major textbooks in the field of radioactive tracer techniques.1,2 A sabbatical leave was spent in the Ecological Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory researching the movement of radionuclides in freshwater habitats. I've participated in the three most recent national symposia on radioechology (1967, 1971, 1975), as well as many national and international meetings in this field. Active membership in two major professional societies (Radiation Research Society and Health Physics Society) has provided regular contact with other scientists in this field.
Until 1970 my professional interests in environmental radioactivity were largely within the confines of the academic "ivory tower." in the autumn of that year, I was contacted by the Portland General Electric Company (Portland, OR) to serve as a consultant on environmental radioactivity. The Company was then constructing the first nuclear power station (Trojan) in the state and had run head on into a determined group of environmental opponents. The major concern was over proposed radioactive discharges from Trojan into the lower Columbia River and their possible environmental consequences.
At first I naively assumed that PGE most indeed he planning very large releases of radioactivity to occasion such public opposition. When shown the engineering projections of the specific radionuclides and the annual amounts of each to he discharged, I blurted out, "You most he kidding!" From a radioecological and public health standpoint, the planned effluents represented no cause for concern. The state's universities and hospitals probably pot more radioactivity down the sewer each year. How could anyone be worried about this? I was soon to find out in a series of permit hearings, legislative committee appearances and stockholder's meetings, as well as from shooting pickets, biased reporters, and insistent questioners who really didn't seek answers. Eventually I completed the requested report on radioactive releases.3 This was ultimately incorporated in the final environmental impact statement for Trojan.4 However, this harsh education in public conflict on technical issues left me deeply troubled.
As an educator since 1952, I instinctively felt that controversy over technical matters would be alleviated by better education of the public. Of course, in the case of nuclear power plants there were the added problems of unfamiliar concepts and units (rems, rads, curies, etc.) and the historical relation to frightening nuclear weapons. For several years subsequently I volunteered to give lectures to teacher and citizen groups around the state in hope of developing a more rational climate. Sad to say, I've lost enthusiasm for that approach. There appear to be too many people who "have their minds made up and don't want to be disturbed by facts," even in religious circles. Hopefully, members of the American Scientific Affiliation and other readers of this Journal are exceptions. Thus, in a general and semi-technical manner, I'd like to provide a perspective on environmental radioactivity and radiation in relation to nuclear power plants.
Much of the difficulty in this area comes from inappropriate and naive absolute thinking. Things are perceived as either good or had, safe or unsafe, existent or non-existent, either this or that but nothing in between. Thus, my two major points will be: (1) There is no such thing as zero, and (2) There is no such thing as 100%.
There Is No Such Thing as Zero
The anti-nuclear movement has laid great stress on the biologically damaging effects of ionizing radiation, the insidious movement of radioactive isotopes through the environment and the persistence (long half-life) of radioactive wastes. Obviously these are matters of concern. however, the frequent use of half-truths and the presentation of worst case examples as typical, usually project a grossly distorted picture to the uninitiated. A major error is the implication that radioactivity and radiation in the environment are new and sinister phenomena on earth. In fact, just the contrary is true. These are quite natural phenomena that have existed since the time of creation. Moreover, all evidence suggests that natural radiation levels were much higher in past ages. Today we live in a "sea of radiation" as have all living things that preceded us on earth, Any evaluation of possible harmful effects of environmental radiation from nuclear power stations must first consider these natural radiation doses for a proper perspective.
1. Cosmic Radiation
High energy particles (protons, alpha particles, etc.) constantly bombard the earth from both the son and outer space. Only the shielding of the earth's atmosphere prevents the full force of this cosmic radiation from reaching 05 00 the earth's surface. The primary particles are almost totally attenuated by interaction with the upper atmosphere and only less energetic secondary radiation resulting from this interaction penetrates to sea level. This cosmic radiation results in an average dose of 26 milhrem per year to individuals living at sea level in the U.S.A.5
Since the atmosphere shields us from incoming cosmic rays, people at higher altitudes receive larger radiation doses. For example, the annual cosmic ray dose in Denver, GO, is 50 mrem-twice that at New York City. Furthermore, Leadvillc, GO, with a population of about 10,000 at 3200 meter altitude, has an annual dose of 125 mrem from cosmic radiation No rational person would suggest evacuation of Denver and other such cities to reduce radiation exposures to their populations. However, the increased radiation exposure entailed in living there is five times the maximum exposure (5 mrem) allowed by federal regulations for anyone living near a nuclear power station.
2. Radiation from Cosmmogenic Radioactivity
Cosmic ray interaction with the earth's atmosphere results in the continuous production of a variety of radionuclides. Tritium (hydrogen-3) and carbon-14 are the most important with regard to human concern. These have radioactive half-lives of about 12 years and 5,700 years, respectively. This allows time for them to circulate down to the earth's surface and be incorporated in all plants and animals. (In the case of carbon-14, this is the basis for age-dating of ancient carbon-containing remains.) Every human being carries a body burden of these radionuclides. For example, a 155-lb. man typically has about 77 nCi of carbon- 14 in his body,5 or, put another way, about 170,000 radioactive disintegrations per minute. However, this results in an annual dose of less than one milliren.
3. Radiation from Primordial Radioactivity
The decay rate of some radioactive isotopes is so slow that appreciable quantities still exist from the time of creation, in other words, their half-lives are of the order of billions of years. Most of these isotopes occur in connection with decay "chains". A parent radioisotope (such as uranium-238) decays to a daughter (such as thorium- 234) which decays further through a series of steps to an eventual non-radioactive endproduct-an isotope of lead. These decay chains are restricted to the heavier elements (radium, uranium, thorium, etc.). Such radioisotopes are widely distributed in rock, soil, water and even the human body. One wag has observed that every city in America has unwittingly established a radioactive waste storage facility-its cemetery! Local concentrations of these primordial radionuclides vary greatly (by several orders of magnitude) over the earth.
Rarely are such natural sources of radioactivity considered public health hazards. However, some local populations are exposed to exceptional concentrations. For example, nearly 50,000 people in northern Illinois near Joliet consume drinking water whose radium-226 content approaches the maximum concentration permitted by federal regulations.6 Populations of many thousands in certain radioactively "hot" spots in eastern Brazil and southern India receive annual radiation doses 5-21) times greater than the average U.S. population from primordial radioactivity.6 Intensive studies of possible biological damage from such doses to these groups have yielded either negative or statistically equivocal results.
Potassium-40 is another important primordial nuclide. This biologically significant element is quite soluble and, thus, present in freshwater, the oceans and the body fluids of all living things. A 155-lb. man typically has a body content of about 120 nCi of potassium-40. In other words, about 260,000 radioactive disintegrations per minute (dpm) occur in his body continually from potassium-40 alone. For marine organisms the potassium-40 body burden is much greater due to the higher potassium concentration of seawater. This potassium-40 in our bodies delivers an annual radiation dose of about 20 mrem.5
The mean annual whole-body radiation dose in the USA from all these natural sources is about 80 mrem,5 Elevation and local geology lead to variations in this value. For example, residents of the Denver, CO, area receive a dose of about 125 mrem.5 All concern about added radiation and radioactivity to the environment from nuclear power stations must be viewed in comparison to these natural background levels. Radionuclide releases from nuclear plants are not added to zero. Instead, they represent only a very small incremental addition to naturally occurring quantities. Failure to understand (or admit) this has caused foes of nuclear power to adopt ridiculous positions.
The misplaced concern over projected tritium releases from the Trojan reactor are a case in point. Engineering designs clearly indicated that much larger quantities of tritium would be released during regular operation (about 720 Ci/yr.) than all other radionuclides put together (about 150 micro-Ci/yr.)4 Critics seized on this value as an indication of the extreme hazard posed by the plant's operation. These tritium releases when diluted by the immense flow of the adjacent Columbia River would result in a mean downstream water concentration of 3.6 pCi/liter (pico Ci/liter = l0-12 Ci/liter). Assuming the opponent's good faith, we attempted to set this value in some meaningful perspective as follows:
(1) Since the minimum detection limit for tritium was 200 pCi/liter, river concentrations would be quite undetectable.
(2) The Columbia River and surface waters generally in the Pacific Northwest already contained about 500 times this concentration of tritium from fallout and natural sources. Thus, the operation of the Trojan plant would add an increment of only 0.2.
(3) Seasonal variations in the tritium concentration of the River from high to low water flow were already approximately 1000 times as great as the nuclear plant's projected addition.
(4) The maximum permissible concentration (MPC) of tritium in drinking water set by federal regulations was over 830,000 times the result of the plant's discharges. This MPC level had been established based on the best scientific evidence available.
Did this convince the critics? Sad to say, no. Such figures didn't even seem to faze them in the slightest. They steadily replied, "Any radioactive releases are dangerous."
Their repeated, insistent demand was for "zero release" of radioactivity. This stance evidenced a basic misunderstanding of the concept of zero. The general public is usually comfortable with whole number values, but is quite uneasy when faced with exponents. From the scientific standpoint, exponential expressions are the rule. There is no measured value that cannot be divided by ten. There is no such thing as zero in this case.
With greater and greater dilution of an environmental pollutant we eventually reach a concentration below the minimum detection limit. While we can calculate a value for such a concentration (say 10-18 pCi/l), we can in no way measure it. For all practical purposes such radioactivity values can be disregarded as cause for any alarm, but they are not mathematically "zero."
In summary, there is no such thing as zero radiation or radioactivity in the environment. The routine operation of nuclear power plants results in only miniscule incremental releases of radioactivity in relation to natural, pre-existing levels. These effluents are well under established MPC values and are typically far below detection limits. It would appear that those who oppose nuclear power on the basis of public hazard from routine operations are either grossly misinformed or less than honest.
Fortunately, this situation has come to he understood by most responsible critics. Their opposition has more reasonably focused on real or imagined hazards from accidents. Even here, however, a distinct lack of perspective seems evident.
There Is No Such Thing as 100%
"Safe" is probably the most misused word in the current controversy over nuclear power. It is routinely used by advocates and opponents alike as an absolute term. In reality it is strictly relative. It is quantitative, not qualitative. As an example of gross misuse, my local U.S. congressman issued a newsletter to his constituents in July 1979 with the provocative statement, "There are only two kinds of power from which to choose: safe power or unsafe power" (italics mine). The remainder of his comments were ten reasons for opposing nuclear power.7 This simplistic approach may win votes, but it shows little understanding of the complex issues involved.
A dictionary definition of "safe" usually reads.," Free from danger or risk." The slightest reflection, however, reveals that no human activity is safe in an absolute sense. Is flying safe? Is driving an automobile safe? Is skiing safe? Is skydiving safe? Is bathing safe? Obviously each of these activities has some degree of hazard or risk. Some are safer than others, but injury or death routinely result from engaging in them. Each of us regards these and other human activities as safer or less safe depending on such factors as our personal experience, physical ability, age, etc. Thus, safety is "a subjective, relativistic, evolving, shifting judgment based on each person's current value priorities." Safety is not an absolute or intrinsic property.
A misunderstanding of the relative nature of safety seems to lie at the root of many of the antinuclear arguments. This usually takes the form of exaggerating recognized risks and/or conjuring up phantom risks. In all fairness, it should he added that some over-ardent nuclear proponents have often unreasonably dismissed legitimate concerns about nuclear safety. The question is not, "is nuclear power safe?" The essential question is "How safe is nuclear power in comparison to other means of generating electricity?" We must clearly recognize that all such technologies (burning coal, hydroelectric dams, etc.) have some degree of risk. It is this author's perception that foes of nuclear power have greatly exaggerated its risks. At the same time, they have chosen to ignore the hazards of the only viable alternatives. These exaggerations fall naturally into several categories.
1. Confusing Possibility with Probability
Dramatic doomsday predictions of "possible" accidents at nuclear power plants are frequently made by nuclear power opponents. "The China Syndrome" is representative of this approach. The possibility that a serious accident at a nuclear station could seriously harm the nearby population is not really in doubt. It is precisely because such a possibility exists that the most extreme precautions are exercised in the design and operation of these plants. Major reactor safety studies (such as the Rasmussen Report) have painstakingly attempted to identify and characterize what is termed a "maximum credible accident." The real concern, however, is "What is the probability that such an accident will actually occur? The facile confusion of possibility with probability is a fundamental error in much of the discussion on reactor safety.
A few minutes of morbid reflection can conjure up a legion of frightening natural or industrial disasters. A tidal wave (or tsunami) is not an unknown event on many open coastlines. Many thousands of people have been drowned by them in this century alone. Is it possible that a tsunami of unprecedented height could strike a large coastal city somewhere and cause the death of over a million people? The answer must be, "Yes, it is possible."
Crashes of commercial aircraft carrying several hundred passengers, while not everyday occurrences, are not unknown. Whether these are mid-air collisions or crashes on landing or takeoff, the result is usually a ghastly loss of life. Casualties are usually restricted to the passengers and crew, but persons on the ground may, also be victims of falling wreckage. One could conceive of an extreme case in which a fully loaded Boeing 747 jumbo jet crashes in flames into the packed Pasadena Rose Bowl some New Year's Day afternoon. Fatalities could easily run to tens of thousands with nearly all innocent bystanders.
This litany of quite conceivable disasters could go on and on-earthquakes or volcanic eruptions in densely populated areas, large ships suddenly capsizing, dams collapsing, uncontrolled fires sweeping an entire town, a tornado striking a large city, etc. All of these are examples of phenomena which have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the past. It would be folly to suggest that such disasters will not occur in the future. However, does the possibility of such devastating events really dominate our thinking and affect our everyday living? Do we forsake all coastal areas because a tsunami could overwhelm us? Do we avoid either flying or being under commercial flight paths at any time? Do people really abandon all regions where tornados, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or floods occur? The answer for rational people is, "Obviously not!"
The point here is that we judge risk in such situations based on probabilities, not possibilities. We don't ask, "Could such disasters occur?" Instead we inquire, "how likely is it that these disasters may happen?" The degree of risk is associated with the probability, not the possibility of a given event. We can never be 100% sore that any possible disaster will not strike. However, the probability may be so small that our assurance greatly exceeds the claimed purity of Ivory soap (99.44%). For all practical purposes, we usually ignore such vanishingly small risks. Who, for example, wears a hard hat whenever venturing outdoors for fear of being struck by a falling meteorite?
My concern is that risks from nuclear power accidents should be reasonably viewed from the same perspective. We could he paralyzed by irrational fears if we fail to apply the same logic to risk from nuclear accidents that we regularly (if unconsciously) apply to other hazards. There is no such thing as 100% safety. We deceive ourselves if we seek such assurance. Thus, the real concern regarding nuclear power should center on the likely as opposed to the conceivable risks. This leads to the second error.
2. Making Future Predictions Without Considering Past Experience
Risk determinations in any sphere are based both on actual past experience and best estimates of the future. While the past may be known with a high degree of certainty, future projections are always probability statements. In the early years of any new activity or technology, there is only meager experience on which to base risk estimates, As experience accumulates, the probability of making increasingly more accurate risk predictions improves sharply.
For example, few of its would have volunteered as the first person to use a parachute from an airplane in flight. There was no past experience as a guide and certain death was the penalty for parachute failure. The risks were simply too high and the uncertainties too great. While I'm no skydiver, I wouldn't hesitate to use a parachute now if circumstances required it. The experience of tens of thousands of people over several decades allows us to determine rather closely the degree of risk from parachuting. This is not to say that parachuting is 100% safe, but we now know that it is much closer to 100% than to 0%.
Let's apply this to hazard assessments of nuclear power. Although nuclear reactors still seem quite new to the public, they actually predate such familiar items as jet planes, commercial television and transistor radios. The first nuclear reactor was operated in Chicago on December 2, 1942. Before the end of World War II about a half dozen were in use for military purposes. All these early reactors were tinder strict government control in the U.S.A. or abroad. The first nuclear-powered submarine, U.S.S. Nautilus, was launched in 1954. Nuclear naval vessels numbering in the hundreds have been built and operated by several nations subsequently. By the mid1950's reactors began to appear on university campuses for research and training. The late 1950's and early 1960's saw the advent of nuclear reactors for generating electricity for civilian purposes. Over 100 of these are now operated by public or private utilities in the U.S.A. and many other nations. In summary, many hundreds of nuclear reactors of different types have been operated for nearly four decades.
What has been the actual operating experience with nuclear reactors? If the doomsday predictions of the nuclear opposition are to he believed, surely the past history must have been grim, indeed. Quite the opposite is true. The actual record is that no civilian in the Free World has ever been killed as a direct result of a nuclear reactor accident. (Since information from the U.S.S.R. and other closed societies is unavailable, this statement is necessarily qualified.) In fact, three military operators of an experimental U.S. Army reactor in Idaho are the only fatalities known.6 It should be noted that they died from injuries as a result of an explosion, not from radia tion itself.
Have other reactor accidents occurred? One might as well ask, "have any parachutes ever failed to open?" The answer is obviously, "Yes." With parachutes, however, the margin of safety is exceedingly thin. Even a minor malfunction commonly results in death. By contrast, nuclear reactors have multiple and redundant safeguard systems. The other reactor accidents are better described as engineering malfunctions. They certainly could not be construed as major public disasters. A vanishingly small death toll of three (operators, not the general public) over nearly four decades scents amazing in light of the very real potential hazards, how do we account for such a record? The simple answer is that engineering and operating practices in both the military and civilian phases developed from the beginning with unparalleled attention to safety.
It scents ironic that nuclear critics today continue to incite public fears about possible nuclear disasters despite this unique safety record. As we have seen, the probable accuracy of future risk estimates improves greatly with accumulated experience. Nuclear power is hardly lacking in such experience. Critics appear to be using a double standard here by insisting that, in this case, the past has little or no relevance to the future. It would he a strange world, indeed, if that logic' were applied to other aspects of life.
3. But What about Three Mile island?
The reader may well wonder whether the previous comments were written before the Three Mile Island (TMI) plant accident. The answer is that they were penned in the full light of that situation. The events of TMI No. 2 in the spring of 1979 are acknowledged by all parties as the worst accident in the nation's commercial nuclear power program. We should ask, however, "How many fatalities or even direct injuries resulted?" The stark answer is "None." TMI was a disaster largely from the standpoint of economics and public relations. It was in no way a public hazard of the doomsday variety.
Admittedly, hundreds of nearby residents were temporarily evacuated as a precaution and thousands reputedly suffered "psychological trauma." Unfortunately most of this public impact resulted from the confusion and gross misinformation surrounding the event. TMI might better he regarded as a regulatory and ntedia disaster. There is more than enough blame to go around. The US. Nuclear Regulatory Commission appeared confused and fumbling. The utility operators (Metropolitan Edison Co.) were frequently less than candid about the actual situation. The news media were much better at sensationalizing than informing. In perspective, however, how many people annually are evacuated from their homes because of floods, earthquakes, fires, leaking tank cars, etc.? How much "psychological trauma" Occur. ,,routinely from near accidents in autos and planes, news of impending hurricanes, tornadoes or floods, or even from horror movies?
If the TMI accident is the worst thus far in nuclear power operations, it should give us cause for reassurance for the future rather than unreasoning fear. Would that coal mining, commercial aviation and railroad transportation had the same enviable safety record The accidents that taught us how to operate these industries with .Some degree of safety were paid for with far grimmer statistics than from TMI.
Although no immediate deaths resulted front the 'l'\II accident, it was widely publicized that significant amounts of radioactivity were released to the environment. The reader may reasonably wonder what potential for future health hazards these may pose. After some initial confusion, a broadscale radioactive monitoring program was set in motion. Water, milk, air, soil and vegetation in the surrounding area were analyzed. The resulting data give no cause for alarm and responsible safety authorities predict that DO measurable public health effects are to he expected in the future. What are the bases for such predictions?
First, the releases were predominantly radioactive gases (isotopes of xenon, krypton, and iodine). These were discharged intermittently from a tall stack on the reactor site. Dilution in the atmosphere quickly reduced resulting off-site air concentrations to minimal levels. More importantly, xenon and krypton are in the group of elements known as "noble gases." This term refers to their chemical inertness in nature. Thus, they remain as elemental gases in the environment and do not hind with other elements to form compounds. Even if inhaled, 'they do not accumulate or become hound to body tissues like other elements. This greatly reduces their degree of hazard.
Releases of iodine were of greater concern. Radioidine is readily concentrated in the human thyroid gland following ingestion of radioactively contaminated food or water, The most direct route to man is through deposition of gaseous iodine onto vegetation, its consumption by dairy cows and subsequent appearance in their milk. This pathway has been well characterized from studies of fallout from nuclear weapons testing. Milk supplies in the region surrounding the TMI plant were carefully monitored following the accident. Most milk showed no detectable radioiodine. A few samples revealed indine-131 in the range of 14 to 40 pCi/l.9
How hazardous are such levels? For perspective, the most recent Chinese nuclear test produced fallout around the northern hemisphere. This resulted in all iodine-131 Concentration of about 300 pCi/l in milk in this area of Pennsylvania,"' Note that this was Seven times the level from TMI. Furthermore, levels were much higher in the 1950's and 60's before the USA and the USSR agreed to ban aboveground nuclear testing. Federal safety regulations do not require that dairy cows be removed from access to contaminated pasture until the iodine-131 levels reaches 12,000 pCi/l.9 The magnitude of these differences should offer convincing evidence of the negligible hazard posed by the radioiodine releases from TMI.
More impressive data bearing on this matter come from a reactor accident at Windscale, England, in 1957. There, the core of an air-cooled, plutonium-producing nuclear reactor caught fire and burned for four days. An estimated 20,000 Ci of iodine-131 were released to the atmosphere as a result. That is 20 quadrillion pCi for comparison. (It should be noted that this type of reactor is not used in the USA.) The Windscale plant is situated along the Irish Sea. Coastal winds scattered the radioactivity both inland and southward for many miles. Health and safety personnel carefully monitored the milk produced in the region for radioiodine content. They initially found iodine-131 levels exceeding 100,000 pCi/I over an area of approximately 200 square miles. Peak concentrations of 1,400,000 pCi/l were noted in a restricted location about ten miles from the reactor.6,11 Since Iodine-131 has a radioactive half-life of only eight days, these levels declined rapidly. The enormity of this environmental contamination compared to that from TMI should he evident. The health status of individuals in the affected region in northwest England has been followed over the 22 years since this accident. What have been the results? No adverse health effects on the exposed individuals have been observed to date.
The TMI incident has brought on another rash of ominous predictions of future 'extra" cancer deaths from nuclear power critics. Most radiation health and safety professionals have strongly contested such predictions. The public can be excused for being confused about such matters. This is a classic case of what Alvin Veinberg calls a "trans-scientific" issue.12 It is well known that high closes of radiation may increase the incidence of cancer in a population. However, even the highest closes from TMI would be trivial in the extreme by comparison. Cancer is already a leading cause of death in this country. Would this high death rate be measurably increased by such infinitesimal added radiation doses from TMI?
The answer may best he seen in perspective from an analogy. Auto fatalities arid highway speed li,juts are well recognized to he positively correlated. higher speed limits and average highway speeds directly result in increased fatalities per mile driven. The federally mandated limit of 55 miles per hour imposed in 1974 is widely acknowledged as the proximal(, cause for the subsequent sharp decline in highway death rates, That reduction amounted to 10-15 mph from state to state. By contrast, what could he expected if the present 55 mph limit were increased to 55.001 mph? (We will assume that average driving speeds increase proportionately.) Logically one could predict some small increase in highway death rates. Practically this would never he observed. Year-to-year fluctuations in traffic death statistics would greatly' exceed any effect of such a trivial increase in speed limit. This is precisely the case for predictions of increased future deaths from low-level radiation doses from TMI or other such accidents. Any theoretical increase would simply be ton small to be observed. For all practical purposes it wouldn't occur. (Remember, there is no such thing as zero!)
This has obviously been a somewhat personal and only semi-technical presentation. Some readers may take it as a strongly pro-nuclear statement, but such is not really my intent. Many aspects of the nuclear power controversy have been left un-discussed either for lack of space or sufficient personal expertise. I am altogether too aware of strong differences of opinion on this issue both in the American Scientific Affiliation and the scientific community as a whole. Responsible criticism is healthy and necessary'. It is, however, difficult to be charitable to those critics who routinely' indulge in demagoguery and distortion. From my necessarily limited experience there seems to be more of this on the anti-, than the pro- side of the discussion. My personal appraisal is that nuclear power is one of the best alternatives available to our nation now to meet our electrical power generation requirements in the near term. Hazards, while well recognized, are quite within reason in comparison to other energy technologies.
My limited personal experience in the public aspects of this controversy has left me with one firm conviction. The real issues are far deeper than the technical and safety' matters raised by the opposition. I find Richard Meehan's analysis here to he most appropriate.
I would go so far as to say that the divisions are deeper and more bitter among the scientifically literate than in the general public. The paradox-that the best informed are the most confused-disappears only it we consider the whole nuclear power issue as merely symbolic of a deeper ideological rift, comparable to, say, the early 19th-century Romantic revolt. One might w onder whether the whole nuclear safety issue even makes sense in the absence of a deeper societal conflict.. . If, as I am suggesting here, the nuclear safety issue is score of a quasi-religions than a technological conflict, then widespread improvement of scientific literacy is unlikely to improve matters.13
The insistent demands for ever higher levels of safety in nuclear power plants leave me perplexed. In a society where very' high risk "recreation" is increasingly popular, why' is nuclear 'power singled out to be the only no-risk industry? Surely' reason would suggest that we first discourage or abandon sky' diving, hang gliding, motorcycle racing, mountaineering and downhill skiing. This nation has spent an estimated one billion dollars over the past 20-25 years characterizing nuclear risks. We now know more about the health and safety aspects of ionizing radiation than about any' other environmental hazard. flow much is enough? Margaret Nlaxey puts this most fittingly.
Zero risks and absolute safety are indeed costly illusions. Man does not lies' by safety alone. The sltinmame chaltengc' is to redis cover what else we live by.8
1Wang, C. Ft., and David L. Willis. (1965) Radiotracer Methodology in Biological Science. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall. 382 p.
2Wang, C. H., David L. Willis, and Walter D. Loveland. (1975) Radio tracer Methodology in the Biological, Environmental, and Physical Sciences. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall. 480 p.
3Willis, David L. (1971) A Radioecological Analysis of the Impact of Radioactive Releases from the Trojan Nuclear Plant into the Lower Columbia River. Corvallis. 22 p.
4 Portland General Electric Company. (1971) Trojan Nuclear Plant Environmental Report. Vol. 1. Portland.
5National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. (1975) Natural Background Radiation in the United States. Washington, D. C. (NCRP Report No. 45) 163 p.
6Eisenbud, Merril. (1973) Environmental Radioactivity. 2nd Ed. New York Academic Press. .542 p.
7AuCoin, Les. (1979) Nuclear Power-We Can't Afford It. (A Report to Renton County from Congressman Les AnCoin) Washington, D.C. 2p.
8Maxey, Margaret M. (1978) "Radwastes and Public Ethics: Issues and Imperatives." Health Physics 34(2(129-135.
_______________ (1979) 'The Ordeal at Three Mile Island." Nuclear News Special Report. 6 p.
10Marshall Eliot. (1979) "The Radiation Studies Begin" Science 204:281.
11Baverstock. K. F., and J. Vennart. (1976) "Emergency Reference Levels for Reactor Accidents: A Re-examination of the Windscale Reactor Accident." Health Physics 30(4):339-344.
12Weinherg Alvin XI. (1977) "The Limits of Science and Trans-Science." Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 2(4):337-342.
13Nleehan, Richard L. (197) "Nuclear Safety: Is Scientific Literacy the Answer?" Science 204:571.