In the 16th century the Japanese Shoguns outlawed firearms in favor of Samurai swordsmanship. This prohibition held up for nearly 300 years, until the appearance in Edo harbor of Commodore Matthew Perry’s squadron of heavily armed warships demanding trade privileges for American merchants.
Within half a century, a thoroughly modernized Japanese army readily defeated its Russian neighbors, and just forty years later Japanese troops swiftly overran Korea, Manchuria, China and much of Southeast Asia. These imperial impulses were finally reigned in beneath the mushroom clouds of atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If any nation appreciated the dangers of a nuclear age, it had to be Japan. But, under pressure from American diplomats and a desire to be perceived as a fully modern society, the Japanese agreed to purchase nuclear power plants from American vendors. General Electric and Westinghouse were marketing their wares around the globe with extravagant promises of electricity “too cheap to meter.” For a resource short, island nation attempting an economic recovery this was a seductive proposition. But the goods for sale had not been designed from scratch for commercial scale power production. Instead, they were simply naval reactors, originally developed to propel submarines, amped up on steroids. They relied on inherently risky designs that, while proven reliable in military applications, didn’t “scale” well for industrial applications.
These weaknesses have been well known and routinely ignored for decades. The expectation has been that the next generation of power reactors will incorporate passive safety features that better protect nearby residents. In the meantime, our attempts to control the primal sources of nature with technological prowess have failed to reassure a skeptical public. Fear of all things nuclear is so widespread that what was originally developed as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging was shortened to simply MRI, dropping the ugly nuclear word, because medical patients were often afraid to authorize the lifesaving images it produces. The same goes for CAT scans, which are nothing more than a specialized X-ray technology linked to a computer program.
The notion that nuclear power entails a pact with the devil himself is far more widespread than generally acknowledged. Twenty years ago, while I was employed as a nuclear trash man (another challenge the nuclear industry must address), a science writer pressed me on why I wasn’t afraid of radioactive waste. He insisted that the only people he ever met who weren’t terrified of radiation had a back story — some reason why they were willing to regard the management of these technologies as, well, manageable. And, he was probably right about that.
During the summer of 1951, Phillips Petroleum transferred a dozen engineers to the Nuclear Reactor Test site near Idaho Falls, Idaho, where the Atomic Energy Commission had awarded the company a management contract. One of those engineers was my father. These young men were testing propulsion reactor systems for Admiral Hyman Rickover and designing hydrogen bomb components for the Pentagon. Every few weeks, military police would pull up in front of our house in the evening, Geiger counters in hand, to check whether my Dad may have “dirtied” his shoes and pants in a radioactive spill. More than once his clothes were bagged and whisked away to the next home on a list of potentially exposed employees. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were entombed today in the salt tunnels at WIPP.
I am sure it would not be allowed today, but my father occasionally took my brother and I with him out to the reactor site. At seven years of age I was fascinated by the spooky, pulsating blue glow of Cherenkov radiation in a spent fuel pool. I asked what would happen if I fell into the water and his opinion was that I’d probably be OK if I didn’t dive beneath the surface. This cavalier attitude characterized a platoon of combat veterans who found it difficult to be alarmed by something they couldn’t see, or smell or hear after surviving existential threats to their lives that had been very real and very loud and very close. The risks of repeated low-level radiation exposures were not well understood at the time. When my father died at the age of 59, in 1983, only one of those dozen young men who opted to work at the Reactor Test site remained in good health. It wasn’t just cancer that shortened their lives, but an assortment of degenerative conditions — a sort of accelerated aging. My father recognized that his debility was likely to have been “employment related,” yet he harbored no resentments and expressed few recriminations. He was entirely grateful for a career that had proven exciting and important.
I don’t think he would be surprised by the crisis unfolding at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plants. He visited these plants while they were under construction, and he returned deeply troubled by their vulnerability in an active seismic zone. I am reminded of his trips at holiday meals when we set out the elegant Noritake China that he brought home for my mother. He was an outspoken member of a minority faction of nuclear engineers within the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission opposed to the deployment of the technically demanding pressurized boiling water reactor designs peddled by American firms. He lost that bureaucratic battle and then transferred to the State Department where he finished his public service career as a Scientific Attaché with the Foreign Service. He often suggested that Americans should consider the creation of a science court that could act, in coordination with the Supreme Court, to adjudicate the expanding number of disputes arising from technical advancements and their possible impacts — think global warming.
Americans now face a choice much like that of the Japanese Shoguns. We can turn our back on nuclear power, wrap ourselves in a kimono of ethical righteousness and pretend we have crammed the nuclear genie back into the bottle of forbidden knowledge. If so, one day somewhere over the horizon, our complacency will be disturbed when a visitor from a strange land arrives with a nuclear powered economy and a list of demands. Rather than surrender to our fears, I, for one, am willing to cross my fingers, and place my faith in our collective ability to carefully, wisely and safely make the transition to a nuclear powered future. The Chinese are preparing to construct so-called “pebble bed” reactors, while the French improve the safety of their 55 plants squeezed into a nation just a bit larger than Colorado. In any case, fission seems likely to prove a transitional technology, as we learn to comprehend and control fusion or plasma technologies. Yes, there may be casualties, but the real nightmare is to believe we have no choice but a return to the past.
Miller Hudson is a writer and political observer.