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Nuclear Power: An Exchange

To the Editors:

I was disappointed by Bill McKibben’s dismissal of nuclear power—“Ask yourself how eager you are to have such a plant built near you, or to live near a site for storing nuclear waste”—in his article “Some Like It Hot” [NYR, July 5].

Energy policy should be based on science, engineering, economics, and ethics. A rough way of getting the ethics right is to estimate the number of deaths likely to result from different energy policies. Here are my numbers:

Each year in the United States, we burn about a billion tons of coal, producing atmospheric pollution and carbon dioxide. The pollution may kill 10,000 Americans per year.1 The effect of the carbon dioxide on global warming is hard to estimate, but the annual death rate from future global warming could exceed a million, mostly in the third world. Every year 35 or more American miners die in coal mine collapses, and another 1,500 die of black lung disease.2

Per unit of useful energy, the pollution and carbon dioxide from oil and gas are less than half as harmful as those from coal. But for the sake of oil, we killed 20,000 Iraqis during the Gulf War3 and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands afterward by our destruction of Iraqi infrastructure and by our sanctions.4

How many die from nuclear power, which produces 19 percent of our electricity with no release of atmospheric pollution or carbon dioxide? There have been no deaths, ever, due to the use of nuclear power in the US or in Western Europe, and only two in Japan. (Thirty-one people were killed by the Chernobyl disaster,5 and there have been at least twelve fatal cases of thyroid cancer,6 but a reactor of that kind has never been built in an affluent country.) Modern techniques for building and running nuclear power plants and for permanently securing or reprocessing their waste are safe.7

These estimates suggest that we should use nuclear power instead of coal and gas as the main source of electricity.

Conservation is important, and research into new and better ways of generating power is worthwhile. But the popular faith in alternative energy sources may be too optimistic and may underestimate the dif-ficulty of producing, from nonnuclear sources, power that is abundant, clean, and cheap. The cost of energy affects our economy and its level of employment. And what the poor spend on energy, they cannot also spend on food, housing, or health care.

The horrible events of September 11 invite one to estimate the vulnerability of our electric power industry to terrorist attack. Coal-fired plants are unlikely targets. All of the 103 operating nuclear power plants have large strong containment structures, almost all of them made of reinforced concrete that is between seven and ten feet thick; all but a dozen of the plants are in remote areas, surrounded by miles of empty fields; and the two that are within five miles of an airport have been designed to withstand the impact of a 727 at takeoff speed.8 All are overdesigned and have elaborate defenses against ground attack by terrorists. The camouflage and defenses of all the plants should be upgraded, and we should consider adding antiaircraft batteries as the French have done. If these measures are taken, it is unlikely that terrorists attacking a nuclear power plant would kill anyone with radiation. If we do nothing, the radiation might kill those working in the plant and perhaps a few outside the plant.

The most vulnerable part of our electric power industry is our oil refineries, gas pipelines, and liquefied natural gas facilities, some of which are in densely populated areas. Because oil and gas do not generate the fear inspired by everything nuclear, these utilities have not been suitably hardened against terrorist attack. We should defend them. If we do nothing, hundreds could burn to death.

But the greatest danger is not an attack upon our utilities. Tens of thousands could perish if a deadly biological or chemical agent were inserted into the ventilation system of a skyscraper. Greater numbers could be killed by an old Soviet nuclear weapon in Taliban hands or by a crude nuclear device hidden in a truck or a ship. To avoid these calamities we may need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and alter our foreign policy.

The real promise of nuclear power is as a source of electric power that is so clean, safe, abundant, and cheap that we could dispense with coal and, with suitable advances in batteries, could use electric cars exclusively. We then would be independent of foreign oil; we could pursue more enlightened policies in the Mideast and no longer be the bull’s-eye of international terrorism. Our nation’s balance of payments would swing into the black; air pollution would drop to tolerable levels; and global warming would be mitigated. This promise is so great and so real that those who shape public opinion should solve the political problems that have frustrated its realization.

Kevin Cahill

Professor of Physics

University of New Mexico

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Bill McKibben replies:

Thanks to Professor Cahill for his response. It is a good sign that the scientific debate around global warming has shifted from whether or not it’s real to what on earth we should do about it—his calculations of the potential human toll from global warming is not alarmist but realistic. Realistic is also what I was trying to be about nuclear power when I suggested in my article that those who pin their hopes on atomic energy may be disappointed. Because of the inherent potential dangers of atomic generation of electricity, citizens have long been wary. Whether or not they have been too wary is a difficult question, but in a way it hardly matters. Because of the huge capital costs, nuclear plants have long been economically unattractive, even with enormous government subsidy. With the new questions raised by the September 11 attacks, the costs of building such facilities in the future will only grow.

I believe Professor Cahill is perhaps over-optimistic in his estimate that nuclear plants have little to fear from terrorist attacks. It is nice to know that two of the 103 have been hardened to withstand the impact of a 727; still, it leaves room for some worry. The one study on this question, published in 1974, concluded, according to a recent article by Matt Bivens in The Nation, that “some reactor containment structures had zero chance of sustaining a hit by a ‘large’ plane, defined as more than 6.25 tons. The 767s that hit the World Trade Center weighed 150 tons.” Other experts in recent days have pointed out that spent fuel pools maintained at reactors are likely targets. In the words of an official of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, when the plants were designed “no one had conceived” of an attack like last month’s.

As for Cahill’s assertion that the plants have “elaborate defenses against ground attack,” reporters in recent weeks have talked with David Orrik, a former US Navy Seal, who guided a team hired to test those defenses. It turns out that the plants, though warned in advance of the exercises, failed the tests half the time. The reaction of the nuclear industry was to demand that the independent tests be scrapped in favor of “self-assessments,” a proposal currently before Congress.

Readers looking for a thorough account of nuclear power’s past and future, though one perhaps already dated by the terror attacks, should consult Megawatts and Megatons by Richard Garwin and Georges Charpak, which was published this month by Knopf. They make some of the same points as Dr. Cahill about greenhouse gas emissions, and underline the point that last month’s tragedies also proved that endless reliance on oil to power our economy carries grave security risks. That leaves, I fear, precisely those power sources that I suggested in my article as the best candidates for future development: conservation, and renewables. Californians, earlier this year, managed to drop their electricity consumption 10 percent in a month by simple conservation—it gives some small clue as to what a concerted national effort with the full panoply of currently available technologies might achieve. Cahill warns that “popular faith in alternative energy sources may be too optimistic.” The transfer of the subsidies now promoting atomic power and fossil fuels to solar, wind, and other technologies would go a long way toward changing that.

  1. 1

    John Spengler, Particles in Our Air (Harvard University Press, 1996).

  2. 2

    www.umwa.org/blacklung/blacklung.shtml.

  3. 3

    Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey (a report commissioned by the US Air Force; US Government Printing Office, 1993).

  4. 4

    Joy Gordon, “Sanctions as Siege Warfare,” The Nation, March 22, 1999.

  5. 5

    UNSCEAR, “Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation: United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, UNSCEAR 2000 Report to the General Assembly, with Scientific Annexes” (United Nations, 2000); UNSCEAR, “Hereditary Effects of Radiation: United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, UNSCEAR 2001 Report to the General Assembly, with Scientific Annexes” (United Nations, in press).

  6. 6

    Richard Wilson (private communication).

  7. 7

    Richard Wilson and Edmund A.C. Crouch, editors, Risk/Benefit Analysis (Harvard University Press, second edition, 2001); Bernard L. Cohen, Before It’s Too Late: A Scientist’s Case for Nuclear Energy (Plenum, 1983).

  8. 8

    Robert J. Budnitz, Future Resources Associates Inc. (private communication).

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