Breeding too fast

John Ziman

There was a time when the only experts on matters related to nuclear fission were physicists. During the war, this expertise was extended to a highly selected corps of engineers. Nowadays, we need economists, industrial managers, medical specialists, military strategists and diplomatists to explain what is going on. There was a time when the whole affair was safely confined within the government apparatus of a few super-powers. Nowadays it spreads across the world, not only to Japan, India and China but also to smaller nations such as the Philippines and Israel, and has become a major factor of international commerce and private finance. The fiefdoms of the ‘nuclear barons’ extend from the uranium mines of Western Australia to missile warheads targeted across the North Pole. They influence, and are influenced by, the price of sugar in Brazil and the political status of the Golan Heights. They are prime movers of the world of today.

Peter Pringle, formerly of the Sunday Times, now of the Observer, and James Spigelman, with civil service experience inside Gough Whitlam’s Government in Australia, have put together a remarkably well-informed, coherent and readable survey of this vast territory, clear and simple enough for the absolute beginner and yet full of information for the more knowledgeable reader. Instead of trying to explain the technical background in depth, they tell much that is unfamiliar about such important matters as the management of the Russian nuclear-weapons programme, how German industry got into the nuclear-power business or the formation of a price cartel in the uranium-mining industry. It is a considerable achievement to give ‘coverage’ to such an immense variety of topics without losing touch with the central themes.

But before considering the overall effect of reading a book like this one from cover to cover, it is worth asking whether it is reliable in detail. The very diversity of topics makes this difficult to assess. It is certainly not without errors. It is disconcerting, for example, to read that because Lord Cherwell ‘had no executive power’ as Churchill’s war-time adviser ‘no one took much notice of him,’ or that the climatic effect of excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might be avoided because the ‘new coal-building [sic] technology was much cleaner.’ Obvious mistakes of this sort seem rare, but other reviewers might find similarly deep misconceptions concerning topics with which they happened to be familiar. On the other hand, the book has manifold virtues of composition and exposition. The authors have done a thoroughly professional job of setting out the principal facts to be found in the major secondary sources for each of their chapters. But they seldom interrupt the sharp smooth thrust of their narrative to entertain contrary opinions or alternative interpretations, and the only evidence of primary research on the original documents seems to be their horrifying revelation of how the US Atomic Energy Commission covered up a serious episode of radioactive fall-out, after atmospheric bomb tests in 1953. A work of such scope and generally high competence is bound to be referred to for information on many aspects of this tremendous subject. I would advise caution in taking its every statement as certain fact.

Decade by decade, the centre of emphasis shifts from the military to the civil sphere. Naturally enough, the narrative must begin in the late 1930s, leading into the era of the Manhattan project and Hiroshima. Is there much more to be said, now, about that dramatic course of events? There is a suggestion that if Truman had been told about the lingering horrors of radioactivity he might have decided against dropping the bombs on Japan, but that is sheer conjecture. In any case, the military thinking of the United States and Britain was by then completely closed to the moral objections to genocide, and firmly established along the path towards the strategy of mass destruction.

Right on into the Fifties, ‘nuclear’ was an adjective that mainly applied to ‘weapons’. In retrospect, it was futile to hope that secrecy, diplomacy or international concert could prevent the spread of these to other major industrial nations. Hindsight may suggest that it was folly for Britain and France to have been tempted down the road, but that wisdom was just as far from those in the seats of power then as it seems to be from most of our rulers today. In 1950 when it was decided to go ahead with the H-bomb, David Lilienthal remarked: ‘Where this will lead us is difficult to see. We keep on saying, “We have no other course.” What we should be saying is, “We are not bright enough to see any other course.’ ”

The interesting question is whether contemporary political understanding could have prevented the overproduction of nuclear bombs and warheads in the early Fifties which had led – almost inevitably – to the present grotesque ‘overkill’ capacity of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. The military hawks fell for the crude machismo of this numbers game, without serious analysis of how many huffs and puffs were really needed to blow the little pigs’ house down and off the face of the earth. Pringle and Spigelman make this historical point well: they could have carried it forward to the present day, showing how this is both a damnable folly and also a trend that might, perhaps, be stemmed by unilateral or multilateral arms reduction. In fact, they should be telling us as much as they can guess – or at least as much as has been ascertained by organisations such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – about the why, and the how, and the who, and the how many, of the manufacture of nuclear weapons by the super-powers, whose outrageous stockpiles and arsenals are far and away the most dangerous aspect of nuclear matters.

Taking their cue, however, from the Geneva ‘Atoms for Peace’ Conference of 1955, the authors move away from the military heartland into the expanding territories of civil nuclear energy. It may be, as they suggest, that the original initiative for this expansion came from the American wish to have something which, in terms of propaganda, could be balanced against the obvious evil of nuclear war, and that it has by no means produced benefits to match its costs. It may be that it was never a good idea to exploit the energy locked in the uranium nucleus by building reactors simply to generate electricity. That is the issue to which the second half of the book is addressed.

One point is quite clear. This relatively benign technology cannot be separated from its malignant military twin, and therefore, as it diffuses from nation to nation, enhances the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Pringle and Spigelman chart this proliferation, country by country, and thereby provide a compelling argument against trying to use ‘atoms for peace’. In any case, all forms of nuclear technology are so expensive and sophisticated that none should be undertaken, even by proxy, by any nation that doesn’t have a strong industrial base from which massive resources can safely be diverted to a single major project. The Indians, for example, have not only unsettled all their foreign relations by exploding a nuclear device: they have also scored an own goal by producing nuclear power at an outrageous price relative to the opportunity costs of alternative energy projects.

We can also see that, like most others, this technology has proved more difficult, and more expensive, to exploit than anyone originally reckoned. It never did offer absolutely decisive economic advantages over competing technologies and was always at the mercy of interest rates, fuel prices, changing patterns of demand and other harsh commercial realities. Much depends also on the provision of enrichment and reprocessing facilities, through which uranium supplies and prices can be controlled and manipulated. In fact, it is doubtful if it could have established itself at all, in the highly capitalised energy utility markets of the world, without an enormous initial boost from government funds and research facilities. The most successful commercial reactor designs – the American pressurised and boiling-water reactors – are greatly indebted to the brilliant nuclear submarine propulsion systems bullied into existence in the mid-Fifties by Admiral Hyman Rickover, and use fuel that has been enriched with U235 separated from natural uranium in vast plants built primarily for the production of weapon material.

Almost inevitably, the initial boom was followed by a severe slump in orders, with another boom in the early Seventies. Over-confidence in design competence, construction capabilities and marketing opportunities was followed by extravagantly costly overruns and delays. The British effort, with gas-cooled reactors fuelled with natural uranium, was too fragmented, too indecisive, to succeed in world markets. The American companies took very heavy losses on the way to dominance. The Germans, as usual, do some of the best engineering, whilst the French industry can make hay in its own national market by keeping politicians and the public at bureaucratic arm’s length. The commercial and political shenanigans that went on as the industry developed – shrewd purchases of patents, disingenuous projections of performance and costs, even a suitably greased palm for an influential middleman in a Third World country – are recounted at some length, although these do not seem much more scandalous than in any other large-scale multinational business such as oil or aircraft. And although national and/or corporate competition in capitalist economies looks dreadfully wasteful, the Russian nuclear-power industry is not, apparently, in much better working order.

Now, of course, with world trade in recession, electricity demand stable, and much greater public concern about safety, the nuclear-power industry is in a grave crisis of confidence. Here is a very advanced technology, 25 years up its learning curve, still hoping to get away with very optimistic estimates of future financial trends to prove its worth to corporate or treasury accountants. I would not, myself, go along with Pringle and Spigelman in asserting that the whole technology is fundamentally unprofitable, but since they do not make a serious analysis of this exceedingly complicated question I can only advise that it remains wide open, with much to be said on either side.

The real case for electricity from nuclear power is not that it could be marginally cheaper than other forms of energy, but that it could be made effectively self-renewing and effectively harmless to man, beast or plant. None of the proposed self-renewing alternatives – solar, geothermal, winds, waves, tides, ocean thermal gradients, satellite collectors etc – comes anywhere near the fast-breeder system for engineering feasibility and/or cost per kilowatt-hour, and practical fusion power is still strictly hypothetical. It is easy to point, as these authors do, to all the absurdities in proposals to set up in a few decades a system of this kind which would provide the world with all its electricity and other energy media. But an attack on that sort of nonsensical extreme, combined with unqualified acceptance of the equally extreme claims of the solar enthusiasts, does not exhaust this important issue. Even if we do not need the fast breeder now, to meet immediate energy demands, there is a plausible case for further engineering development in this direction, as a possible capability in the foreseeable future.

The other decisive advantage claimed for nuclear power is that it could be made effectively ‘harmless’. The comparison here is with coal, which is dangerous to mine and transport, and damaging to burn. We have lived so long with these dangers and damages that it is very difficult to assess their seriousness, or to estimate the cost of reducing them. One conjectured danger – climatic disaster from excess carbon dioxide – cannot be eliminated by any technical means, but may yet prove to have been grossly exaggerated. On the other hand, acid rain from the sulphur in coal is now being recognised as a significant environmental factor, and can hardly be avoided without considerable extra expense. Again, I would not want to make a strong plea for or against a return to coal as the primary fuel of our civilisation – but this is another very important contextual issue that Pringle and Spigelman treat much too cavalierly.

Their own position is very definite: they hold that nuclear power has the decisive disadvantage of being associated with vast quantities of radioactivity. Here again, they have done a valuable job in their outline history of growing medical recognition of the effects of energetic radiation on human health. We do very well to recall past carelessness with radium and X-rays, in uranium mining and even in medical diagnosis. We are still very far from a full understanding of the subtle effects of radiation on individual cells, organs or organisms, or of all the chemical, biochemical and physiological pathways by which radioactive compounds may be collected and concentrated out of apparently harmlessly dilute solution. But that does not mean that the reprocessing plants and waste-disposal systems associated with nuclear reactors are necessarily much more dangerous to human life than many other large-scale industrial activities. The nuclear industry has been woefully negligent in some important respects: but the sufferings of asbestos workers were caused by simple industrial processes on a perfectly ‘natural’ material. What about the Seveso accident, or the Tenerife air disasters? To argue that a nuclear reactor must be terribly dangerous because it contains 15 billion curies of radioactive material makes no more sense than to assert the same of an ordinary power station on the grounds that it generates half a billion watts of electricity, or, per contra, that a dam must be perfectly safe because it weighs a million tons and is just sitting quietly on Mother Earth. I do not say that the problems of risk assessment and accident avoidance are not peculiarly difficult in nuclear engineering, but even Three Mile Island does not demonstrate decisively that they are insuperable. Pringle and Spigelman merely align themselves with demagogic anti-nuclear prejudice on this damnably controversial question.

How, then, do they manage to give the impression of being open, reasonable men, concerned only to present an unvarnished tale of fact and to draw from it quite inevitable conclusions? The answer is given in their title: they concentrate on the people who have (as the dust-jacket delicately puts it) ‘created our nuclear nightmare’. Their ‘inside story’ of nuclear matters, military and civil, political and commercial, is of clever, ambitious, unscrupulous people who have deceived the public and manipulated governments, corporations, research organisations, defence establishments and other social institutions to satisfy their own cravings for power and esteem.

In many ways, this is a very healthy attitude. The narcissism of most people of very high acknowledged authority – scientists, engineers, industrial bosses, generals, politicians and all that lot – has to be observed directly to be believed. They are not deeply dyed with moral sensibility, not all of them, by any means, have extraordinary competence in their jobs, and the way things turn out may greatly depend on whether they are shrewd or brave, brutal or subtle, far-sighted or opportunistic, solitary or gregarious, narrowly focused or capable of taking a broad view. The study of such people, from childhood, through education, to practical experience and achievement, is one of the most compelling spectator sports in the world. Here we have a splendid collection of unique specimens, from tragic heroes like André Sakharov to ruthless monsters like Zavenyagin and Maltsev, from sages like David Lilienthal to bumblers like Milton Shaw, from grey eminences like Edward Bridges to flamboyant publicists like Homi Bhabha. They may at times seem like pasteboard cut-outs, with stereotyped features brushed on, but one easily recognises some very remarkable characters in this army of crusaders. It would not have been unjust if the leaders of the ‘Saracens’ – the anti-nuclear protesters – had been given equally unflattering treatment.

The actions of such individuals always deserve hard-headed, cynical scrutiny. Like all significant public figures, the nuclear barons are continually tempted towards follies and corruptions that thrive in darkness and secrecy, intended to benefit the organisations they lead rather than the common good. The tiniest details may, on occasion, determine the fate of nations. To make sense of the policies of Electricité de France it may be essential to know that its director-general, Marcel Boiteux, is only an economist from the Ecole Normale Supérieure whilst the chief engineer, Michel Hug, is a Polytechnician of the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées – still not quite so prestigious as the Corps des Mines which ‘annexed the French atomic energy commission’ in 1951. Such apparent trivia are often the raw material out of which history gets made, although I fancy it would have been more instructive to explain how the egalitarian and anarchic French submit themselves to such technocrats.

However plausible it may be in explaining particular events, this personalisation of social institutions can, in the end, be highly misleading. These ‘barons’ are as much the standard-bearers of their ‘baronies’ as they are generals in command: driven into all sorts of unwise or immoral actions by the vast organisations they are trying to control, and by the logic of the historical situations in which they find themselves. Pringle and Spigelman are well aware of this, and are careful not to hint at a deliberate conspiracy to force nuclear energy – and nuclear weapons, alas – upon a reluctant world. But the tenor of their argument seems to be that if the people at the head of affairs were not quite so ‘clever’ and just a bit ‘wiser’, or ‘nobler’, they might somehow have avoided the present mess, or would be able to see the next steps out of it. That may be the unwritten premise of political journalism, but it is not the lesson of history, or the teaching of political science and sociology.

This book could have made more of a contribution to citizenship and public affairs if it had faced up to the real issues of the social control of advanced technology. It is not enough to damn the ‘barons’ by exposing their machinations to a scandalised public. We are going to need much more effective countervailing powers – strong international organisations, open government and commerce, autonomous safety executives, standing committees of legislators, better-informed politicians, new ethical codes, broader educational curricula and many other social institutions and procedures – to protect society from its own over-achievements. I am no more complacent about the present situation – especially as regards the dangers of nuclear war – than the authors of this disturbing and fascinating book, but they grope under stones in the darkness instead of seeking paths towards the light.