Mark Hertsgaard

  • On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site by Michele Stenehjem Gerber
    Nebraska, 312 pp, £33.25, January 1993, ISBN 0 8032 2145 2
  • The Nuclear Peninsula by Françoise Zonabend, translated by J.A. Underwood
    Cambridge, 138 pp, £19.95, April 1993, ISBN 0 521 41321 4

I had just turned 22 when the connection between having sex and safely storing nuclear waste was first made clear to me. I was writing a book about the American nuclear establishment, and one day found myself sitting across a conference table from a top executive at Combustion-Engineering, a large multinational corporation that sold nuclear reactors. This was in 1979, just months before the Three Mile Island accident, but the American nuclear industry was already in trouble. Rising public opposition to nuclear energy, combined with falling demand for electricity, had destroyed the market for new plants. Neither Combustion-Engineering nor its three main American competitors – General Electric, Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox – had had a new domestic order since 1974. The executive was bemoaning this tragedy when I suggested that part of the reason people were uneasy about nuclear energy was that no one had yet figured out what to do with the waste it generated. The executive, a jowly, deliberate vice-president in his fifties, quickly corrected my misapprehension. The problem was not that there was no solution to nuclear waste disposal: the problem was that there were too many good solutions and the Government, being its usual inefficient self, couldn’t make up its mind which one it liked best. Glancing over his shoulder, the executive leaned towards me across the table and confided, man to man: ‘It’s like you’ve got a blonde, a brunette and a redhead, real glamorous gals, all lined up and ready for action, and you can’t decide which one you’d like to go to bed with. They’re all good.’ Another executive asked me why environmentalists were so worried: ‘Neither they nor their descendants are going to be there at the time when anything could conceivably go wrong. If you do a halfway decent job of disposing of it, it’s at least a few hundred years before anything could go wrong, and they won’t even be there then.’

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