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Monday, March 14, 2011

On Nukes

I said this on the subject on an internet mailing list back in December 2007:

I confess to being ill at ease over nukes, partly, I suspect, a gut reaction to the over-zealousness of its current proponents.

The late Alvin Weinberg, had this to say back in 1972:

"We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer -- in the catalytic nuclear burner -- an inexhaustible source of energy. . .
But the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to."
(Science, July 7, 1972)

He continued:

"We make two demands. The first, which I think is easier to manage, is that we exercise in nuclear technology the very best techniques and that we use people of high expertise and purpose. . . .
The second demand is less clear, and I hope it may prove unnecessary.
This is a demand for longevity in human institutions. We have relatively little problem dealing with wastes if we can assume always that there will be intelligent people around to cope with eventualities we have not though of. If the nuclear parks that I mention are permanent features of our civilization, then we presumably have the social apparatus, and possibly the sites, for dealing with our wastes indefinitely. But even our salt mine may require some surveillance if only to prevent men in the future from drilling holes into the burial grounds.
Eugene Wigner has drawn an analogy between this commitment to a permanent social order that may be implied in nuclear energy and our commitment to a stable, year-in and year-out social order when man moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Before agriculture, social institutions hardly required the long-lived stability that we now take so much for granted. And the commitment imposed by agriculture in a sense was forever; the land had to be tilled and irrigated every year in perpetuity; the expertise required to accomplish this task could not be allowed to perish or man would perish; his numbers could not be sustained by hunting and gathering.
In the same sense, though on a much more highly sophisticated plane, the knowledge and care that goes into the proper building and operation of nuclear power plants and their subsystems is something we are committed to forever, so long as we find no other practical source of infinite extent."


"In exchange for this atomic peace [referring to no recent nuclear bomb use] we had to manage and control nuclear weapons. In a sense, we have established a military priesthood which guards against inadvertent use of nuclear weapons, which maintains what a priori seems to be a precarious balance between readiness to go to war and vigilance against human errors that would precipitate war. Moreover, this is not something that will go away, at least not soon. The discovery of the bomb has imposed an additional demand on our social institutions. It has called forth this military priesthood upon which in a way we all depend for our survival.
It seems to me (and in this I repeat some views expressed very well by Atomic Energy Commissioner Wilfred Johnson) that peaceful nuclear energy probably will make demands of the same sort on our society, and possibly of even longer duration."

John Gofman wryly noted at the time that

"If we can predict the social future for generations, including civil strife, international strife, revolutions, psychoses, saboteurs of all stripes and types, hijackers of whatever bizarre or mundane motives, psychopathic personalities of all types, and all criminality, then nuclear power is acceptable, according to Dr. Weinberg's requirements."

There seems to be a complete lack of consideration of these moral and ethical issues by today's nuclear proponents.

When the pro-nuke brigade starts earnestly and seriously discussing Weinberg's "Faustian Bargain" I'll start to take them seriously.

But not until then.

Posted by Phil at 8:23 AM
Edited on: Monday, March 14, 2011 8:38 AM
Categories: Comment, Environment, Waffle