The Politics of Nuclear Power

An interview with Edward Teller


For some time REASON had wanted to interview nuclear physicist Edward Teller, because of his many scientific accomplishments and his outspoken views on the relationship between science and technology and government. The editors spoke briefly with Dr. Teller at a Philadelphia Society conference in January, but nothing definite was arranged. Several months later, Senior Editor Tibor Machan received a call from Teller's office that he wished to schedule the interview the following week, for publication prior to the June election. Since the final deadline for the June issue was only a week away, Machan and Editor Robert Poole hurriedly developed a list of questions. The result is this (briefer than usual) interview.

Edward Teller was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1908, and received his scientific education in Germany. In 1934 he left Germany, and emigrated to the United States in 1935 where he taught physics at George Washington University and Columbia. He became a key member of the Manhattan Project during World War II, after which he continued at the AEC's Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, making important contributions to the development of thermonuclear weapons. In the past two decades he has taught physics at the University of California and directed its Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. The recipient of a host of awards and honors, Teller is also the author or co-author of eight books, mostly dealing with the public policy aspects of scientific and technological issues. Recently, Teller has emerged as one of the leading defenders of nuclear power as it has developed in today's political-economic context.

REASON is interested in presenting Teller's views, although we do not necessarily agree with all of them (see the Editorial in this issue, p.108). Judging by the publicity given to critics of nuclear power, such as Ralph Nader and Paul Ehrlich, and the types of distortion they and many other nuclear foes have been putting forth, we think Dr. Teller's position deserves a wider hearing.

REASON: Dr. Teller, would you tell our readers what you think of the so-called energy shortage?

TELLER: I believe that the energy shortage is real and is growing. At least 10 years ago, it became obvious that energy would be in short supply and that something had to be done about it. The remarkable fact is that even the oil embargo of 1973 has led only to a temporary realization of the energy difficulties in this country. We are facing a real problem, which expresses itself by the outflux of tens of billions of dollars from the United States and other industrialized countries. Unless we take the situation very seriously, it could lead to a depression which might become even worse than the last great depression (which led to World War II). And it is my considered opinion that the only way out is an all-out effort, where we try to use every reasonable form of energy and where we furthermore attempt to use whatever energy is available in an economic and unwasteful manner. In other words, conservation must be a very full partner, probably the biggest partner, in beating the energy crisis.

REASON: Could you give us a few specifics?

TELLER: What we need to do about conserving energy is both obvious and difficult. One is that we must not waste energy—and it is an old American tradition going back 200 years to waste energy. The other is to find detailed methods and better apparatus for utilizing energy in more efficient ways.

Beyond that, of course, we have to use every reasonable source of energy. Fossil fuels, particularly petroleum—oil and gas—have become very popular and most easily available machinery is adjusted to them. But we could use much more coal and other fossil fuels, and we could use them even while we decrease pollution, by taking advantage of new technology and cleaning up our fuels before we use them and while we are using them. To the array of fossil fuels we will add others in the future. For instance, solar energy. But this cannot play a big role for quite a few years to come and the need is now.

Under these conditions, it is particularly fortunate that in the last few decades a really powerful, safe, clean, and not very expensive energy producer has been developed. This is nuclear energy. Nuclear energy will not solve the problem all by itself, but without nuclear energy, I believe it cannot be solved.

REASON: How economical is nuclear energy in comparison to other forms of energy?

TELLER: This is very much subject to debate. The best judgment is that, by and large today, for the production of electricity in this country, nuclear energy is the least expensive. There are exceptions. In Norway, with plenty of hydro-power, that is cheaper. We at San Francisco, use a very excellent geothermal deposit. Such deposits are quite rare. And that is cheaper than nuclear energy. I'm sure that in Saudi Arabia oil can be made much cheaper; after all they pay only 15¢ per barrel in pumping it out of the ground. If, however, you want to stay with big chunks of energy, then I think nuclear energy is probably the cheapest, at least if you insist on a reasonable measure of cleanliness.

REASON: What do you think would be the economic impact of limitations or prohibitions on the development of nuclear energy?

TELLER: Well, as you know, such a limitation is in the offing! On the 8th of June we will vote in California on Proposition 15 which pretends to be a safeguard for nuclear reactors, but it introduces regulations which will effectively stop nuclear reactors in California. This is really a part of a nationwide movement. It may be the initiation of an avalanche which could wipe up American nuclear industry in as short a time as one or two years.

Let me try to be quantitative about the impact. Today we are importing half of our oil requirements which is 8 million barrels of oil per day. At the end of 10 years, a reasonable and conservative deployment of nuclear reactors could furnish energy that could save us the importation of 5 million barrels of oil per day. We are today importing more than 10 percent of the world's oil production, just importing it! This import may well increase to 20 percent of the world's oil production at the end of 10 years if nuclear power plants are eliminated. The impact will be to make Saudi Arabia richer, cause serious difficulties in the United States, economic difficulties as well as political ones. But the biggest impact will most probably appear in the developing world. Their development, in fact, their daily bread, depends on available energy, hopefully, in a relatively primitive form, and that is oil. If we should drive up the oil prices, the result will be that poverty will proliferate in the world.

Today out of a world population of 4 billion, there are 3 billion wretchedly poor people. Their numbers will increase, and unless there is more energy, their wretchedness will turn into hunger and feud. The consequences are very hard to estimate. I think the real impact of voting for Proposition 15 will be to vote for depression, disorder and maybe World War III.

REASON: Proposition 15's backers raise a number of safety issues. What do you think about the safety of nuclear power?

TELLER: I was chairman of the world's first reactor safeguard committee. At that time we had to operate under rules of strict secrecy and I did a lot to break down the secrecy and thereby I have helped to make the present debate on nuclear reactors possible. In a way, I feel something of a responsibility. At that time we tried to establish exceedingly conservative policies. (I sometimes wonder whether my attitude at that time would be described today as the attitude of a mini-Nader!) We did, however, succeed in those first three or four years in starting a tradition of very great safety. The result of which has not been to eliminate accidents. Accidents occur and have caused many many millions of dollars in repairs and more in lost revenues. But in industrial nuclear reactors, the health of no person has been impaired. Losing money, yes, losing lives, no. Some people say the law of big numbers will catch up with us. Sooner or later we will be in trouble. We have been extremely conservative. We have multiple insurances. If one safeguard fails, the other still saves people, but the first one must be repaired and so money is lost. Every one of these "money accidents" automatically increases the safety because the people operating reactors know that unless they're safe, they will lose money, and in experiencing these accidents, the safety continues to be increased. Therefore, I believe, that more reactors can be more safe.

REASON: How can two prominent MIT physicists like Henry Kendall of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Norman Rasmussen come to opposite conclusions on nuclear power?

TELLER: Very simple. Norman Rasmussen is a nuclear reactor expert. He knows what he is talking about. Kendall is a high energy physicist who happened to start to worry about nuclear reactors and is not nearly as fully informed. How can two businessmen like a butcher and a baker disagree? I would always trust the baker about bread and not a butcher. Rasmussen has made exceedingly reassuring calculations, showing that of all energy producers, nuclear reactors are safest. Safer than gas, safer than hydroelectric power. You know dams can collapse and kill people. Nuclear reactors are safer than coal which produces pollution. In the mines of course many miners die or get black lung disease.

REASON: Rasmussen only addressed the safety of nuclear reactors. What about the safety of the remainder of the nuclear fuel cycle, for instance, mining the radioactive ores, transporting radioactive fuel and waste products, reprocessing the fuel, storing radioactive wastes? When all these factors are considered, is nuclear power really less harmful to people than things like coal-based power plants?

TELLER: Incomparably less harmful. There is one point one should understand. The dangers that we face, are varied, different; they're surprising, they come from unexpected quarters. You burn the cleanest gas and we still obtain a little molecule made up of an N and an O atom. It has been only five years since we realized that reactions of these NO molecules with other substances can produce carcinogenic substances which may well cause more cancer than the worst predictions—and unrealistic predictions—about nuclear reactors in their normal operation. This is for the cleanest of fuels, natural gas, on which California lives.

Now, the radiation, of which so many people are frightened, has three very important properties. One is that there are no surprises, no real surprises, because the effects of radiation, once they reach a living tissue are always alike. Second, radioactivity can be detected in exceedingly small quantities. One millionth of what could be harmful can already be detected. This should reassure people, but somehow it doesn't act that way. A Geiger counter that clicks is frightening! The third point is that we have been immersed in a sea of radiation, the natural background, during the whole living history of the world. What we get from reactors is considerably smaller than this natural radiation.

REASON: The Price-Anderson Act sets limits on the liability of electric companies and reactor manufacturers at a total of only $560 million, most of which is to be paid by tax monies, yet the AEC calculated that worst-case nuclear accidents could total several billion dollars in damages. If nuclear power is so safe, why does the industry demand such laws?

TELLER: I do not know who demands these laws. My answer to the question is manifold, but the first part is that nothing in the world, particularly in the economic world, is regulated by reason. The idea that damages amounting to billions of dollars could come from a single reactor was first suggested by our reactor safeguard committee (which I chaired). We took the worst imaginable case, and this is not a nuclear reactor turning into a bomb; that actually cannot happen without first repealing the laws of physics! The danger is the spread of great amounts of radioactivity—the escape and spread of these substances. The Rasmussen report finds, and, I believe, correctly finds, that we have really overestimated the danger. By the fact of our cautious action we have disproved ourselves, because we have made the spreading of these big amounts of radioactivity so improbable to occur that, I believe, any reasonable insurance firm should go into the nuclear insurance business today. Of the $560 million for which nuclear reactors are now insured something like one-quarter or one-third is subscribed by private companies. It's a very good risk. Pay-outs on this insurance have never had to be made yet and I believe they will never need be made. Sometimes I believe that if there were among us immortals, no life insurance companies would be willing to write for them an insurance at any price, because they have no statistics on them. When they don't have statistics, they don't write insurance. The funny thing is that collapsing dams, due to an earthquake, have killed thousands of people. Nuclear reactors killed none. Yet nobody protests against these dangerous hydroelectric plants. They do protest against the safe nuclear plants.

REASON: What about the problem of nuclear waste disposal?

TELLER: There is no one definitive answer—there are at least four! I remember with some sadness the story of an ass which starved to death between two excellent stacks of hay. We have here four excellent stacks of hay and the fact that our government has not yet managed to make up its mind between these four does not imply that the solutions are not there. It only implies that the government is not always perfect and prompt in its actions.

REASON: Speaking of governments, the Federal government had a considerable financial role in the development of nuclear power in the United States. If it hadn't been for massive government subsidy for research and development, would there be commercial nuclear power today?

TELLER: The answer again is quite complex. In the beginning, right after World War II, the whole field was secret and nobody but the government could do anything about it. When the field was opened up to industry in 1955, many naively believed that nuclear reactors would be promptly available at low cost. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It took 12 years, mostly of private enterprise, and private money, which made out of nuclear reactors a paying proposition. At this moment, at least 90 percent of the money spent on nuclear reactors by the government is spent on projects far in the future and is of uncertain value. If all of this expenditure were cut out, I don't think it would affect the nuclear industry. The only region where I think the government must stay in the business is in advancing techniques which will improve safety.

I would like to append another general remark. The trend in the energy industry is to invest only in such research that pays off in three years or not much more. Research into more distant possibilities is usually carried by the government. To wipe out this effort would be very bad, unless industry is to change. This is a relatively recent development because a hundred years ago, even 50 years ago, shorter term payoffs were frequent. There is one industry, the electronics industry, which does conduct research 10 years in advance, but in the energy industry, what I have said is the historical pattern.

One good suggestion, made by Vice-President Rockefeller, is to establish a fund of $100 billion to make loans to private enterprise in a manner where positive financial returns are expected, but these loans would be used to develop new energy sources by the multiple, varied methods of private enterprise rather than the monolithic methods of the government. I happen to suspect that one cannot make progress without making mistakes and that one should prefer the many small mistakes of private enterprise to the few big mistakes of government.

REASON: What do you see as the best long-term power source? Nuclear reactors, fusion, orbiting solar power stations, or what?

TELLER: My answer is, "or what." I do not think that anyone knows what the best long term power source is. Our problem is now and we have to tackle it today. The talk about long-term power sources can and should lead to broad research. Much of it will never pay off. Much of it, nevertheless, has to be tried. This is an area where I consider libertarians to be wrong because here we have a kind of enterprise that private individuals simply will not embark upon—the risk of misinvestment is too high.

REASON: What do you think is the probability of terrorists stealing plutonium to make bombs?

TELLER: The dangers have been greatly decreased because they have been pointed out, and regulations have been tightened. This is one of the very important responsibilities of the government in this field. This particular responsibility the government cannot and must not relinquish.

REASON: How do you respond when critics of nuclear energy associate the possible dangers of nuclear power plants with the history of nuclear weapons?

TELLER: I'm very sure that there is at least an emotional association. That the nuclear reactor will explode like a bomb is impossible. What is true is that the product of nuclear reactors can be used for bomb material, and therefore, the proliferation of nuclear reactors can and probably will lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I believe that such proliferation is unavoidable. I also believe that we must do whatever we can to avoid future wars. How to do it is a difficult question. Most people argue today that we should avoid it by eliminating weapons. This, I believe, has proved not feasible. After 20 years of disarmament policies, we have not succeeded in making the world safer. I think it is less safe today than it ever has been since the Second World War. I would try to emphasize the other end. I would like to see as many of the causes of war diminished as possible. Energy hunger, lack of development, poverty, and all that follows from it, is the dangerous fuel out of which a Third World conflagration may arise. I believe that those who vote for Proposition 15 are voting for a Third World War. They don't know that they are doing it, but I believe that this will be the consequence of their action. If you want to have peace, we have to have a safe and decent livelihood for people in the world. This decent and safe livelihood is possible with nuclear reactors and other important action. Without nuclear reactors, we run enormous dangers. For the sake of financial stability, of the United States and of the world, we must have nuclear power. The only alternative is to police the world, to stamp out liberty and everything that goes with it, not only in the United States but in every part of the globe.