Spotlight: Petr Beckmann


Over the past four years, quite a following has grown up around a Czech emigre who teaches at the University of Colorado. Each month, a growing number of subscribers awaits his newsletter, entitled Access to Energy, for the latest roasting of zealots who oppose nuclear power and a free market in energy resources.

Author of the newsletter is Professor Petr Beckmann, a wide-ranging electrical engineer. Since defecting from behind the Iron Curtain in 1963, he has delighted in showing how an anticapitalist attitude blinds people to the harm done in the names of noble causes, particularly in the area of energy and the environment.

The insights of Beckmann's finely crafted writings have drawn national attention. In recent months, he has won effusive praise from four columnists, and compliments from the Mobil Oil company in a nationally-run ad. Columnist John Chamberlain says flatly that Beckmann has "blown out of the water" environmentalists who seek to stop nuclear power. John Lofton and M. Stanton Evans agree, terming his new book, The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear, (Golem Press, 1976), "must reading" and "mandatory reading" respectively.

Beckmann has been thrust into the public eye because he is perhaps the most active and articulate proponent of nuclear power in the country. As he is the first to admit, he has had little competition in this regard. The major media, he says, have virtually squelched balanced discussions of nuclear power. "There is no debate, only a monologue," he says. "There has been, and continues to be, excessive coverage of the hit-and-run tactics of Ralph Nader, whose ignorance of nuclear power is matched only by his arrogance in discussing it." Not surprisingly, his self-published Health Hazards book, with sales now over the 11,000 mark, is dedicated to "Ralph Nader and all those who worship the water he walks upon."

The theme of most of Beckmann's writings on nuclear power has been its relative safety. Beckmann emphasizes that there are risks associated with any form of major power generation, but that they are extremely small for nuclear as opposed to other forms of power generation, such as coal, hydropower, oil, or even solar-based techniques.

Beckmann notes that fossil fuel-burning plants produce poisons that can last forever, rather than decaying as do radioactive wastes. Coal-fired plants alone now produce each year more than 300 pounds per person of ash and other dangerous substances, much of which continues to be released in the air, where it causes thousands of deaths yearly through cancer and heart and lung disease. Conventional power plants are far less safe than nuclear ones to work in or live near; no worker to date has died in an American nuclear commercial power plant accident. As few as the nuclear plants are, Beckmann says, they save from 800 to 4000 lives each year that would otherwise be lost in the course of generating power.

The clear advantages to nuclear power, Beckmann says, are open to all who will look. Yet few outside the nuclear industry have done so—a truth that has underscored for Beckmann a lesson of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Rather than being attacked for real flaws, Beckmann says that nuclear power is under fire because of its virtues. The prospect of cheap, inexhaustible energy supplies threatens those who are discomfited by the encroachment of the masses on their way of life. As ordinary people prosper within through the marketplace, he observes, an increasingly strong elitist reaction has set in. The assault on nuclear power is just one aspect of this new campaign against growth and technology—and reason.

Beckmann has observed the effects of the anti-capitalist mentality at first hand. Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1924, he saw the effects of Nazi occupation on his country in 1939, and escaped to Britain shortly thereafter. During service with the Royal Air Force in World War II, he acquired a command of English and an interest in radar and electromagnetic wave propagation, which he studied when he returned home after the war. Beckmann rose quickly in electrical engineering and academic circles there, but grew increasingly disenchanted with communism. When the University of Colorado offered him a visiting professorship in 1963, Beckmann took the opportunity to defect. "I found out later I was sentenced to prison in absentia," he remembers. "The sentence included loss of personal property—and this is the joke—loss of my 'rights.'"

Since then, Beckmann has worked with skill and good humor toward the cause of freedom. Classifying himself on the conservative end of the libertarian spectrum, he credits Rand with having strongly influenced his philosophical outlook, although he allows for disagreement in some areas. "My long-term goal is the defense of science and technology against superstition, sham-environmentalism, the 'small is beautiful' mentality and other types of hypocrisy, which, in my view, is part of the struggle of individualism and the free enterprise system against stat- ism of all sorts," he says. His short-term goal is to stay abreast of three full-time jobs—teaching at the university, publishing his newsletter, and managing a publishing business that operates out of his home. "The only axe I have to grind," Beckmann adds, "is the old axe of science versus superstition."