On the Nuclear Front


The War Against the Atom, by Samuel McCracken, New York: Basic Books, 1982, 206 pp., $18.95

Many "antinuke" books—from the relatively small number of well-reasoned texts to the larger number of hysterical Luddite screeds—have one common denominator. The authors are not terribly bullish on the human race. Scratch your average antitechnologist deeply enough, and you will find beneath all the rhetoric and "concern" someone who thinks humanity is a pretty rotten species.

To such people, human "progress" has meant little more than ruining and despoiling a virgin planet. And nuclear power—conceived by science, born in war, hatched by the military-industrial complex, spewing out befoulment—is a perfect symbol of such perfidy. No three-act melodrama ever had a more hissable villain.

Over the years, there have been far more books published against nuclear power than for it. There is more than one reason for this imbalance, but the bottom line is probably simple. Under our veneer of science and logic and technology, there is a lot of irrationality and mumbo-jumbo out there.

Which is not to say all the angels are on the pronuclear side either. Too many, forgetting Bacon's wise dictum that "nature to be commanded must be obeyed," neglected legitimate environmental concerns. Also, from the beginning, few questioned the wisdom of letting Big Daddy in Washington run the nuclear show. And finally, with a few honorable exceptions, advocates of nuclear power have done a poor job of convincing the public of its relative safety.

Because of this, The War Against the Atom is not only long overdue but particularly welcome. It is extremely clear and well written, so that even the most nontech reader can understand the basics of what nuclear power really is. Samuel McCracken has the happy knack of making telling points that stay with the reader. For example, he mentions that "because granite is rather radioactive one gets more than 5 mrem [millirems] a year from working in or at the boundary of a granite building." And then he adds, "Connoisseurs of irony in energy will appreciate that the granite for Grand Central [Station] was quarried near New London, Connecticut, at Millstone Point, now the site of two operating reactors with a third under construction. The removal of the granite from Millstone Point probably reduced the exposure there by a greater amount than the reactors have increased it."

What makes the book worth reading, however, is not just the good writing and clever anecdotes but the fact that McCracken doesn't just answer the easy questions. In chapter two, "The Case Against the Atom: Charges and Rebuttals" (to my mind, the best part of the book), he takes on the big objections to nuclear power—accidents, waste disposal, and decommissioning of reactors. It would be counterproductive to try to compress McCracken's arguments; they are serious concerns and deserve the careful and lengthy treatment McCracken gives them.

In presenting his case for the atom, McCracken also devotes a couple of chapters to the leading alternatives—fossil fuels and good old Mr. Sun. If you think that coal and oil are safe, reliable alternatives to nuclear power, McCracken may have some unpleasant surprises for you.

But isn't that kicking a dead horsepower? Everybody knows (or should know) about the greenhouse effect and health hazards and limited resources and all that. But what about solar—good old clean, benign, organic, natural solar? Isn't solar the free lunch that doesn't dirty any dishes?

Alas, no. McCracken cites some tight but gloomy statistics to show that solar is not the ultimate panacea. For example: "Currently, a [photovoltaic] cell capable of generating a peak watt of electricity costs in the neighborhood of $6.00. That is, to provide enough electricity to operate an average color television set at high noon requires $600 merely for the cells. The mounting is extra. So are additional cells to produce peak output under less than peak conditions and storage devices to allow the operation of the set at night."

Actually, McCracken underplays the value of solar somewhat. Although partisans on both sides often seem to think so, solar and nuclear don't have to be opposites. They are handy symbols of philosophical attitudes, but to make them mutually exclusive alternatives is to descend to bumperstickerism. And, since he is otherwise rather thorough, McCracken should have mentioned the very real prospects for satellite solar-power stations.

The rest of the book mostly deals with people—the antinukers and their gurus…Barry Commoner, Helen Caldicott, Ralph Nader, etc. Here, McCracken gets a bit feisty, in the T.H. Huxley–H.L. Mencken tradition; for example: "Dr. Caldicott…is a witch hunter. History has judged Cotton Mather harshly for his role in the Salem witch trials precisely because he was an intelligent and educated man. The same rigor ought to apply to Helen Caldicott."

Probably nothing has damaged nuclear power in the public mind more than the movie The China Syndrome. Although playing catch-up with falsehood is always tough and disheartening, McCracken devotes several pages to a devastating analysis of that particular film. He also examines how the media in general handle nuclear issues.

In the last analysis, the war is not just against the atom but against a state of mind—that the earth (and parts of the solar system, too) can and should be altered, when necessary, to enhance the human condition. If we ever find ourselves, as the poet says, "Strangers and afraid in a world I never made," that means it's high time to start remaking it.

Jack Kirwan is assistant editor of the Energy Journal.