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Environmental Action, November 25, 1972
pp. 11-15

Reacting to reactors
The "peaceful atom":   Time for a moratorium

John W. Gofman, M.D., Ph.D.


          "Fission energy is safe only if a number of critical devices work as they should, if a number of people in key positions follow all their instructions, if there is no sabotage, no hijacking of the transports, if no reactor fuel processing plant or reprocessing plant or repository anywhere in the world is situated in a region of riots or guerrilla activity, and no revolution or war -- even a "conventional one" -- takes place in those regions. The enormous quantities of extremely dangerous material must not get into the hands of ignorant people or desperados. No acts of God can be permitted."

          -- from Dr. Hannes Alfven, Nobel Laureate in Physics, writing in the May, 1972 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

          This is a recommendation for a moratorium on the construction and licensing of any new nuclear power plants, breeder and non-breeder, plus a termination of licensing of all nuclear power plants now in operation.

          Obviously, those environmentalists who have worked toward making nuclear power "safe" may, at first, consider this extreme. Quite the contrary. I would suggest that continued operation of existing plants and the licensing of any new ones represents reckless extremism coupled with an abdication of man's moral obligations to this and future generations. I know of no valid evidence to suggest that nuclear fission power can be made acceptable or that we shall ever need nuclear fission as an energy source. And the essence of the problem at hand is moral, not technical.

          There are a few powerful groups who will, of course, disagree with this view, notably the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the nuclear reactor manufacturers and segments of the electric utility industry. One could overlook the vested interests of these groups provided there was some credibility in their view that nuclear fission power generation is, or can be made, acceptable. Such credibility is lacking.

          Chairman James Schlesinger of the AEC, in his maiden address to the nuclear power industry, has expressed the total lack of credibility of the AEC over the period of its 25-year existence by announcing that henceforth the Atomic Energy Commission was going to work in the public interest. One hardly needs a better authority to admit what the AEC had been up to in its prior history. The subsequent record of the AEC is perhaps worse than its earlier record. No sooner had Judge J. Skelly Wright (in the historic Calvert Cliffs decision) declared that the AEC had been making a mockery of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), than we found Chairman Schlesinger appealing to Congress for relief in the form of total emasculation of NEPA. This is what Chairman Schlesinger means by his stated decision to abide by the Calvert Cliffs ruling.

          The sorry history of the AEC's attempt to foist unsafe radiation standards upon the public by claims of its former chairman, Dr. Glenn Seaborg, of the existence of so-called safe thresholds of radiation exposure is now very widely known. There is no evidence at all for any safe threshold of radiation exposure.

          Most recently, the exposure of the AEC's lack of credibility has been highlighted through its shabby performance with respect to the matter of the vital emergency core cooling system -- the system which must function to avert massive civilian disasters in the event of lose-of-coolant reactor accidents. Starting with its own premise that a functioning emergency core cooling system is essential, the AEC proceeded to license nuclear power plants with totally untested core cooling systems. Following this unacceptable action, the AEC sponsored semi-scale tests of emergency core cooling in a simulated reactor, with six failures in six tests. Undaunted, and determined to continue its promotional licensing of nuclear power plants, the commission appointed a task force to provide Interim Criteria to permit licensing while work proceeds on the emergency cooling system. The criteria, the evidence upon which they rest, and the procedures by which they were arrived at were all decimated not only by Henry Kendall and Dan Ford of the Union of Concerned Scientists, but also by a whole host of AEC experts. (The testimony of internal AEC experts became possible only after the scandal had been revealed of an AEC directive to its employees not to disagree with established policy.)

". . . the only conservative, rational and moral position is to opt for an immediate cessation of all nuclear fission power generation. It is not a question of making nuclear power generation safe for people. The insurmountable obstacle is that ne cannot envision any way to make people safe for nuclear power."

          The grand finale in the AEC's 20-year quest for a method of isolation of radioactive fission garbage came recently with Chairman Schlesinger's inspired announcement that the AEC would ask NASA's help in seeking to rocket such garbage to the sun.

          It is not a question of whether the AEC has made errors, has withheld and suppressed vital information, has supported unsafe radiation standards, or has been unusually incompetent. The issue is that the AEC has failed to provide any evidence of credibility on any aspect of its assertions that nuclear fission power is acceptable.

          The other potential sources of credible evidence for acceptability of nuclear fission power are the nuclear reactor manufacturers and the electric utility industry. Their major approach is simple in the extreme. Wholly without foundation they state, "Nuclear power is safe," and spend huge sums to trumpet this empty message through press and electronic media. The most elementary analysis makes it obvious that no one could possibly know, with the available trivial experience, what the danger of major nuclear power plant disasters is. Finally, one of the AEC's own experts, Dr. Walter Jordan, a pro-nuclear member of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, apparently felt obliged to state the truth of the matter as follows:

          The important question still remains. Have we succeeded in reducing the risk to a tolerable level, that is, something less than one chance in 10,000 that a reactor will have a serious accident in a year?

          Have we succeeded in reducing the hazard to such a low level? There is no way to prove it. We have accumulated so far some 100 reactor years of accident-free operation of commercial nuclear electric power stations in the U.S. This is a long way from 10,000 so it does not tell us much.

          The only way we will know what the odds really are is by continuing to accumulate experience in operating reactors. There is some risk but it is certainly worth it.

          Dr. Jordan's assessment of the lack of our knowledge of the hazard of major accident is correct. Dr. Jordan's evaluation of a "tolerable" level of risk might raise an eyebrow or two. If we look toward a future of 500 reactors in operation (even more are planned) and take Dr. Jordan's one in 10,000 "tolerable" risk, we calculate one major, serious accident per 20 years. Since a serious accident may mean losing a city like New York or Philadelphia, one might wonder about his criteria of "tolerable" risks. Of course, Dr. Jordan makes it very clear we are far from even knowing that the risk is as low as one in 1000, let alone one in 10,000.

          If the false claims of "nuclear power is safe" from the commercial interests are not sufficient evidence for lack of their credibility, the reactor manufacturers have recently outdone themselves. At the recent hearings on emergency core cooling systems, certain information on this vital safety system was requested by the National Intervenors. Since the matter involves the potential life or death of major American cities, exposure of the full truth would be the minimum to be expected from such hearings. But the reactor vendors claimed immunity from presentation of vital safety data concerning emergency core cooling on the ground that such information is proprietary. One might be incredulous about this immunity claim (from an industry more heavily subsidized by taxpayer contributions than any in history), but such incredulity is stretched greatly by the decision of the hand-picked AEC hearing board to sustain this immunity claim.

          Nothing has suited the promotional nuclear power interests better than keeping alive the misconception that a decision pro or con nuclear fission power rests upon esoteric technical arguments. The entire so-called "public hearing" procedure is administered by the chief promotional interest, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. And concerned citizens have been led, like lambs to the slaughter, into the promoter's arena to contest a variety of valves, filters, cooling towers, and miscellaneous other items of hardware in specific nuclear power plants. A victory for citizens, in a specific encounter, comes in the form of an improved valve, an extra scrubber for radioactive effluents, or a brand new cooling tower. Such a "victory" is a diversion from the really significant issues concerning acceptability of nuclear power. Further, the illusion is created that safety has been substantially increased by the particular gadget addition or change.

          But this is not where the problem lies. There is no significant technical controversy that can be resolved by a debate on the merits of specific gadgets in the nuclear power industry. What is really at issue is a moral question -- the right of one generation of humans to take upon itself the arrogance of possibly compromising the earth as an habitable place for this and essentially all future generations. Nuclear power generation carries with it the prospect of visiting increased cancer upon this and a thousand generations to come. Additionally, nuclear power generation carries with it the prospect of genetic deterioration of humans that will insure an increase in most of the common causes of death in future generations.

          These seriously condemnatory statements are justified through elementary considerations concerning two classes of profound biological poisons which are inevitable concomitants of nuclear power generation:   long-lived radioactive fission products and plutonium-239.

Long-lived radioactive fission products.

          A 1000-megawatt (electrical) nuclear power station, breeder or non-breeder, gas-cooled, water-cooled, or sodium-cooled, will necessarily generate per year the long-lived radioactive fission products equivalent to those generated by 23 megatons of nuclear fission bombs. If the U.S. program of nuclear plant construction proceeds as now planned, we shall have at least 500 such plants by the turn of the century. The annual generation of long-lived fission products will then be the equivalent of at least 11,500 megatons of nuclear fission bombs. The major long-lived fission products, strontium-90 and cesium-137, have half-lives on the order of 30 years. Therefore, the inventory will necessarily build up, until at a steady state (several times 30 years) the inventory will be 43 x 11,500, or approximately 500,000 megaton equivalents of long-lived fission products.

HI-YO Sodium! riding the Fast Breeder Reactor

          The combined atmospheric weapons testing of the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R. in all time amounted to 250 megatons of nuclear fission. Distributed world-wide, over land and sea, this 250 megatons led to radiation doses that are not subject to denial, and that provoked international concern. Even neglecting the much smaller area of the U.S. compared with that of the whole globe (which will mean more concentrated dispersal of fission products), it is clear that an annual dispersal of one-hundredth of one percent of the long-lived fission product inventory (meaning 99.99 percent annual containment of the inventory) would mean dispersing 50 megatons annually and will assuredly lead to high radiation doses. And these doses will produce the cancers and genetic diseases discussed above. Is it assured that the nuclear power industry can guarantee 99.99 percent annual containment? And even this is not good enough. Can such isolation of fission product garbage with near perfection be achieved over centuries? Is this a technical problem?


          Plutonium-239, the most poisonous element ever handled in quantity by man, is the very heart of the nuclear power industry, breeder or non-breeder. Dr. Donald Geesaman, an authority on plutonium hazard, has estimated that there will be one human lung cancer for every 10,000 fine particles of plutonium inhaled. Dispersed as fine insoluble particles (about one micron in diameter), one pound of plutonium-239 represents the potential for some nine billion human lung cancer doses. Given the 24,400-year half-life of plutonium-239, any plutonium dispersed into the biosphere presents a major carcinogenic hazard for more than the next thousand human generations. The annual handling of plutonium-239 in a fully developed nuclear power economy will be in the one-hundred-ton category, or some 200,000 pounds annually. Comparing this with the one pound that can provide an intolerable potential lung cancer burden, we estimate that better than 99.999 percent containment of plutonium-239 is hardly good enough to avert disaster. And such a containment requirement is for a substance widely and authoritatively expected to be of high desirability in illicit commerce, since it is the simplest material to acquire for fabrication of nuclear weapons. Who can guarantee the requisite containment of plutonium-239 will be achieved?

          Both for the fission products and plutonium-239 the numbers describe the technical magnitude of the requirement for containment. But this does not mean the problem is technical. The unpredictables of social factors, human judgmental errors, and acts of God will be far more important in determination of the containment that will be achieved. We must, therefore, be able to predict the social course of history for centuries and millenia, under every conceivable circumstance, if we are to predict the containment that will be achieved. And such predictability is required for the immense quantities of radioactive fission garbage and plutonium-239 that are being generated by nuclear power today.

          Commonly, nuclear technologists naively attempt to treat this overall containment problem as a technical problem, amenable to engineering calculations. A much better opinion is available from one of the most gung-ho of the American nuclear promoters, Dr. Alvin Weinberg, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. No one has provided a more succinct statement of why nuclear fission power generation is both ridiculous and irresponsible. (It must be pointed out that Dr. Weinberg's purpose was the opposite of the result he achieved.)

          "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."

          Recognizing the validity of the contention that nuclear power generation could compromise the habitability of the earth, Dr. Weinberg, in a recent Science article (July 7, 1972) outlined the "demands" that "we nuclear people" make. We must quote directly from Dr. Weinberg's salient points:

          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.

Dr. Weinberg continues:

          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.

How this will be achieved is described by Dr. Weinberg in the following:

          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.

          Dr. Weinberg makes clear what it would take to make nuclear power acceptable -- namely, giving over our existence to a new nuclear religion, that religion to be ruled by a high nuclear priesthood. Were it not for the irreverence implied about the rest of the universe, one would be tempted to suggest that Dr. Weinberg and the other high priests establish their nuclear religion anywhere else but on earth.

          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.

Presumably a shrine for one of their primitive religious cults.

          Since the social requirements for acceptability of nuclear power are dominant and cannot be met, it follows that no group of humans has the moral right to support the construction or operation of nuclear power plants. Minimum morality, as many have stated, requires that we do not compromise the chance of life for generations to come. No one seriously denies that nuclear power generation can thus compromise the life of generations to come and no one is seriously prepared to guarantee the future social stability required to prevent this.

          Therefore, the only conservative, rational, and moral position is to opt for an immediate cessation of all nuclear fission power generation. It is not a question of making nuclear power generation safe for people. The insurmountable obstacle is that we cannot envision any way to make people safe for nuclear power generation, short of total robotization.

          The manufactured and fraudulent quality of the so-called "energy crisis" is well-known. Nuclear power is not now providing any significant net increment to U.S. energy supply. There is no reason to believe that nuclear power ever need provide any of our energy, even if our total energy consumption rises appreciably.

          Clean, synthetic gas from coal is technically proved and commercially feasible now. While coal mining above or below ground should be unacceptable over any long term, it should be tolerated until a full solar energy economy is realized. Solar energy cannot fail to meet our energy requirements for the indefinite future. Technically it is proved. If we apply any form of rational economics, which must include the externality of keeping the earth habitable, solar energy will be vastly more attractive economically than nuclear power.

          In his article, Dr. Weinberg compares nuclear energy to unacceptable, dirty fossil fuel plants, without consideration of solar energy at all. Apparently solar energy is too simple technologically and too acceptable ecologically to make a comparison that would please the high priesthood of the new religion of nuclear fission technology.

          When one asks a nuclear technologist about the solution of the astronomically difficult problems nuclear fission power faces, his answer is invariably that we can solve them very soon. But ask him when solar energy can be fixed in useful forms for man's use, he will look at all the green plants which have done this for eons and he'll say, "Maybe in a hundred years or never."

          The only way we will achieve clean synthetic gas from coal in large quantities and a full solar energy economy in the early future is via an immediate rejection of nuclear fission power as an acceptable option. Such rejection would be meaningful through a national moratorium on the operation or construction of any nuclear fission power plants. The resources, both public and private, freed by a moratorium on nuclear fission power will be enormous. The acceptable alternatives will move rapidly toward realization once these resources are available.

          The energy industry has no place in its ledgers marked "health and welfare of future generations." Therefore, the task of accomplishing a moratorium and providing a sane energy economy cannot be entrusted to that industry. But individuals in society do have a moral obligation to avoid recklessness and extremism in dealing with the future of living creatures on earth. Given the nature of the real problem of nuclear power, a problem admitted by proponents and opponents of nuclear power, it is difficult to understand the position of anyone who is not insistent upon an immediate moratorium on all nuclear fission power generation.

John W. Gofman

(This is the first article of a series.)

Drawings in this article are by Richard Willson,
reprinted from the Stockholm Conference Eco,
Copyright © 1972 by Friends of the Earth.

This document can always be found at

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