Next | ToC | Prev


I SHOULD LIKE TO START with a few words concerning the human condition, and go on with a little of the special problems of the author in writing this book.

As a scientist I take a long view of history: 20 billion years of this universe; 6 billion years of the solar system; 4.7 billion years of the planet Earth; 3 billion years of life on Earth; something like 3 million years of something like human life; 10,000 years of civilization; and then -- something happened.

In 1976 we celebrated the bicentennial of American independence. That independence was an interesting event, but not nearly as important even to Americans as something else that was happening at the same time. That was the Industrial Revolution. At first it promised humanity endless leisure and abundance. But a half-century ago it turned life-threatening on the grand scale; and now killing and destruction are the biggest business in the world. Military expenditures worldwide in 1979 were over $460 billion, and rising rapidly. The simple reality is that a trivial two hundred years of the Industrial Revolution have brought the human species to the brink of self-extinction.

Nuclear war is the most immediate threat. Just the "strategic" nuclear weapons -- the big ones, in the megaton range[1] -- now stockpiled by the U.S. and the Soviet Union add up to the explosive equivalent of about 16 million tons of TNT. There are just over four billion persons on the Earth, so about 4 tons of TNT for every man, woman and child in the world. In addition each superpower has stored tens of thousands of so-called "tactical" nuclear weapons, and the material to make hundreds of thousands more.

So I had better say what a tactical nuclear weapon is. The bomb that in a moment leveled the city of Hiroshima and by the end of that year -- 1945 -- had killed 140,000 persons rates in the present arsenals as a pitifully small "tactical" weapon, a mere 12.5 kilotons. For comparison the Titan missile whose fuel recently blew up in its silo in Arkansas had perhaps 100 times that explosive power.

But the explosive power -- the blast and heat and radiation -- are just the immediate release of nuclear weapons. There is also the mushroom cloud of radioactive fallout that enters the atmosphere and stratosphere and eventually covers the entire globe. This goes on showering the Earth with potentially lethal ionizing radiation, and every rain and snowfall brings down radioactive elements to be inhaled, and by entering the food chain, ingested. And that goes on and on, from the comparatively short-lived iodine-131 and strontium-89, dangerous for 6 months to a year, to plutonium-239, perhaps the most toxic substance known, whose half-life -- the time it takes for its radioactivity to half-decay -- is 24,400 years. That remains dangerous, in human terms, forever.

An interesting dialogue taking place in the Atomic Scientists Bulletin raises the question: would anyone survive? If the present stockpiles of nuclear weapons were used, would any human beings be left on the Earth? That is at least questionable, and we would take a lot of the rest of life on this planet with us.

Directly out of the business of nuclear weapons came the business of nuclear power, heralded in our country with the slogan, Atoms for Peace. Even that innocent-sounding slogan is part of the endless pattern of public deception that surrounds the entire nuclear enterprise. Let me interject a present example that poses the relationship nicely. In our country the entire hydrogen bomb enterprise -- both R and D and production -- is not under the Department of Defense, but the Department of Energy. It goes, not into the Defense budget, but the Energy budget. It is by far the largest item in that budget, consuming well over one-third of it. The next largest item in it is nuclear power.

Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are two sides of the same coin. Nuclear power is life-threatening in three independent ways, each in itself formidable.

First is the threat of accident in nuclear power plants. This book tells in some detail the story of the accident at Three Mile Island. But one didn't have to wait for that to know that nuclear power plants -- unlike what the public has been told -- are thoroughly accident-prone. Those great realists, the American insurance companies, refused from the beginning to insure nuclear power plants. Hence we have the Price-Anderson Act, renewed by Congress every 10 years since 1957, which lays the bulk of the liability in the event of nuclear accident on "the government" -- i.e., on the taxpayers.

The second life-threatening property is that every nuclear reactor now in operation produces the artificial element plutonium-239 as by-product. This is not only, as already said, perhaps the most toxic substance known. It is also the most convenient material from which to make fission bombs. The "trigger quantity" -- the smallest amount from which one can make a workable atom bomb -- is 2 kilograms, 4 2/5 pounds. You could carry that, and safely, in a grocery bag. To make a Hiroshima-size bomb would take 6-7 kilograms, say about 14 pounds. You'd need a shopping bag for that. Every nation that now possesses a nuclear reactor can, if it chooses, begin to make nuclear weapons. It is expected that within the coming decade perhaps a dozen more nations than now possess them will exercise this option. It should be added that plutonium provides the trigger at the core of all hydrogen bombs, and in some also the shell.

The third life-threatening aspect of both nuclear power and weapons involves the disposal of nuclear wastes. No one knows what to do with them. The periodic meetings of international experts have so far yielded no credible solution.

In my opinion the entire nuclear enterprise, both power and weapons, represents a wrong turn for humanity, a development that cannot be tamed, that remains life-threatening not only in all its present manifestations, but all future developments that have been contemplated.

Meanwhile the public is subjected to a continuous barrage of propaganda and misinformation designed to reconcile it to an increasingly problematical and expensive support of both nuclear power and weapons. The weapons, ostensibly for our security, are of course the principle source of our insecurity; and the nuclear power, that we are told we need for energy, supplies in 1980 only about 12% of our consumption of electricity, hence only about 2% of our total energy consumption, at a still unreckonable cost in both health and money.

The author of such a book as this is under constant attack, not only from the expected sources in industry and government, but from certain quarters in the science establishment. I have heard at times from fellow scientists, some indeed on the same side as Professor Sternglass in opposing the spread of ionizing radiations, the somewhat querulous comment, "I don't like his statistics." That would impress me more if I had ever met anyone who liked anyone else's statistics. That's the way with statistics: they are highly individual. Sternglass has an exuberant way with them. At times in this book I had the feeling he was going a little far. But then I never could be sure, once I had read over carefully what he was saying, that it was too far. The truth is that once one starts down this path, it's hard to know where or whether to stop. And on the fundamental issues, Sternglass is dealing with a very strong case. I think that it is by now beyond doubt that ionizing radiations at all levels involve serious risks to health, causing increased chances of cancers, leukemia and genetic effects. There is no threshold: a little, however little, causes some increased risk, and more causes more risk. There is no level that fails to be potentially harmful. From that point of view the existence of an official so-called "permissible level" is misleading. A "permissible level" of radiation only has meaning in cost benefit accounting; and that would mean more if the costs and benefits involved the same parties. Unfortunately they usually do not: one group -- workers, general public -- commonly bear the costs; and another, quite different group -- ownership, management, government -- shares the benefits. Having to deal with a lot of official talk about "permissible levels" of radiation at the time of Three Mile Island, I took to saying, "Every dose is an overdose." I believe that to be true as a statement, not necessarily of overt effect, but of risk.

Paris, October 28, 1980


  1. Nuclear weapons are graded in terms of the equivalent explosive power in tons of TNT: kilotons, which are thousands of tons; or megatons, millions of tons.

Next | ToC | Prev

back to Secret Fallout | radiation | rat haus | Index | Search