Balough, Brian. Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American

 

Balough, Brian. Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American
Commercial Nuclear Power, 1945-1975. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Looking backwards from the 1990s, it's hard to tell just how nuclear power was developed in this
country and elsewhere. Today, the industry is everywhere under attack and not at all above
suspicion. It's known to be dangerous. We must ask: Why were these giant plants ever built?
This book provides some answers in that it suggests that there were proponents of nuclear power,
there was enormous government support, the public was willing to accept the early plants, the
safety factor was not considered important. Nuclear power was no accident: it was given to us by
particular people at a particular moment in time.

The major proponents of the nuclear industry were the people in the industry, all in government
positions, politicians with particular interests. Thus, J. F. K. thought the industry modern,
up-to-date, progressive, a step in the right direction. He wanted to get America moving again and
the same enthusiasm that brought us to the moon gave us atomic energy. It was also a part of the
race with the Russians: we had to stay ahead of them and if that meant building more and bigger
nuclear plants, then so be it.

The greatest enthusiast of them all was Admiral Lewis L. Strauss. This erstwhile chair of the
AEC promoted nuclear power unashamedly and grandly. He been trained as a shoe salesman and,
face it, he was a good one. He had several things going for him besides his sales skills: he had the
power of the AEC, the secrecy of the AEC, with which to work. And he used that power. It was
he who suggested in a speech that electric power, in the atomic age, will be so cheap that it won't
even be metered. No one could or dared contradict him. It was this same Strauss who brought
down Robert Oppenheimer: he was not a nice man. And he wanted nuclear power developed and
he insisted that it be developed privately. Now this did not mean that he was above providing
subsidies of all sorts to the industry (which he did), but he also promoted the idea that American
nuclear power was developed by and for the people. He was opposed by the industry itself, and
by the coal producers, but it didn't matter. He controlled enough politicians in Congress to have
his way.

Nuclear power "experts" were readily available - for a price. And the industry produced its
experts. They became the conduits of information released to the public. And because of its
power over "nuclear energy secrets," the industry could keep its secrets out of the public eye.
Meantime, the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS) which had been so much concerned with
the power of the A-bomb and their participation in discussions about the use of the bomb as a
weapon, found themselves in an awkward position: they screamed about the dangers of the
weapon to the extent that they later had to find "peaceful uses" for the atom. They stopping
crying "wolf" just long enough to give the enthusiasts an excuse to develop the energy
"peacefully." Strange, but these experts did not seriously question the development of nuclear
power plants.

Opposition to the development derived not from knowledge of the dangers of nuclear plants but
from "environmental" concerns and, only later, from safety concerns. But here, again, the AEC
had the only data and it was not talking about safety.
I'll end on this note: these nuclear power plants were known by the industry to be very dangerous
right from the get-go. Indeed, none of the plants could have been or would have been built
without government indemnification of the plants. No one would afford the losses to be sustained
had a plants gone critical. It was estimated early on that 45,000 people would be killed and miles
and miles of land would be rendered useless. The only persons who could insure against such
losses was the government and the government continues to provide this insurance to the
industry right up to the present time.