The Case for Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Renewal    by Richard Rhodes

127 pp., Viking Penguin 1993.  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


      At long last, here is an intelligent and articulate overview of nuclear energy, its promise and its dangers. Rhodes has written an eloquent exposition, and his slim volume (in better days it might have become a long article in the "New Yorker") should be required reading for any concerned citizen.

      One expects the author of the Pulitzer prize winning "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" to come out in favor of nuclear power, and he does (the jacket tells us he is currently writing a history of the H-bomb [P.S. This became his book "Dark Sun"]) . It is also no surprise that his exposition follows a historical thread, from the "atomic piles" of the Manhattan Project, to Admiral Rickover's nuclear subs, to the great boom of nuclear power in the 60-s and the dismal bust that followed, with the disasters of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

      No new nuclear power stations are currently being constructed in the US, instead more and more coal is being burned. Yet nuclear energy has proved useful where abundant coal resources do not exist, most of all in France and Japan. France gets 75% of its electricity from the atom, because of "four reasons:... France has no coal, France has no gas, France has no oil, France has no choice." Its nuclear industry has so far been economical and accident-free, and all nuclear waste is reprocessed into a relatively small "hot" concentrate, melted to form massive glass cylinders and lowered into shafts, there to stay under watchful eyes. This at a time when the US has no reprocessing facility and is storing unprocessed spent fuel in holding tanks above ground. Will we be buying French reprocessing technology some day?

      Who is to blame? Bureaucracy and its capricious controls? The US Congress, which in 1957 generously underwrote liability for nuclear accidents, boosting a new industry but also lowering its safety consciousness? The power company executives, who (until the Three Mile Island episode) did not face the technical challenge but viewed nuclear energy as just "another way of boiling water"? Rhodes makes a good case for all such accusation, yet he is confident that nuclear power will bounce back, as resources shrink and as the country becomes aware of the environmental cost of burning vast amounts of coal.

      If all this concerns you, read "Nuclear Renewal." If you then like Rhodes' easy prose, try his other writings. "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" may be much heavier fare (in 800-plus pages), but it deftly blends the technical and the personal, bringing to life an entire gallery of remarkable individuals. "Farm" tells of a year spent on the farm of a Kansas family and gives the reader new respect for the farmer's craft and way of life. And "A Hole in the World" is the story of the author's childhood, starting like so many fairy tales with the passing of a beloved mother and her replacement by a cruel stepmother. It ends as Rhodes and his brother find refuge and peace on an orphanage farm, and whenever papers nowadays write of plans to reopen orphanages, I am reminded of that book. You might enjoy any on this list.

      Postscript: Three more recent books by Rhodes, all recommended: "How to Write" on the inner life of a professional writer, "Dark Sun" about the creation of the Soviet A-bomb and the US hydrogen bomb, and "Deadly Feasts" about the "mad-cow" disease and its earlier manifestations among humans.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 18 January 2002