A history of the nuclear age precedes a nuclear renaissance

It wasn’t hard to get into reading Stephanie Cooke’s book on the history of nuclear power.

A couple of weeks ago, just as I started researching an upcoming series on nuclear energy, a book on the history of nuclear power landed in the vicinity of my desk. It was extraordinarily convenient. Up until recently, my knowledge of nuclear was marked by the names of accidents and today’s soundbites of politicians calling for nuclear energy as part of a “clean energy mix.”

It wasn’t hard to get into reading Stephanie Cooke’s “In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age.” Cooke has worked as a writer for the industry for many years, and she is adept at weaving stories into the greater fabric of nuclear’s history. She chronicles the Manhattan Project and isolated cities of nuclear scientists, the Cold War and backdoor dealings of countries swept up in the nuclear arms race, Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” and electricity “too cheap to meter.”

You can guess what Cooke’s perspective on nuclear is from the subtitle of her book. She writes, “I started out as a believer in nuclear energy… having little understanding of the relationship between the civilian side of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Gradually my views changed.”

Cooke characterizes nuclear as a highly scientific weapons project gone out of control. Starting with the Manhattan Project, scientists developing the atomic bomb were so focused on their work, so caught up in the pursuit of science, that few of them stopped to think of the implications of the bomb. Or if they did, they were willing to make justifications. A small number walked away from the project.

Once the goal of ending the war was accomplished, more powerful and fearful bombs were be built and tested – with a worldwide audience. Cooke describes Operation Crossroads, a series of bomb tests held in the South Pacific, which she sees as the beginning of the postwar atomic era. Viewed directly by representatives from around the world, The expense put towards this spectacle (including a fleet of boats filled with goats and rodents to measure the impact), as well as the ignorance about radiation (Navy sailors started cleaning the ships’ decks about 40 minutes after the blast, shirtless), and the lengths the military was willing to go in order to complete the operation (moving the atoll’s entire population to another island, blasting off coral heads in order to fit the ships) was quite shocking. Certainly, we live in a very different age now.

But the main thing I took away from the book was the absence of communication between scientists, politicians, and the public. Politicians were making decisions about nuclear weapons without knowledge about the implications, scientists lived in cities cut off from the public due to atomic secrecy, reports on tests were edited and withheld, and the public didn’t know whether to feel fear or complacency. And advocates of nuclear were able to sequester enormous amounts of money to build bombs which were intended never to be used.

Cooke characterizes nuclear power as an afterthought of the weapons program – a way to make this expensive endeavor useful to the public. She has a particularly thorough chapter on Chernobyl, which put a big dent in nuclear power’s aspirations for the past 20 years.

So what does this all mean for today’s nuclear renaissance? I’m not quite sure. Certainly, nuclear’s dangerous history provides plenty of fodder for the opposition. But it’s also true that many bright scientists, with less of a tie to weaponry than the previous generation, have been working to make nuclear safer and smarter than it has been in the past. Now, we have to look at nuclear with a perspective on our energy needs, costs, and comparisons to other renewable energy sources. As nuanced and difficult as the energy business can be, one thing is clear: the future of our energy won’t stem from an easy decision, or an easy action.

Lindsay Patterson