Odysseus and the Sirens, 1891,
painting by John William Waterhouse.
Were it not that I have bad dreams
Were It Not That I Have Bad Dreams
Why, then 'tis none to you. For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so… I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
- Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2
The debate over nuclear energy seems to exhaust the patience and interest of the public. It’s one of those debates many people just steer clear of in order to preserve their mental health. It has joined company with the death penalty, abortion, and marriage equality—that category of passionate controversies in which neither side cedes one inch of ground. If you haven’t reached this point yet, go see the pro-nuclear propaganda film Pandora’s Promise (USA, 2013), read some reviews of it, then read the hundreds of online comments that pour in after the reviews. By that time, another line from Hamlet will come to mind: I'll no more on't. It hath made me mad.
In these arguments no one changes his or her mind, because the two sides talk past one another without realizing they are each motivated by a difference in their unspoken assumptions and values. They seem so self-evident that the need to state them is forgotten. As Hamlet remarked in the quote at the top, we could all be moral relativists. The universe doesn't care how much plutonium is on our planet, but we all have experiences and innate tendencies from which our values form. It is the breach of them that troubles us, what gives us what Hamlet called “bad dreams.”
I once debated nuclear energy with a friend who compared it to other forms of risk that we decide to live with. We were eating hamburgers in a restaurant and he asked why we don’t demand that such eateries be shut down because of the cholesterol inflicts on our arteries. I thought it was off the point, but we got distracted and the conversation moved on.
Later, I wondered how he could have made this equivalence between beef and plutonium, and I realized that for pro-nuclear people it’s a foregone conclusion that uranium and plutonium, and the whole witch’s brew of fission by-products, should be used regardless of the risk they pose to the ecosystem. It’s a given that we were right to exploit them and right to carry on producing them. Producing more energy is a good thing. Building nuclear power plants provides jobs and profits, and energy keeps the economy going. In this belief system, it is madness to suggest these goals are not the ones to be pursued.
In my world view, cholesterol is a natural substance that has been in human blood since the time before we were even human. Mammalian blood evolved with it, and it is like numerous other biological chemicals that have benefits to our reproductive success in evolutionary terms, but downsides in terms of individual longevity. On the other hand, no living thing evolved in the presence of plutonium. It has no nutritional value. The radioactivity of the earth had to decrease over a couple of billion years before life became possible. The risks of consuming nutrients like cholesterol can’t be compared to the risk of deliberately exposing living things to the radionuclides produced by industrial activity.
Nonetheless, for my friend there was an equivalence. The ongoing presence of nuclear pollution in the world is taken as a given. The genie ain’t going back in the bottle. Debating the issue at this fundamental level is like rehashing the European conquest of the Americas. For some people this history actually still provides a worthwhile lesson about how global capitalism has to change in order to avoid an ecological catastrophe. For others it’s a done deal. It was inevitable, it happened, it’s going to keep happening. Get over it. We will use nuclear fuel to finish what the conquistadors started. Endless growth in consumption is assumed, and we are going to provide the energy for it. We will keep producing plutonium to fuel the rockets that will take us to places Columbus never dreamed of.
It took me a while to realize that this was the fundamental question about nuclear energy. The pro-nuclear side believes that the discovery of the energy potential of uranium was a gift to mankind. We would have been fools not to exploit it. In contrast, the anti-nuclear side believes that this new form of energy was a temptation to an evil that we should have resisted.
There is no small irony in the fact that nuclear energy supporters’ views have a lot of overlap with conservative, pro-business political views, and conservatives claim that these views are underpinned by traditional religious beliefs. The anti-nuclear side is more aligned with secular progressive politics. Nonetheless, it is the pro-nuclear side that fails to see the use of nuclear energy as an affront to God. The anti-nuclear side is the one that recognizes nuclear energy as a temptation to evil, to get something for nothing, to toss aside humility and place ourselves above God in the pursuit of comfort and power.
Every religion and every culture has their parables and myths that teach the moral lessons of humility and living within a covenant with the social and natural environment. Mankind’s experience with nuclear energy is often compared to the story of Prometheus stealing the fire of the gods for mankind’s use. It can also be seen in Sisyphus. The promise of unlimited energy seems to say that we could now get that rock up the slope with the push of a button. The most applicable moral may be in the story of Odysseus tying himself to the mast while he sails past the Island of Sirens. Everybody knows that something too good to be true must be a false promise. All the energy for my lifestyle for just a few grams of waste product? There must be a catch.
One need not be a scholar of religion or antiquity to grasp this truth. Street level experience teaches us to be wary of all the common cons that come our way—propositions from over-friendly, attractive strangers, free samples from a drug dealer on a street corner, emails from deposed ministers who need help getting funds sent overseas. Plutonium, a primordial element born in the formation of stars, announced itself like a spam email from across the universe, and we clicked on the link attached within. We’ve been sending money for a long time now, waiting for the promised payoff.
We can’t debate nuclear energy without knowing how we got it and what it does to living cells, yet it seems like many do. It might seem more reasonable to exploit it if you don’t know that life evolved over two billion years up to the 20th century with almost no contact with radioactive chemicals. (But wait. Let’s pause here to let the pro-nuclear people finish their lecture about bananas and natural background radiation…)
Yes, there has always been natural background radiation and life has evolved with it and learned how to repair the damage it causes. Yet the point remains that, until the 20th century, uranium was safely buried under the ground, diluted in ores and, for the most part, out of contact with the ecosystem. More significantly, plutonium, because it was a primordial element that had almost completely decayed away, existed in quantities so small that it never had any impact on living things.
In the 20th century, some nations, tempted to obtain unlimited energy and military power, began to dramatically increase the amount of uranium in human hands, which put it at risk of poisoning the ecosystem. At the same time, plutonium was manufactured out of uranium. Uranium ore was brought to the surface of the earth, concentrated and purified. It was enriched so that its most radioactive isotopes could be concentrated to critical levels that don’t exist in nature—the levels that allow for the exploitation of nuclear energy to produce heat or explosions. Plutonium was also created by neutron bombardment of uranium in a cyclotron or in a nuclear reactor.
The basis of the nuclear energy debate is in how the decision to exploit uranium is perceived. It is either a gift to mankind or the end of mankind. If you really think it was a gift, the thing that is going to take humanity on a science-fiction trip to an inter-galactic civilization, then the anti-nuclear argument will seem like insanity to you.
Once this fundamental position is acknowledged, it’s pointless to argue about how many lives were shortened by the Chernobyl catastrophe, or how many will be by Fukushima. If you are pro-nuclear, it’s all about getting a minority of humanity to an advanced technological future, so it is assumed and permissible that there will be sacrifices along the way. (An assumption in this belief system that is seldom admitted). The human sacrifices are all worth it, just as they were to the Aztecs who sacrificed their enemies, as they were to Cortez when he slaughtered the Aztecs in their turn, as they were to Noble Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger when ordered the bombing of Southeast Asia to save it from communism. It can all be rationalized by saying there will always be, actually or hypothetically, more people dying from an evil ideology, particulate smog, or poverty because they don’t have access to the electricity that nuclear energy could provide. If millions of people developed cancer from global weapons testing fallout, it doesn’t matter because the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, in addition to giving the world plutonium, gave the world medical isotopes for treating cancer. In this futile vision of progress, like boats beaten back by the tide, the next technology always promises to fix the damage of the last technology.
For the anti-nuclear side, it is equally pointless to get into an argument about numbers. The numbers are based on hypothetical conjectures about the past, present, and future effects of phenomena that are influenced by multiple variables. The “greater good” argument is irrelevant because it is always conjecture and an excuse, while the emphasis in the anti-nuclear stance is on a principle. Once you’ve taken the position that it is wrong to exploit uranium and plutonium, wrong to place ourselves above God or break the covenant with the natural world, wrong to accept that human sacrifices are necessary, you don’t need to engage in an un-resolvable argument that seeks to definitively quantify the harm. Let’s just tie ourselves to the mast as we sail past this one. In a time of global ecological crisis, idealism is the new realism. The true prize is over the horizon.