Technological Priesthood

Unfortunately for the nuclear industry, often its worst enemy is itself. Caught between a rock and a hard place in its relations with the public, it either puts on an iron mask and bulls its way ahead, or sticks its foot in its mouth when it does try to be sensitive to public needs and perceptions.

An historically important example of this bungled sensitivity were the comments by Alvin Weinberg, former head of Oak Ridge Laboratory, in a series of articles that ran in Science magazine in 1972. Weinberg, often known as the father of the nuclear power industry for his pioneering work, attempted to engage in some philosophy-of-science musings on the subject of nuclear waste that latter were transformed into a twenty year nuclear paranoia fit by the Green movement. According to Weinberg:

We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer -- in the catalytic nuclear burner (breeder reactor) -- an inexhaustable source of energy. Even in the short range, when we use ordinary reactors, we offer energy that is cheaper than energy from fossil fuel. Moreover, this source of energy, when properly handled, is almost nonpolluting. . . .

But the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to. In a way, all of this was anticipated during the old debates over nuclear weapons. . . . . In a sense, we have established a military priesthood which guards against inadvertent use of nuclear weapons, which maintains what a priori seems to be a precarious balance between readiness to go to war and vigilance against human errors that would precipitate war . . .

It seems to me (and in this I repeat some views expressed very well by Atomic Energy Commissioner Wilfred Johnson) that peaceful nuclear energy probably will make demands of the same sort on our society, and possibly of even longer duration. [Weinberg, Alvin; "Social Institutions and Nuclear Energy", Science, 7 July 1972, p33]

Weinberg's discussions of a "Technological Priesthood" are important because they open the debate over the disposal of nuclear waste which has evolved into the present uproar over Yucca Mountain. Two years later, in 1974, we find Allen V. Kneese (later of the Nevada socioeconomic TechnicalReview Commitee) writing a paper titled The Faustian Bargain for Resources for the Future, an environmental policy think tank:

"I am submitting this statement as a long-time student and practitioner of benefit-cost analysis, not as a specialist in nuclear energy. It is my belief that benefit-cost analysis cannot answer the most important policy questions associated with the desirability of developing a large-scale, fission-based economy. To expect it to do so is to ask it to bear a burden it cannot sustain. This is so because these questions are of a deep ethical character. Benefit-cost analyses certainly cannot solve such questions and may well obscure them.

These questions have to do with whether society should strike a Faustian bargain with atomic scientists and engineers, described by Alvin M. Weinberg in Science. If so unforgiving technology as large-scale nuclear fission energy production is adopted, it will impose a burden of continuous monitoring and sophisticated management of a dangerous material, essentially forever. The penalty of not bearing this burden may be unparalleled disaster. This irreversible burden would be imposed even if nuclear fission were to be used for a few decades, a mere instant in the pertinent time scales. [ Kneese, Allen V.;"The Faustian Bargain", Resources, Resources For the Future, 1974, p1]

By concluding nuclear waste is an ethical question rather than one of science, Kneese apparently delinked his analysis from objective benefit-cost analysis eleven years before his work for NWPO. Seven years after Kneese's article in 1979, Roger Kasperson, the philosophical core of NWPO's socioeconomic studies, also sympathetically referenced the priesthood symbolism. Kasperson notes the following in an article titled Institutional Responses to Different Perceptions of Risk in the book "Accident at Three Mile Island":

"To this list [of issues the ACLU believes make the nuclear energy a threat to democratic processes] can be added other issues that have arisen in the past: the centralization of decision making involved with a complex technology that few understand and the priesthood role that could develop for specialized managers and guardians of safety.["Institutional Responses to Different Perceptions of Risk", Accident at Three Mile Island: The Human Dimension, ed. David Sills, Westview, 1981]

A full eighteen years after the Weinberg articles, we see quotes like those of Sierra Club activist Jerry Mander still referencing the nuclear priesthood threat:

"The existence of nuclear energy, and nuclear weaponry, in turn requires the existence of what Ralph Nader has called a new "priesthood" -- a technical and military elite capable of guarding nuclear waste products for the approximately 250,000 years that they remain dangerous. So if some future society, tiring of the present path, should determine to move away from a centralized technological society and toward, say, an agrarian society, it would be impossible. The technical elite would need to remain, if only to deal with the various wastes left behind. So it is fair to say that nuclear technology inherently steers society toward greater political and financial centralization, and greater militarization."[Interview in Whole Earth Catalog, Fall 1991]

Interestingly, Mander quotes Ralph Nader as the source of the "technological priesthood" theory, although it was the nuclear scientist Alvin Weinberg who proposed this scenario long before most environmentalists were involved in nuclear issues. We'll find that Ralph Nader's paranoia of nuclear technology is a central organizing force in the anti-nuclear movement, expressed through his many spinoff organizations including Public Citizens Critical Mass Energy Project, the Safe Energy Communication Council, etc.

Mander's comments are instructive in that they link anti-nuclear environmental paranoia to an underlying ideological core. Mander is apparently conjecturing that:

  1. A technological and military priesthood are inevitable given the existence of nuclear energy, and this priesthood is sinister.
  2. A decentralized agrarian society is to be preferred to America's industrialism and centralized farming. Presumably Marxist Chinese agrarian technology would be an apt substitute because it is decentralized and ubiquitous (most of the population is forced to farm to avoid starvation).
  3. Nuclear technology, and technology in general, are inherently flawed because they create a technical elite. Evidently the world should reject high-tech endeavors and reeducate technologists to be non-elitist agrarians.
  4. Nuclear technology inherently steers us towards greater political and financial centralization (why this is necessarily bad we are not told), and towards greater militarization (which doesn't explain the very decentralized non-nuclear feudal wars of Serbia and Bosnia).

Decentralization as a political philosophy is entrenched not only in Mander's opposition to nuclear energy, but in that of much of the environmental movement. Yet, the unanswered question is why our centralized technological society would care to move back towards a decentralized agrarian society. Decentralized agrarianism would only make sense if our sources of energy were disrupted, making our present lifestyles impossible (perhaps by Green revolutionaries attempting to forcefully restructure society along the lines of a decentralized environmental utopia?). Moreover, if nuclear technology inherently steers society toward greater political and financial centralization, why are the greatest centralized dictatorships in the world agrarian states like China and Cuba?

Ironically, a decentralized agrarian society imposed on America by destruction of our nuclear energy capacity would likely require a "Green priesthood" to prevent taboo technological advances from being made. The anti-nuclear worldview is thus potentially coercive in nature; nuclear technology must not only be opposed, but religiously rooted out to prevent future temptation (such as at Yucca Mountain). The Green movement may have an emotional if not moral advantage in pushing this position, although historically attempts to stop technological advance have proved futile. For example, emotional moralistic opposition to Galileo's attempts to forward a scientific worldview were soon overcome and are now a mere historical curiosity.

Thus, Mander's association with the evironmental moralists of the Sierra Club does not automatically make his analysis of the evils of centralized nuclear technology synonymous with the common man's best interests. Nor do environmental opponents of Yucca Mountain necessarily own the moral high ground merely by opposing nuclear technology. Both may simply want to replace a technological priesthood with an equally intrusive and coercive Green priesthood.

It takes a well honed sense of paranoia to go from Alvin Weinberg's statements twenty years ago to a mystic fear of the creation of a 250,000 year nuclear priesthood carrying out rites on top of Yucca Mountain. The modern Druids of Stonehenge, worshipping an ancient astrological instrument, have turned out to be much less threatening than once supposed. There is reason to suspect that a nuclear priesthood would also prove to be a paper tiger.

Nevertheless, the extent of technological fear created by Weinberg's statements has been substantial. The biologist John Edsall suggested twenty years ago that slowing economic growth in America was the only way to avoid Weinberg's Faustian Bargain. In an open letter to Weinberg in the journal Science in 1972, Edsall questioned:

What then should we do? I would make several suggestions, none original, but several still unheeded.

  1. Stick to fossil fuels for the present, with drastically improved antipollution equipment, as our major energy source for some years to come.
  2. Slow down the rate of growth of electric power; emphasize economy in the use of power, and work to the utmost to improve efficiency. Set a sliding scale of costs, with rates charged for use of power increasing as use increases; this would promote both efficiency and economy.
  3. Discourage manufacture of products that require large amounts of electrical energy (for example, aluminum cans) if satisfactory alternatives that require less electricity exist.
  4. Greatly intensify research to develop sources of energy that are nearly pollution-free, notably nuclear fusion and solar energy.
  5. Create a national energy commission to formulate and promote national policy on the total energy problem and, as Alfven has suggested (Bull. At. Sci. 28 (No 5), 5 (1972)), create also an international energy commission, to deal with such problems in global terms. [Edsall, John; Letters, Science, vol. 178, Dec. 1, 1972, p933]

Of course, Edsall's list of suggestions would require a Green priesthood of regulators and commissioners and centralized governmental apparatus to enforce them, the very nightmare people like Jerry Mander twenty years later claim nuclear technology threatens. Anti-technological solutions have an inherent threat of coercion; society has to give up things like fossil-fuel cars, electric heat, aluminum cans and myriad other conveniences to make such a system work. This in turn requires very centralized planning to make sure no one shirks their environmental responsibility by, for example, running a gas powered generator rather than a more expensive solar photovoltaic system.

Dismantling the nuclear option thus carries its own political and environmental risks. Weinberg produced a remarkable rebuttal to Edsall 1972 which is still a timely reply to many of the present critics of Yucca Mountain:

In focusing so sharply on the negative side of the Faustian bargain implied in nuclear energy, Edsall all but ignores the primary and positive aspects of the bargain. The simple fact is that mankind can avoid the catastrophe predicted by the Club of Rome only if an essentially inexhaustible energy source is developed. Of the possibilities that are visualized, only one, the nuclear breeder, now appears to be technologically and economically realistic. That this route to the inexhaustible energy source carries with it certain risks is unfortunate; but the Club of Rome catastrophe that will befall man if he cannot find such an energy source is a risk of much greater magnitude.

Edsall proposes, among other things, that we intensify research on fusion and solar energy. I agree; yet suppose, as is quite possible, that neither of these sources is found to be feasible, either for technical or economic reasons. The two generations we would thereby lose could make the energy-environment crisis much graver than it now is.

On the other hand, if fusion or solar energy becomes practical, the problem of safely dismantling the fission technology is nowhere near as serious as Edsall suggests. The only surveillance that would then be required would be the rather minimal guarding of a few burial grounds for radioactive wastes. As I explained in my article, I do not consider this degree of surveillance to be at all unreasonable, especially since, even without surveillance, the likelihood of widespread contamination from wastes buried in salt (geologically) is extremely small. [Weinberg, Alvin; Letters, Science, vol. 178, Dec. 1, 1972, p933]

The debate from 1972 suggests that members of the nuclear establishment had already thought long and hard about the costs and benefits of nuclear energy projected into the future before any environmentalists showed up on the scene. It appears the deepest thought given to the possible dangers of long-term storage of nuclear wastes originated with Alvin Weinberg and only later did lawyers like Nader and environmentalists like Jerry Mander mimic Weinberg's thinking.

Unfortunately, Weinberg miscalculated the amount of disruption dedicated advocacy groups like those formed by Nader could create in the lines of communication between the scientific community and the community at large. Nader and the environmental movement are not composed of lay people, but are dedicated professional activists with an agenda far beyond community representation. Weinberg was perhaps naive in advocating public discussion of technological issues, not realizing how easily special interests could highjack the process:

We scientists value our republic of science with its rigorous peer group review. The uninformed public is excluded from participation in the affairs of the republic of science rather as a matter of course. But when what we do transcends science and impinges on the public, we have no choice but to welcome public participation. Such participation by the uninitiated in matters that have both scientific and trans-scientific elements may pose some threat to the integrity of the republic of science. To my mind, however, this is a lesser threat than is the threat to our democratic processes that would be posed by excluding the public from participation in trans-scientific debate. [Weinberg, Alvin; "Science and Trans-Science", Science, July 21, 1972, p211]

Unfortunately, democratic participation processes carried to their extremes in Nevada have led to domination of the debate by aggressive special interest groups. Weinberg's qualification that "Such participation by the uninitiated in matters that have both scientific and trans-scientific elements may pose some threat to the integrity of the republic of science." appears to have been an understatement. In fact, such participation can lead to the paralysis of scientific, political and technological institutions.

At Yucca Mountain, participation has been manipulated by sophisticated advocates claiming to be the voice of the uninitiated public. These groups, variously composed of Naderites, radical Greens and the peace movement, have challenged not only scientific integrity, but also the welfare of the public they claim to represent. Blind obedience to "participation by the uninitiated" thus may not solve the problems at Yucca Mountain, but instead cater to the whims of social scientists, lawyers and special interest environmentalists whose objective is to subvert the participation process for political ends quite distinct from the goals of objective science.