More on science and technology from The Atlantic's archive.

More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"The Sub-Seabed Solution" (October 1996)
Far from being embraced, a promising solution to the radioactive-waste problem faces stiff opposition from the federal government, the nuclear industry, and environmental interests. By Steven Nadis

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Nuclear Warnings" (June 11, 1998)
Lest we forget, in the wake of nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan, here are two first-hand accounts of the devastation of Hiroshima—vivid reminders of what nuclear weapons do to human beings. Plus, a few words from Albert Einstein.

Living With Fallout

March 28, 1999
wenty years ago today on an island 10 miles from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the fuel core of Three Mile Island Unit 2 began to melt. Although technicians were able to bring the nuclear reactor under control within four days, the accident shocked the nation, making the nightmare of nuclear annihilation seem a little too real.

The use of nuclear power has been much debated both before and after the 1979 disaster, championed by some as the solution to global warming and fossil fuel depletion, denounced by others as a disaster waiting to happen. Three contributers to the Atlantic Monthly have written extensively on the subject, focusing not on nuclear energy itself but on those who control and regulate nuclear energy.

"Is it possible that nuclear energy as the cure for the power crisis may be worse than the disease itself?" writes Paul Jacobs. In "Precautions are Being Taken by Those Who Know" (February 1971) Jacobs asserts that the policies of the Atomic Energy Commission compromise the public health of the nation. Criticizing the AEC for "poor monitoring work, secrecy, the disguise of health hazards, and ... unrestrained use of its power," Jacobs goes on to argue that the AEC maintains its power by keeping the public in the dark. Quoting Congressman Holifield, the then chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Jacobs explains:
[Chairman Holifield] believes that the public will "never" know enough about radiation, "because it's too complicated." However, the congressman assured a television audience, "that doesn't mean that precautions aren't being taken by those who know, to protect the person who doesn not know."
Mary Jo Salter makes a similar case in "Italy: Living With Fallout" (December 1987). Living in Rome during the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, Salter struggles to protect her family from radiation. Confounded by the Italian government's varying reports, she "wondered how many other people in Europe were beginning to worry that an entire continent had been enveloped in a cloud of secrecy." Salter decides to leave in the end, "largely because the information that had trickled down from the Italian government was so piecemeal, tardy, hard-won, and sometimes provably erroneous that I had not been convinced that my child was not in danger."

Gabriel Schoenfeld continues Salter's investigation into the aftermath of Chernobyl, confronting the Soviet government's reluctance to conduct nuclear-safety measures. In "The Soviet Union: Rad Storm Rising" (December 1990), Schoenfeld writes that "given the constraints on Soviet resources," he would not find it "surprising if the authorities made only limited efforts to clean up, and let the population learn to live with the elevated levels of radiation." Although the Soviet government does recommend individual protective equipment like dosimeters and gas masks, even these, Schoenfeld explains, are not made readily available to the civilian population. Schoenfeld concludes with a quote from Western experts: "We might think of Soviet nuclear power policy as a kind of experiment inflicted on the Russian people that we would not choose to risk ourselves."

Experts may not have predicted that thirteen years after the Chernobyl disaster and twenty after the Three Mile Island partial melt-down the nuclear industry would still be full swing. Today's Nuclear Regulatory Committee has reformed their policies, reporting improvements in nuclear reactor technical design, operator training, and reactor monitoring. Yet the industry's most critical issue, in Mary Jo Salter's words, "the separation of those institutions that acquire and interpret data on radioactivity from those charged with producing and promoting nuclear power," has yet to be resolved.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.

All material copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.