Hiroshima and Pilgrim: rational fear

August 05, 2014

It’s debatable whether the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horror though it was, was justifiable as the most life-sparing (at least for Americans) way of forcing Japan to surrender.

But one thing is clear — that debut of nuclear power has proved a hard act to follow.

The powers-that-be tried hard to erase that initial impression with “atoms for peace” — unlimited, cheap electricity. But what we learned about this amazing new technology from that first demo stayed in the imagination, the sinister mushroom cloud symbolic of whole new horizons: nuclear holocaust, the possibility of species suicide.

We tend to think of nuclear power as a scientific and technological issue. But it has always been equally a psychological, emotional issue. A big part of what’s become a controversial technology is how it feels living with nuclear power plants.

Occasional letters or My Views in this paper have suggested that the push locally to close down the Pilgrim nuclear plant makes no sense. Nuclear, the argument goes, is safer and cleaner than the traditional fuels it replaces, and “green” measures such as solar and wind will never compete. So it is irrational to fear the plant upwind of us.

Aside from the factual dubiousness of those pro-nuke claims, such an argument is based on a debating trick known as a “false dichotomy,” the world sliced in a misleading, simplistic way, in this case rational vs. emotional. The decision about Pilgrim should be based on hard-headed, rational thought and not on a childish emotion such as fear.

But there are times when being afraid makes a lot of sense. Is, in fact, rational.

No question, splitting the atom and unleashing all that power was a great human achievement. And yes, that’s a pretty impressive track record, only three disasters — well, one very scary “accident” and two out-and-out disasters — in the whole history of nuclear power plants. On the other hand, what disasters they were. Only one is enough to make the possibility of plant failure a specter to haunt our dreams.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has declared that “nuclear power is an inherently hazardous technology; there’s no way to make it perfectly safe.” Well of course not; there’s no perfectly safe technology. (To err is human…) But given the consequences of imperfection with this particular technology, the issue comes up. With nukes, nothing short of perfection would do.

Instinctual creature discomfort should be one of the most important factors in developing and deploying (including deciding whether or not to develop) a technology. Technology should serve human beings and human feelings about it are of the essence and should in fact be a design criterion. Of course, statistics and scientists’ reassurances will affect how we feel, but only we creatures, using both sides of our brain, can decide whether a given technology such as nuclear power really does serve us.

Fire, gunpowder, cars, planes, each with its own fear factor, have all required considerable adjustment. And have wreaked their own form of havoc. Nor do we shy away from useful technologies such as electricity, rope and steel just because all have found their uses as ways of killing fellow humans. But, though the verdict of history is far from in, it may well be that in nuclear power we have created one genie that should be stuffed back in the bottle.

Especially given Cape Cod’s unique geographical vulnerability, it is certainly not irrational that the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station has motivated such widespread opposition — once, post- Fukushima, we began thinking about our feelings about it.

Brent Harold of Wellfleet, a former English professor, blogs at www.capecodonline.com. Email him at kinnacum@gmail.com.

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