The Atomic Establishment – A Review

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Review: The Atomic Establishment

by David Jhirad

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 1, January 1973, p. 32 – 33

The Atomic Establishment
H. Peter Metzger
Simon and Schuster

The Atomic Energy Commission was formed a year after the holocaust at Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave the world its first exposure to atomic energy as an instrument of U.S. Foreign Policy. The McMahon Act of 1946 set up a 5-man Commission, all civilians, to advise the President on all possible manifestations of this new source of energy, from nuclear weapons to nuclear power plants. The same Act established a Congressional watchdog — the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy — composed of nine senators and nine representatives, and invested the committee with a powerful and far-reaching mandate.

H. Peter Metzger, President of the Colorado Commission of Environmental Information, has written a clear and forceful indictment of the AEC during its 26 year history. It is a valuable addition to the growing arsenal of literature available to ‘citizen activists’ in their battles to assert some control over the policies that affect their lives, workplaces, communities and, in this case, the genetic heritage of future generations. While applauding Metzger for his lively, thorough and penetrating treatment of the AEC, one may disagree somewhat with the political assumptions that permeate the problems posed.

For example, Metzger views the present role of the AEC as having resulted from a breakdown in the system’s checks and balances. He states

The purpose of this book is to show how the Joint Committee and the AEC changed from healthy adversaries into pals; how the committee was changed from a critic into an apologist, from an attacker of the AEC into its defender, while the AEC itself was reduced to a fanatically defensive protectionist clique of tenured bureaucrats who have been drawing job security and prestige from the miraculous achievement of the Manhattan project over twenty-five years ago, and whose best efforts since then have been divided between wildly inappropriate technological adventures and the justification of their past mistakes.

Whether such a system of checks and balances could ever ensure that the new technology would be used for the benefit of the vast majority is highly dubious, since there is no supporting evidence for such a view.

Metzger sees 1957 as the beginning of the fall from grace, when the AEC and the Joint Committee asserted that no danger could be expected from weapons testing. On being proved wrong some years later, there was a hardening of attitudes rather than an admission of error.

The Atomic Energy Commission has placed itself firmly against the interests of the American people as judged by its position on a number of issues — its role both as promoter and regulator of nuclear power, its serving of special interests (Dept. of Defense, large corporations such as GE and Union Carbide ), its own self-perpetuation as a federal bureaucracy, a conscious and deliberate mystification of scientific issues, sordid attempts to discredit critics — referred to as kooks and stirrer-uppers — and squelch unfavorable reports, its scandalous irresponsibility in matters of public health, occupational safety and ecological damage, and its refusal to consider alternative sources of non-polluting energy.

Much of this receives excellent treatment in the book. One section deals with atomic weapons. More than two thirds of the $51 billion committed to atomic energy since 1960 has been spent on military projects. Metzger analyzes the scientific and engineering structure that absorbs this loot. He is devastatingly critical of weapons’ scientists who have unquestioningly accepted the Cold War, the Arms Race, the strategic arguments of the military game theorists, and of their placid bureaucratic life.

The major weakness in this section is an exclusive focusing on the values of the scientists, engineers and technicians, rather than the owners and controllers of the large corporate sector that benefits from military spending. There is very little discussion of the economic logic of the capitalist system, and its built-in structural dependence on wasteful spending and war materials.

The negligence of the AEC has spawned some chilling episodes in the history of industrial safety. To quote:

The only reason the AEC can give its record of industrial safety good marks is because it uses a grading system designed to ignore its most obvious industrial hazard: long-term injury due to atomic radiation. The claim of a good record is based solely on a low number of lost-time accidents.

Many job-connected cancers and deaths from radiation never appear in the lost-time accident statistics. A crash program by the AEC to obtain a domestic supply of uranium has led to the deaths of hundreds of uranium miners on the Colorado plateau — deaths caused by air-borne radioactivity in the mines. “The reason why this tragedy is the AEC’s most shameful blunder is that the AEC knew all about the problem well before the miners ever went underground.”

There is more in this vein. The cavalier disregard for human beings in the matter of radioactive waste disposal is a case in point. The AEC has proved itself unable to handle this problem. Metzger feels that the incompetence of the AEC stems from a desire to serve itself rather than the nation. Perhaps this is also due to the cost-accounting calculus of the AEC and its profit-oriented corporate clients, with its blatant disregard for the welfare of the people.

The book concludes with a section on nuclear power and some observations on possibilities for changing this state of aftairs. A great deal of controversy has occurred over the effects of low-level radiation over long periods of time. The AEC maintains the fiction of a safe threshold level. This has been disputed by a number of critics, who feel that the existing ‘safe’ level will lead to several thousand additional cancer and leukemia deaths annually. A recent report has confirmed that low levels of radiation can be lethal.

As if this were not enough, the AEC is just beginning to concede that the emergency core cooling system, the device that is supposed to prevent a core melt-down accident, may occasionally fail. This could lead to thousands of deaths for reactors near populated areas. The issue of emergency core cooling has ignited a growing public discussion on reactor safety, which may or may not culminate early next year with the first public hearings on the subject ever to be held by the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.

Metzger feels that nuclear power is here to stay, but is pessimistic about the AEC. “But how can we expect that the job will be done properly when the exclusive responsibility for accomplishing it lies in the hands of demonstrable incompetents?” He goes on to say that the judicial branch of government provides the route most available to the public to control the AEC and cites several successful suits brought by citizens’ groups. He comes down clearly in favor of public participation in technology development and assessment, but tactics to achieve this in the long term are not proposed.

Situations such as these surely point to the need for people to democratically control their workplaces, communities, and technology. Metzger concludes by stating that “the most immediate danger is not technical but political: When nobody is looking, the public will have its right of participation in public decisions taken away by someone in Washington.” One might more appropriately suggest that the public is effectively disenfranchized from all of the important issues that we face today. It is only when the majority of the people control the resources of this country that we will have ecological and governmental sanity, not before.

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