Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Beyond the Nuclear Sewer

Half a century ago, Americans feared atomic weapons of a nation that long longer exists, the Soviet Union, and its potential to destroy us. Now, as devastation spreads in Japan, anxiety arises about the original Faustian bargain to unleash a power that can't be fully controlled.

If this sounds like the start of a Luddite tract, not so. Nuclear power will be not be disinvented but, as we now know, can not be taken for granted, either.

When the horrendous losses in Japan are finally stopped, we will be faced with decisions that have been ignored for decades as the U.S. tries to free itself from dependence on Middle East oil but now clearly demand a no-free-lunch balancing of benefits and costs.

Those who lived through World War II can recall the tragic figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the "father of the atomic bomb," who in the following decade brooded about what he had done, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

For his pangs of conscience, Oppenheimer was punished during the McCarthy era and driven from public life until JFK and LBJ later awarded him a medal for his scientific contributions--but his warnings about nuclear dangers were forgotten.

Now here we are again, struggling to balance fears in a different context as Middle East turmoil drives up oil prices and endangers future supply just as the Earth is literally being knocked off its axis to shake confidence in the most likely alternative.

Another former enemy, Germany, shows the prudence that has restored it to a world power by immediately shutting down all pre-1980 nuclear power plants to assess their safety and make them more damage-proof.

When the devastation disappears from TV screens, will the U.S. government go back to its squabbling over budget deficits and refuse to spend money to do the same?

Nuclear accomplishments made us a superpower, but it will take wisdom and foresight to keep us one.

1 comment:

Southern Beale said...

Ah yes wisdom and foresight -- to things which seem to be in short supply in modern America. I won't get into the many and sundry arguments against nuclear power here, that's for another discussion. Let me just quote Mitch McConnell from Monday's New York Times:

“My thought about it is, we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan,” Mr. McConnell said."

Yes why on earth would we do that? Learning from others' mistakes and misfortune, let alone our own, is a completely ridiculous idea!

With clowns like this in power, I despair that America will ever again be great.