Nuclear Power, Nuclear Fear, Nuclear War 

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee 

From time to time, I like to go back to what I have read before. Amongst others, much of that is found in cuttings that I made a habit of collecting from my school-going days, for the sheer joy of it. This practice continues, if anything de plus belle – not only because now there is much more material, but also because I can afford the access which was limited for lack of pecuniary means earlier.  I never had in mind that one day I would use my collection as reference for my writings, for the simple reason that I had never thought that at some time in the future I would be writing a weekly column in the Mauritius Times. 

I am in the habit of pulling something out at random, go through it and then leave it about from where, again without any particular reason, I may pick it up and go through – or put it away and take another one to read with more or less attention, depending upon my mood and interest at the time.  

This is how I took to perusing an article by J. Platt entitled ‘What we must do’ which was published in the now defunct Science Today of August 1970. I became engrossed as I discovered that many issues we are battling with today were the subject of reflection in that article, which started with a statement:  

‘There is only one crisis in the world. It is a crisis of transformation. The trouble is that it is now coming upon us as a storm of crisis problems from every direction.’ And warned that ‘it has now become urgent for us to mobilise all our intelligence to solve these problems if we are to keep from killing ourselves in the next few years.’ 

It seems that we have not quite heeded this warning, because we have continued to exterminate each other in various ways and for various reasons, the main one being the inflated egos of nations and leaders who want to control others or their resources, or simply to show mo pou montrer zot ki moi!  

And unfortunately it is the innocents who pay, who suffer, whose lives get snuffed out in the prime of their existence. So many examples of leaders and countries come to mind, but it is not necessary to name them because with the advent and explosion of global media, they have become commonplace as they invaded our living rooms via television. 

It is interesting to consider what J. Platt observed: ‘Within the last 25 years, the Western world has moved into an age of jet planes, missiles and satellites, nuclear power and nuclear terror. It has acquired computers and automation, a service and leisure economy, superhighways, superagriculture, supermedicine, mass higher education, oral contraceptives, environmental pollution, and urban crisis. The rest of the world is also moving rapidly and may catch up with all those powers and problems within a very short time.’ 

Prescient, isn’t it? For yes, the ‘resterners’ have caught up with the ‘Westerners’ in many ways, except that the latter probably are better placed to deal with the problems, and have evolved more stable and democratic power structures and situations. 

J. Platt also expressed a wish: ‘…if we could learn how to manage these new power and problems … without killing ourselves … we might be able to move into that new world of abundance and diversity and well-being for all mankind which technology has made possible.’  

We may answer for ourselves whether we have achieved this desired state and if not, reflect on how far we are from it, or if it is all achievable. It certainly remains as relevant a goal today as it was then, and with equal if not more urgency. 

Interestingly, however – and fortunately too – he made a forecast which did not come about: ‘The trouble is we may not survive these next few years.’ Nowadays the experts who make such forecasts are known as futurologists, and there are hundreds of examples of predictions that have never materialized. 

It was also in 1970 or thereabouts that the Club of Rome, a think-tank, made a similar prediction, what was called a Malthusian one, that population growth would exceed our capacity to produce enough food and other resources to sustain ourselves.  

But as Vinod Khosla, a Silicon valley venture capitalist and founder of Khosla Ventures – which is researching into sustainable solutions for mankind’s future – remarked: ‘Forecasting is based on assumptions, and technology changes those assumptions.’ That is why we still have a certain optimism about our future, and this is also the view of Bjorn Borg, who is a climate change ‘denier.’  

In an article in Newsweek, March 21, 2011, he pitches his hope on human ingenuity as regards the energy scenario: ‘The doomsayers underestimated human ingenuity. They could not envisage that there would be a fruitful search for more effective ways to extract, use and transport coal and to find other energy sources. The ingenuity continues: recently, massive amounts of natural gas were discovered within shale rock across Western nations, and innovations were made in extraction techniques. The International Energy Agency now estimates there is enough gas for more than 250 years.’ 

But before this estimation was made, several advanced nations had built nuclear power stations, considering it as a relatively safe source of energy, and the cleanest one as far as environmental pollution is concerned. But along the way, there have been the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania, the Chernobyl disaster and now, in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan the debate about the safety of nuclear energy has enlivened, and with much more concern. 

All countries with nuclear power plants are revisiting their plants and their assumptions, even as Japanese engineers are battling to restore electrical power to the stricken reactors and get the water pumps running, and the authorities are equally engaged in a response to contain the spread of radiation, ensure the safety of the population and deal with food security issues. 

Although the threat of nuclear war is still present, especially if ‘rogue states’ manage to get nuclear weapons, it is more nuclear fear – radiation hazard – that is dominating current thinking, and it is urgent not only to address this but also to consider the alternative sources of energy very seriously, and no doubt in this endeavour the likes of Khosla and Borg have a major role to play. 

The ‘call to action’ by J. Platt resonates perfectly with the needs of the time: ‘The task is clear. The task is huge. The time is horribly short. In the past, we have had science for intellectual pleasure and science for the control of nature. We have had science for war. But today, the whole human experiment may hang on the question of how fast we now press the development of science for survival.’ 

We will be hard put to deny that survival – of the planet, of the human species – is indeed the critical issue that faces today’s world, and unless all of us participate in addressing the problem, we stand to become victims of our own undoings. Plenty of food for thought – and action – here! 

* Published in print edition on 25 March 2011

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