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Faculty Forum Papers

November 1975 - The "Nuclear Issue" and Professionalism
Eric Swenson
English Department

October 31, 1975

    The October issue of Faculty Forum Papers began with a note from B.I. Spinrad of the Nuclear Engineering Department. He treats with contempt critics of nuclear power, twice summing up their position as "garbage" and concluding that their cause is "crackpot." Their publications, he tells us, "bristle with errors of fact, selection of data, and distortions of logic." Their arguments on ethics and morality, he dismisses. Eight times he uses the word "professionalism" or a cognate to suggest that the best judges of the value and dangers of nuclear power are those who "have made it (their) life's work to study nuclear phenomenon and nuclear energy." He solicits support against currently circulating petitions which he says "have the purpose of slowing down or stopping the furnishing of electrical power from nuclear plants in this state."

    To begin with, I would like to say that Professor Spinrad misstates the purpose of the petitions which he warns us against. If he had read the ballot title of the Oregon Nuclear Safeguards Initiative and if it were not his intent to misrepresent it, or if he were not guilty of a distortion of logic he would state that its purpose was the removal of federally imposed insurance liability limits; the assurance that nuclear plant safety systems had been tested and found effective in substantially similar systems; and that wasted disposal techniques be found that preclude radioactive escape. In other words, the petition wants the citizens of this state to be protected from the dangers of radiation and to ensure that in can of a nuclear disaster they, at the very least, be allowed full financial compensation for losses. These seem to be eminently reasonable requests and if the effect of this initiative's adoption is the "slowing down or stopping (of) the furnishing of electrical power from nuclear plants in this state" then so be it and do we not all gain from its passage?

    It is, of course, understandable that Professor Spinrad and his fellow professionals are disturbed by opposition to their life's work. Their distress reveals to me how inherent conflict of interest is to the nuclear industry. The conflict is exemplified by the legislators who have so much to say in determining the use of nuclear power - many of whom directly benefit from its adoption. The late Senator Kerr of Oklahoma (also chairman of the board of Kerr-McGee, a leading nuclear supplier) is a flagrant case. It is exemplified by so-called "public" utilities which are more interested in a "satisfactory return on investment" than the public interest and which are already financially committed to nuclear energy. It is built into the character of A.E.C. which directs the agency to both promote and regulate nuclear power. As to other "professionals" I quote Dr. Harold Urey, a pioneer of nuclear physics:

"I mistrust, in a way, everyone who has worked on the problems. They have spent a substantial fraction of their productive lives trying to make power by nuclear method. If we don't build these plants their efforts will have been wasted, thrown away. This leads to a prejudice on the part of all such people - so it's very difficult to trust them. And for that reason I doubt what they have to say."
    I call upon Professor Spinrad and his colleagues to change their aims form convincing the public to educating the public; to acknowledge that essential safety research has yet to be performed; to reveal for analysis the compute codes on safety systems that give 5 billion to one odds against nuclear disaster; lead us and who think conversation is a far better answer to our energy problem; and, yes, to discuss the ethics of their profession.