As the frightful nuclear crisis in Japan unfolds, with the ultimate outcome far from certain, a brief pause in the mad rush to pursue mass construction of nuclear power reactors can be witnessed. However, with the emergence of major new economic actors in the global economy, in particular China, India and Brazil, the world's demand for energy, especially electrical power generation, will continue to rise, and probably revive the policymakers' receptiveness towards atomic energy. In this drive, they are being increasingly joined by a strange new ally; environmentalists, those who classify themselves politically as left-leaning progressives, who see nuclear power as an emissions-free alternative to other forms of feeding the insatiable electrical grids of the global economy, most of which are major emitters of green house gases, believed to be the major contributor to climate change.
In 1956, the Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Alvin Weinberg, said that, "there is an understandable drive on the part of men of good will to build up the positive aspects of nuclear energy simply because the negative aspects are so distressing." His point underscored a perception by many of the leading scientific minds involved in the creation of the nuclear arsenal and militarized nuclear reactors to provide propulsion for the submarines carrying the nuclear tipped missiles that comprised the ultimate deterrent of the major powers. While supporting and contributing towards making nuclear power and atomic weapons available to military forces highly disciplined and skillfully trained in their maintenance, they harbored great reluctance to see this technology disseminated freely throughout the civilian economy. The risks of such technology being managed by civilian organizations, especially privately-owned utilities, were far too grave, in their estimation.
The uranium 235 fuel utilized in a nuclear reactor is enriched to 20 percent, unlike nuclear weapons, which require a minimum of 80 percent enrichment. This means that in an accident, an atomic detonation would not occur. However, virtually all the other evil consequences of a nuclear blast can occur in a catastrophic accident involving a nuclear power reactor. A plethora of toxic radioactive isotopes, some with a highly persistent half-life, are released into the atmosphere, soil and aquifers of surrounding areas, with frightful consequences for human beings. The economic damage resulting from widespread nuclear contamination can also be severe and long-lasting. In effect, a nuclear power reactor located within twenty or thirty kilometers of a major population center is the ultimate radiological bomb. Its promise of cheap, safe and supposedly clean electricity exists only in a parallel universe, where human failings and mistakes do not occur, terrorism is non-existent and natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis do not happen. In our world, such a promise is illusory, as already demonstrated in the past at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and now so terrifyingly underway in Japan.
Dr. Edward Teller was the inventor of America's hydrogen bomb, a weapon thousands of times more devastating than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. He was politically a rightwing hawk during the Cold War, and strongly supported the buildup of America's nuclear arsenal, including the development of nuclear reactors for military purposes. However, this genius of nuclear physics had a far different view when it came to building nuclear reactors as a means of generating electricity for widespread civilian use. In 1965 Teller stated, "In principle, nuclear reactors are dangerous... In my mind, nuclear reactors do not belong on the surface of the earth. Nuclear reactors belong underground."