A Technology Ahead of Itself
How could the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the agency behind the start-up of nuclear power in the 1950s and 1960s, have launched this important new commercial enterprise without first knowing what was to be done with the radioactive wastes? This question is part of a larger one: How could the Atomic Energy Commission have proceeded with the development of nuclear power without first dealing satisfactorily with all of the major public health and safety issues associated with nuclear technology, in particular the waste issue, the reactor safety issue, and the safeguards dilemma inherent in the fact that plutonium is a nuclear explosive as well as a nuclear fuel? Part of the answer is that neither the AEC nor its congressional overseer, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, fully recognized the nuclear imperatives for what they were. Priorities thus went awry and nuclear power as an important new technology got ahead of itself.
Although the public health and safety hazards of nuclear power were not ignored, none was dealt with adequately. There were three major hazards. One was low-level radiation exposure at various points in the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium milling to reactor operations to the recycling of uranium and plutonium and the management and disposal of wastes. Another arose from the possibility of a reactor accident or an accident involving freshly irradiated fuel elements, with the chance that high concentrations of radioactivity would be released, affecting large numbers of people and contaminating large areas. The third had to do with possible thefts, forcible seizures, or diversions of nuclear explosive materials in the course of fuel cycle operations. Plutonium would be the material of principal concern because uranium was to be used for the most part in its low-enriched, nonexplosive form.
But the demands on the nuclear enterprise were to go far beyond the need to safeguard explosive materials and to contain radioactivity inside operating reactors. Demands for containment, especially, have focused