Main content

No more nukes

I think it must have been in the spring of 1942, the United States had been in the war only a few months and I'd taken off from New York in the February to go on a five-month swing around the country, driving on re-tread tyres at the prescribed limit of 35 miles an hour to see what the war was doing – or was about to do – to what was then known as 'the American way of life.'

Obviously, this called for pieces on such vital and, to the ordinary reader, tedious necessities as steel production, manufacture of airplane, tanks and so on. But one of the stimulating and sometimes funny facts about a whole continent thrown suddenly into war was the conviction of practically every state, every town, almost every trade, that their specialty was the one that would win the war. 

There were fascinating discoveries – discoveries for me, anyway – such as the process whereby long staple cotton in Arizona was turned into parachutes, how men went out at nightfall in the California desert – I went with them – and flashed infrared lamps on mountainsides and were able to spot in there veins or slivers of different minerals which showed up in different colours. This saved a great deal of old-fashioned digging and trenching to unearth necessary strategic minerals. 

I remember how awestruck I was in a small town in Colorado called Climax to be challenged on my arrival in town by an FBI agent. I had a clearance card, letter, or whatever, from the FBI in Washington so all was well but the point was that Climax was the main extractor of an essential ingredient for the war effort, an ingredient, a metallic element, I'd never heard of called Molybdenum. The, err... the funny bits which were often ludicrous enough to be in a Benny Hill sketch, came in towns which manufactured something about as warlike as a tea caddy. There is, for instance, a small town in the mountain country of West Virginia called Rainelle which is, or was, given over entirely to the manufacturer of heels for women's shoes. Of course, it's a timber town and was then cutting some 35 million feet of lumber annually. 

Naturally timber has other uses and when I was there, Washington wanted to commandeer a lot of it for more obvious military purposes, the building of army camps, for instance. But the man I spent most time with was the manager of the heel industry. He was a dedicated patriot if ever I saw one. He swore he would resist Washington's invasion of his timber if it was the last thing he did in life. 'We manufacture,' I remember his saying, 'four million women's heels a year and by God, we're going to maintain that production.' It was his conviction that American morale would sag to the point of collapse if women were compelled to forego high heels. 

I quoted to him Anatole France's remark that 'a woman's attraction is in direct proportion to the height of her heels'. He was thrilled by this gem. He copied it out carefully and he hoped one day he might have the honour to meet this very wise Frenchman. So as not to confuse you, I ought to mention that in 1942, Anatole France had been dead for 18 years, but it seemed kind not to bring it up before this splendid patriot from Rainelle, West Virginia. 

Well, I'd not meant to go into these fascinating details when I started. I covered hundreds of stories on that safari but it didn't occur to me at the time the biggest story of the war was one that went uncovered by anybody till the war was over. 

What I had in mind when I began was the drive I took that spring up into the Berkeley Hills when I was staying with a close friend of mine in San Francisco. He was a physicist and, as we rounded a hill by the university football stadium, we ran along a continuous high hedge of trees which were surmounted by a thick wire fence. It went on and on and at the only gap in the trees there was a gate which bore a plaque saying, 'US Government No Entry' and a guard was pacing up and down. As we drove by I said, 'Hello, what goes on in there?' My friend waited until we were, I should think, at least a mile out of earshot. He looked at me very gravely, almost like a man in pain. He said, 'Alistair, what's going on in there is a piece of research so awful, so terrifying, that I daren't tell you about it.' And that was all. We said no more and I forgot all about it until more than three years later. 

Till August 1945, to be exact, when the news was published of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and when, by the way, for the first time we read a huge account, any account at all, of the testing of the bomb in the desert of New Mexico three weeks before. One newspaper man and one only, had been allowed to go to Alamogordo, to watch that test and explain it later. He was the science correspondent of the New York Times. 

Well, the weekend after the war was over, I was lying on a Long Island beach with my neighbour, a patent or 'patent' lawyer, his field was science patents and he tried to explain to me, who am very dense in these matters, how nuclear fission or fusion worked. 'Not fusion!' he said, wagging a finger in reproof, 'Fission!' I asked him what was going to become of it. He said, 'Well, there's no question that in four or five years, every automobile in the United States will be running on nuclear energy. No more gasoline (or petrol, if you must). Marvellous!' Of course it didn't happen. That was – what? – 34 years ago and nuclear energy is still hideously expensive to produce. 

But in the past year or so, nuclear energy has become a chronic, severe headache for the American government, for President Carter and for any president who may succeed him, mainly because of the dreadful accident last March at the nuclear reactor in Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Ever since then, there have been four or five separate investigations going on into the accident – government, one branch or another, Congress – some of them detective jobs trying to find out if the maintenance staff at Three Mile Island was negligent, but all of them working to revise the safety code at all nuclear plants. 

Now the most important, certainly the most authoritative of these investigations is a presidential commission which has the force and the impartiality in this country of a royal commission in Britain. Last week, after taking testimony from all sorts of responsible persons and onlookers and citizens living nearby and nuclear experts, last week it voted to recommend that no more nuclear reactors should be built until the government adopts a new safety code that the commission has agreed on. The government in this context means the so-called 'Nuclear Regulatory Commission' which considers applications from firms that want to build reactors. At the moment this government body has applications for 14 new reactors but there are 55 other reactors being built and 41 of them are far enough along in construction to have asked for permission to start operating. 

Well, the regulatory commission has held off these permissions and it has the power to cancel or suspend them. But it's in an awkward spot after the vote of the presidential commission to establish a new safety code. The presidential commission, by the way, has no binding power. It can only advise and maybe the nuclear regulatory boys would like to take its advice and suspend all construction for the time being but the nuclear regulators are the creatures of the president himself and he and his administration are strong believers in nuclear power. Indeed, the president has said over and over that the United States simply cannot fill its energy needs without more nuclear power. 

The use of nuclear power for – electricity is an example – varies greatly from state to state and city to city. Chicago, for instance, gets about 20 per cent of its electricity from nuclear sources. New York City is in constant need because people use more and more energy, though New York has just had a windfall in the opening of a vast hydroelectric plant in Quebec, in the use of which New York state will share. 

Well now, the nuclear reactor problem would remain one for the government, and for Congress particularly, and the regulatory commission to sort out among themselves IF there had not been the accident at Three Mile Island. But that has dealt a damaging blow to public opinion about the safety of ALL nuclear reactors. A year ago, the public opinion polls showed most Americans very much in favour of nuclear power and more research as perhaps the great escape hatch from the Arabs and the other exporters of oil, but after Three Mile Island support for nuclear power itself began to wobble and decline. 

And there's now grown up a movement, a popular – populist, if you like – movement against all forms of nuclear power, practically a crusade to shut down the working reactors and to abandon the building of any more. A week or two ago, there was an immense demonstration in Washington, larger than any mass protest since the great march on the Capitol in the Sixties of the young against Vietnam. 

The actress Jane Fonda and her husband Tom Hayden, who ran for the Senate in California last time and was beaten, have started a tour of the country speaking for free in colleges and in public squares and they have managed to mobilise a crusade which appears to gain strength from the powerful simplicity of its slogan, 'No More Nukes!' – meaning nuclear reactors. And you see at stop signs, at road intersections in country lanes, people have gone out and painted under the word 'stop' on a traffic sign, the word 'nukes.' 

Now it's easy to say that this is simple to the point of absurdity to abandon nuclear energy when we are beginning desperately to need an alternative to oil, but it's a force that the politicians, not least the president, are going to have to cope with. I should guess that the sheer downrightness of this solution will be no solution at all to most Americans, but what it is doing to public opinion, as the most recent polls show, is that the majority, which wants safe nuclear reactors, wants them somewhere else. 

In other words, the now standard cry is, 'By all means, more nuclear reactors! But not in our town!'

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC

Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.