On the morning of Feb. 18 in the cloistered congressional hearing room of the Joint. Committee on Atomic Energy, the drama of Sen. John Pastore’s final year in the Senate will begin to unfold.
On that day, Chairman John Pastore, the leading booster of atomic power for two decades in the Senate, comes face to face with four engineers — three of whom have just quit General Electric along with a fourth specialist who has just resigned from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) over the serious and unresolved dangers of atomic power. Pastore invited these engineers to testify. He is worried over the crumbling technical and economic foundations of atomic energy. Earlier in his career he bought the dream of atomic power — clean, abundant and too cheap to meter.
That dream is turning into a nightmare: The ranging perils of atomic weaponry proliferation made possible by the exporting of nuclear plants, the skyrocketing capital and uranium costs for domestic power plants, the mind-bending problem of transporting and storing radioactive wastes safely for 250,000 years, and the regular disclosure of plant shutdowns, quality control failures and radioactive spills into the environment.
The Rhode Island senator is besieged with other problems of the nuclear fuel cycle. There’s the imminent shortage of domestic uranium, the absence of any fuel reprocessing center until next year, the huge investments and energy required for expanded enrichment capacity, and the problem of safeguarding vehicles and plants from sabotage or terrorism.
Also looming ahead is the arching question of federal subsidies on an even greater scale to keep this industry afloat on a raft of atomic socialism.
The evidence for the concerns of the Rhode Island senator is coming from the government’s own files and the reports seeping to him from industrial sources and from other congressional investigations, particularly the one being conducted by Sen. Abraham Ribicoff.
Pastore’s vane of rage is beginning to flutter uncertainly from its prior steadfast focus on the critics of atomic power, He is demanding that the NRC come up with answers to the charges of the critics.
On the Senate floor last December, Pastore. in acknowledging that one major atomic power disaster would finish the industry, declared. “God forbid. Do you know what would happen? We would close down the whole caboodle.”
Clearly, a nation should not have to rely on such an unstable source of energy where one pia it catastrophe would lead to the closedown of all the others. But that is what would happen because of the immense casualty toll to present and future generations along with the destruction of billions of dollars in property damage and the contamination of hundreds of square miles of land and water.
The Pastore vane may flutter now, but if it turns against the industry, he will carry the Senate and probably the House of Representatives with him.
His retirement from politics at the end of this year already announced, Pastore is beginning to take the long-range view of matters. He speaks of his love for his children and grandchildren when he contemplates the issues of arms control and atomic power.
But his challenge is not one of love for his progeny but of moral courage to change his mind in the light of the pervasive case against atomic power and the alternatives of conservation, solar energy and careful use of fossil fuels.
The four engineers he will listen to and question next week have this moral courage to change their minds and give the reasons why. They have risked comfortable careers and their means of support for their families in order to stand tall before humanity, in order to be for humanity. Others from industry and government will join them in opposition to. atomic power, no doubt.
But heroic as they are, history will render its most visible judgment on the orator from Rhode Island in the likely event of an atomic power or materials catastrophe. For no longer can he claim the shield of innocence, forged by years Of continuous assurances from a secret bureaucracy.
The truth is rushing out and with it the moment of truth for the atomic industry’s towering champion on Capitol Hill.
For more information on atomic energy, write to Union of Concerned Scientists, P.O. Box 289, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.