Nuclear Energy Wasn't Invented to Produce Domestic Electricity

Excerpted from a visit with the eminent physicist Ursula Franklin, Professor Emerita, University of Toronto

By Ursula Franklin | 1988-10-01 12:00:00

Nuclear energy wasn't invented to produce domestic electricity. It was invented to produce a bomb. The bomb's high energy can be changed into slow motion and produce energy in smaller increments for domestic heat as a substitute for fire But the interest in doing this comes totally from trying to redeem one of the world' s most destructive applications of science.

Recall what happened to the professional community, before and after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the first tests, there was a report imploring Truman to invite the Japanese to see the test but not to use the bomb. The physicists were very clear that a demonstration would have been good enough. As history has since shown, Japan was about ready to surrender. But they did that incredible thing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At that point the professions split. There were people saying "We will never again do military or secret research." But there were other people who wanted to redeem the investment in equipment, in their careers. So nuclear energy technology came out in order to say that there must have been something good in that horrible science. But forty years later, the fact is that there isn't.

It would not have been developed otherwise. It's hare-brained. Look at it in terms of efficiency: You mine the uranium and produce yellowcake with considerable hazard to the environment and to workers' health. It's a very expensive operation in terms of money, health, environment. Then, the enriched uranium or the yellowcake is used as nuclear fuel in an arrangement that requires materials not normally used in construction. You don't use iron, for which the world's experience of 3000 years is at your disposal. You use materials that nobody else has ever handled. Who wants uranium, except people who need that transparency for radiation? It now gives us the brittleness problems in the tubes at Pickering. So there's a whole bundle of expensive research ignorance brought in to produce -- what, steam? Steam to run the turbine. The turbine to produce electricity, to he there to plug your kettle in. And what do you make? Tea. Nobody, without the ongoing drive for bombs, would have ever looked at this technology. Just as you don't take TNT, for example, dilute it with some-thing, and say, "I'll use that in my stove instead of wood!" It just isn't the way the world works. When you have high-density energy, you don't use it like that.

The Demand Side

And besides, that electricity (at least in Canada) had to create needs for itself -- needs that one didn't have before. Really, it is much better to handle it on the demand side than on the supply side. Insulation is infinitely better than extra house wiring. I can de-scribe exactly how to prevent any need for new nuclear power plants, but we still see buildings that are completely illuminated during the night.

So you do not need nuclear technology to produce domes-tic energy. This is an excuse that was developed to redeem an unacceptable use of science, as well as to act as a fig leaf for the ongoing production of nuclear weapons. Be-cause, if we had no nuclear energy, every ton of uranium mined would go to the military. It wouldn't be dressed up. People would know. The technique is inappropriate; its use is not necessary. The environmental burden is incredible and will only come back to haunt us. There is no excuse for it. Today there are many people who know this and who want it stopped. But no matter what they do, it still goes on. So the important question is a political one: that would it take to stop this process? What do we have to do?

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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