George Walford: Editorial Notes (29)

The movements working to have the bomb banned tell us that if only this were done we should be safe from the risk of nuclear war. It isn’t so.

To ban something is not to ensure that it will not be used. Not by a long way. Every advanced country bans addictive drugs and every advanced country suffers from their effects. Security services are banned from infringing the rights of citizens, and one after another the scandals explode. Crime has been banned from the beginning of civilisation, and each investigation into the results of police work reports it increasing. Judging from the record, to ban the bomb would not be to end the risk of its being used.

“Great is truth, and it shall prevail”; the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons is a part of truth. It has escaped and spread, and you can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube. Ban the bomb by all means, every contribution is welcome, but remember that after you have done this comes the hard part: maintaining conditions which ensure that nobody is provoked into using it.

Putting a stop to the use of atomic power stations may sound more promising; it is hardly possible, and quite pointless, to construct one of these in secret. But how much of an increase in security would this provide to offset the social costs? It is by no means self-evident that nuclear power stations offer, after the bombs, the worst, of the risks we have created for ourselves. Chemical works are at least well up in the competition.

In Bhopal in 1984 3,000 people died and 200,000 were severely injured, and this was achieved without nuclear power; old- fashioned chemicals were sufficient. Something similar happened at Seveso, in Italy. In 1986 the Sandoz chemical works, near Basle, suffered a fire. By the best of good luck nobody was killed, the worst damage was to the Rhine, 200 miles of the upper river being poisoned, with an estimated time of ten years for recovery. But what easily could have happened, what nearly did happen, makes even the name given the event, “Chernobasle,” look like an understatement.

The Sandoz installation included a storage shed for sodium, its roof holed during the fire by debris from explosions. By a miracle that God himself might have been proud of, the combination of fire, and water from the hoses, failed to puncture any of the sodium drums; one leak and the entire plant would have gone up, releasing into the atmosphere quantities of nerve gases. There were tanks of phosgene (responsible for the Bhopal disaster) and 12 tons of organophosphates, which produce effects similar to those of the nerve gases developed for military uses. As one West German Green MP put it: “After Seveso and Bhopal the catastrophe of 4sle has shown the risks for man and environment of the chemicals industry are incalculable.”

The suggestion that atomic power stations be discontinued sounds sensible; they are still a novelty and it is easy to feel: we don’t really need these newfangled devices. But can we seriously think of doing away with chemical works? And the motor-car? Electricity? Shipping? Fire? Each of these has killed far more than civilian atomic energy. To seek safety by refraining from the use of anything capable of harm would be to find ourselves backlin the caves – but without our spears, for spears can cause nasty accidents.

It isn’t on. One good definition of humans is that they are tool-using animals, and a tool is an artificial means of increasing one’s powers; to stop using the powers available would be to stop being human. There is, to be sure, a difference between these new powers and the old ones; they are more powerful. Nuclear power, in particular, puts the survival of the race at risk. But when was the race ever safe? From the time we began, a slight change in solar radiation or a bacterial mutation could have wiped us out almost overnight.

By the use of intelligence, foresight, determination and organising ability – qualities on which we still pride ourselves – we have become masters of our destiny in a sense never known before; for the first time, we can eliminate ourselves. It is an uncomfortable position to have reached, but the way back is barred. Knowledge of how to make atomic bombs is widespread and you can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube. Without using the dangerous powers put at our disposal by science and technology we cannot maintain the present world population, and although reduction may well be desirable it would take generations to achieve this by peaceful, democratic methods. The only escape is forward. The answer to the dangers from nuclear power military or civilian, potentially devastating chemicals, and all the other powerful (and therefore dangerous) products of our civilisation is to develop an even greater power, the power to keep these things safely under control. That is a political, which is to say, an ideological problem.

from Ideological Commentary 29, September 1987.