On Nuclear Power
“We Irish think otherwise.” Bishop Berkeley
“Nuclear power is the most frightening, even more than a tsunami. The government, the ruling party, administrators, nobody tells us, the citizens, what is really happening,” Isao Araki, 63, said at an evacuation center. (Yahoo News, AP, March 15, 2011)
The Lindisfarne Fellowship that I founded in 1975 is a diverse multidisciplinary group that does not embody an ideology, but does express an ecology of planetary consciousness. On the one hand, we have some of the strongest opponents of nuclear power like Cornelia Hesse-Honegger and Nancy Jack Todd; and on the other, we have some its strongest and most influential proponents like James Lovelock. Lovelock feels that “Cars, Chainsaws, and Cattle” are far more dangerous to the biosphere than a nuclear reactor. Jim is a chemist and a brilliant engineer and inventor. He, along with our other Lindisfarne Fellow Lynn Margulis, is not only the author of the Gaian theory of planetary evolution, but is the inventor of the electron capture device that was able to detect the ozone hole and other trace chemicals in the atmosphere. Like Hutton and Vernadsky before him, Jim has in our age done more than anyone to advance the new science of planetary dynamics.
As a scientist and engineer, Lovelock thinks of nuclear power as a problem to be solved through good engineering. After Chernobyl, Jim told me at his home in Cornwall that the accident was an act of willful idiocy, something like shutting off all the engines of a 747 on a transatlantic flight. But willful idiocy is precisely what I would expect from human beings. Take a look around at all the people who still smoke.
I am a student of cultural history and anthropology, so I see nuclear power not as a technological problem, but as a people problem. We humans simply have no institutions that can last long enough to deal with the problems of radioactive waste. Considering the general corruption of our politicians in any culture one would care to look at, and the greed and venality of businesspersons and managers everywhere, we have no human culture that can meet the management challenges of nuclear energy. As BP has shown in its disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, we are not even capable of managing off-shore oil rigs.
Consider our own American republic. We have not been able to maintain our institutions and Enlightenment philosophy for even two centuries. Since the presidency of Harry Truman, we have become a secret-laden National Security State and a military empire that is entirely owned by a small plutocratic class. President Eisenhower’s warning in his famous Farewell Address has come true. Though we Americans like to think of ourselves as a God-fearing, peaceful people, we are not. We have had a war in every generation since the birth of the Republic. The Mexican-American War, the Spanish American War, the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the carpet-bombing and use of agent orange in Viet Nam that caused genetic damage to Vietnamese children, are not things true Christians should boast about in paroxysms of blind right wing patriotic fervor. Sadly, it is always the children of the American poor who are sent off to defend the economic interests of the American rich.
The industrialists David and Charles Koch are more powerful than the Environmental Protection Agency that they abhor. The owners of the media are more powerful than Congress. And we are supposed to be a beacon in the darkness to other cultures run by the Mugabes and Gadhafis of the world. If even the United States cannot manage its institutions healthily for two centuries, how on Earth do we think humans are going to manage nuclear energy for twenty-five thousand years?
Since the invention of nuclear energy, we have had more than thirty-three “nuclear accidents” in many differently governed societies around the world. And this is not counting lost nuclear subs and weapons.1
Humans, with their limited management systems, are simply not up to the task of handling nuclear power. Catastrophes and the unexpected will always happen, because reality is beyond human control. Engineers will always trust to their irrational belief in reason, because engineering is attractive to personality types who do not like ambiguity and a messy and uncontrollable nature, so they will always find ways to write off catastrophes and continue to look for a technological fix for problems that are not technological.
Catastrophes like Sendai will occur again, just as Sendai followed Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But when we witness the unnecessary post-catastrophe poisonous complexity we have inflicted on ourselves in these disasters, it should give us pause.
But then, as I said, humans are imperfect and perfectly capable of acts of willful stupidity. If people can’t quit smoking, and the addict cannot give up his fix, nor the alcoholic his next and always last drink, then people certainly will not give up their addiction to a consumptive lifestyle that constantly needs more and more electricity for more and more things. As long as our cultural identity is based upon material things, and as long as we are what we own, we shall seek to own more.
Perhaps it is more charitable to accelerate our unavoidable extinction by adding nuclear energy to our stupidity, but looking at the victims of Chernobyl and considering the fifty Japanese workers now putting their lives on the line to avert an explosion of nuclear materials, one can only regard nuclear energy as a truly savage form of high tech human sacrifice.
William Irwin Thompson (born July, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but he has also been writing and publishing poetry throughout his career and received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as “mind-jazz on ancient texts”. He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
His book, Still Travels: Three Long Poems was published in 2009 by Wild River Books. Order a copy from Amazon.
Works by William Irwin Thompson
Memoir – Farewell Address at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference
Memoir – Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne: 1972
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part I
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island
Memoir – Building a Dream – Part One: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – My Dinner with Andre Gregory: Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, 1977-1979
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Shadow Side Part Two: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Cathedral Part Three: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Conclusion: The Economic Relevance of Lindisfarne
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary: Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Memoir – Sex and the Commune
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary
Memoir – With Gregory Bateson’s Mind in Nature
After Heart Surgery: Hokusai’s Great Wave
A Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Nancy Grayson’s Bookstore
On Reading “The Penguin Book of English Verse”: on my iPad and Exercise Bike
Wild River Books/Poetry – Nightwatch and Dayshift: Cezanne
Anatolian Days and Nights and the Cultural Evolution of Spirituality
And the Votes are In: The American Elections of 2010
Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
Bedtime Story for a Civilization
The Big Picture: Reflections on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
The Big Picture, II
Child Abuse and the Catholic Church
The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur
From Shamanism to Religion, Part Two
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality: Conclusion
January 1, 2011: Reflections on the Philosophical Notions of Republicans
January 6, 2011 – Part Two: The Etherealization of Capitalism
Nature and Invisible Environments
Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
On Nuclear Power
On Religion – Part One
On Religion and Nationalism: Ireland, Israel, and Palestine
On Transnational Military Interventions
A Pagan Ur-Text of the Lebor Gebála Érenn
Part 1 – The Shift from Industrial to a Planetary Civilization
Part 2 – The Shift from an Industrial to Planetary Civilization
Part 3 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The Recovery of a Cosmic Orientation
Part 4 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – The Global War for Drugs
Part 5 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The New Jerusalem
Part 6 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Catastrophes as the Spur to Institute Tricameral Legislature
Part 7 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Complex Dynamical Systems and Tricameral Legislatures
Part 8 – The Shift from a Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Israel and Palestine: Sic transit gloria mundi
Part 9 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – On Sarah Palin and the Technocratic Society
Part 10 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – On Conspiracy Narratives as Expressive of the Transition from the Nation: State to the Noetic Polity
Part 11 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Global Awareness and Personal Identity
Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Conclusion: The United Nations
Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011: Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
St. David’s Day, 2011, Technology and Social Change
Saint Patrick’s Day, 2010: Us and Them: Identity and the State
Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
Technical Hubris: and the Sinkhole of Obama’s Centrism
Television and Social Class
Thanksgiving Day, 2010: The Uses and Abuses of History
The Elections of 2010
Thoughts on My new Kindle App: on My Mac iPad