PROPHETS AND SOPHISTS

An extract from the book Red Alert: The Worldwide Dangers of Nuclear Power by Judith Cook, written and sent to press, in 1986, just a few months before the accident at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl.

 

'In 1610 the poet and playwright Ben Jonson wrote a play called The Alchemist. It has remained popular ever since. The main reason for this is that human nature does not change; there are always those who con and those who seem only too eager to be conned.

Briefly, the plot concerns two crooks, one of whom is servant to a wealthy man who has fled from London because of the plague. They use the man's house to set up an alchemist's "consultancy". One poses as an alchemist, the servant as his secretary-assistant-agent. Most of the requests with which they have to deal are pretty routine: potions for sexual virility, love philtres, horoscopes, formulae for total success in gambling, swordplay, business, etc.;

Alchemy itself was a mixture of the beginnings of real discoveries in chemistry and science, hocus pocus, and "magic". The Alchemist has a vast array of impressive-looking equipment to show clients, a serum or a stone (he offers both) which will transmute base metal into gold. In pursuit of that dream, his clients offer him more and more money. One is merely a rich man who wants to be even richer and he is given a rather basic idea of the supposed processes involved.

But the Alchemist has more of a problem with two Protestant ministers who want the gold for political reasons. They are too bright, they say, to be fobbed off with simple explanations of how it is done. When we meet them they have already paid out substantial sums though without achieving the required result.

At this point the Alchemist bursts into a torrent of supposedly technical jargon. Of course, as these two gentlemen are so extremely clever, perceptive and forward-looking they are bound to understand what he says: he does not need to make any concessions to them, does he? So he feeds them with a mishmash of dog-Latin, laced with apparently scientific fact. After all, it is surely an investment—300 marks to make them six million?

All he needs is more money to buy

"Another load.
And then we've finished. We must now increase
Our fire to ignis ardens, we are past
Fimus equinus, balnet, cineris
And all those lenter heats..."

Fimus equinus was horse manure, balnei, a boiler and cineris, ashes. It all sounded rather better than "We need money to buy more coal to get more heat than we can get in our boiler from horse manure".

The clients dare not expose their own ignorance; after all, has not the Alchemist told them repeatedly how intelligent and clever they most obviously are? So, once again, they pay up after listening to him open-mouthed and in bemused silence.

And the outcome? Ah, well, eventually the whole lot blows up.

It would not be just to equate the nuclear power industry exactly with Ben Jonson's pair of chancers in The Alchemist. The industry has not proposed something which can not one day be achieved at some price. But there are some underlying similarities. Like the alchemists, the industry has had reasons for pushing ahead with its civil nuclear power programme other than those always obviously stated. It has also promised something similar to the elusive stone which transmutes base metal into gold—a process which will produce unlimited energy. "Electicity too cheap to meter" was the slogan of the pro-nuclear lobby during the 1950s.

In their desperate search for this miraculously cheap form of energy, the "philosopher's stone" which would transmute a mineral into electric power, staggering sums of real money have been poured into the nuclear industry. Certainly it has been proved that it is possible to produce electricity from nuclear power stations—but at a cost. It is far more expensive than that produced by other means and it is infinitely more hazardous. However, those who question the assumptions of the nuclear-power lobby are written off at best as cranks and at worst as subversives requiring surveillance.

Members of governments of all shades, energy ministers such as Tony Benn and Peter Walker, civil servants, employees of public utilities, have sat, like Jonson's puritans, open-mouthed and bemused, listening to the flood of jargon which has promised that the millennium is just around the corner.

Billions of pounds of taxpayers' money have been poured into the nuclear industry all over the world—give us more money and we'll get there. Never mind that each nuclear power station has cost millions of pounds more than was estimated. That they have all taken years longer to build, that at the end all of it they have only produced a modest proportion of the electricity required by all countries, except France; all that is disregarded. Keep the money coming in and we'll get it right in the end.

But overshadowing the industry is the question of safety. For the nuclear industry there is no question. Nuclear power is perfectly safe, they say; nuclear installations are among the safest in the world, there is no proof, real proof, that radiation either within the workplace or near to nuclear power plants has ever caused one single death or one case of cancer. Disposing of nuclear waste is a little more tricky but any time now we should get that one sorted out.

In 1979, at Three-Mile Island in the USA, the magic equipment, like that of Jonson's Alchemist, nearly blew up. The nuclear reactor, with a bubble of hydrogen inside it had some 1800 cubic feet of space, but was within 30 minutes of a full meltdown. Nobody is completely sure why it did not actually blow up. But for the time being the nuclear industry was off the hook.

Next time we may not be so lucky...

THE WINDS OF TIME

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