Issue No. 20 Spring
(April 2008)


ENS News

Word from the President

An Interesting Idea

ENS Events

NESTet 2008


Pime 2008

PIME 2008 - Meeting communication challenges

RRFM 2008

ENA 2008

Member Societies & Corporate Members

Taming the Chernobyl Avalanche

IAEA presents results of OSART Mission

The Advanced Reactor Group (GRA)

Calculation of the neutron flux, fuel and moderator temperature transients for Research Reactors

The Swiss Nuclear Society celebrates 50 years of activities

Nuclear leadership awareness workshop in Rome

YGN Report

The Simpsons and the Nuclear Energy

European Institutions

Lobby for nuclear power inside the European institutions

ENS World News

NucNet News

ENS Members

Links to ENS Member Societies

Links to ENS Corporate Members

Editorial staff

NESTet 2008
4 - 9 May 2008 in Budapest, Hungary


30.9. - 3.10. 2008 in Dubrovnic, Croatia








































An Interesting Idea

Listening to others

by Andrew Teller

A couple of years ago, the French Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (Atomic Energy Commission, CEA for short) entrusted sociologists with the task of investigating the reasons why so many people were afraid of nuclear energy. In an article recently found on the Internet1, an observer named Jean-Pierre Dupuy was reported to have commented that it seemed to him far more urgent to commission an anthropological investigation aiming at understanding why the “nucleocrats” were not afraid of it.

That Jean-Pierre Dupuy is no friend of the nuclear industry is clear to all those who have heard of his work. In a book such as Retour de Tchernobyl, le journal d’un homme en colère2 (Back from Chernobyl, the Diary of an Outraged Man), he equates the civil use of nuclear energy with sheer madness, almost on a par with its military developments. At the same time, he is no run-of-the-mill anti-nuclear; Jean-Pierre Dupuy followed the brightest academic curriculum that can be imagined in France. He graduated from the famous Ecole Polytechnique and then from the no less famous Ecole des Mines, which means that he belongs to an elite within an elite. He teaches social and political philosophy both at the Ecole Polytechnique and at Stanford University. This is one reason why I feel that his recommendation cannot be brushed aside without further thought. Another, more important, reason is that his proposal makes a lot of sense from a methodological point of view. Our understanding of a matter as baffling as this one will only benefit from being tackled from different angles. With a bit of luck, the light shed by one approach could make up for the areas left in the dark by the other. Since the mindset of the supporters of nuclear energy is not unknown to me, I cannot resist the temptation of trying to offer my own answer to this question, pending a fully-fledged enquiry conducted by professionals. Why on earth aren’t we afraid of nuclear energy? Here is a non exhaustive list of reasons that spring to my mind.

  • Because of the overall good record in terms of safety of the nuclear industry compared to the other energy generation activities. This is not the place to start an argument about what the actual figures are or should be; suffice it to say here that there are numerous surveys indicating that the number of casualties per terawatt-hour due to nuclear power plants is lower than for other energy sources, notably hydro-power. Critics of nuclear energy will of course object that the statistics we rely on are biased. We in turn can assert that their figures are inflated for reasons diametrically opposite to ours.

  • Because we consider that focussing on the magnitude of the potential damages of an activity without taking account of the probability attached is not rational. It must be pointed out in this respect that J.-P. Dupuy’s book titled Pour un catastrophisme éclairé3 (For an enlightened “catastrophism”) devotes a sizeable amount of space trying to get rid of the probability factor.

  • Because all those who are trying to scare us away from the civil use of nuclear energy make mistakes in their appraisal of the facts. How could we be swayed by the views of people who obviously misunderstand essential features of the matter under consideration? It must be noted here that Prof. Dupuy is not immune to this shortcoming since he himself seems to believe that the Chernobyl accident could have evolved in a true atom-bomb-type explosion. We all know that the low enrichment of the fuel and its physical layout precluded an atomic explosion. Unit 2 of Chernobyl actually underwent a chemical explosion the outcome of which was about the worst that could be expected from this type of accident.

  • Because we believe that the Chernobyl accident resulted from a gross violation of procedures that could only happen in a very specific environment that was at the time characterised by insufficient professional training and perverse productivity incentives.

  • Because we believe that getting obsessed with the dangers of nuclear energy can lead us to overlook other, more likely, threats. It all boils down to optimising the allocation of limited resources to monitor the numerous problems of the modern world.

  • Because we are all aware of the enormous efforts spent keeping the safety of nuclear activities at the highest level. It can even be claimed that the nuclear industry as a whole has invented a quality assurance system aiming to fighting the main threat to high performance: complacency. The past record of this industry indicates that complex systems such as nuclear power generation can be successfully handled.

  • Because we believe that deep geological disposal provides a suitable solution to the question of the radioactive .waste.

  • Because the more sophisticated of our critics never deem it necessary to express their disapproval of unfair attacks of their not-so-sophisticated brothers. They so lose a golden opportunity of putting themselves in the position of a fair arbiter who can be listened to by all parties.

The last item of this list leads me to the conclusion of this column in the shape of two observations. First J.-P. Dupuy’s proposal might be less disingenuous than it seems. Resorting to an external authority – in the present case, sociologists or anthropologists – to elucidate a matter of opinion might imply that there is something wrong with the population to be investigated. This comment can of course apply to the CEA’s initiative. In the same vein, Prof. Dupuy’s recommendation might be a subtle way of implying that those holding misguided opinions are not those who one might think. Second, the external authority resorted to must be unbiased to deserve its status of independence. This cannot be guaranteed in the present context: the investigators will be as much affected by the matter under consideration as the people investigated. In order to minimise the impact of unavoidable biases, I suggest the following. Let samples of both groups (those afraid and those who are not) be investigated each by sociologists of opposite opinions and let the latter cross-examine the results of their respective enquiries. Since one’s critical power is always at its best when exercised on opinions one disagrees with, this is how we stand the best chance of coming to a genuinely useful implementation of this interesting idea.

2 Le Seuil, Paris, 2006
3 Le Seuil, Paris, 2002


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