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Review: The Nuclear Barons

John Pendergrast (reviewer) — May 1984

Peter Pringle and James Spigelman. 578 pages, including 124 pares of notes and bibliorraphy. 1981, Avon Books. $4.95 paperhack.

The Nuclear Barons is a long and fascinating account of the development of nuclear technolopy and its political and economic ramifications. Thouph Pringle and Spigelman clearly think that nuclearism has heen fundamentally mispuided, The Nuclear Barons is not a polemical book. Rather, it concentrates on telling the story of nuclearism in a detailed and lively way. Sketches of the leading personalitics and organisations in the Unitcd States, the Soviet Union, England, France, Germany, Japan and Canada provide a more or less chronological account of the history of nuclear development. Although one occasionally wishes for a stronger sense of direction, The Nuclear Barons is nevertheless an invaluahle sourcebook.

The story of the nuclear barons is not one of evil ambition or soulless profiteering. The cast of characters, which proliferates as rapidly as nuclear technolopy itself, shares only the characteristic of energetic activity. These are people who make things happen. In the midst of ethical, technical and economic uncertainty, they rarely hesitate. Excited by the glamour of a new and promising technology, they continually press forward, confident that all prohlems will eventually be solved. Only rccently has their confidence been seriously questioned hy more than a small minority.

The issues dealt with in The Nuclear Barons are those that the leading proponents of nuclearism, have been forced to deal with themselves. These have not in general concerned the arms race, but rather nuclear power. Should France, for instance, develop its own reactor technology, or import it from the United States? If the technolopy chosen required enriched uranium, how should the enrichment he done? Once the technology was developed, how could it be sold? Similar choices confronted England, Germany, Canada and Japan.

On the larger issues of waste disposal and the proliferation of nuclear weapons; the authors note almost in passing that no satisfactory method of waste disposal has been found, and that the distinction between the capacity to produce nuclear power and the capacity to produce nuclear weapons is largely illusory.

Pringle and Spigelman spend rather more time on the question of the long-term economic viability of nuclear power. Their conclusions arc that the normal uncertainty involved in developing and implementing any new lechnology has been compounded in the case of nuclear power by the existence of cartels, massive government intervention and a considerable. degree of wishful thinking.

The Nuclear Barons documents not evil, nor even foolishness. More often than not, the nudear barons have represented the cream of their respective countries’ technical elite. We could not ask for more skilled hands in which to entrust our future. But the nuclear barons have been highly arrogant and, in the long run, short-sighted, and incompetent. The story is not new — ruling classes almost always turn out to be incompetent in the end — but the consequences are now threatening to become intolerahle.