Twice during the past week, I have run into antinuclear rants that point to Admiral Rickover’s final testimony to Congress in January 1982 as evidence to support an assertion that nuclear energy should be avoided. Admiral Rickover was one of the pioneers in the field of capturing nuclear fission energy for beneficial use; he is known as the father of the nuclear navy and is credited with establishing the pressurized water reactor as the commercial nuclear energy leader.
A statement that he was personally in favor of abolishing the use of nuclear reactors – as these antinuclear screeds attempt to claim – is seen by some as damaging evidence in their case against the technology. Here is how Karl Grossman, a career critic of nuclear energy, used that statement in a recent blog post:
I’d like to start with the bottom line: the problem with nuclear power is—in one word—radioactivity.
In a presidential election campaign several years ago, there was the line: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
When it comes to nuclear power: It’s the radioactivity.
Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was in charge of building the first nuclear power plant in the United States, Shippingport in Pennsylvania, and is heralded as the “father” of the nuclear navy, finally realized that. In a farewell address before a committee of Congress in 1982, as he retired, Rickover said, “I’ll be philosophical. Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on Earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn’t have any life—fish or anything.” This was from cosmic radiation around when the Earth was in the process of forming. “Gradually,” said Rickover, “about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet…reduced and make it possible for some form of life to begin…Now, when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible….every time you produce radiation” a “horrible force” is unleashed, said Rickover, “and I think there the human race is going to wreck itself.” Rickover went on to declare: we must “outlaw nuclear reactors.”
After reading that comment, I made contact with Ted Rockwell. Unlike Grossman, who probably never spoke with Rickover and obviously built his paragraph by linking together carefully selected words from a published testimony, Ted actually knew Admiral Rickover quite well. He reported directly to Admiral Rickover from 1949-1964.
Rockwell was not only Rickover’s Technical Director at Naval Reactors during the time when both the Nautilus and the Shippingport projects were completed, but he has also made a lifelong study of the man and his impact on America. In 1992, the U. S. Naval Institute Press published Ted’s critically acclaimed Rickover biography titled The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference.
Here is Ted’s response to my inquiry for his thoughts on Grossman’s selective quoting. (Apparently, I was not the first of his friends to ask the question. He had a letter ready to go to answer my question.)
I promised to respond to the questions on Rickover’s statement to Congress that we should abandon nuclear technology. It’s a mixed bag, but not inscrutable. Here’s my view of it.
On Jan 28,1982, immediately after being fired at the age of 82, by a vengeful SecNav, with the concurrence of several other officers and officials with a variety of motivations, Rickover was called to present his views on “Economics of Defense Policy” before the Joint Economic Committee. Actually, only President Reagan could fire him, because he was an official in the AEC, “with additional duties in the Navy.”
His testimony is published in a 205-page congressional report (and that’s just “Part 1” of six.). In all those small-print, single-spaced pages, there are only a few sentences, on pages 60 and 61, mentioning abandoning nuclear technology. The subject of the testimony is economics, and this is the Joint Economic Committee. In the first paragraph headed “Nuclear Reactor Safety,” Senator Proxmire opens with the question:
“In view of the experience with Three Mile Island and the other accidents and mishaps, do you believe that civilian nuclear reactors can be operated safely?”
To which Rickover answers “Absolutely, sir.”
On page 60, under “Need for Nuclear Energy,” Rickover says, “Ultimately, we will need nuclear power because we are exhausting our non-renewable energy resources; that is, coal and oil.” Then he diverts to the subject of radiation and the need to control it. And then, “There are, of course, many other things mankind is doing which, in the broadest sense, are having an adverse impact, such as using up scarce resources. I think the human race is ultimately going to wreck itself. It is important that we control these forces and try to eliminate them.”
Note that this talk of restricting use of resources is generic; no mention of nuclear yet. And then, in the next sentence, Rickover says: “In this broad, philosophical sense, I do not believe that nuclear power is worth the present benefits, since it creates radiation. You might ask, why do I design nuclear-powered ships? Because it is a necessary evil. I would sink them all.”
Then, further down the page, he says, “From a long-range standpoint–I am talking about humanity–the most important thing we could do at present is to have an international meeting where first we outlaw nuclear weapons. Eventually, we could outlaw reactors too” He said ‘could,’ not ‘should’ or ‘must.’
And that’s it. Only those brief sentences, in a very philosophical vein.
Why did he say it? No one can know the emotions and motivations of another. But I believe there are a few common reasons for such sentiments, that we can understand, whether we sympathize with them or not. In this case, I suggest the following:
1. Rickover had plenty of evidence that without extraordinary efforts to operate far differently from almost all other large-scale projects, you get the kind of performance record typified by the coal and oil industries, and he knew there were few persons that would be able to create the record that nuclear has achieved. So part of the reason was his feeling that “l’etat cest moi” and therefore “Apres moi, le deluge.” This is hubris, but he had a pretty good historical basis for it.
2. Said slightly differently, it’s the sentiment of the parent turning the business over to the children: “They’ll never be able to run it the way we did.”
3. A totally different reason may be concern (unwarranted, in my opinion) that radioactivity is more dangerous than “ordinary” kinds of hazardous material. And that others will not have enough understanding and insight to deal with it properly.
4. Often, an old man, ruminating on the imminence of his demise, and growing awareness that this is the one thing he can definitely not control, would rather see “his world” disappear, rather than let others screw it up.
So, my view is that we should not consider those brief sentences, in that context, as profound and thoughtful advice.
Note, also that despite Rickover’s concern about earth’s radiation levels building up, the radioactivity we create each year is not enough to keep up with earth’s natural radiation decay. Each day, our natural radiation levels decrease.
Here are some of my own thoughts on the matter. Though I only met Rickover one time for about 60 seconds, I served in a segment of the Navy that was strongly influenced by his ideas, dedication and vanity. I spent many hours alone in the wardroom in the wee hours of the morning reading the letters that he used to write to commanding officers about their personal responsibility for excellence in nuclear energy. As the Engineer Officer on a submarine, I composed at least a half a dozen quarterly reports to Naval Reactors that we still called “Rickover Letters” even though he had been dead for about 5 years before I became an Eng.
Rickover was an accomplished man who achieved more than almost anyone else who has ever walked on the planet. However, he gradually became convinced that he was uniquely qualified to do a job and that NO ONE ELSE could replace him. He clung to his position in a way that makes Brett Favre look like a graceful retiree.
He was 82 years old when John Lehman finally had the strength of character to tell him it was time to release his grip on the job. Even though he spent 30 years building one of the best training programs in the world, he had apparently determined that none of the hundreds of senior people that had spent their entire adult lives under his tutelage could possibly replace him.
History has proven him to be wrong – there have been four Directors of Naval Reactors since Rickover retired and the program continues to be successful. Commercial nuclear power plants have indeed operated safely, and there is growing evidence that the small amounts of released radiation that are an inevitable part of operating nuclear power plants (and operating coal fired power plants and burning natural gas extracted from uranium and radon bearing rocks) is not only safe for people, but probably beneficial to their health.
As much as I admire Rickover’s early accomplishments, I am quite sure that he was wrong about his unique qualifications to operate a nuclear energy infrastructure and I am quite sure that he was wrong about any unique dangers of radioactivity.