Introducing Nuclear Power


Nature Vol. 262: July 15, 1976   

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PHYSICIST AND AUTHOR WALTER PATTERSON’S book is written in two parts. The first is excellent; I have never read a better simple explanation of the theory and practice of nuclear reactors and their ancillary plants. I am, however, less enthusiastic about the second part of the book, dealing with the hazards of nuclear power. It seems to me that, in his anxiety to make a case which is real, Patterson may be guilty of lack of balance.

A few of his statements throw some doubt on his accounts of nuclear power shortcomings. He brings up the October 1957 Windscale Fire, the worst nuclear accident in Great Britain’s history, and alludes in a paragraph “the dramatic gesture of pouring away milk” by British citizens due to radioactive poisoning. I find this incident to be romanticized; I had left the UK Atomic Energy Authority at the time of the incident and knew nothing of any discussions that took place but it seems to me that companies would have to be foolish to sell milk and lay themselves open to the unfounded accusation of selling radioactive products. His italic paragraphs about the Enrico Fermi fast reactor and mention of the “China syndrome” are hardly a fair argument against the fast reactors which are being designed today and which use a ceramic and not a metallic fuel.

A schematic representation of the “China syndrome”, a hypothetical sequence of events following the meltdown of a nuclear reactor, in which the core melts through its containment structure and deep into the earth.
Adapted from Higgins News Network
The book does not emphasize the world’s real need for nuclear power. The rate of usage of nonrenewable natural resources does not increase ex­ponentially to a sharp peak and sud­denly fall away to nothing; it conforms to a wave-shaped curve so that at some point in time growth becomes steadily slower until a peak is reached. Thereafter, growth becomes negative (that is, the rate of usage diminishes). It is highly improbable that renewable energy resources (wave power, solar energy and wind power) can make up the deficit of the shift from fossil fuels alone; without the help of nuclear power, it is almost certain that standards of living will fall.

Nuclear power does give rise to some hazards but nothing in this world is absolutely safe. Nuclear power plants can be made as safe or safer than very many other industrial plants provided that engineers are not over-ambitious in extrapolating either the design para­meters or the size of the construction programs. With these reservations, I would sooner accept the hazards of nuclear power than the risk of an energy famine.

The first part of Walter Patterson’s book is an outstandingly good intro­duction to nuclear power for the in­telligent non-expert. As a reminder of their responsibilities, Part 2 should be compulsory reading for those men who have responsibilities in the nuclear power industry; but its lack of balance may give a wrong impression to the lay-reader.






Lord Hinton of Bankside is Deputy Chairman of the Electricity Supply Research Council and was formerly Managing Director (Industrial Group) of the UKAEA and Chairman of the UK Central Electricity Generating Board.


@1976 Nature Publishing Group

This article is a re-mediation of the original article published in Nature. The original can be found here: 262237b0


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