Excerpt from PLAYBOY Interview of Edward Teller, August 1979
PLAYBOY: What about waste products from the production of nuclear energy? There is great concern over nuclear end products that can't be disposed of safely.
TELLER: Waste disposal has been practiced in the nuclear-weapons program for decades without accident, even though during the war disposal was not done nearly as carefully as we are doing it now.
The American Physical Society conducted an extremely careful study on waste-disposal and it published the results in January, 1978. Now, the American Physical Society is not especially favorable to any particular form of energy. Its findings were unanimous: Waste disposal is a completely solved problem. Its implementation in civilian reactors has been delayed by our bureaucracy, and this delay is just plain wrong. The best characterization of this issue has been given by a very wonderful lady, now the governoe of Washington, Dixy Lee Ray, who was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. "Waste disposal," she said, "is the biggest contemporary nonproblem."
PLAYBOY: That's a rather abrupt dismissal of an important issue. Are you referring to temporary storage of waste disposal rather than permanent storage?
TELLER: I'm referring to both. Temporary storage is being practiced by putting the burned-out fuel elements into big ponds. The water cools them and stops the radiation. The temporary storage elements are easily supervised and extremely safe. After a fuel element has been in temporary storage for, let us say, ten years, then we are ready to reprocess, to extract from it the valuable, long-lived, heavy elements, such as plutonium. Those elements stick around for more than 1000 human generations, but we can burn them up in other reactors within a few years. We can reuse them and and get rid of them. As to what remains, those elements should be incorporated into an insoluble mass and buried a mile underground. They will never again be in touch with anything that's alive.
PLAYBOY: What about reports that those waste products can contaminate the water table and eventually our drinking water?
TELLER: One puts the waste in a layer that is geologically stable, that has no water to carry away anything. And if there were water, the material is not soluble. You then wait for the few hundred years that radioactivity keeps diffusing, and by that time, it will be less than the radioactivity found in a uranium mine.
I want to add one thing: The military has worked on the disposal of its products, a very similar situation to what's left over in a reactor. Actually, the amount of the material the military has disposed of is, at least for now, greater than all the material from the reactors. There never has been any serious trouble with that. A slight trouble did arise with the material that was disposed of during the Second World War by quite primitive methods, not in the elaborate way I have described. The question has been carefully studied by the American Physical Society and it has found no real problem.
PLAYBOY: You may cite the American Physical Society, but the US Geological Survey has challenged the waste-disposal system we are proposing in our SALT talks with the Russians.
TELLER: That's because of a change in the system I have described, which has been made by President Carter. He has insisted that the plutonium not be separated out before disposal. He's afraid the misuse of plutonium will lead to nuclear-weapons proliferation. So we've stopped extracting and reprocessing the long-lived plutonium. But other nations haven't. We should do so once again and deal with the proliferation problem by political means to make waste disposal safer. It still should work, but Carter has made the job unneccessarily difficult.
PLAYBOY: What are the problems involved with nuclear reactors, as you see them?
TELLER: The problems are called Ralph Nader. As long as people who have no understanding spread their views successfully, an important component of our energy production will not make sufficient progress. Public understanding is inhibited by people who should know better. Those who are lacking in knowledge should at least talk a little less. Ralph Nader was right about safety belts: I doubt that he was right about many other things.
PLAYBOY: That's a bit glib of you, as a major proponent of nuclear energy, to say...
TELLER: Excuse me, I am not a big proponent of nuclear energy, no more than I am of oil or coal or solar energy or geothermal energy or wave energy or wind energy or you name it, as long as it is feasible. When you have real shortages, you don't throw away any important components without very good reason.
It so happens that nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest, cheapest source of electricity where electricity is required in large amounts. For small generating plants, nuclear energy is no good. Furthermore, electrictiy is only a part of our energy requirements. Therefore, nuclear energy is certainly not the whole answer.
PLAYBOY: Haven't the large oil companies blocked research to other areas of energy?
TELLER: Large companies don't suffer these days from too much popularity. And oil companies seem to be less popular than others.
Actually oil companies have supported research in other fields and they have developed methods for finding and producing oil that are quite ingenious. About three years ago, in California, we had a referendum, Proposition 15, on nuclear reactors. I happened to know that the oil companies supported nuclear reactors and gave money for that purpose. But they did not stand up and say so. The result was that they wound up being accused by everybody. Opponents of nuclear reactors found out that they had given money; proponents of nuclear reactors noticed that the oil companies wouldn't speak up for their convictions. They became uncertain as to whose side the oil companies were really on. So proponents didn't like them, either. Now, to be so cautious as not to dare say what you believe in is not a lovely role, and to that extent, I can fault the oil companies.
I don't think it holds for all of them. In general, I think that big and rich companies do have some responsibility for the common good, and a part of that responsibility, it seems to me, would be to take a stand that is, in their own eyes, the best. Their judgment is probably better than their courage. Corporate courage is usually no greater than personal courage.
PLAYBOY: In terms of personal courage, have you not noted that many opponents of nuclear plants are willing to put themselves at risk, even go to jail, for their convictions?
TELLER: How many did go to jail? and how many, instead, became famous for nothing more than telling lies? Many, I believe, do it out of mistaken convictions; some believe it's an easy road to fame, and maybe to fortune. There is a man, Amory Lovins, whose only accomplishment is his opposition to nuclear energy and similar big enterprises. He has become a famous man from this opposition alone.
PLAYBOY: One of Lovins' major criticisms of nuclear power is that we produce more electricity than we need and that nuclear reactors lead us to overproduction, that using them is like"cutting butter with a chain saw."
TELLER; I certainly cannot criticize Lovins for any lack of pictureque expression, but let me talk about the butter and the chain saw. In the Sixties, electric consumption was rising 7 percent a year. That rise has slackened. For a while, it was quite low: it is now back up to about 4 percent. Perhaps we could save more, but when you stop producing more electricity, the people you hurt are actually the poorest people, who have not yet had their share of energy consumption. Let's say we stop building new plants. In that case, our present excess would be gone in two and a half years. To build these plants takes maybe ten years, so you do have to plan ahead.
Lovins say, Let's build smaller units, those we can build faster. In a discussion, he was asked if the small units exist now. He said no. Then he was asked when they will exist and he said maybe in the year 2000. So he dreams about inventions that don't yet exist and that he cannot himself invent, because he is not an inventor. He's a dreamer with a remarkable vocabulary.
PLAYBOY: You've written extensively about the use of unusual energy sources such as wave energy. Can such forms as wave energy and solar energy fill major energy needs in advanced technological societies?
TELLER: We have to take them case by case. By solar energy, people often mean a lot of different things: growing plants and using the plants for fuel; collecting solar heat for heating and even cooling houses, Many of these are feasible. In m book, I try to visualize what might happen in the year 2000, I try to be fairly optimistic. I make guesses: By the year 2000 20 percent of our energy may come from nuclear sources, 12 percent from solar sources.
PLAYBOY: You have argued that solar power is not yet developed enough for mass use. Let us quote once again from Lovins. He has said that if all the new houses built in the us in the next 14 years were solared heated, we could save as much energy as we expect to recover from the North Slope oil system of Alaska.
TELLER: I have not made this special calculation, but I can tell you a few things about that statement. Today, we have the means of heating water with solar power, and in out Southern states, that certainly could be done. Heating in the South, where we hardly need it, might also be done in an economic manner by solar energy. But what will you do in New England or in the Midwest or in practically half of the US, where there isn't enough sunshine? I heard Lovins say in Brussels that all the electricity for Belgium could be produced by solar heat and windmills. This is certainly not true.
The question is, can solar energy be turned into electricity? It can, but only at a price that today is at least 5 times as great as the price for nuclear electricity.. These high costs are due to a lot of fabrication that goes into making the parts of the solar machine: unless we mass produce, we won't be able to pay for it. So small no longer will be beautiful; small will be expensive. When we mass-produce, that production will give more pollution and more danger than nuclear reaction. I don't think that solar electricity is impossible forever. There are people who are coming up with new ideas and I am working with them. I want to get energy from every possible source. From nuclear, from solar, from oil and from gas, but, if possible, not from OPEC.
To summarize, the problems of nuclear and solar energies are very different. In the case of solar energy, we don't have the practical technology yet, but it is slowly approaching the stage where its cost will not be too great per unit of energy produced. In the case of nuclear energ, we know how to produce it, but we don't apply common reason to something that is technically well understood. Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter, the nuclear engineer in the White House, forgot what he learned, if, indeed, he ever learned it.
PLAYBOY: But people far less sophisticated than Carter feel that the enormity of nuclear power is simply beyond their grasp..
TELLER: Nuclear power is certainly beyond the grasp of anyone who doesn't want to hear about it. If you want to undrstand it, you grasp it very easily.
PLAYBOY: Considering the reservations many people have about it, don't we have a right to be informed about what nuclear power can provide that we don't already have?
TELLER: Today, nuclear power can produce electricity wherever it is needed in large quantities. For any country that has a good electrical-distribution net, it is the cheapest, cleanest, safest source. For the horridly huge cities, the slums of the Third World--Cairo, Mexico City, Bombay, Calcutta, Djakarta, where you have 10 million people living in a crowded area--nuclear power could be used to great advantage without adding pollution. Even so, nuclear power is most useful in the advanced countries, where the distribution net already exists.
By utilitizing nuclear power, within ten years, the advanced countries could decrease their need for oil by 30 percent. This oil could then go to developing countries. What nuclear power could do, therefore, is not only stabilize the shaky economices of the advanced world but also help a lot of the developing world, which will not develop without energy.
There are some very interesting statistics about this. The UN's records from 1950 to1975 show that per capita commercial energy consumption in the developing countries increased in the period threefold. It is not true that the rich are getting richer and the the poor are getting poorer. It is true that energy is needed for a decent standard of living. And it is further true that the developing countries continue to have too little energy.
The great development in the third quarter of the 20th Century has been made possible in oil. These possibilities have not ended, but the limits are in sight. For the sake of the developing world, we need added energy sources: nuclear and solar and geothermal and wave energy and others. Among these, nuclear is already here: so is coal. Nuclear energy could comprise by the year 2000, about one fifth of the energy of the world. Today, it produces only two or three percent of the world's energy. That 20 percent could make a difference in the world, in stability, in the accelerated fight against poverty.