Paul Marks

The Dangers of Nuclear Energy

VTR Date: February 19, 1980

Guest: Marks, Paul


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Paul Marks
Title: “The Dangers of Nuclear Energy”
VTR: 2/19/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Several weeks ago on this program, when Charles Luce, Chairman of the Board of Consolidated Edison was my guest, we discussed one of our nation’s most difficult and dangerous problem areas: the development of nuclear power because of its promise, more abundant energy free from dependence upon foreign oil, but despite its peril, the danger of both slowly growing nuclear contamination and of horrendous nuclear accidents. We developed Mr. Luce’s view on that issue, and today I want to discuss it from another perspective, that of a distinguished member of President Carter’s 1979 Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, Dr. Paul Marks, biochemist, hematologist, and Vice President of Health Sciences at Columbia University.

Dr. Marks, thank you for joining me today. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this matter of nuclear energy and its dangers from a different perspective. And I suppose we ought to say that you and I have known each other for a great many years. We went to school together. And I feel capable of sort of unloosening my collar and saying, “Look, what are the problem areas here? What are our concerns?” I don’t think there’s an American around who isn’t frightened to some degree about nuclear energy and the possibility of accidents or contamination. What’s your perspective on this matter?

MARKS: Well first, Dick, I agree with you that there is a great deal of fear with respect to the application of nuclear science to the generation of nuclear energy. And I think that there has to be the recognition that this is a dangerous technology. It’s a complex technology. And my view is that as a result of my service on the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, came away with several impressions which, you know, I would like to share with you if it’s okay.

HEFFNER: Please.

MARKS: Going in, I guess I was what might be called an average, maybe even a slightly below average informed layman on the technology itself. My expertise lies in the health-related effects, if you will, of ionizing radiation. I came out of my work on the commission with the feeling that the technology was impressive, that the instrumentation was remarkably good, and that on the whole it functioned as it was designed. That’s not to say that there were not design errors that were brought to light in the course of the investigation or that there weren’t certain elements of the equipment that operated less than optimally or actually failed to operate appropriately during the course of the accident. But for me at least, and I think for many of my commissioners, the area that gave us the greatest concern was the evidence to suggest that there were really pervasive inadequacies in personnel practices.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

MARKS: There was a very inadequate, in our view, attention to a number of areas where the people interfaced, if you will, with the machinery. This, for example, was evident when we examined the operator training, the details of operator training: the lack of any depth in many areas of the operator training, as we examined it, as it related to the accident at Three Mile Island. Another area that was a source of great concern was the evidence that was developed that there was inadequate attention paid to previous accidents, if you will, there was no process, no institutionalized process to really learn lessons from past experience that was in any way adequate. Indeed, the commission felt that the accident at Three Mile Island might have been avoided, for example, if lessons learned from previous accidents such as that which occurred in September 1977 in Toledo at the Davis Bussey plant were adequately transmitted, if you will, into the system, into operator training, into management practices, into NRC regulatory practices. I think that it’s fair to say that we spent a lot of time trying to consider why this area was, to our perception, so inadequate. In part, I think that one could say that there was too heavy a reliance on the ability to perfect the machinery, and although no one ever denied the fact that there was always an interface with the human being.

HEFFNER: As I understand, you’re saying that you basically agree that we have the capacity, that we’ve demonstrated a considerable capacity to perfect (whatever that means) the machinery, but our problem has to do with the human beings who operate the machinery. Is that a fair statement?

MARKS: That’s right, in its broadest context. I am not trying to just point a finger at the operators, per se, but I think that you’d have to consider that evidence was developed about inadequacies in management practices, in the regulatory area at the NRC, in the manufacturer of the reactor core, in the manner in which both operator training was carried out and the manner in which there was input from the lessons learned into revising and updating management practices, and of course the utility itself I think bears a heavy responsibility because they are the managers on site, and they are, I would say, primarily responsible for the quality and the rigor with which the management and operation of the plant personnel practices, etcetera, are carried forward.

HEFFNER: Well, if there were some – let’s take another area of life – if you were convinced that there was inadequate preparation for the operators of any potentially lethal machine – and I suppose the example that’s always raised is that of the automobile – but if you were convinced that by and large we didn’t train people well to watch out for and contain and control this machine, you would think about doing away with the machine, wouldn’t you?

MARKS: Well, we haven’t with the automobile.

HEFFNER: No, we haven’t. But we do engage in the kind of training that leads us to believe that by and large, we’re safer rather than less so. What’s your conclusion about the nuclear energy area?

MARKS: Well, I think that the implication of your statement, to me at least, is that you may think I’ve suggested that one can’t train people in sufficient depth and develop people of sufficient quality to be able to operate nuclear reactors with a good deal less risk, say, than is apparent in terms of the way Three Mile Island was operated. I don’t…

HEFFNER: Well, what I think is meaningless. What do you think about that?

MARKS: I don’t believe that. In other words, I think there’s a lot we could do to improve the quality and therefore probably reduce the risk of nuclear plant operations.

HEFFNER: Paul, granted, we can improve the quality and reduce the risk. To your satisfaction as a citizen, to my satisfaction, for instance, as someone who lives a few minutes away from Indian Point?

MARKS: I hope we can. Now, that’s not a very good answer, because I don’t know whether we can yet. In other words, I would say that I found that practices very, very distressing at Three Mile Island in terms of safety. I think that there will always be risks involved in the operation of nuclear plants. I think they can be very significantly reduced. And then I think you reach a point where you have to develop an approach to how much risk you’re willing to accept to have the benefits or the potential benefits of nuclear energy. My own view on that would be that I suspect that there are companies, utilities who can develop standards or who have developed standards for operation of nuclear plants which have made it possible to operate these plants at a risk that would be, say, personally acceptable at the present time to me. But I suspect that this is not the case throughout the industry. If, I might add, at Three Mile Island is any example of what goes on elsewhere in the industry.

HEFFNER: Okay. You suggest that it’s not in your estimation in all likelihood the case throughout the industry that sufficient – I’m sure there’s sufficient concern – but not sufficient control, or sufficiently rigorous training or control. What do you do then?

MARKS: Well, I think that that’s a very, there’s a lot of things that have to be done which are necessary. You k now, the thing that always lingers in the back of my mind is – and I’ll get to those specifically in a minute — is whether you get through with doing all these things, whether it’s going to be sufficient. And I don’t know that we can answer that. In fact, I would say that this is something that we’ve got to keep uppermost in our minds as we go forward, the sufficiency of what improvements can be made and must be made in current practices. I think that, for example, operator training. This has to become much more rigorous. The theoretical basis behind the application of nuclear science, nuclear energy, has to become much more of a part of the training program. Operators have to be trained in simulators which are, I believe, exactly like or very similar to the control rooms in which they will be required to operate. The operator training must include simulation of accidents, of accidents such as that which occurred at Three Mile Island in which there were multiple factors involved, not just a single factor. And so on. There is a whole spectrum of recommendations we made in our report with regard to operator training.

At another level, I think management has to become much more rigorous with regard to personnel practices throughout the plant. Criteria for hiring, educational requirements, relicensing requirements. Right now, for example, or at least at the time of the Three Mile Island accident, an operator could fail parts of the relicensing exam, including those parts dealing with the operating of emergency equipment, and the utility still would not be required and did not pull the man out of the control room.

HEFFNER: What’s the situation today?

MARKS: I don’t know precisely, unfortunately.

HEFFNER: Are you under the impression though, that since your commission’s report those things that any right-thinking, decent, scared citizen would want done has been done?

MARKS: Well, as you probably are aware, I can only answer that from the perspective of what I read in the newspapers. And on the basis of what I would consider the superficial evidence in the newspapers, I read just the other day for example, that two plants are still closed down because they haven’t been able to meet safety requirements. I could not determine from the newspaper account to what extent these safety requirements involve personnel practices, to what extent modification of equipment. But I guess the answer to your question is that I don’t, I haven’t read anywhere in the public press evidence that these, all the practices that we have suggested be implemented have been fully implemented in the ongoing licensed plants.

HEFFNER: Okay. When you and I went to college many, many, many years ago – or let me put it another way – since the time that you and I went to college many, many years ago, we’ve come across (since we’re the older citizens now), we’ve come across problems that have to do with life and death. You’re a physician, and you’re concerned essentially, that is your oath to be concerned for the well-being of all of the rest of us. If you had to make a bet in terms of the potential, given the nature of human nature as you know it, for accident, for the kind of controls that are not adequate enough, would you feel better about dismantling the nuclear energy industry?

MARKS: Well, that’s a very tough call.

HEFFNER: I know.

MARKS: I know you know. (Laughter) Because I think that this has to be balanced off, obviously, against the risks that are associated with either the lack of energy that now is being made available through nuclear plants or going to alternative methods. Those that are attractive, such as conservation or solar, are not, to the best of my ability to evaluate them, yet adequate to replace nuclear. So we probably would have to go to some less ideal thing like increase our dependence on foreign oil or increase the use of other agents for energy which carry certain risks. So I think that we continue to sail with nuclear energy, and that is a fact. I think it’s a realistic fact. And I think it’s going to be risky. And I think that one of the things that concerns me most is the extent to which operating utilities themselves re going to be required to really come up to standards that can be reasonably achieved.

HEFFNER: You mean that you’re concerned that they won’t be required to come up to those standards?

MARKS: That’s right. In a really rigorous way. Now, the industry itself has established a self-monitoring board which has some promise to move in this direction. And obviously the NRC is trying to move in this direction. But this I s a very tall task to go from where they were, say, on March 28, 1979 to where they ought to be today based on present technology.

HEFFNER: In terms of safety.

MARKS: In terms of safety, in terms of, yeah, in terms of minimizing risk.

HEFFNER: Look, as a physician, I’m sure there have been many times when you’ve talked about risks with our patients, and detailed what those risks were, and you put it in their hand, I’m sure, with your advice, with your concerned consultancy. Who’s at risk here? Isn’t it all of us? Aren’t we all at risk here? And shouldn’t we all be participating in an understanding of what the risks are?

MARKS: Absolutely, Dick. That simply, I meant to say earlier, I think what we’re dealing with here is something that places the population as a whole at risk. In fact, you know, we can’t ignore the fact that the nuclear energy industry is only one part of the application of nuclear science in our society. And we face risks from the other applications. The military use, which, you know, in my view, however uneducated it is, is probably a much greater risk than probably we are running with relation to the nuclear energy industry. We also have to face the fact that the nuclear energy is going forward in other, in foreign countries. And we in the United States face risks related to the safety of operation of plants in Canada and even in Europe. And I think that this is an area where the population as a whole must get involved, must become as educated as possible. The final decisions, I believe, have to be made in the public process. I think that’s the only way this judgment is going to be made in a sound fashion. And I for one, you know, would rely heavily on this process.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that a public agenda is being set forth for us in which the, to the degree that we can identify the facts of the matter so we can make our judgment about the risks?

MARKS: Well, I think if you think about it, the president’s commission was a rather unique event in this process. Because for the first time, 12 citizens – and really with the exception of two members of the commission – 12 citizens who really had not particular expertise with respect to nuclear science were asked and given an opportunity to really look into this area in depth. Granted, the mandate was narrowed to the application of nuclear science as it relates to the accident at Three Mile Island. But considering the historical development of nuclear science in this country, the secrecy under which it was initially developed because it was primarily related to military purposes. This was a very unique event. And I think it created a certain momentum which has to be continued. Continued in the Congress, continued under the aegis of the executive branch, and I think continued in public forums. The Committee for Concerned Scientists and other voluntary groups, I think, must continue the searching examination of these risks.

HEFFNER: One of the things you’ve mentioned to me in our brief discussions about this matter had to do with nuclear waste. And I gather whether we go forward or stop the whole thing right now, we’re stuck with a nuclear waste problem.

MARKS: That’s right.

HEFFNER: …that will go on for eons and eons.

MARKS: That’s right. I mean, we do have to remember that every one of the licensed 72 plants now in this country have fuel element there, and some have quite a bit of spent fuel stored on site, and up to a hundred tons of fuel rods in the reactor core. And it’s obvious from papers in recent days with the, that we don’t have a defined policy that will permit us to deal with this waste safely.

HEFFNER: In terms of your experiences on the commission and your concern thereafter, do you have any thought about how we might direct our attentions toward this question, just the question of waste?

MARKS: Just the question of waste. Well, I think that the issues with regard to waste relate to a number of complex technologies. One, the issue as to whether one can really bury the waste safely. I don’t think we have all the answers to that. And this is an area where it’s very difficult to do adequate research. But I think we’ve got to take appropriate and reasonable steps to evaluate whether this is an option.

HEFFNER: But it’s interesting, Paul – excuse me – you say you don’t know whether we can, it’s a question. Yet this is one of the clichés in the press, the phrase is frequently seen, finding the means to bury it adequately.

MARKS: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I doubt that many of the rest of us plain citizens have any thought but that it’s just a question of finding out where to bury it.

MARKS: It’s much more complex. It’s much more complex than just…Well, in an ultimate sense, if there is a place we can bury it safely, then obviously that’s the question: where to bury it. But that’s a very, very complicated, technically complicated question.

HEFFNER: And in the meantime, before it’s resolved?

MARKS: In the meantime, we’re sitting with it. And we also have the option of considering reprocessing spent fuel rods. This is being done in certain countries. The technology for reprocessing is available. There are questions, very serious questions, with regard to the safety of these processes, with regard to our ability to maintain adequate inventory, security. These are all major technological questions. And these are issues which require a great deal of effort and research to resolve. And it’s not an easy question. I mean, the fact is, Dick, that this country made a commitment to go forward with nuclear energy in the early 50s. And as is the case with so many of the applications of technology in our society, the long-term consequences of those decisions were not fully thought out in part because we didn’t have enough facts to fully think them out.

HEFFNER: Paul, if you could wave that magical wand, medical or otherwise, and put the genie back in the bottle, would you do it? That is, I know, a tough one.

MARKS: Well, as a scientist, I guess I have to say if you’re asking in 1954…

HEFFNER: No, today.

MARKS: No, knowing what I know today, in 1954…


MARKS: … would I have stopped it all? I guess I would have said that I probably would have been inclined not to go to the use of nuclear energy as a source of energy in this country. But I don’t know that that is really a constructive way to think about the problem, because, in a sense, the application of nuclear science for the production of energy is an example, with all its problems and benefits, of the application of so many other types of technology. It’s more dramatic because of the potential consequences not only to those of us alive today but to generations to come if there was a devastation climactic accident. But the fact is that many other technologies that have been applied in our society have, in fact, turned out to have much more undesirable consequences, to date at least, than has nuclear energy.

HEFFNER: We’ve got about 45 seconds. Let me ask the most important question of all perhaps. Have we been affected by it in terms of the contamination of our society? Of our air, of our land, of our food? What’s your medical judgment?

MARKS: Well, my medical judgment is that the use of, that nuclear energy has probably increased, if you will, the background to some small percentage, certainly in many areas of the country.

HEFFNER: And that’s a sad note, but it’s the one we have to end on. Thanks very much, Dr. Paul Marks, for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.