The New York Times reported Tuesday in a special "Technology" section that the prospects for environmental disaster due to climate change induced by fossil-fuel emissions are so dire that environmentalists are changing their attitudes toward nuclear power.[1]  --  Charles B. Perrow, whose Disaster Evermore? U.S. Vulnerability to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters will be published this summer, says:  "I see climate change as being so disastrous that increased nuclear energy may be the way to go."  --  Reporter Barnaby J. Feder wrote:  "The new designs [for nuclear power plants] still do not address concerns about the accumulation of nuclear waste that will be radioactive for centuries unless a new way of dealing with it is devised.  And nuclear plants -- and the technology to support them -- strike some critics as inviting targets for terrorists.  Still, many energy experts see nuclear power as the best bridge to an energy future based on renewable sources like solar power."  --  Feder also reviewed concerns about biotechnology and nanotechnology.  --  In general, just as humanity's prospects for a solution to bad religion appear to be in the direction of more and better religion rather than no religion at all, the solutions to unwanted techonological effects appear to lie in the direction of enhanced and more advanced technology rather than an abandonment of technological progress altogether -- at least until those alien spaceships arrive to destroy Earth in order to make way for an interstellar highway....



Assessing Risks

By Barnaby J. Feder

New York Times
May 17, 2006
Page E4

As far as anyone knows, the plight of civilization is nowhere near as dire as in the opening pages of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where alien spaceships are poised to destroy Earth to make way for an interstellar highway.

Still, with resource consumption and environmental destruction rising at unsustainable rates, plenty of people view the future with alarm. That spotlights technologies like nuclear power, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, which are often cited as crucial to heading off economic and environmental disaster.

The catch is that any technology powerful enough to improve life radically is also capable of abuse and prone to serious, unanticipated side effects. It's a great time to be a Hollywood screenwriter, but rough on policy makers and business strategists. Mix new technologies with the wide variations in how organizations and individuals behave, and you often have "a recipe for explosion," said Edward Tenner, author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.

The table setter for fears about potentially useful technology was nuclear power, which emerged as an energy source while images of the waste laid to Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs in 1945 were still fresh.

"It's not the probability of a nuclear accident that matters in people's attitudes," said Charles B. Perrow, a risk analysis expert whose newest book, Disaster Evermore? U.S. Vulnerability to Natural, Industrial and Terrorist Disasters, will be published this summer. "It's the possibility, which is very much there."

Despite several close calls, the deadly explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 is the utility industry's sole catastrophic failure. But the costs imposed on power companies to manage risks had already halted expansion of the nuclear power industry in the United States and elsewhere in the 70's.

Now, even though the risks of accidents are presumed to be growing as the first generation of plants age, orders are picking up for new plants in Asia. And some American utilities like Exelon, Entergy and Dominion are saying they want to build nuclear plants in the United States alongside existing ones. Those plants currently supply just over 20 percent of the nation's electricity with operating costs far below fossil fuel plants.

Advocates for renewed investment in nuclear power say that new plant designs could reduce or eliminate many of the meltdown and contamination risks associated with current plants. Critics say the industry is still too riddled with bad management and lax regulation to allow new plants to be built.

"The driver of a car has a much bigger impact on safety than whether it's a Volvo or a Yugo," said David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But some nuclear critics are reconsidering their positions based on the conclusion that of all the proven power-generating technologies, only nuclear power is ready to deliver large amounts of electricity without creating greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

"I see climate change as being so disastrous that increased nuclear energy may be the way to go," Mr. Perrow said.

The new designs still do not address concerns about the accumulation of nuclear waste that will be radioactive for centuries unless a new way of dealing with it is devised. And nuclear plants -- and the technology to support them -- strike some critics as inviting targets for terrorists. Still, many energy experts see nuclear power as the best bridge to an energy future based on renewable sources like solar power.

The ambivalence in green policy debates about nuclear energy also runs through talk about biotechnology, especially when it comes to genetic engineering. Arguments that humankind is foolishly "playing God" have been common ever since research breakthroughs in the late 1970s laid the groundwork for innovations like transferring to crops the genes that tell bacteria how to make insect-killing proteins.

Pioneering biotechnology researchers sought to prevent accidents and minimize regulation by voluntarily adopting good practice codes for experiments that produced genetically engineered animals and plants. But if confidence has grown as the years pass without any biological Chernobyls, doubts have persisted about the long-term health effects from engineered plants and animals.

Some critics also say the technology makes farmers too beholden to giant agribusinesses.

More recently, security experts have begun to fret that terrorists could engineer and release novel viruses, bacteria, or fungi.

Still, the potential environmental benefits of greater use of genetic engineering have excited researchers from the technology's earliest days. The Supreme Court's 1980 decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty, which upheld the right of businesses to patent engineered organisms, involved a bacterium that General Electric hoped would become a green "product" to clean up oil spills.

In the end, G.E.'s oil-consuming microbe proved ineffective when transferred from a flask to slicks on the seas. But bioremediation -- using naturally occurring microbes to clean up a wide variety of air, water, and soil pollutants -- is growing.

Backers of the technology argue that accelerated use of genetic engineering offers the only hope of feeding, clothing, and housing the growing global population. Skeptics say the financial incentives driving agribusiness leaders like Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, and Cargill -- and the political incentives for governments to keep food costs low -- continually push all types of biotechnology toward an industrial model of agriculture that is too energy intensive, wasteful of water, and dependent on chemicals.

The scientific questions underlying debates about biotechnology's risks can be bewildering for nonscientists, but nanotechnology may be even harder to comprehend. The term is derived from the nanometer, or a billionth of a meter.

Nanotechnology is often described as dealing in dimensions tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a single hair. But what really matters is that by operating at the nanoscale, researchers can create new materials and extract novel behaviors from familiar ones because they are working with small numbers of molecules, the building blocks of all biology and chemistry.

After watching how alarmed activists stopped the nuclear industry in its tracks and slowed the introduction of biotechnology, many nanotechnology advocates propose engaging the public and investing heavily in toxicology research.

It is already documented in animal research that some man-made nanoparticles can move easily into the brain and deep into the lungs. "But we don't know how to find these things in the body or how to measure them in the air," said John M. Balbus, a nanotechnology expert at Environmental Defense, an advocacy group that has argued that investment in safety research should be more than doubled and restrictions be imposed on the use of some nanoproducts. "There's a lot of basic gaps in information."

Surveys show that most people pay little attention to nanotechnology, which is used in products that make sunscreens invisible, skis lighter, and pants stain resistant. Advocates and critics alike thought that might change when Kleinmann, a German subsidiary of Illinois Tool Works, recalled a bathroom cleanser, Magic Nano, on March 28 after nearly 100 customers had trouble breathing.

But the brouhaha surrounding the first health-related recall of a "nanotechnology product" subsided rapidly, partly because the later investigation raised doubts whether there were indeed any nanoscale ingredients in the product. If the biotechnology experience is a guide, getting governments more involved in nanotechnology risk management and educating consumers may generate profits in the long term.

"Companies need to embrace government oversight that makes consumers comfortable, and they need to offer people choices," said Rebecca J. Goldburg, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense. "Once people are empowered to make choices, they will often take what appears to be riskier options."