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At the time Ralph Nader’s and John Abbots’s The Menace of Atomic Energy was published, in 1977, there were only about sixty or so operating nuclear plants in the US; soaring energy prices were fueling a rekindled ethic of conservation throughout America (in two years, there would even be solar panels on the roof of the White House); people actually lived in Pripyat, Ukraine.

Since then, the world has experienced at least two epic nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima and Chernobyl and perhaps the most unstable weather environment since the advent of agriculture. And yet, the number of power and non-power (research-oriented) nuclear reactors in the United States stands at 140 and they span the country – from fault line to flood zone.

Americans are surrounded by atomic energy. Since 1945, it’s formed our culture, influenced our politics and burdened our bodies. For instance, that we call the President of the United States the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, transforming, de facto, a civilian into someone with marshal power can, as Garry Wills has convincingly argued, be attributed to the legacy of Leo Szilard’s chain reaction.

Because nuclear power is such a complex, energy-intensive affair, it requires the centralization of resources and command, two things not very compatible with a highly diverse democratic country of 400 million opinionated people. Moreover, because of this inherent conflict between efficiency and freedom, the history of nuclear power has been mired in secrecy from the very beginning, such that issues important to the free individual have often gotten steamrolled in silence. As Nader and Abbots wrote:

Furthermore, what the courts on other occasions have called an ‘inherently hazardous instrumentality’ affects a wide array of human rights beyond the technical issues, and this is pre-eminently the case with atomic power. How vulnerable is our society to nuclear theft and sabotage, nuclear wastes, atomic proliferation and the secret, garrison-state mentality associated with the diffusion of technologies that present such awesome risks?

The nuclear establishment is not comfortable with these consumer perspectives whether they are encountered in courts, before administrative proceedings, legislative hearings or in public debates […] More than probably any previous civilian industry, the atomic industry was imposed upon the American people through a sequence of actions by government, reactor manufacturers and utility monopolies […]

A society which insists on a technology that is so vulnerable is a society which invites a destructive few to have great sway over the peaceful many.

Quite simply, when it comes to confronting perhaps our gravest threat, the average consumer-citizen is at the mercy of a maligned priesthood. This is precisely why, when reading headlines like this one at the Huffington Post

Fire And Flood Stoke Fears At U.S. Nuclear Facilities, But Officials Say Radioactive Materials Are Safe,

I can’t help but think of Winston Smith, in Orwell’s 1984, approaching his place of work and spotting the three slogans of the Party on the building’s enormous white facade:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH