Friday, November 02, 2007

Disappointing New Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

I believe that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has improved considerably in recent years. It seems that the current editorial staff is somewhat more hesitant to publish dubious articles written by people like Joseph Mangano. One area of marked improvement has been its coverage of Russian nuclear affairs. Years ago, the BAS occasionally published something about the Russian nuclear complex that was not simply ill-informed, but actually insane. (Perhaps I'm imagining it, but I remember an editorial piece that argued that the Russians would be better off not upgrading their early-warning systems, because they would trust the new systems too much and this would increase the likelihood of accidental nuclear war.) But now that Pavel Podvig is writing for them, things have really looked up. While I have some serious differences of opinion with Podvig, he is definitely the best analyst currently working on the subject of nuclear weapons in Russia. The September/October issue was quite strong, and included a special report titled "getting Power to the People" which I found fair, balanced, and to the point.

This does not mean that the magazine does not suffer regular lapses. There was, for instance, the May/June piece on the recent revival of the "nuclear winter" idea. The new nuclear winter studies make for interesting reading, if only because they admit that the original TTAPS study was as useless as its detractors said it was back in 1983. Unfortunately, the new models are almost as lacking in credibility as the old one, because the study simply guessed on the most important variable- the proportion of soot that would be lofted above the tropopause to begin with. The authors had no justification for this beyond "we think .8 is a reasonable value." I think it's probably off by at least a factor of 10, but I digress.

Unfortunately, the November/December BAS has more than its fair share of clunkers. The most distressing is a piece advertised on the cover as "A clear-eyed look at nuclear power risks." Unfortunately, what the magazine actually contains is an interview with Brice Smith. Smith, if you don't recall, is a former consultant at IEER and author of Insurmountable Risks, a book purporting to demonstrate that nuclear power is unnecessary to combat climate change. Smith states that proliferation, the risk of reactor accidents, and waste disposal , along with the cost of nuclear power, make it "a very risky technology overall." I think that's balderdash, but I won't give an in-depth critique here. What's significant is not that BAS included an interview with Smith, but that they characterized the perspective of this less-than-unbiased researcher as "clear-eyed."

Another disappointing piece was "Thinking Past Ourselves," an article by noted environmentalist Bill McKibben, which posits that "Climate change challenges us to move beyond a culture that has reduced nature to yet another consumable." McKibben believes that modern American society is hyperindividualistic, and that we should adopt a more communal, "sustainable" lifestyle. He literally argues that the "liberation" brought about in Western society by modern technology has gone too far. Words cannot describe the depth of my disdain for misanthropic luddites like McKibben- but this 2003 effort by Ronald Bailey comes pretty close.

A rare high point of the issue was a brief piece about civil defense. As civil defense is my specialty (I'm currently writing my thesis on Soviet civil defense), I was pleased to hear of efforts to revive the idea as a response to nuclear terrorism. It should also be noted that in most cases, shelter-in-place is the most efficacious response to radiation hazards resulting from nuclear power plant accidents. In fact, the grandiose evacuation schemes demanded by some state and local governments would result in unnecessary casualties, since the populace would receive less radiation exposure if they just stayed indoors. Because of this, I believe that it is actually immoral to keep these inane and dangerous requirements in the law books- and the nuclear power industry should make this fact abundantly clear to the government, the American public, and everybody else.

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