Ansel Adams on Nuclear Power (Updated)

From a long-forgotten Playboy magazine interview with Ansel Adams, whose iconic photographs have been central to many a Sierra Club calendar (hat tip: Michael Shellenberger):

Playboy: You are against nuclear weapons but favor nuclear power, which separates you from many of the environmental groups that are staunchly no-nuke.

Adams: That’s an apparent dichotomy and it disturbs a lot of people, but the danger of nuclear power is conjectural and the pollution potential, compared with the known pollution potential of burning coal and oil, is minute. When you consider the threat of acid rain and the general pollution of air and water caused by thermal-power production, it is terrible. There is general agreement that nuclear weapons are absurd, but I disagree with the view that nuclear power is bad. They have many reactors in England and they have never had any trouble. The problem here is that we just don’t have adequate training for nuclear technicians. We ought to use our technology to make nuclear power safe instead of fighting it, since it is the only practical alternative that we have to destroying the environment with oil and coal.

Playboy: What about the argument that we just don’t know enough to safely use nuclear power, which could potentially do far more harm than the pollution caused by fossil-fuel-energy production?

Adams: If we have that much caution, why do we allow the Four Corners coal plant, for instance? That can kill many more people than any nuclear plant. A nuclear plant is not dangerous.

Playboy: Even with the prospect of a meltdown?

Adams: We haven’t had any. Three Mile Island only scared people to death. I had my teeth examined when I was a little kid. I bet I had more radiation than I’d ever get around a nuclear plant for a year. Now, I am aware of the arguments against it. I believe technology can check those problems. In the meantime, with the depletion of oil, coal and gas, what else is there?

The better alternative to the fission reactors is fusion, which the Government isn’t pushing the way it should. It is a much safer alternative. It’s clean, efficient and not very expensive. The technology is inevitable. We have to have the water desalination that it will allow. It’s a necessity if we are going to avert a disaster. I just can’t be scared. Everything is a risk. When there is a big public squawk about fusion, it becomes evil. It is unfortunate that it has been clumped together with something as insidious as nuclear weapons, because utilizing nuclear energy is the future.

Playboy: That there hasn’t been a major disaster, such as a meltdown, doesn’t mean there won’t be one.

Adams: The risk is so low, it doesn’t scare me. We’re at constant risk of being hit with a meteorite or an asteroid. We’re at risk of a major earthquake, and the time for that is coming closer and closer. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s going to be a tremendous disaster. The brand-new buildings may hold up, but there is a period of many decades, from 1906 through 20 years ago, whose buildings have no earthquake consideration in their construction. I think you are at infinitely more risk driving around in your car than you are around any nuclear plant.

Playboy: It’s not just radicals who fear nuclear power but many scientists, too. One concern is nuclear waste.

Adams: It is, indeed, a concern, but it is a solvable problem. Some experts have suggested shooting it off into the sun, which would be fine if the rocket worked. But think what would happen if it didn’t. The point is that waste is a solvable problem. There are a lot of scientists who are much more moderate and support nuclear power, but for some reason, they don’t get heard. Relating simple facts about something’s being safe doesn’t get the same attention as telling people that something is scary and dramatic and dangerous. If there ever were a proven hazard, I would be the first to admit it. But with all the information people have been able to give me, I have concluded that we are much better to go on with it than with the alternative. The danger is that most of the plants are privately operated and, therefore, under economic stress, and private companies are not likely to spend the money it takes to ensure that the plants are completely safe. Safety programs should be mandatory, which doesn’t say much. There should be rent control. There should be more rigid pollution control. But you have interests that just don’t want to pay the costs. I’m aware of the problems, but I still believe nuclear energy is a needed alternative that should be carefully developed and controlled.

Playboy: But you don’t support nuclear arms.

Adams: They are absolutely insane.

UPDATE: William Pendley Perry, author of the fine and important book Sagebrush Rebel:  Reagan’s Battle with Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today, writes in to remind me of the backstory of Adams around the time of his Playboy interview:

Environmental extremists, as President Reagan termed them, were relentless in their attacks, but one man in particular carried the attacks to an obsessive degree. The legendary photographer Ansel Adams began writing “a letter a day to newspapers and congressmen decrying President Reagan’s ‘disastrous’ environmental policies and his interior secretary, James G. Watt.”

He warned of “a catastrophe,” “a tragedy,” and “the Pearl Harbor of our American Earth.” Then, in May of 1983, Adams declared flatly, “I hate Reagan.” That got the president’s attention. He told a top aide, “I want to talk to this man, Adams, to find out why he dislikes me so much.”

Reagan [later] wrote about the meeting in his diary:

“He has expressed hatred for me because of my supposed stand on the environment. I asked for the meeting. I gave him chapter & verse about where I really stand on the environment & what our record is. All in all the meeting seemed pleasant enough & I thought maybe I’d taken some of the acid out of his ink. Then I read the story of the meeting as he’d given it to the press. I’m afraid I was talking to ears that refused to hear.”

Sure enough, Adams emerged from the meeting unassuaged. He assailed Reagan personally—faulting his intelligence, imagination, and “aura”—and attacked his policies and the people appointed to implement them. At the end of its story about the incident, however, the Washington Post reported that “[f]or all his intense anger at [Reagan and Watt], Adams said he is hard-pressed to document widespread environmental damage from their policies.”

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