Robert Jungk’s Stand Against Nuclear Energy

The Nuclear State – the Book’s Relevance Today

The catastrophe that happened at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, following an earthquake on March 11, 2011, brought the risks of nuclear technology to mind. Even though the operators downplayed the extent of the accident, the consequences and long-term effects were dramatic. In his book The Nuclear State (1979) – in the U.S. published the same year under the title The New Tyranny – How Nuclear Power Enslaves Us – Robert Jungk had explicitly warned about the new energy’s “character hostile to life”. These warnings have stayed current, unfortunately.

“The arrival of nuclear fission not only radically changed modern history but opened up new dimensions of terror. Nuclear power was first used to make weapons of total destruction for use against military enemies, but today it even imperils citizens in their own country, because there is no fundamental difference between atoms for peace and atoms for war.” (The Nuclear State, p. vii)

A New Term for a New Danger

Speaking at a rally against the nuclear plant in Brokdorf, Germany, in February of 1977, Robert Jungk coined the term Nuclear State. The atmosphere was quite tense, with police using brutal force against protesters. It was later referred to as The Battle of Brokdorf. Obviously, the authorities intended to set an example, aiming to discourage any further protest. Luckily, nobody died there – unlike at a demonstration against the fast breeder reactor in Creys-Malville, France, where a young professor of physics was killed by a police grenade on July 31, 1977. The Superphénix project was eventually scrapped twenty years later.

Jungk did not come up with the term Nuclear State at his desk, but rather it appeared in his head like a “spontaneous suggestion”, he wrote in his memoirs (Trotzdem, p. 463). When Rudolf Augstein picked up the term in the German magazine Der Spiegel, it became a popular term.

According to Jungk it was quite some coincidence that a few days after the events in Brokdorf, the Traube Affair leaked. Klaus Traube, a scientist, and manager of Interatom, the company in charge of the fast breeder reactor in Kalkar, Germany, started out a proponent of nuclear power. However, the report of the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, in 1972 eventually made him change his view. Thus, suspected of passing on secrets to sympathizers of terrorism, he became the victim of an illegal eavesdropping operation by the German secret service.

The New Energy’s Character Hostile to Life

Robert Jungk’s book Der Atomstaat, first published in German in 1977, addressed the radiation risks of using atomic energy as well as the dangers to democracy inherent in such a high-risk technology. In the preface, entitled The Hard Path, he clearly took a stand. It shows the attitude of a critic of industrial technologies. It also gives proof of the power lying in Robert Jungk’s voice. His introductory words for the 1979 UK edition read:

“Although it is claimed that peaceful nuclear energy will in future only be used for constructive purposes and for the benefit of mankind, the potentially lethal effect of this new energy cannot be disguised. Certain measures can be taken to eliminate the dangers, but these can only partially succeed, and even the strongest advocates of nuclear energy admit this. There will always be accidents, and although they may for some time be small in scale and localized, there is always the possibility of a major disaster with long-term effects that can quickly wipe out whatever theoretical or practical benefits nuclear energy might bring, and that threat is enough to counterbalance those benefits, even at the present time.” (The Nuclear State, p. vii).

He continued: “There can be no greater, or more frightening, burden for hu­manity to bear than the constant nuclear threat, because not only must we live in continual fear that atomic energy will get out of control in our lifetime, but the shadow of plutonium poisoning hangs over the long-term future”. His book “was written in fear and indignation: in fear because of the imminent threat to freedom and humanity. In indignation at the realization of how many powerful and influential people are willing to sacrifice these supreme values for the sake of large consumption and profit” (p. viii), Jungk stated. Many people claim that talking about technologies needed to be done without emotions. This, however, is the modern form of Biedermeier appeasement: “This simply updates the well-known philistine principle that the primary civic duty is to protect law and order,” Jungk argues. “The willingness to face the very real horrors that are indivisible from the plutonium age on the basis of cold uninvolved reason […] is to betray humanity itself, and those who do so cannot escape their responsibility by attempting to blind ordinary citizens to the danger they face. There are times when strong moral feelings must be expressed and help to guide humanity towards its own long-term self-interest, while at the same time exposing the fallacies that are so often presented as truths.” (p. viii)

Robert Jungk was probably the most important reporter, enlightener, and agitator of the nuclear age so far. He also considered the irreversibility of nuclear fission – “an entirely new phenomenon in history” – as the main problem. “Once a reactor has been started up, processes have been set in motion that cannot be eliminated for an exceptionally long time. From that moment processes of radioactive decay, lasting for generations and involving a threat to all forms of life, must be kept under the most careful permanent control for tens, hundreds, thousands of years. When the number of installations and waste disposal units has passed a certain stage, the necessity for strict surveillance and control will leave their mark permanently on the political climate” (p. xiii). Today, atomic waste is still a constantly suppressed problem that is loaded onto future generations. Plutonium has a half-life period of 27,000 years, which equates to 500 generations.

Seven chapters, Seven Types of People

  1. Radiation Fodder – The staff of the Atomic Plants are the First Victims

The book Der Atomstaat [The Nuclear State] features seven chapters. Right in the beginning Jungk addresses those who are at once exposed to the dangers of radiation, even without a nuclear accident. Those are the staff of the atomic plants. This chapter is titled Radiation Fodder.

He described the worries and steadily growing protest of the workers at the reprocessing plant in La Hague, France. In 1967, the first plant of this kind was built; in 1976, at the time the protests began, the second plant was planned by COGEMA (Compagnie Génerale de Matières Nucléaires).

At the time, only a few reprocessing plants were operable. Thus, the French expected to score a coup by reprocessing nuclear fuel rods. The U.S. plant in West Valley, NY, had been shut down for safety reasons. The one in Windscale, Great Britain, was already overloaded with material from Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain and even Japan being processed there. On top of that, La Hague and Windscale were the first plants of that size with many uncleared safety issues.

The location of La Hague at the northern tip of Normandy was chosen because of the sparsely inhabited region, the proximity to the sea, which facilitated the delivery of the material to be enriched, and the opportunity provided for effluent disposal. Another reason for the site selection, according to Jungk, were strong currents, ensuring a rapid exchange of water towards the ocean. It was meant to “ensure a rapid removal of pollution from the shores of France” (p. 17). Jungk listed other factors in favor of the location, which the French nuclear authority had already picked by the late 1950s. These were “the strong winds, that would quickly blow all radioactive gases away, the nature of the soils, which in their view was suitable for at least the medium term storage of atomic waste, and – a consideration that was never officially admitted but which nevertheless leaked out – in the event of a catastrophe, a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea could more easily be isolated from the rest of the continent than an inland site” (p. 17).

The strengths of Jungk’s journalistic work: He did not only make controversial studies public, but he also always investigated on site and got himself into conversations as well – conversations with experts, opponents and advocates of nuclear energy, residents affected by the plants and, in the case of La Hague, with workers and unionists of the atomic plants. His dialogue partners included the physicist Bernhard Laponche, who was an employee of the French nuclear authority and leading operative of the social democratic and Christian-oriented Federation of Trade Unions CFDT (Conféderation Francaise de Travail). Laponche publicly pointed out the safety defects of atomic plants.

Another person he interviewed was Daniel Cauchon, who contributed to forms of resistance like a strike between September and December 1976. He provided Jungk with insights into the strains the workers were facing. Cauchon also reported that contract workers, so-called intérimaires, were employed. Thus, the health check of those workers got outsourced to their companies as well. This way, the obligatory submission of control samples to the health authority, from which the daily dose the COGEMA’s workers were exposed to, could be skipped.

Putting the reports about the precarious situation of the workers in the nuclear plants at the beginning of his book was a skilled strategy of Jungk because that way the risks of this technology could be depicted credibly. The workers (and their unions) were not against atomic power per se, which gave them work, but advocated better safety measures. „Thanks to the trade unionists of La Hague, I obtained an insight into conditions of work more alarming than anything that had previously existed. Here men sacrifice not only their health, but also their freedom of speech and their right to self-determination. Realizing that no-one cares, they refer to themselves as ‘radiation fodder’” (p. 4).

“The atomic Sisyphus has a much harder time than his mythical ancestor. Not only are his burdens heavy, they are also contaminated. The never-ending efforts demanded impose great mental as well as physical strains. Fear of the invisible rays that might affect him is just as oppressive as his isolation in the protective armour he wears when doing his work” (p. 6).

It exceeds our knowledge in how far Jungk’s reports about La Hague contributed to the awareness of the French public. The book was published in France in 1979. The current job situation of the workers in the atomic plants is not reported publicly these days. However, the courage of the workers back then to go public at least triggered stricter safety measures.

  1. The Gamblers – Nuclear Scientists

The second chapter deals with those nuclear scientists who promise a bright energy future if only we let ourselves in for nuclear fission. Robert Jungk calls these scientists Gamblers. One of them was German professor Rolf Häfele who worked at the nuclear research center in Karlsruhe for twelve years. He was one of the most vehement advocates of fast breeding reactors. These power plants use Plutonium as nuclear fuel and need even higher temperatures than light water reactors; instead of water, Cadmium is used for cooling. Fast breeding reactors were supposed to supply even more energy, but are significantly more dangerous than other reactor types, since a core meltdown could result in an atomic explosion. Robert Jungk calls the scientists gamblers because they gamble with the life of others and thereby ignore and ridicule critical studies as several examples in his book show. They are also gamblers because this new type of scientist gambles with enormous sums of money available if they succeed in making the projects tempting to politicians.

  1. The Atomic Man – Humankind as a Factor of Fallibility

The elimination of human fallibility as a source of error – this is, on the one hand, put into practice by robotization and on the other hand by hard selection processes and trainings for workers. It is crucial that “personnel will not panic in breakdowns” (p. 51). Jungk quoted form a German study entitled An Investigation into and Analysis of Human Functions in the Work of Nuclear Power Stations. A pious hope, as the events at Three Mile Island have proven. The Chernobyl worst-case accident, as well as plenty of later incidents, are proof that human failure is never to be ruled out.

Jungk criticized the technocratic jargon of experts calling staff “lifeware” in addition to computer hard- and software. He pointed out that nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that supervisory institutions were consulted for the staff selection, not only in the power plants but also in the ancillary industries. He cited a grotesque but also revealing list based on a survey of German companies that was published in the German newspaper Wirtschaftswoche on March 4, 1977. The list included possible exclusion criteria for job applicants – smokers (justification: higher disease frequency, increased tension), homosexuals (disagreeable, incapable of filling certain positions such as instructor or staff manager), women (incapable of being managers, possible pregnancies), foreign nationals (unreliable, prejudiced against customers), graduates of certain majors at both the Berlin and Bremen universities (of Marxist cadre factory background). He concluded that similar or even more rigorous criteria were to be expected eventually: “The atomic industry cannot be satisfied with keeping a check on their employees’ politics but must look into everything that might reveal an instability, an unruly disposition, or even an unorthodox life-style” (pp. 53-54).

Why did he title this chapter The Atomic Man? It was not just an act of irony that made him mention research being done on the genetic breeding of perfect and flawless humans to contain this potential factor of interference.

  1. The Intimidated – Silencing the Insiders

In the fourth chapter, Robert Jungk wrote how individuals considered to be a potential threat to the nuclear power lobby became targets of attacks once they broke their silence about the grievances or just because their resistance could have too much of an impact. Ingo Focke, a German engineer and scion of the famous Focke aviation-dynasty, turned into an opponent of nuclear energy when he could no longer accept irregulatories and incidents in his company, a supplier for atomic plants. Thereafter, Jungk reported, the cars of Focke and other nuclear energy opponents were tampered with. The case of Karen Silkwood, who worked at the Cimarron plutonium factory near Crescent, Oklahoma, ended fatally: the 28-year old lab assistant was killed in a car accident.

Official reports claimed, she fell asleep after overdosing on tranquilizers. Suspicion of wrongdoing in the accident arose “when two men, who had been waiting for her near the scene of the accident – David Burnheim, a well-known New York Times reporter, and Stefan Wodka, the secretary of OCAW – the oil, chemical and atomic workers’ trade union – discovered that an important file she had been bringing them had vanished. As they knew, it contained a great deal of evidence compiled be her about grave breaches of the safety regulations by her employers” (p. 70). On May 18, 1979, after a lawsuit lasting for years, the parents of Karen Silkwood obtained damages worth 10.5 million dollars (although this certainly could not bring their daughter back to life). The health authority later-on closed the plutonium factory.

Jungk, who suggested “an aid fund for dissident researchers” at the International Conference for a Non-Nuclear Future in May 1977, reported similar incidents. For example, the case of Leo Kowarski, a pioneer of the French atomic research, who feared for his life because he spoke out against the construction of fast breeding reactors.

To the best of our knowledge, none of the cases described were ever sued for libel or defamation.

  1. The Proliferators – Danger of Proliferation

Chapter five covers the American euphoria to turn nuclear energy into the energy of the future for the entire world, marketed under the slogan Atoms for Peace. An endeavor that was withdrawn after it became known that the peaceful nuclear technology could very well be misused for military purposes. In September 1977, the U.S. successfully fired a bomb at the nuclear test site in Nevada that was filled with plutonium “of normal reactor quality”.

Jungk credited Albert Wohlstetter, a long-time advisor to U.S. presidents, with the U.S. ceasing any further development of that technology because a possible sale of nuclear reprocessing technology and expertise was to be expected. Wohlstetter explicitly warned that if Japan and German carried out their atomic plans, they would already have disposed of enough plutonium to manufacture nuclear warheads. The intense nuclear connections between Germany and Apartheid-South Africa as well as Germany and Argentina described by Jungk also fit that mold. In South Africa, a large-scale plant for the uranium enrichment was being constructed in Pelindaba. In Argentina, Germany collaborated on a reprocessing plant.

About the political relations to South Africa Jungk writes, “Gerhard Stoltenberg – known for his liking for nuclear energy since his vigorous intervention at the Brokdorf demonstration – flew to South Africa in August 1973 and again in August 1975, and on both occasions spent some time at the reactor centre in Pelindaba. Franz Josef Strauß, Germany’s first Atomic Minister and as Defence Minister […] a committed advocate of atomic weapons for the Federal Republic, has visited South Africa at least four times since 1971 and several times received representatives of the South African atomic authorities in Munich” (pp. 99-100).

These visits became suspicious due to the secretiveness, Jungk wrote, since there had never been proof that Germany had in fact acquired plutonium for their nuclear missiles. The prolonged conflict with the Iranian nuclear program, which the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA tries to
resolve, proves that the problem of proliferation is not off the table yet.

  1. Atomic Terrorists – Plutonium Smuggling

The sixth chapter covers the threat of nuclear explosives getting into the hands of terrorists. It will never be fully possible to solve the mystery of where all the missing fissile material that gets lost ends up eventually. Studies quoted by Jungk show concerns that workers in the atomic plants could be temp­ted to consider making money by smuggling uranium or plutonium. “[T]he whereabouts of many kilograms of plutonium will never be definitely known. Perhaps it will have ended up somewhere on the plutonium black market, or in the hands of a nation that has no atomic bomb yet but will soon be making one; and perhaps some of it may already be in the hands of terrorists” (p. 123). During the breakup of the Soviet Union, due to partly desolate conditions in the army of the nuclear power Russia, plenty of fissile material might have been released or stolen.

  1. The Supervised – Civil Rights and Liberties

In the final chapter, Jungk summed up the fundamental danger of limitations to civil rights and liberties resulting from political terrorism acute in the 1970s [the German Autumn of 1977, the terror organization Rote Armee Fraktion] and from increasing safety hazards of the quickly multiplying nuclear power plants: “The double stimulus of terrorism and atomic anxiety will […] cause industrial states to coordinate all the knowledge about their citizens stored in the most varied state and private data banks into a single warning and control system of totally unprecedented comprehensiveness” (p. 134).

In this section, Robert Jungk also reported acts of censorship in the media. “The system of so-called D-notices, which previously restricted the liberty of the press principally on armament matters, has been extended to the publication of information about civilian ‘nuclear matters’ and has been strictly applied” (p. 133). Thus, as early as the 1950s, the Daily Express newspaper was hindered from publishing reports about errors and defects in the construction of the Windscale reprocessing plant in Great Britain. “With the planned construction of more and more atomic installations, the multiplication of security measures is inevitable” (p. 133), he predicts.

Prospect: The Soft Path

In the book’s outlook, titled The Soft Path, Robert Jungk reflected on his fundamental beliefs. Resistance against atomic plants makes clear that the nuclear issue has become the trigger for a debate extending well beyond the immediate cause: “What is at stake is the future, not only of our energy supply, but of our form of government. The conflict is not just about a particular technology, but about all the manifestations and powerful influences of large-scale industrial technology” (p. 147).

Nevertheless, he spoke out optimistically about citizens’ movements. “Those who associate the movement against nuclear energy exclusively with the idea of protest or even violence should appreciate that these people are not just ‘against’ but are primarily for something. The Aldermaston marches and Campaigns for Nuclear Disarmament started inter­national concern for a secure future. The peasants of Wyhl, Saint-Laurent, Kalkar and Brokdorf demonstrated for the preservation of their threatened way of life. The workers of La Hague went out on to the streets for the sake of their health and for their rights as union members to be protected. The sit-in at the Seabrook site in the United States was carried out for the sake of the environment […] and opponents of the atom at Gösgen, Barsebeck and Zwentendorf campaigned for the largest possible democratic voice in planning major technical projects that are to a large extent financed by the taxpayer” (pp. 148-149).

Zwentendorf – Austria’s only nuclear plant – never went into operation. In the light of the massive expansion of atomic energy in the Czech Republic (Temelín) and Slovakia (Mohovce), which led to the rise of an anti-nuclear movement in those countries, The Nuclear State was translated into Czech in 1994.

Robert Jungk pointed out that different energy politics beyond current risk technologies would require a different lifestyle and conscience. Even here he remained optimistic and foresaw a “new internationalism” in the making. “This ‘New International’”, as he called it, “is composed of thousands of small groups. The fact that they often differ and quarrel is seen as a sign of vitality, not weakness” (p. 151). He detected a “new belief in a more modest standard of living”. People would begin to realize that “material resources are limited and that the extravagance of the industrial nations cannot last” (p. 150).  “We can no longer expect a future of unlimited growth, but of many shortages”. With those words, he took up on what the Club of Rome formulated in The Limits to Growth in 1972. It also referred to the ideas of the sustainability discourse going on since the 1990s.

Strongly linked to this new way of thinking is according to Jungk “the aspiration for justice. Those who take solidarity seriously cannot ignore the tremendous difference in standards of living between the developed and less developed countries. They can tolerate neither the exploitation of the Third World nor the help programs, themselves often camouflaged business deals, exported as a life style that the people of the industrial societies themselves have discovered to be a heavy burden” (p. 150).

Robert Jungk was right on target with so many of his observations. Yet, so far, he was perhaps overly optimistic about the peace and anti-nuclear movement becoming the determining factors for history.

Who was Robert Jungk?
More about …
… his life
… his main writings
… key theses of his work
… his engagement with the new social movements
… Future Workshops