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Chapter 6: Responding to Social Needs

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ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENTS

In his State of the Laboratory address for 1971, Director Alvin Weinberg suggested that "the most important event of the year in nuclear energy was legal, not scientific or technical." 

Weinberg was referring to a July 1971 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia requiring the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to fully examine the environmental impacts of nuclear power plants. The judge invoked the National Environmental Policy Act as the basis for his decision. 

Elizabeth Peelle (foreground) studied socioeconomic impacts of nuclear power plants.
Elizabeth Peelle (foreground) studied socioeconomic impacts of nuclear power plants.

Weinberg summarized the intent of the decision, which would have far-reaching implications for the Laboratory. 

The Commission is now required to examine thermal as well as radiological effects of reactors; it must consider alternatives to the use of nuclear power plants; it must evaluate all of these things independently and not depend on local regulations and standards; and it must summarize its findings in a cost-benefit analysis that weighs such imponderable costs as the destruction of a stand of timber against the economic benefit of lower-cost energy. What makes the whole matter so critical is that such environmental impact statements have now become so essential a part of the reactor licensing procedure. There is at stake about 100 million kilowatts of nuclear electricity, almost 25 percent of the total U.S. central station load.

Weinberg reported that the AEC sought help from three of its laboratories—Battelle Northwest, Argonne, and Oak Ridge. "The job," he said, "is formidable: 91 environmental impact statements to be completed by July of 1972 or as quickly thereafter as possible. Of these, the Laboratory already is working with the AEC Washington staff on 13, with another dozen or so expected. This task has been given the highest priority in the Commission and, in consequence, at the Laboratory." 

A full-time team of 75 people led by Ed Struxness was assembled from 14 Laboratory divisions. Tom Row was selected as the deputy leader. Bill Fulkerson took over leadership of this effort in 1974. The team was helped by many part-time reviewers and consultants from almost every part of the Laboratory. Altogether about 130 members of the scientific staff and 50 support personnel were involved in preparation of environmental impact statements in the early 1970s. 

The impact statements, predicted Weinberg, "undoubtedly will create demands for more knowledge in several areas besides ecology—cooling tower technology, micrometeorology, possibly regional modeling, and the like. I would venture to suggest, therefore, that what may seem at the moment to be an awkward diversion from our main interests will, in fact, create new and more valid interests for many of the divisions at ORNL." 

Weinberg's prediction proved correct. The Laboratory became a national leader in environmental impact assessments. Since the late 1970s, the Laboratory has examined socioeconomic as well as environmental impacts of nuclear power plants (fission and magnetic fusion) and of non-nuclear energy projects such as geothermal, solar, fossil, synthetic-fuel, biomass conversion, and hydropower projects. Other assessment projects included disposal of chemical weapons at U.S. Army sites, disposal of low-level radioactive waste, renewal of nuclear power plant licenses, remediation of contaminated sites, Air Force low-level flying operations, and research activities in the pristine environment of Antarctica. 

Today, as many as 100 persons at the Laboratory work on environmental impact statements and assessments, including risk assessments. For more than 20 years, the Laboratory has been a leader not only in developing energy technologies but also in assessing their benefits and risks to society. 

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