Dessert 10/22/19

A bit of my history by Richard Bleil

In the late 1980’s or early 1990’s (I started graduate school in 1987 and graduated in 1992, so there is the time frame, although I can say the earliest would have been 1988 when I moved in with my friends), I was honored to be living with a nuclear physicist from MIT and his family. His wife was a well-respected biologist at Brandeis, and I was a chemistry major in graduate school at Boston College charged with watching their son after school before they got home. My friend the physicist attended international conferences, and rubbed elbows with some really impressive international figures, one of whom was General Michael Milstein (not sure of the spelling) who, on occasion, would be in the US on business. Yes, this is good news; the US and Russian generals, even in the height of the cold war, would periodically have meetings to discuss issues.

I was living in a room in their basement, and usually had meals and visited with them. I very much felt like a part of the family and truly enjoyed my experience there. One day, I was out having dinner with my friends who were engaged and soon to be married too far away for me to be able to attend. I wanted to get their wedding gift to them, even though I was not feeling well. I wasn’t really sick per se; I wasn’t coughing and sneezing and oozing out of every pore, but I was just not feeling well. When I got home, I always entered through the kitchen. The sliding door between the kitchen and the dining room was closed, which was a rare event but basically meant they were dining with a friend and leave them be. I took the side route to the basement stairs and went to my room where I undressed and went right to bed.

Before long, I heard light footsteps coming down the stairs that I knew was their son. A knock on the door, and their son’s voice came through saying, “Rich, dad says you should come upstairs and join us.” I asked him to thank his father politely and explain that I am not feeling well. Footsteps back up the stairs.

I can see my friends look of exasperation even today. A moment later, heavier footsteps come down the stairs that I know are his, a knock on the door and it opens. He looks at me and says, “You’re dead!”

“Not yet,” I replied. “I’m trying to avoid that extreme.”

“Well, I think that you should come upstairs and have dessert with General Michael Milstein of the Soviet Union.”

“I should put on clothes, shouldn’t I?”

“Yes, he’s liberal. He’s not THAT liberal.”

When he was near Boston, he would have dinner with his friend, my friend. This happened to be one of those days. As I entered the dining room, I was quickly introduced but largely ignored as he and my friend were in a heated discussion about the peaceful use of nuclear technology. The Chernobyl disaster was still fresh in the news. For those who do not know, the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl had a massive meltdown in 1986, one of the worst nuclear disasters in history before Fukushima in 2011, resulting in contaminated land that is still uninhabitable today. The cause of the disaster was mismanagement as they were turning off fail safe devices to meet government quotas. The worst nuclear disaster in the US was Three Mile Island in 1979, where, reportedly, warning lights had been flashing for several days but had gone unnoticed because they were covered by safety inspection tags.

On the other hand, the US Navy has used nuclear power since 1948 (if you can believe it) and has accumulated over 5,400 reactor years since its beginning. In total, 500 reactor cores have been installed in 210 ships with no incidents (at least none that they’ve reported).

General Milstein, of course, opposed peaceful use of nuclear technology, arguing that it was simply not safe. My friend, on the other hand, was arguing that it CAN be safe with proper training and regulations, arguing that perhaps the US Navy should be in charge of the power plants, their operation, procedures and training. Eventually, General Milstein, one of the most powerful generals of the Soviet Union (if not THE most powerful), turned to me and in a very thick Russian accent said, “So, Richard…what do YOU think?”

“I think I want to go back to bed.”

Yes, that was actually my response, before giving my real answer. As I think about it, my answer was sadly prophetic. I argued that with the greenhouse gasses being released by coal burning power plants, we’ve probably already destroyed our planet, and it would be good to have more nuclear power to cut back on these dangerous emissions.

Unfortunately, the protesters of the seventies were too successful. The last two US nuclear power plants were the Watts Bar plant (construction began in 1973 and it went online in 1996) and the River Bend plant (built in 1977 and went online in 1986). Nuclear power has its dangers, including the question of disposal of the nuclear waste. Clean energy such as hydroelectric plants (which have been around for a very long time), wind and solar energy (which have only recently become practical and affordable) are safer, but even they have environmental impacts. The best thing we could do would be to have a long-term coordinated power plan that relies on diversity. Had we built more nuclear plants back in the past fifty years, it would mean less reliance on coal and oil burning plants, which potentially could have reduced enough fossil fuel use to buy us time with the greenhouse crisis we face today.

If we are to survive, we must have diverse energy sources, clean energy wherever possible, and increased efficiency to reduce our need for power.

Oh, and as far as General Milstein is concerned, I was happy to see that Russian Generals were real, warm and as human as any of us. He is no longer with us, but there is no doubt in my mind that it was the rational, warm and intelligent leaders like him that kept us out of nuclear war.

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