Philosophy in the Atomic Age: Why is nuclear power loved so much?2013/05/30
Address delivered at Asian Frontiers Forum: “Questions Concerning Life and Technology after 311”, National Taiwan University, May 30th, 2013
After the nuclear disaster caused by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, numerous discussions have been devoted to nuclear power plants and nuclear policy in Japan. My presentation, most of which has been elaborated during the past two years, aims at offering a philosophical contribution to the anti-nuclear movement, Datsu-Genpatsu (movement for abandoning nuclear power generation), that is emerging now from these discussions.
1.Master of Technology?—Heidegger’s conception of nuclear power
The 1950s was a decisive decade for nuclear politics in the world, as well as in Japan. On December 8, 1953, only 8 years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a famous speech titled “Atoms for Peace” was delivered to the UN General Assembly by the president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, the word “peace” is deceiving. As we know, the nuclear policy of the US did not turn out to be “peaceful” at this moment, and Eisenhower’s speech merely aimed at justifying the new nuclear policy that the US was about to adopt; that is, to export actively nuclear technology to the countries of “the Third World” at that time.
Having said that, the word “peace”, which was used by Eisenhower in that speech, deserves attention. In that era, in contrast to nuclear weapons (which are blamed intensively by the anti-nuclear movement), the nuclear technology for electricity generation—“Atoms for Peace”, if you like—was welcomed warmly. For example, even the leaders of the movement against atomic and hydrogen bombs in Japan found this technology to be desirable and expected it to be realised. Nuclear power was considered a “dream power” or final solution to settle the energy problem.
This was not a tendency inherent only in the popular class but also in the intellectual class—including, naturally, philosophers. Almost all the philosophers of that period were, explicitly or not, against nuclear weapons: we can mention the names of Bertrand Russell, Gunther Anders and so on. But, as far as I know, there was only one philosopher who was really cautious about the nuclear technology itself. The exception to whom I refer is Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger had named the present age “the atomic age”. Already in the mid 1950s period when the pro-nuclear technology position was dominant, he wrote:
This passage, quoted from the lecture “Gelassenheit” delivered in 1955, cannot help reminding us of the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, in which the gigantic atomic energies suddenly broke out, ran away and destroyed some areas of Fukushima; without military actions, of course. What is worth paying attention to is that Heidegger was more anxious about nuclear technology than nuclear war. A third world war was then regarded as far more imminent than we imagine now. He nevertheless goes so far as to say: “In this dawning atomic age a far greater danger threatens—precisely when the danger of a third world war has been removed.” He continues as follows: “A strange assertion! Strange indeed, but only as long as we do not meditate.”
Eight years after this lecture, in a letter addressed to a Japanese scholar, Heidegger describes precisely the possible relation that human beings could have to nuclear power:
As we know, nuclear fuel needs cooling that must not be brought to a halt. (The cause of the disaster at Fukushima nuclear plant was very simple: the lack of electricity stopped the cooling system.) Some people proudly claimed to be masters of the gigantic nuclear energy, saying: “the nuclear power is ours”. But this declaration could not be free of the condition: “if we keep cooling”; that is, “the coercion of controlling”, which, according to Heidegger, means the very inability of human beings to overcome this power.
2.Giveness and Mediation—Nakazawa’s argument
Heidegger had great insight into the potential danger of the nuclear power, which is not irrelevant to his thinking on the technology itself. With his deep conviction about what aletheia and techne had meant for the ancient Greeks, he scrutinised and criticised what he called “the modern technology” [die moderne Technik]. Die Frage nach der Technik [The Question Concerning Technology], for example, is one of the admirable achievements of his thoughts on this subject. It certainly helps us to conceive a “philosophy in the atomic age”. However, it seems to contain some arguments that should be reconsidered and, if necessary, updated.
Let us take a look at Heidegger’s criticism of “the modern technology”. Far from being complicated, it is made up of a very understandable premise and proposition. It asserts that, although the essence of technology consists in a “bringing-forth” [Her-vor-bringen], modern technology goes beyond that and turns into a “challenging [Herausfordern], which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.” That is to say, according to Heidegger, modern technology threatens nature to provide all that it has.
Such a definition seems to be relatively simple for this enigmatic philosopher. However, we cannot help being bewildered when he mentions the “old windmill” as an example of technology that would not “challenge” nature. He may be right in saying this, but, if we really want to put forward a “philosophy in the atomic age”, we can never be content with this kind of nostalgic argument.
From this point of view, the anti-nuclear argument presented by the Japanese philosopher Shin’ichi Nakazawa deserves attention. In his book, The Great Transformation of Japan, written and published just after the disaster of 2011, he focuses on the exceptional character of nuclear power in the historical development of energy use by humankind. From the simple use of fire to the discovery of petroleum, Nakazawa states that all the energies from which humankind has benefited are those given by the sun and mediated by some materials. For example, we burn wood, which has grown by virtue of the energy given by the sun. Wood therefore mediates what the sun has given. It is the same with petroleum, which is fossil fuel derived from ancient fossilised organic materials: the petroleum mediates what the sun has given.
Giveness and mediation have been the two traits characterising energy use by humankind. Conversely, it is nuclear technology that aims at discarding these two conditions. As we know, this technology draws power from atomic fission, just as the sun makes its power by atomic fusion. Therefore, Nakazawa defines nuclear technology as follows: what nuclear technology tries to do is to make a sort of sun on the earth; in other words, it tries to import what happens in the domain of the sun into the domain of the living thing.
What does this mean? The ecological system is dominated entirely by the phenomenon of “chemical reaction”. Something burns, something grows, a living body remains alive... All these processes are possible because of chemical reaction. And the domain of living things, dominated thus by chemical reaction, cannot continue to exist without depending on its outside; that is, the solar energy system, which is where the atomic fusion, not the chemical reaction, occurs.
Here, we can draw the following conclusion: nuclear technology intends to eliminate the outside of the ecological system by taking this outside into the inside. According to Nakazawa’s formulation, nuclear technology brings into the domain of the living what cannot be there, which seems reckless. Some people keep on believing, as before, that this trial is possible. But history proved that it was not possible. Nuclear technology caused irreparable damage to the world of living things.
The elimination of the outside: the essence of the nuclear technology described by Nakazawa in philosophical terms reminds us of the limit pointed out by Heidegger concerning the control of nuclear power by humankind: “If man succeeds to have control of the atomic energy, does it already mean that he has become the master of technology? Not at all. The coercion of controlling [...] betrays the inability of human beings to overcome this power”.
3.Nuclear Belief—a life without giveness
After the nuclear disaster of Fukushima in 2011, lots of people have become aware of the dangers of the nuclear power plant. The decision of the German government to abandon nuclear policy is one of the results. But what is surprising is that there are people who still cling to nuclear power.
How can we understand this in a reasonable way? For example, there is a commonplace stance on nuclear power, which states that nuclear electronic power generation is economic. This does not stand up to scrutiny, as has already been proven by some scholars. The nuclear power plant costs more compared to other methods of electricity power generation. In addition, we have no idea about how nuclear waste should be dealt with. We all know that such waste must be taken care of for many years; in some cases, for tens of thousands of years. Although the Japanese government dedicates an enormous budget every year to the recycling of nuclear waste, this project is past hope.
I confess that, after the disaster, I tried to understand the people who keep supporting nuclear policy. I tried really hard to understand their feelings. However, I could not, nor could I find any reasonable answer. Then an idea came into my mind. It seems that there is no reasonable reason to keep supporting nuclear policy. Does this not mean that the feeling of those who cling to nuclear power belongs to a domain other than that of reason? If I may posit, does it not belong to a domain of belief? Does this not mean that there is what we can call “nuclear belief”? If this interpretation is to the point, how can we understand this belief? What is the nuclear belief? It seems very firm and strong. On what is it based?
The concepts that Nakazawa provides in his analysis of nuclear technology will help us to answer these questions. As mentioned above, giveness and mediation have been the two traits characterising energy use by humankind up to the rise of nuclear technology. The latter aimed at overcoming these two conditions imposed on humankind. This means that nuclear technology tries to achieve a life without giveness. This technology dreams of living without being given, which means being fully independent, totally autonomous and standing alone. Is it not this “nuclear dream” that goes on fascinating some people and making them attached to this technology?
In order to imagine how powerfully this dream attracts or seduces people, it is helpful to understand what nuclear power was expected to realise. A Japanese filmmaker, Noriaki Tsuchimoto (1928–2008), filmed a very interesting movie in this respect: Genpatsu Kirinuki-Cho [Tsuchimoto Noriaki's Nuclear Scrapbook] (1982, Japan), which is a kind of experimental movie consisting solely of images of newspaper clippings. There, we see some articles from the 1950s discussing the future that nuclear technology would bring about. For example, all the buildings have their own nuclear reactors, so they need no energy supply. In addition, all the vehicles, including airplanes, are equipped with nuclear reactors, which allow people to move so freely that intercultural marriage increases and the world becomes peaceful (I am not joking! In that period, people really talked like this!)
The gist of these expectations is simple: if we have this small box (that is, the nuclear reactor) and if we keep on cooling the nuclear fuel inside, we no longer have to depend on anything; we become totally independent and acquire a life without giveness.
Psychoanalysis is competent in analysing such a desire promoted by nuclear technology. This desire seems susceptible to being translated into a psychoanalytic term: omnipotence, which defines primary narcissism. As we know, Freud considered the child to live in a sort of megalomania, which it abandons in the next stage of its struggle with reality. However, it is so painful to abandon this original God-like feeling of omnipotence that it recurs in the individual’s adult life, which defines secondary narcissism.
It is probable that the nuclear belief mentioned above is deeply rooted in secondary narcissism. This accounts for the fact that this belief is so firm and strong. Perhaps humankind believed that nuclear power would allow individuals to retrieve their original God-like feeling of omnipotence, which is, of course, deceiving.
If this psychoanalytic reading of nuclear power is well-grounded, the movement for abandoning nuclear power generation (Datsu-Genpatsu) would require great effort due to secondary narcissism usually being very strong. Also, since this narcissism entails regression to the illusionary feeling of omnipotence in early childhood, abandoning nuclear power would mean some kind of maturity of humankind. This seems very difficult, but perhaps we should not forget that Freud did not give up his expectations for the maturity of humankind.
 Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1969, p.51. [Emphasis added.]
 Ibid., p.56. [Emphasis added.]
 My translation. Emphasis added. [“Wenn es gelungen ist, die Atomenergie unter Kontrolle zu bringen, bedeutet dies schon, der Mensch sei der Technik Herr geworden? Keineswegs. Die Nötigung zur Kontrolle bezeugt gerade die Macht des Stellens, bekundet die Anerkennung dieser Macht, verrät das Unvermögen menschlichen Tuns, sie zu übermächtigen[...]” (“Brief an Takehiko Kojima”, GA, Bd 11, p.161.)
 Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1982, p.14.
 中沢新一、『日本の大転換』、集英社（集英社新書）、二〇一一年 [Shin’ichi Nakazawa, The Great Transformation of Japan, Shueisha, 2011].
 大島堅一、『原発のコスト』、岩波書店（岩波新書）、二〇一一年 [Ken’ichi Oshima, The Cost of the Nuclear Power Plant, Iwanami-Shoten, 2011].