In Defense of Non-Conventional Energy Sources

Anne and Paul Ehrlich, experts in biological sciences from Stanford University, debunk the "Risk of Energy Production" report by Herbert Inhaber which claims that non-conventional energy sources, such as solar power, present as great a hazard to human health as do conventional sources.

| July/August 1979


Anne and Paul Ehrlich debunk the "Inhaber Report" regarding nuclear energy.


Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University,1979) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford,1979) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. As well they should be. Because it was Paul and Anne who — through their writing and research — gave special meaning to the words "population", "resources"  and "environment" in the late 1960's. (They also coined the term coevolution, and did a lot to make ecology the household word it is today.) But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (for example, Paul's book The Population Bomb) . . . far too few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (research of the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college textbooks). That's why it pleases us to be able to present the following semi-technical column by authors/ecologists/educators Anne and Paul Ehrlich. 

 The year 1979 may well prove to be the turning point in the battle over nuclear power versus non-conventional energy sources. In January, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NCR) repudiated the Executive Summary of the Rasmussen Report, which had — up to that point — been a mainstay of those people who claimed that nuclear reactors were sufficiently safe to be the world's future energy source.

 Then, in March, the near disaster at Three Mile Island emphasized the emptiness of the nuclear establishment's statements on reactor safety. One of the top technicians in the NCR just about said it all in a telephone call — to the Commission — from the scene of the Three Mile Island accident: "It's a failure mode that's never been studied," he claimed. "It's just unbelievable!"

Finally, in April, the controversy surrounding the "Inhaber report" began to attract public attention in the United States. Though much less dramatic than the Pennsylvania meltdown scare, this document may play an even greater role in our future energy choices.

Herbert Inhaber's Attack on Non-Conventional Energy Sources

The "Inhaber report" is a study — entitled Risk of Energy Production — written by Herbert Inhaber, Associate Scientific Advisor to the Atomic Energy Control Board of Canada (AECB). Only a few copies of the 150-page document (officially numbered AECB-1119) were circulated within the technical community, but a summary of the report was published by Inhaber in the New Scientist (a top British magazine) in May 1978 . . . and in Science (the most important North American scientific journal) in February 1979. The essence of those summaries appeared in such diverse places as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Nuclear News, the Stanford Daily, and a major speech (for the British Broadcasting Corporation) by the prominent English scientist-politician, Lord Rothschild.

Why did Inhaber's message attract so much attention? Quite simply, because he and the AECB were saying that non-conventional energy sources — such as solar power — present as great a hazard to human health as do conventional sources! Risk of Energy Production claimed natural gas to be the safest available energy source, followed by nuclear power. Solar space heating — and such other non-conventional energy sources such as wind generators, methanol from biomass, etc. — were all found to have substantially higher risks . . . while coal and oil were described as being the most dangerous of all.

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