Jonathan Schell is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. Before coming to Yale, Schell was an accomplished journalist, writing for the New York Times, the Nation, and the New Yorker, among other publications. He is an expert on nuclear weapons, and teacher of "Dilemmas of the Nuclear Age" and a seminar on non-violence in the spring.
Yale Herald: You were a journalist yourself before shifting to academia, is that correct?
Jonathan Schell: I'm still a journalist and only half a professor, teaching every spring term. In the fall I'm in New York, where I have an office at The Nation Institute. It's associated with The Nation, and I still write for them as well as other publications.
YH: Can you describe your early career?
JS: I started off as a freelance reporter in the Vietnam War — it was by accident that I came to write about it. I was living in Japan for a year and a half after college, having graduated in 1965. On my way back, I had an airline ticket that permitted me to stop anywhere in the world — and in as many places as I wanted, as long as I kept going west from Tokyo. One of the places I chose was Saigon. So I stumbled into the war, as a tourist.
YH: How did that reshape your views of morality, as it enters into politics?
JS: It was a seminal event for me, and brought me eventually to the nuclear dilemma subject. It became clear to me that America's involvement in Vietnam was very much involved with nuclear strategy.
YH: Besides Cold War politics, what else have you written about?
JS: I wrote a book about the Watergate crisis, one about nonviolence and political action called The Unconquerable World, and a kind of reportorial book about the U.S. election of 1984. Each one of these topics has grown out of the others, in a certain way. I haven't settled on a new project, but I'm thinking about how to relate global warming and other environmental issues to the nuclear weapon problem.
YH: Could that account for the vulnerability we've seen in reactors like those at the Fukushima plant?
JS: If you look at the history of nuclear power plant accidents, it's always something new that goes wrong. At Three Mile Island, they left a vent open, for example. At Chernobyl, they had an unexpected surge in electrical power. And at Fukushima, it was an earthquake and tsunami. We can imagine other sources of possible accidents, like a terrorist attack. So I don't think the problem lies with any particular sort of accident, but in the fact that the consequences could be so catastrophic if anything goes wrong with this technology.
YH: Do you think nuclear reactors will always be prone to meltdowns and the like?
JS: I just think human error is ingrained in human projects. There's nothing especially accident-prone about nuclear power plants, it's just that when something goes wrong, the stakes are so high.
YH: Do you think civil society and governments are ready to turn their backs on nuclear fueling?
JS: I think there's a strong likelihood that the whole "nuclear renaissance" that we've seen will come to a halt. Germany has already canceled a large proportion of its nuclear power plants, and it will probably move back to its policy of phasing them out altogether. The Three Mile Island accident, which wasn't as bad as this one, stopped [further] nuclear power in the United States for 30 years. I think the resistance will arise not so much directly from governments, as from the communities living near these plants, who'll take a look at Fukushima and say "we don't want this in our backyards." I think there will be a huge ripple effect in the nuclear power industry.
YH: Do you expect a rise in public concern over nuclear weapons as well?
JS: There has always been a spillover between these two issues — nuclear weapons on the one side, and nuclear power on the other. The spillage has gone both ways. Anytime that consciousness is raised about the split atom, people start to worry about both aspects. It's hard to predict, but entirely possible there will be such an effect.
YH: Can we ever put our nuclear know-how behind us?
JS: We can never unlearn the knowledge that permits us to tamper with the atom, so this feat will always be something humanity can perform if it chooses to. But I think nevertheless that it's possible to achieve a nuclear weapon-free world, as advocated by our president.
YH: Are you personally in favor of doing away with nuclear power?
JS: I tried for a long time to keep an open mind about nuclear power. But this accident at Fukushima has been the last straw. It has been clear, for some weeks now, that the course of events we've seen goes completely beyond anything projected in any instruction manual, or any accident foreseen by the plant's operators. Watching the operators improvise such desperate defenses against leaking radiation as old newspapers, I gave up and decided once and for all that this technology is uncontrollable. There is a fundamental mismatch — one we also see in the weapons — between nuclear energy and our meager human talents for managing it.
Tags: chernobyl, cold war, earthquake, fukushima, jonathan schell, nonviolence, nuclear, nuclear disarmament, nuclear energy, nuclear leak, nuclear power plant, nuclear weapons, three mile island, tsunami, vietnam, vietnam war, watergate, yale university