There is an unintended dividend in the contention over the so-called Rasmussen Report of 1975, the supposedly definitive study that purports to establish that nuclear power is extraordinarily safe.
Whether it is or isn't, is of no present concern here. Rather, the ongoing professorial clash about this once-piously regarded study invites attention to the quasi-scholarly strutting that is often enlisted these days for political purposes. Further, it calls attention the performance of the press, which often tends to the assumption that if a government-produced study entails prodigious effort, cost, duration, and published length, there surely must be something to it.
In the case of the Rasmussen Report, the indices of noteworthiness defied indifference, for the celebrated study -- named after its leader, MIT Prof. Nornamed C. Rasmussen -- absorbed the services of 60 specialists over a three-year period, cost $3 million, and, in published form, stands nearly one foot; high.
For those who failed to recognize the direct relationship between intellectual quality and the aforementioned quantities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), upon issuing the report, explained that "it is a soundly based and impressive work."
Perhaps it is, in some respects. But the Rasmussen study, also known as WASH-1400, has been subjected to something that rarely touches that peculiar literary genre known as government reports -- an expert, independent appraisal, in this case by a group of specialists headed by Prof. Harold W. Lewis of the University of California. Convened by the NRC in response to congressional requests for a review of Rasmussen's findings, they found much to praise in the study. But they also made some damning observations that were there all along for anyone who cared to observe; foot-thick reports, however, while inspiring awe, do not encourage careful readership.
Thus, the Lewis group reports, "Among our findings are the well-known one that WASH-1400 is inscrutable, and that it is very difficult to follow the detailed thread of any calculation through the report.... In particular, we find that the Executive Summary is a poor description of the contents of the report, should not be portrayed as such, and has lent itself to misuse in the discussion of reactor risks."
Another finding was that statistical analysis in the report "is often presented in so murky a way as to be very hard to decipher." Also that the Rasmussen study, though widely depicted as relevant to all nuclear reactors, actually involved the study of just two individual reactors of different types. "Yet the results were extended to 98 other reactors without estimating the additional uncertainties associated with this extension."
The Lewis group adds various other criticisms, among them that "the report suffers... from incoherence," and is so chaotically organized that "one finds oneself shunted about from main report to appendix to appendix, always seeking the final word, but... never quite getting there."
None of this, of course, puts any illumination on the issue of nuclear safety. But, in regard to that matter, as well as many others in the public realm -- particularly those involving complex scientific and technical judgments -- there are some useful lessons in the Rasmussen Report controversy:
Just because prestigious experts say that something is so, doesn't mean that it is so -- though they may well be acting in good faith.
It is terribly important to maintain a pluralism of expertise. This, in turn, brings up the problem of financing the great traditional source of independent knowledge, academe, which is currently looking for money wherver it can find it.
Finally, as the Rasmussen inquest clearly shows those convenient "executive summaries" of behemoth reports merit a lot more skepticism and verification than they usually receive.