Nuclear power

I would love to think that, in writing about the foolishness of nuclear power, I am preaching to the crowd.

It’s not like that, though.

When one reads about all the civilian nuclear accidents since 1950, it is sobering indeed.  How eerie, too, to read all the nuclear apologists claiming that nuclear power’s safety is unassailable and that environmentalists have exaggerated the risks.  “We can build the plants to be so safe that — ” well, there really is no way to end that sentence truthfully.  Certainly, we can build nuclear reactors that are encased in thirty feet of stainless steel.  We can place them in places where there has never been an earthquake, a volcano, a flood.  Problem is, history shows that every defense is eventually challenged by a superior offense.  Hence, oops! on the thirty feet of stainless steel.   Oops! on the totally unexpected earthquake.  Oops! on the totally unexpected and criminal ‘human error’.

What the proponents of nuclear power don’t seem to get is the simple truth that if something can go wrong, it will.  In this way, nuclear power is a threat unlike anything else on Earth.  A coal mine explosion will not contaminate 1,000 square miles as happened in Chernobyl.  Nor will an oil spill, as disastrous as that is — and I’m thinking about the BP disaster in the Gulf.  It’s all small potatoes compared to the potential irradiation of a huge area, making it uninhabitable for tens of thousands of years.  Imagine that: tens of thousands of years.  There is nowhere on this planet that Nature has made off-limits for that long.  You might not want to be in the pyroclastic flow from a volcano, but just wait a year or so and it’s fine.  Not so Chernobyl.

If anything good will come out of the mind-boggling disaster in Japan, it would be finally putting to rest any notion of the safety of nuclear energy.  It simply cannot be made safe, when the stakes are tens of thousands of years.

The most compelling argument against any further operation of a nuclear power facility is this: we have no place to put the waste.  According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commision, currently nuclear waste is stored “temporarily” at the places it is produced: the power plants.  What a nice target for a terrorist.  And forget about “permanent” storage, because it is not our right to define the environmental limitations of future generations.

I’m not talking about any alternatives here, either.  It is entirely possible, even likely, that energy costs will skyrocket as we abandon nuclear power.  Decommissioning is expensive in itself.  But how much would the residents of Pripyat and Chernobyl be willing to pay to have their hometowns back?


2 thoughts on “Nuclear power

  1. I don’t know why I’m bothering… guess I should let you know someone read it.
    What do you know about radiation? I mean, really? Do you realize, for example, that there’s daily [or so] tours through the Chernobyl power plant? Yes, the one on 1000 square miles of uninhabitable land. Some of them actually live in the area. Yes, there’s actual people who actually live on that ‘uninhabitable’ land, which apparently will remain ‘uninhabitable’ until the 11970’s.

    Of course, it’s unhealthy. We all know, it causes cancer. But so does smoking, so does obesity, so does the fuel we use in our cars. You know what? People cause cancer. Without people, people wouldn’t have cancer. More seriously, my point is: we can’t escape dangers. We won’t escape dangers. I can’t imagine how you find the threat of a terrorist attack at a power plant to be anything worth griping about in comparison to the tiny chance of a large asteroid striking the Earth, for example. Why don’t we worry about that more? There’s no reason to think an armageddon-style asteroid won’t hit us. Did you realize even large asteroids are almost impossible to spot if they come from the direction of the sun?

    People are evacuated from the area around the power plants in Japan because if they weren’t, perhaps 20 people of the 20,000 would develop thyroid cancer as a result of the radiation. That would be very bad for those 20 people and their families. And I’m aware, the problem may get worse. We need to weigh priorities, though.

    Most people will claim that it’s sickening to talk of weighing priorities over the loss of any human life, while choosing to blindly ignore the fact that we all do it every day. Those who are discussing the nuclear accidents in Japan aren’t much worrying about the children starving to death or dying of malaria in Africa. The truth is, if you can save money using nuclear power, it can be used to save lives elsewhere. That’s a pretty simple, straightforward fact. Nuclear power is undeniably useful, and if you look at your list of nuclear accidents, it’s clear it’s getting safer. Read through that list. How many deaths, for example? What were the results of the worst of the American ones – Three Mile Island? How many deaths? What was the increase in cancer? Something like 20% of civilian power usage since the 60’s [or so I hear] has been from nuclear power. Did you consider comparing the lethality of this to the ill effects of our other sources of power?

    What do we do with radioactive waste? “Bury it? But that’s terrible! What if it leaks?!” How many yearly die of cancer caused by UV sunlight or Radon in basements? More than have ever died as a result of nuclear power plants. These aren’t nuclear weapons we’re talking about. They don’t explode killing 45,000 people. They don’t make nuclear fallout.

    We’re all the product of a supernova: the planet we live in is naturally radioactive. Everything radioactive we use, in power plants or elsewhere, was dug up from the ground, already radioactive. We can stick it back there. We do. We dig 3,000 feet into otherwise-useless ground and drop the stuff back off (ideally; I know it’s not disposed of perfectly every time). And quite literally, the stuff stops being radioactive *faster* as a result of our using it for nuclear power. The waste in the barrels will stop being radioactive, and dangerously so, long before the Uranium would have been before we mined it.

    I’m going to summarize my rant and then end:
    Radiation is unhealthy and can be sometimes deadly, but we don’t make it, we just use it. We use it, among other things, to save lives. Yes, electricity saves lives.
    There are other great alternatives for energy that should be pursued, but you need to remember that they require far greater reserves of capital and land.
    We need to think more about what safeguards, backups, and redundant systems should be necessary in places where catastrophes may occur, such as Japan with earthquakes. What would be their problem today if their emergency diesels didn’t fail? Not much at all.

    Argh. Y’know, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m pretty hammered anyway. Good night. Reply to me in email if you’d like…

  2. Your point is well taken — or should I say your points? But allow me to take issue with a few things.

    You wrote: “we can’t escape dangers. We won’t escape dangers. I can’t imagine how you find the threat of a terrorist attack at a power plant to be anything worth griping about in comparison to the tiny chance of a large asteroid striking the Earth, for example.”

    Quite right, but we CAN avoid dangers when possible. It’s true that a road that goes straight off a cliff will lead to your death, but you can turn the wheel or stop the car. Except for life extinguishing events like an asteroid hitting our lovely little planet, we really must do all that we can to mitigate extreme dangers.

    The extreme danger of nuclear plants is not the possibility of a Three Mile Island partial meltdown. Not even Chernobyl. The big problem, as I mention in my next to last paragraph, is the irresponsibility of producing garbage that will be deadly even 25,000 years from now. Think of where humanity was, 25,000 years ago. That was before Egypt built its pyramids; before Herodotus wrote his fanciful history; before ancient Ur. Northern North America was still largely under the weight of massive glaciers. Neanderthal people were still carving rudimentary tools. And we’re supposed to bury stuff that’s incredibly deadly and will be just as deadly for 25,000 years?

    How utterly irresponsible and arrogant of such a race as would do such a thing!

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