Nuclear Power and Me

A few months ago two friends, both very intelligent and technical guys, asked me what I thought of nuclear power.  Both on the same day.    A strange coincidence, but perhaps there was some news story that I had missed.  The upshot was that this was the answer to Global Warming / Climate Change.  My thinking is that it is at best a quick fix, and really trading one problem for another.

First my personal bias. I lived I Fukushima Japan.  I was only there one summer a few years before the nuclear accident. I lived in a small town called Aizu-Wakamatsu, in Central Japan, perhaps 100 km from the coast where the famous accident occurred.  I had many friends there when the accident occurred, so I kept up with the news and even got first hand reports from people living there.  All I can say is it was all much worse than the impression the international news media, at least in the west, portrayed.

The core of the Fukushima story is that ‘mistakes were made’ but only fairly extreme heroism prevented a global scale catastrophe.  I can probably point you to the stories about the near abandonmnent of the plant at the peak of the crisis, and when the prime minister of Japan ordered the employees (all civilians) to remain at their posts.  One wonders how workers on other parts of the world would have responded.  The alternative was ending life as we know it in the Northern Hemisphere. I don’t think this is an exaggeration.

 The official loss of life was very small, but the real numbers are obscured.  Tokyo had its water supply contaminated.  Lots of people were exposed to dangerous levels  of radiation.     The Pacific Ocean is still being contaminated daily.  The official story downplays all of this.  Not to mention, vast areas are off limits for decades if not centuries.  And the real cleanup still hasn’t begun.  The economic costs are huge.

On the other side there is Chernobyl, another obscure part of the world we are now on a first name basis with.  Lots of people died and the outcome was worse.  There is a miniseries this month that tells the story in detail.  I am tempted to watch it (I heard it is good) but it won’t be a feel good series.

On to the technology. I will go techie and put out the list of pros and cons as I see them.

Pros:

  • Existing technology:. We know how to do this.  France gets over 90% of its power from nukes.
  • Low CO2: won’t contribute to greenhouse gas production

Cons:

  • Safety: very serious consequences for errors.  History says we can expect one accident per decade.  These accidents are very expensive, possibly making large areas uninhabitable for decades.
  • Waste: no plan for dealing with seriously toxic and dangerous waste that will require centuries of management.  This cost is never mentioned.  It is a cost we will be passing on to future generations.
  • Decommission:. No techniques for decommissioning old plants which only last a few decades.

So we could build on existing nuclear technology, make smaller, safer reactors.  Still no plan for waste disposal.  There are even more exotic technologies emerging (thorium reactors?).  Bring them on.  Let’s see how they do.  So far nothing compelling enough to get people like me excited.

The real problem here is decades of ignoring the current problem of greenhouse gasses.  We now have people proposing increasing desperate measures, like ‘sequestering’ and  climate control.  The time for action was 30 years ago.  Almost anything we do today is going to be accepting a less bad outcome, not a real fix.  As an engineer, I despair.

Of course, I have children and younger friends.  I want the future to be better than the present.   I also have optimism that we will fix this one, but it will be painful and the longer we wait the more painful it will be.

My suggestions: stop driving around in giant SUVs (I’m looking at you, America).  I mean, what the hell?  Add a $2 a gallon tax on gasoline.  And stop voting for leaders who ignore these problems.  I guess I won’t be getting elected to public office in America, especially here in Texas.

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