Mother Nature reminds us to stop messing around with nuclear generation of electricity.

At the time of this writing, we have just learned that the heroic efforts of Japanese nuclear-generated electrical power workers have failed and the last remaining workers have evacuated the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  It seems all but certain that some amount of poisonous radiation will escape the containment and carry into the atmosphere to silently harm millions of people. 

The nuclear electrical generation industries in Western Europe, China and the United States have responded admirably by inspecting and closing plants on a temporary basis.  But that doesn’t change the fact that they have a flawed and pernicious technology that represents a dead end in the development of alternative energy.  

It took a forceful act of Mother Nature to demonstrate the inherent dangers of depending on nuclear energy to generate electricity. 

I can understand why many of those cognizant of the danger of continued global warming should have recently warmed up to nuclear-generated electricity, which does not empty carbon into the environment and by that measure has a “clean bill of health.”

But consider these facts about nuclear-generated electricity, facts that have not changed in the 60 years that power plants have been generating energy while accumulating harmfully radioactive nuclear wastes:

  • The half-life of some radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants is 25,000 years.  That means that in 25,000 years half the radioactivity will dissipate, and then in another 25,000 years another half of it will dissipate.  The challenge then is to build waste disposal facilities that will last through more than 25,000 years of natural disasters, evolving languages, government changes, lunatic leaders and the downfall of civilizations.   If the waste facilities are built to withstand all but a massive natural disaster that happens only every 100 years (the Katrina event or an earthquake), it must weather 250 such events, just to get through one half life cycle.
  • There are two theories regarding the dangers of radiation: the threshold theory, which avers that radiation never is harmful until exposure is above a certain level.  The alternate view is called the cumulative theory, which states that the effects of radiation accumulate so that every X-ray you take adds to the possibility of future side effects.  No one knows for sure, but the nuclear-generated electrical power industry works under assumption that the threshold theory is right.  But it seems to me that until we know for sure, the cumulative theory—the one used by medical professionals—is the safer one for the public.
  • Most people know about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now the Japanese reactors, but in total there have been more than 15 serious accidents, meltdowns and partial meltdowns since the dawn of the nuclear power generation age in the early 50’s.  That’s an average of one every four years.  The source I’m using cites no major accident in 11 years before the recent earthquake and tsunami leveled parts of Japan, but that is not enough time to say the technology has gotten safer, especially in light of these recent events. 

Did you know that if a Japanese style reactor disaster were to occur in the United States, the nuclear industry’s liability is likely inadequate to clean up a major mess, thanks to the Price-Anderson Act, passed in 1957 and extended several times?  By limiting the liability of the nuclear industry,  the federal government has transferred the true cost of delivering nuclear-generated electricity from the companies that generate the electricity to society in general. 

And did you know that in the early 50’s, experts presented white papers outlining how to commercialize nuclear and solar power to President Truman (our worst president and one of the most evil men in recorded history for ordering the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki)?  Truman rejected the solar option and poured billions into subsidizing nuclear-based businesses.   

And did you know that in the 1970’s, some 40 years ago, Barry Commoner proved that if the U.S. army insisted that all their field batteries were photovoltaic (which means the energy is generated by solar power), then cost of manufacturing would come down to the point of making photovoltaic cells a competitive source of energy?

The relentless pursuit of the nuclear option pretty much ended in the United States after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but a few years back, as soon as we realized that the twin challenges of energy dependency and global warming were entwined, politicians, think tanks and the news media began generating  support for nuclear-generated electricity again.   

With such a bad record of safety and no real way to store dangerous wastes, why is there still such a fascination with nuclear power? Why waste more money on this inherently dangerous technology instead of working on more energy-efficient technologies and the development of solar, wind, hydraulic (water) and biomass energy?

The answer, I believe, lies in the difference between the language typically used to describe the subject of the blog entry—nuclear power—and the more accurate phraseology I have employed—nuclear-generated electricity.

All nuclear power can do is make electricity and send that electricity to a centralized grid that delivers it to industrial, commercial and residential users.     

Government leaders everywhere tend to like generating electricity centrally, instead of providing the energy at the source of use (which by definition wastes less energy), as you could with rooftop solar panels or solar-generated electricity stations in neighborhoods, and as you do with natural gas powered vehicles.

But why do many leaders in virtually all governments love nuclear power?  My speculations:

  • Industries with few participants are easier to deal with and easier to integrate into industrial policy decisions.
  • It takes big organizations to operate and finance electrical generation and our leaders hobnob all the time with the leaders of big organizations, in their spare time and during campaigning.  If you don’t believe me, check the social schedule of all our presidents and ex-presidents since Richard M. Nixon.  What that means is that our leaders are always hearing the views of big organizations and tend to think in terms of “big” when they want to get something accomplished.
  • It’s the big companies and their owners and large shareholders (and in particular of nuked-out utility companies and the financial institutions backing them) lining the pockets and campaigns of our elected officials.
  • Especially at the dawn of the nuclear age, governments have liked the fact that nuclear generation of electrical energy is a peaceful use that in part justifies their horrifying and macabre weapons research and manufacture.  

Yes, our governments love nuclear-generated electricity because they love electricity, they love big projects, they love central control, easy access to major economic players, and an easy source of campaign funds and future endowed university chairs.  They love it because they love their nuclear weapons.

Other energy sources can deliver some of these benefits to short-sighted or corrupt government leaders, but none can deliver all of them in one pretty little glowing package.

opedge
One comment on “Mother Nature reminds us to stop messing around with nuclear generation of electricity.
  1. Guy Chapman says:

    In 1975 the Banqiao Dam, a hydroelectric installation, collapsed killing 26,000 people – a further 140,00 died of disease and starvation as a result. In 2007 in China there were over 6,000 deaths fomr coal mining and in excess of 300,000 deaths from ambient air pollution, mainly from the combustion of coal.

    China has followed your advice and announced a moratorium on nuclear generation.

    Chernobyl killed around 50 people and there are unknown health effects to another 4,000 or so. That’s less than the death toll fomr coal mining in China in a single year.

    As Churchill once said of democracy, nuclear is the wrst possible system apart from all the others.

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