When I bring up Peak Oil with my friends, some of them leap onto the nuclear bandwagon. And unlike the old days, nuclear power proponents aren’t just cigar-chomping engineers with high-and-tight haircuts. No, the hippies have been warming up to nuclear, too. Why?
Because nuclear fission doesn’t dump pollution directly into our communities, it doesn’t add as much to our CO2 load as coal or petroleum and because it’s a well-understood technology. Furthermore, it would be a meaningful stepping stone to becoming fully energy independent in a glorious new electrical world.
We currently have about 104 operating nuclear power plants in the US. If we converted our ground transportation fleet, our industrial power needs and our heating needs to electricity, we could power it all – even with current growth trends! – with about 720 additional high-yield nuclear plants. That’s right: just 720 comparatively small sites that can be placed where they are needed most.
Sounds like a winner! Let’s start building now! Why wait?
Well, there are a few snags. First and foremost is the disposal question. What do we do with all the nuclear waste? The leftover heavy water and contaminated rods and other radioactive components are the most deadly objects on the face of the Earth. And they will remain lethal for tens of thousands of years. We currently can’t even clean up our previous messes. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state is still working on getting rid of radioactive materials from 50 years ago!
Don’t get me wrong; the men and women working at Hanford and other Superfund sites are doing a bang-up job with this massive undertaking. It will take billions more dollars and a few dozen more years to get Hanford cleaned up. And they’re racing against time: if cleanup doesn’t finish on time, the Columbia river could become a radioactive death trap for every living thing in the northwest US.
“Let’s just bury the shit in Yucca Mountain!”
This has become the rallying cry of nuke proponents. It’s true: Yucca mountain leads to a massively deep and solid ignimbrite base that can keep nuclear waste far from the water table and our kid’s sippy cups. We could put shit down there, slap on a few warning signs and just monitor the place for about 50,000 years and we’ll be fine. Sort of.
Trouble is, Yucca Mountain is the leftover remnant of an ancient caldera and an active tectonic zone. Fault lines extend throughout the area. One good earthquake, and we’ll be one nervous country. Who’s going to go down and see how things held up after the big quake? Not me.
OK, so maybe disposal is a problem we haven’t solved. But maybe we could solve it. Maybe we could find the perfect spot to bury the waste or maybe we could encase the shit in thick nano-carbon sarcophagi, then just rocket them into the Sun. Poof! Problem solved.
Almost. There’s another concern: uranium supplies. According to the German research organization Energy Watch Group, most of the world’s easy, high-yield uranium has already been mined. That leaves less-rich ores which are more costly and energy-intensive to process. At current consumption, cynics guess we have about 33 years of affordably extractable uranium left. More liberal estimates are a few centuries at current consumption.
Either way, there isn’t enough uranium for America’s gleaming new 720 power plants.
In my mind, none of this matters.
What bothers me about nuclear fission is the danger of leakage and contamination. No, I’m not Bruce Springsteen and no, I’m not going to lecture you. Instead, I’d like to tell you some real-life stories.
I’ve read several books about the Chernobyl disaster. I became interested in the subject from my personal interest in eastern Europe and from reading about various daring explorers who have posted photojournals of their visits to Pripyat, the Ukrainian city that was once home the Chernobyl employees and their families.
Among them are Robert Polidori, a cool collection from the folks at pripyat.com and the controversial motorcyclist Elena Filatova. Of course, you can also play any number of post-apocalytpic video games with creepy maps based in and around the Pripyat disaster zone.
Most nuke proponents scoff at the very idea that Chernobyl will ever happen again, because, well, “this time it’s DIFFERENT”! (Hint: whenever anyone says that, it’s a lie.)
Yes, Chernobyl was not a poster child for safely-run nuke plants. And yes, we can avoid the same mistakes that occurred there. But nothing can alleviate the fact that the turning point that resulted in the Chernobyl failure was human error. Like many awful things, Chernobyl was caused by laziness. A stress test of the reactor’s cooling ability was being run, and when the day shift switched to the night shift, the night shift guys who took over didn’t realize the test was so deep into its cycle. It was a lack of communication between day and night crews. They let the test run and run. What could go wrong?
The core overheated and exploded, leaving the radioactive basin exposed to the air at full blast. And this is where we meet the heroes and villains.
Fire crews battled the blaze. Many of them reported seeing a green glow from the core that wouldn’t go out. They were, however, successful in putting the fire out. Nearly all of them died within a year from radiation poisoning.
The Soviet leadership from Gorbachev on down tried to put a lid on the story and failed to sound the alert – internally and externally. This reprehensible desire to contain the bad news is almost as criminal as the subsequent failure to adequately care for those affected by the disaster.
The real heroes are the men and women who gave their lives to contain the mess. Some of them were engineers and architects. Others were heavy equipment operators. Some were soldiers and nurses. Most were regular citizens looking for work in the moribund Soviet economy. All of them gave their lives to contain the disaster and their efforts saved untold thousands of lives.
In her book Voices from Chernobyl, writer Svetlana Alexievich interviews people who fought the Battle of Chernobyl. Nearly all of them died soon after giving their interviews.
Among the memorable and haunting stories:
- A Russian Army helicopter pilot who was among the first to start pouring airborne drops of concrete onto the smoking husk of the reactor. As he hovered over the glowing wreckage and dropped load upon load of concrete, he could feel pins and needles shooting up through the seat of his helicopter. He died a few months later.
- A heavy equipment operator tasked with “clearing” the surrounding villages. He and his crew tore up the top few feet of soil in every village and farm for deep burial. When the contract was up, the government asked to take all his clothes for disposal. He gave them everything except his favorite hat. He gave the hat to his 6-year-old boy when he got home. The father died soon after from radiation poisoning. The boy died just a year later from brain cancer.
- A group of engineers in Moscow had some bold ideas to encase the reactor. They needed to tunnel below it and fill the tunnels with concrete. After long delays from the government, they were given the go-ahead. After several months of awful labor, the base of the reactor was encased in concrete. Many of the attending engineers and workers died soon after.
The Chernobyl victims keep rolling in as people in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus continue to die in cancer clusters and children are born with profound genetic defects. Chernobyl released 400 times the radioactive fallout of Hiroshima.
This is what happens when you have routine human error at a nuclear power plant.
(An interesting aside: due to all the hard work of those heroes who cleared the immediate area, the ecosystem around Pripyat and Chernobyl has bounced back remarkably. Wildlife has returned and some villages are even inhabitable. It’s a wonderful case study for people interested in how our ecosystem bounces back from human folly.)
In sum: I know you may think nuclear power is comparatively clean and safe, but there is more to it than that. It’s non-renewable, intensely pollutive and very, very dangerous.
We must look elsewhere for answers.