A Little Nukie Never Hurt Anybody!

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Look how cute!

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.

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Nuclear fission FTW!!!

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.

YuccaMountain

Yucca Mountain - put the yucky in Yucca!

“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.

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Sleep, my pretty. Sleep.

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?

Chernobyl_Disaster

Um...this.

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.

chernobyl-heroes

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.
chernobyl-victims

Meet twins Vladimir and Michael Iariga. Michael, on the right, is the older twin. Vladimir, on the left, is deaf.

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.

10 Responses to “A Little Nukie Never Hurt Anybody!”


  • Hmmm, I think you’re way off base here; a few examples, the disposal problem is much exaggerated; even the Chernobyl disaster wasn’t permanently damaging – it’s the greatest nature preserve in Europe now; nuclear plants (not just stored waste) have operated safely during active earthquakes (Japan), so the “faultline” argument is a red herring. There’s actually plenty of uranium according to the best scientists etc. What’s more, it’s the ONLY current technology which can meet energy needs without CO2 emmissions. “Look elsewhere for answers?” Sure – but meanwhile we really need to stop with the coal plants and start building nukes.

  • Wow. You are wrong. Let me count the ways…

    1) Disposal continues to be a problem not just in the US, but for France and the UK who have yet to find any permanent solutions. All 3 of us continue to simply stockpile on site and I’m not aware of anyone inside or outside the industry who thinks this is a good idea. In fact we don’t even know how this waste will behave in a few centuries, much less the tens of thousands of years it will be active. If you know of any peer-reviewed studies that contain bombproof solutions for long-term disposal, not only would I like to know but I think you should contact the EPA. Really.
    2) The Chernobyl disaster was mitigated by the sacrifice of hundreds (nay thousands) of heroic fools who went in and struggled for months to limit the damage. Did you even read my post? Thousands of deaths from the cleanup, thousands more from the fallout, thousands more from the genetic mutations – I call that permanent damage. You must lead a charmed life if such horrors don’t move you to even a hint of consideration.
    3) Define “greatest natural preserve”. The largest pristine natural area in Europe is the Białowieża Forest, situated between Poland and Belarus. The Chernobyl area, while recovering, is deceivingly quiet. Over 300,000 people were removed from the area. Wildlife has returned because of this, but instances of mutation and residual radiation spots persist and will continue to persist for many centuries.
    4) The risk analysis between an earthquake at an operating power plant and an earthquake at an enormous underground storage facility is too obvious for me to belabor. Use your head. THINK ABOUT IT.
    5) “Plenty of uranium according to the best scientists”? Where do you get this crap? Fox News? The World Energy Council, the World Nuclear Association, the OECD and the International Atomic Energy Agency have all done studies on this subject and the most favorable estimate is at most up to 400 years of extractable uranium AT CURRENT CONSUMPTION and assuming INTENSIVE EMPLOYMENT OF FAST BREEDER REACTORS. My numbers were spot on. Fact is, there is nowhere near enough uranium for an intensive conversion to nuclear fission. Period.
    6) Nuclear fission is not the ONLY current technology that can bridge the gap. And since it is such a stupid investment, we’d be better off engaging in intensive energy conservation and investment in renewables. I’d rather invest in an orbiting solar collector with microwave power beam transmission (which is not future tech – the Japanese are already building one). For the price of one nuke plant we can orbit several gigawatt stationary solar collectors.
    7) Coal plants are extractive and pollutive, but compared to fission they are cheap to build, cheap to feed and we have centuries of coal to burn right here in the USA. I share your dislike of coal plants, but I’d consider them if extraction processes were modified and intensive pollution controls required.

    Fact is, we will need an energy bridge. I am willing to sacrifice to see us work on renewable energy and intensive conservation NOW.

  • Not that I’ an expert on any of this, but I always thought Nuclear power was pretty damn high risk. Thinking about that: what if we did have 700 NPP’s throughout the USA? It’s just increasing the chances of shit gon getin’ blowed up and the radiation covering the land. I bet Canada would love us for that.
    As for disposal, get that stuff into space. I know constant rockets will be a pain, but we should really make that orbital elevator that has been conceptualized for years.
    And what about actual renewable resources? Isn’t there that huge freaking ocean thing? Maybe we could change defunct oil rigs into hydrodynamo stations. Wind may not be all that reliable, but if we got several sources going at once it wouldn’t matter. The solar satellite sounds expensive, but at least if it explodes it won’t unleash radiation.

  • Ok, now I have to stay up past my bedtime! Damn you people! j/k.

    My post was centered on what you mentioned: human error (and human folly) can cause a nuclear power plant to melt down and the results are catastrophic and horrible. Human error at an oil refinery or a coal plant is also bad, but nothing like Chernobyl.

    As for renewables: this is where I have some sympathy for the pro-nuke crowd. They’ve crunched the numbers: earth-based solar, wind and wave generation just can’t provide the power we fat, consumptive Americans need. We are world-class power hogs and in order to maintain the American Way of Life we need cheap plentiful energy.

    The pro-nukers are trying to be reasonable and realistic. I can’t fault them for that. They’re aware of Peak Oil and they are worried. They should be. But nuclear fission is not the best solution. We can’t supply them with the uranium they need, we can’t get rid of the waste properly and we can’t risk another Chernobyl.

    If you want the real solution, it’s this: conservation and investment. Boring, huh? We need to go on an energy diet. And while we’re slimming down, we need an Apollo Project of energy. Fuck the banks, fuck the roads and fuck the military. We need to pour billions of dollars into private and public research for alternative energy. We need to pour billions of more dollars into mainstreaming our current pathetic efforts at mainstreaming renewables.

    We put a man on the moon. We can perform a national assessment of energy needs and start a massive infrastructure renewal. I really don’t see that we have much choice in the matter.

    Who wants the most powerful military on Earth when there isn’t jack shit to defend?

  • I agree that conservation and investment are both necessary, but your caustic reference to Fox News hardly buttresses your argument. Where did that come from? Fact is, there IS plenty of uranium. 400 years is more than we have of oil, and a helluvalot longer than any hydro or geothermal plant will last, not to mention the microwave, solar, wind and other blissninny technologies that have yet to deliver – how long do you reckon those wind turbines will go without maintenance? Also, they usually do not work during periods of high demand (i.e. hot windless days). Yes, coal is cheap. So what? So is wood – you want to go back to fireplaces and woodburning stoves? That’d destroy the environment even faster.

    You are just pressing emotional buttons, not arguing from logic – there is NO CHANCE of another Chernobyl because no country is building reactors of that type. Earthquakes? Dude, nuclear plants operated safely in a major Japanese earthquake very recently; a dry storage facility in the desert would not be seismically active. The Japanese you so admire are NOT getting energy in any quantity from microwave dishes. In fact, I’d wager that the energy from the microwave dishes you describe are a small fraction of what they get from nuclear plants and a very, very, very small fraction of their energy needs.

    Don’t kid yourself; if gigawatt microwave was ready for the mainstream power companies would already be building them. Most power companies would save millions of $ if they could implement such technolgies (once build it’d be basically free power). They have not, because the payoff is not there.
    Like it or not, nuclear is as close to a “free lunch” energywise as you can get energywise….Sure, maybe someday we’ll have a bunch of microwave gigawatt orbiters giving us all the engergy we need pollution free. I wouldn’t hold my breath though. we need to “take our medicine” with nuclear power — that is, if we wish to continue with a modern economy; I take it as a given that you do, at least you don’t seem like a Luddite to me.

    But if you think microwave dishes are a winning technology, you should invest in it!

  • I guess I forgot the US’s two biggest fears: change and moderation.

    Oh and here’s an Idea; treadmill powered TVs. Now we can’t use TV or video games as a scapegoat for childhood obesity. Less power needed to run probably the most used home appliance. Two birds with one stone.

    STAY CLASSY AMERICA.

  • @OG

    OG, I tried. I asked you to think. You refused. I’m going to give a short response, then that’s that.

    1)That “400 years” of uranium is an *extremely liberal* guess and that number applies only to current consumption levels. If we want to move a larger bulk of our electricity needs to fission, we need MORE PLANTS THAN WE HAVE NOW. Assuming we double the number of plants, we halve the amount of available uranium. Thus, AT BEST: 200 years. Doubling our number of nukes won’t even meet the needs of an electrified ground transportation system. We’re talking quadrupling. Now we’re at 100 years. AT BEST. Now, factor in the energy and infrastructure costs involved in intensive breeder reactor employment in order to get the “400 years”. If we can’t do all that, then we can cut it by half again. 50 years. Since some estimates put the current available extractable uranium at current consumption at ~100 years max, then it’s a total waste of time.
    2)Are you saying nukes will outlast hydro and geothermal? You’re so off here, I’m tempted to consider you a troll who’s just fucking with me. NO ONE is that stupid.
    3)“NO CHANCE of another Chernobyl”? Sure, it’s not likely that the exact conditions at Chernobyl will be repeated. But has human error somehow magically evaporated from objective reality? NO CHANCE? Try “slim chance”. Trouble is, with nukes, when you hit the lottery of human folly (mistakes, sabotage), the cost of failure is too high.
    4)You obviously didn’t bother reading up on SPSS systems. They’re not “microwave dishes”. This kind of willful ignorance just pisses me off.
    5)“…nuclear is as close to a “free lunch” energywise…” is perhaps the stupidest comment of them all. From uranium extraction to breeder reaction to plant construction, nuclear is a painfully inefficient power source overall. Its EIEO is awful, especially when compared to solar and wind.

    I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat because I don’t think you’re getting it: there is no single replacement for cheap oil. Instead, we need to begin a huge move to conservation and make a careful assessment of regional power needs and solutions. Desert places should focus on solar, wet places on hydro, windy places on wind farms, coastal places on wave power and anyplace that can’t benefit from these choices will be the last bastions of non-renewable power generation.

    Even that may not be enough. But nuclear is an unwise investment of our resources. Period.

  • Well, I must have a crystal ball or something. A critic of my article wrote:

    “You are just pressing emotional buttons, not arguing from logic – there is NO CHANCE of another Chernobyl because no country is building reactors of that type. Earthquakes? Dude, nuclear plants operated safely in a major Japanese earthquake very recently; a dry storage facility in the desert would not be seismically active.”

    And here we are, April 2011 and a major earthquake and tsunami in Japan has us on the precipice of a mini-Chernobyl. Why? Human error in judging minimal safety standards. It boils down to the arrogance of human beings who think “This time it’ll be different”.

    Since my article was maybe too long or too subtle for some readers, let me spell it out:
    – Nuclear power is too dangerous to be left in the hands of fallible humans.
    – We don’t have the uranium resources to continue growing a nuclear power infrastructure.
    – We don’t have a safe, long-term solution for getting rid of nuclear waste.

    These aren’t opinions. They’re facts. As the Fukushima plant teeters toward a full meltdown of its core, I wonder if any amount of evidence, logic or public pressure will dissuade the nuclear power proponents.

  • And here I got caught all wrong because I misread it as “nookie” …

  • Regardless of any stance, I think both sides are well examined in this post. This is a not only informative, but also offers a view not so readily seen in portrayals of the nuclear future.

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