Tuesday, March 15, 2011

No Nukes Is Good Nukes

Ever since the Enola Gay turned the city of Hiroshima, Japan into radioactive rubble the humans species has tried to find a peaceful and productive way to harness nuclear fission. But this bastard child of Oppenheimer  continues to be ill behaved. More and more it looks like mother nature had good cause to keep radioactive elements locked up in large quantities of rock that were placed in god forsaken places. But we humans, ever the ill behaved toddlers of the Animal Kingdom, ignored this obvious hands off provided by Gia. We went strait for those hills and figured a way to make that radioactive material even more hazardous to our health.

We took that Uranium and found a way to mine it, concentrate it and then fortify it. Through the technology of chemistry and the dark art of enrichment we managed to turn that hazardous Uranium into ridiculously, insanely, dangerous Plutonium. And then we took that Plutonium and made even bigger things that go boom in the night. Oh, and we decided that the stuff could be used to run our toasters. 
Granted the running our toasters bit is an oversimplification, but not by much. Plutonium is used in breeder reactors. It is part of many nuclear power plants. It also has the small problem that is is highly radioactive and last damn near forever. The half life of Plutonium is 200,000 years. To wrap your head around that absurd number, remember all of recorded history is at best seven thousand year long. Rome, from its founding on the seven hills until the sacking of Constantinople by the Ottomans lasted around two thousand years. Keep that in mind while we try to discuss energy policy.

If you have not guess it by now, your faithful correspondent takes a very dim view of nuclear power. For him, or rather for me, it all comes down to how do we handle all that super toxic nuclear waste. Did you forget the 200,000 year half-life of Plutonium yet? Something of a bother isn’t it? Come up with plan what to do with it yet? 

Don’t be too depressed, the US government hasn’t found an answer yet either.  There was the money pit that was Yucca Mountain, but after billions were wasted on trying to make Yucca Mountain work, the plug was finally pulled. The problems with Yucca Mountain were legion, I won’t bore you with how many really dumb ideas were rolled into the travesty in Nevada. It was and is an impressive edifice of willful ignorance.  Gross incompetence this bad really should have ended the careers of everyone who had the slightest contact with it.

But back to that radioactive Plutonium, have we worked out an answer yet students? Have we found an answer to the million year question? Do we need more scratch paper, perhaps some more pencils? Keep at it, O.K.? While we wait for you to crib off the work of some our smarter readers, let me rehash the most current oops-ah-shucks in Japan and link it some of the pasts greatest hits. 

The first hiccup that nuclear power endured was Three Mille Island. it was a good scare for the boomers who remember it. The sizzle quickly became a fizzle for the general public. Some radioactive gas was released into the atmosphere and the news of the day moved on to some other bright shiny object. What no one knew at the time is how big a bullet was dodged. TMI was a super-reinforced reactor. The containment building was much stronger than industry standards because it was built to resist a hit from a 707. TMI was built to these specs because regulators were nervous about the nearby airport and the damage a airliner could inflict on the site. The reactor survived the meltdown because it was the Incredible Hulk of Nuclear Power plants. 

The next plant was not so lucky. That oops-ah-shucks became a byword, a form of shorthand of what can happen when Nuke Power goes bad. Chernobyl is that plant, it is the byword for epic screw-up. It was a refection of the Soviet state and the Communist Party’s inbred recklessness. It was a sloppy, unsafe operation based on sloppy and unsafe plans, managed by sloppy and incompetent hacks. Chernobyl was bad news from day one. It was a human made disaster waiting to happen. When it finally self-destructed, it did so in true Soviet fashion: big, nasty and dirty. Thanks to Soviet secrecy and Soviet paranoia, we will never know the true death toll. We do know the general outlines of the crass disregard the Soviet Union had for the lives Chernobyl destroyed, but the final amount is a mystery. We also know that Chernobyl, like TMI, killed new construction of any new nuclear power plants in the US for at least a generation.
It is odd how errors like Fukushima keep coming up. Really, what prodigy decided to place a Nuke Power Plant smack-dab on the ocean, smack-dab on the ring of fire? It is like some engineer was just daring the angry gods of fate to screw with him. Then the designer does not build that plant for 110% of the worst case scenario? Exactly what is Japanese for hubris? Maybe that Japanese engineer is related to the genius who placed the San Onofre power plant three miles away from an “inactive” fault in San Diego County, California. It’s California genius, there are NO inactive faults in the land of fruits and nuts.

If to emphasize the danger of mixing plate tectonics and nuclear power Fukushima has now become another by-word for foul-up.  Japan now joins the small number of nation that have had a civilian calamity caused by nuclear power. So much for the talking point that this incident was not another Chernobyl. It looks like there are several entombed reactors in Japan’s not to distant future. 
Leaving Japan and coming back to the U.S., and specifically to the toxic swamps that are partisan D.C., I do have to wonder what comes next. Before Fukushima it looked like the chattering class had reached some sort of modus vivendi allowing the new construction of Nuke Power plants. President Obama was on board, as was much of Congress to one degree or another. It seemed that a green light was shining from the top of the Rotunda giving the go-ahead for the construction. It was all part of a typical D.C. back-scratching maneuver. It was the status quo epic corruption that passed for policy decisions these days. 

But that deal looks like a much heaver lift now. The unwashed masses, who were never consulted in the first place, are not going to stand for new Nuke Power construction now that Fukushima has reminded how hazardous these constructions can be to your heath. Nuke Power has always had a problem with NIMBYism and the latest news has put that phenomena into overdrive. No one wants one of these monsters lurking anywhere near their backyard, especially when they go kerflooey.

How the Republicans manage to change this reality on the ground to build their dream of two hundred new plants by 2020 is a bit of a mystery. The Elephants are trying to refund Yucca, but that is also problematic as this is one issue Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has had some success on. He has historical inertia behind him as almost a quarter of century has passed between the decision to build Yucca and the depositing of a single gram of radioactive waste. The Republican push for Nuclear Power is really odd since the Party of Lincoln is supposed to be all about Free Enterprise and cutting government spending. Nuke Power only exists because the Federal Government massively interferes with Free Enterprise. The government bankrolls and insures Nuke Plants because no private entity is daring enough to take on the gargantuan risk. 

But then the whole obsession with Nuclear Power among the chattering class makes little sense. Why they have fallen in love with this multi-megawatt and sometimes giga-watt facilities is a real head scratcher. The are hideously expensive, take too long to build, and are big fat terrorist targets. What is the attraction here? The leadership class keeps coming up with new selling points for nuclear power.  They keep changing the marketing but to no avail. The chattering class can talk about new jobs, the increased safety of the new plants, they attempt to wave the flag of national energy independence, but the unwashed masses keep saying no dice. It is not like the general public can quote the decay path that Plutonium takes to reach Lead. It is not like the general public can quote the intermediate stages and the various elements that the decay path takes. Is not like the general public can draw a timeline for each part of the process. No, they can’t. There not even dead set against nuclear power, they are fine with the plants; as long as they are nowhere near them.

That is the rub dear reader, NIMBYism. Corporate capitalism has managed to standardize the type of Nuclear (and conventional) power plants that no one wants anywhere near them. They are big hulking structures designed to drive the property values of their neighbors straight into a ditch. With the Fukushima disaster front and center, property values near a Nuke Power plant must be going into a death spiral.
How Fukushima effects energy policy in the US is anybodies guess. Thanks to the 24/7 news cycle Nuclear Power is about to suffer some very bad marketing. The D.C. consensus of full speed ahead no longer seems plausible. In a saner world it never should have been plausible in the first place, but DC has not been sane for a very, very long time. The very day a hydrogen explosion ripped though one of the reactors, Republicans had managed to reanimate the corpse of Yucca Mountain. They had held solar and wind power hostage to building new Nuke Power plants. The President was on board too. Who knows, in the opposite land of DC Fukushima may “prove” how much we need “safe, clean, nuclear energy.” After all look at all the Nuke Power plants that have managed not to blow up and spread radioactive death far and wide. And don’t worry Mr. and Ms. Average Citizen about that pesky radioactive waste problem, it’s nailed down--promise.

Thus, we come full circle. The two hundred thousand year question is how you do manage to “nail down” some of that radioactive waste. In a nation that goes through wild political gyrations in the space of two years, how do find solutions to a five billion year problem? Yes,you read that right, five billion years. That is how long some of these radioactive materials take to degraded down to ordinary, and still toxic, lead. The logistics of any such solution seem way beyond the juvenile and petty politics of the day. They seem way beyond the myopic view of the Corporate Capitalist who are tying to fatten their quarterly reports. They seem beyond even the solution of sober scientist and technicians. No one wants to come to  grips with this elephant in the room. I can’t claim any bright ideas myself. All I can do is point out that all the disconnects between what is the accepted wisdom and reality; the disconnect between the promise of nuclear power and the reality has to be one of the most gargantuan.
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