THE LONG, HOT NUCLEAR SUMMER

9 07 2011

In the short space of the last three months, we have had three major nuclear crises.  The one-two punch of an earthquake and tsunami smashed the Fukushima  power station in Japan, flooding on the Missouri River is threatening two nuclear power plants near Omaha, Nebraska, and a runaway forest fire nearly burned Los Alamos National Laboratory.

So far, Fukushima has been the most disastrous, at least in nuclear terms.  Government and electric company officials at first denied that there had been any meltdown or serious release of radioactivity, but have since admitted that both occurred.   Were they misinformed or lying?  Probably lying, figuring it was best to prevent panic.   After all, once people are dying of radiation poisoning, they are generally too sick to put up much of a fuss when they learn the truth.

The truth, in this case, is that three of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima  did melt down, probably even before the tsunami hit them, and it will take years, not to mention technology yet to be invented, to clean up the mess.

The truth is, that in the first week of the accident, “two or three times more radiation” was released than earlier accounts had admitted to in the entire three months since the accident–do the math, that’s 25 times more radiation per week than the original official estimates.  Doesn’t that make you feel confident about your government and utility company?  Sure, you can be confident that they will lie through their teeth in the event of a nuclear accident.  Now they’re admitting that this accident has probably released as much radiation into the environment as Chernobyl did–so far.  But there’s a lot more nuclear material at Fukushima than there was at Chernobyl, and things ain’t under control yet.

Beyond that dismal news, Scientific American reported that

a trial run of the new filtration system (designed to remove radiation from the plant so workers could clean it up) was halted on June 18 in less than five hours when it captured as much radioactive cesium 137 in that span as was expected to be filtered in a month.

Do the math again–that’s 120 times more radiation that officials initially admitted was spewing from the plant.

Can you say, “Oops,” boys and girls?  How about “glow in the dark”?

OK, maybe they weren’t lying after all.  Maybe the Japanese government and Tokyo Power Company officials were just criminally ignorant.  Does that make you feel better?  I thought not.

Chernobyl occurred in the middle of a continent, which became widely contaminated.   The good news is, land stays put.   Fukushima is spilling radiation into the Pacific Ocean, which circulates at a fairly brisk pace, spreading radiation everywhere the current flows.  With radiation, the solution to pollution is not dilution.  It only takes one radioactive molecule in the wrong place at the wrong time to  create mutation or cancer.  The reactors also released radioactivity into the atmosphere, where it was soon detected on the Pacific Coast of the U.S.  Is it only coincidence that the US Center for Disease Control reported a 35% increase in infant mortality in Washington, Oregon, and California in the months since the Fukushima accident?  There’s no way to “prove” this spike in dead babies is connected to Fukushima.  None at all, nosir.  Not traceable atall.

So, in spite of the best technology available, Fukushima continues to spill radiation into the Pacific Ocean and the island of Honshu.  Some of it is short-lived, some quite long-lived, but it’s all quite invisible.  More about that later.

Meanwhile, back in Omaha, Nebraska, record flooding of the Missouri River is threatening two nuclear power stations and a nuclear waste dump site in Missouri..  The flooding is likely to continue through the Summer, and, while Summer is traditionally a drier season on the Great Plains, we have entered a time when the weather patterns have become increasingly unpredictable.  Maybe the nuclear power plants will ride out the flood–this time.  And the next time?  Will we lose the lower Missouri and Mississippi valleys to nuclear pollution?

This time, so far,  the nearly flooded nuke plants in Nebraska are a sideshow–the important part this year is that farmers along the Missouri River are not going to be able to plant crops in what just happens to be America’s agricultural heartland.  The world is hungry, and getting hungrier.  The food that will not be grown this year will be expensively, and sorely, missed.

And then there’s the fire this time–out in New Mexico, a fire has burned nearly 200 square miles of what used to be pine forest around the town and nuclear weapons lab of Los Alamos.  Apparently, the fire did not cause any radiation releases or actually burn any of the buildings at the weapons lab.  Unlike the Missouri River’s flooding, it’s unlikely that there will be another fire of this magnitude this close to Los Alamos.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that there won’t be a fire because it’s quite likely that there won’t be another forest to burn in this location.  Between pine bark blister beetles and a long-term drought, the prospects for re-establishing the burned-out forests of the Southwestern US are, sadly, dim.  With fewer trees to hold and circulate water, the region will become even drier, making it even harder to keep large population centers supplied with water and electricity.  Goodbye, Phoenix, goodbye, Tucson– Sahara, here we come!

I’ve been referring to Chernobyl a lot…so, how’s things at Chernobyl?   Here’s  a quote from one recent news account:

The reactor is encased in a deteriorating shell and internationally funded work to replace it is far behind schedule.

And that gets us to “the deep green perspective” on all these disorderly nuclear power plants and laboratories:  We are currently at, or perhaps just past, our peak ability to finance, deploy, control, and safeguard this technology.  We face a future of diminished resources and increasing challenges.  The events of the last three months are unlikely to be unique.  There will undoubtedly be more natural disasters, more frequently, and we will not always be even as lucky as we have been so far, if you want to call our current situation lucky.

Hey, you got a roof over your head, three square meals a day, a hot shower, internet, cable?  Globally speaking, historically speaking, you are incredibly wealthy–and lucky!  But, I digress.

There are 435 nuclear power plants on the planet; their average age is 27 years.

90 percent of the 104 nuclear power plants in the US are already more than 20 years old and half have been operating for more than 30 years. …Taking into account that the average life span of a nuclear power station is estimated by both the IEA (International Energy Agency) and the plant operators to be 40 to 50 years, this means that …90 percent of U.S. reactors are in the last half of their operating life.

Europe’s only a little behind–or is it ahead? of us, with about 75% of their nuclear power plants in the last half of their life.  How likely is it that, in twenty or thirty years, we will still possess the industrial infrastructure necessary to maintain, let alone replace, these multi-billion dollar, high-tech, deteriorating power plants?

And it’s not just the plants, it’s what remains of the fuel that powers them.   Since no safe, long-term storage plan for spent fuel has ever been devised, most nuclear power plants retain this “spent” fuel, which, while it is no longer radioactive enough to power a reactor, remains lethal for hundreds, or in some cases, thousands, of years.  For much of that time, it needs to be cooled.  If a spent nuclear fuel storage pond is cut off from electricity, and the water that removes excess heat from the fuel rods can’t be circulated and cooled, the water will quickly pass the boiling point, and vaporize–spreading radiation.  Or maybe the nuke plant’s water supply dries up or becomes too warm to be useful.  Without a protective pool of cold water, the fuel rods will heat up and burn, spreading more radiation.  By building nuclear power plants, the human race has made a bet that we will be able to maintain a stable, high-level technological civilization for hundreds, possibly thousands of years.  At this point, unfortunately, the odds do not look good on us winning that bet.

Can you say, “hubris,” boys and girls?

There is the further complication that, since they need a steady supply of cold water to cool down not just the spent fuel but also the nuclear reaction (“A Hell of a way to boil water,” Albert Einstein commented),  a great many nuclear power plants have been built next to the ocean–which is rising.  Even if a given power plant is actually on a high enough bluff that it is not inundated, the worldwide commercial web on which such large industrial projects depend will be grinding to a halt over the next century as all the world’s port cities are inexorably inundated and petroleum-based fuels for ships and airplanes alike become first exorbitantly expensive and then simply unavailable.  The poisoning of the planet has, alas, only just begun.

As a footnote to that, some testimony on how shortsighted Homo sapiens really is, the Chinese are building their much vaunted, “safer, cleaner, simpler” fourth-generation nuclear reactor–on the seacoast.  Well, what were they gonna do?  All their rivers are drying up!

So, here we are, enthusiastically poisoning the planet with the invisible scourge of radiation–and let’s not forget that, in the technologically limited future we likely face, radiation detection devices are unlikely to be widely available. Such a thoughtful gift for our children, not to mention all sentient life on the planet–and yet, somehow, not an issue for most of those who want to ban abortion because of “the sanctity of life.”  What self-righteous frauds they are!

Cheerful little earful, eh?  Not only are we facing self-inflicted global warming, resource depletion, climate disruption, and sea level rise, we’re also arranging a widely, and undetectably, irradiated future.

“The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!”

Indeed.

music:  Timbuk3, “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”  .








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