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”  .





WATER, AND HOW TO BOIL IT

16 04 2011

More from our social calendar–recently Transition Nashville screened the movie, Blue Gold.  No, we’re not Notre Dame fans–football, as far as I’m concerned, is part of the Empire’s bread and circuses program–this “Blue Gold” is subtitled, “World Water Wars,” and it portrays with sometimes beautiful and sometimes horrifying vividness how peak water, perhaps more than peak oil, may be the choke collar that ultimately constrains our culture’s cancerous rate of expansion.

At the chemical level, there are, of course, radical differences between water and oil.  Just for openers, oil was created here on Earth,  but, as far as we can tell, all the water on the planet was created elsewhere in the cosmos and became part of our planet in its earliest eons as water-rich comets and meteors collided with the young, hot, dry planet.  We use oil up–we burn it, turn it into plastic, degrade it to the point of uselessness, but water–water we constantly recycle.  The water that falls from the sky, quenches our thirst, and flows in our rivers and toilet bowls is the same water that the dinosaurs swam in, drank, and…pissed out, yes.  Think of it–every drop of water we have was probably, at one time, dinosaur piss. Thanks to our planet’s appropriate range of temperatures, however, pure H2O evaporates into the atmosphere, leaving behind whatever pollutants we, or the dinosaurs, add to it–not that that’s an excuse to allow pollution.  Natural cleansing can take a very long time.

For instance, there is a lot of what is called “fracking” going on in parts of the US and elsewhere.  Fracking involves injecting a cocktail of solvents and water into rock formations in order to release the natural gas that is held in these formations, so that it can be captured and used.  To this end, 32,000,000 gallons of diesel fuel, among other yummy substances, were injected into rock formations in the US between 2005 and 2009 alone–and this was done in spite of the fact that injectng diesel fuel is illegal.  Natural gas wells have a productive life of a few decades, but the groundwater pollution they create will last far longer than that.

Gas companies are, at least in theory, required to properly store and dispose of  their used fracking fluids, which are saltier than sea water, contain radium leached from underground rock formations, and bromides–not trite sayings, but chemicals that interact with chlorinated water to produce carcinogenic trihalomethanes.  However, neither sewage treatment nor water system intake plants are designed to deal with the massive chemical load of thousands of gallons of fracking fluid.  Oh,yeah, fracking-polluted water also tastes nasty, if you hadn’t guessed.

State and corporate officials promise that they have the situation under control and will carefully monitor for the possibility of contamination, but by the time the water is contaminated, it will be too late.  An ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure.  A decade or two of fuel now in exchange for hundreds, if not thousands, of years of poisoned water seems like a Faustian bargain to me.  I assume you recall  who offered Faust that famous bargain.  And who, then, is offering to trade us gas for water? Wouldn’t it be just like a demon to mix diesel fuel into the drinking water?  I mean, that sounds like Hell to me!

But pollution concerns aren’t the half of “Blue Gold.”  The movie’s main point is the many ways in which transnational corporations are working to corner the market for this increasingly scarce resource, which no human can live without, and this is where the movie gives us some encouragement, by reporting on successful resistance to privatization and monopoly such as the famous Cochabamba “water war,” when the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, threw out the Bechtel Corporation, which had bought the city’s water system and raised rates so high that most people could not afford water.

What the movie neglects to mention is that the public agency that now runs the system is, unfortunately, doing a very poor job of providing water to people. But maybe that’s not so important, in the end, as the fact that the people succeeded in throwing out a transnational corporation and relocalizing control of their water supply. Maybe what happens after that is their business, even if it’s their problem, as well.

There was some group discussion after the movie, and several small, informal conversations sparked up after that.  I got into a spirited exchange with one attendee about whether “fourth generation” nuke plants will be the answer to peak oil and the dangers of coal. “Fourth generation” nuclear power plants, for those of you who, like me, hadn’t heard of them before, are supposed to be much safer–easier to keep cool, harder to screw up,  cheaper to build, more efficient in their use of nuclear fuel. They’re still on the drawing boards, mostly.  The Chinese have started to build one,but it won’t be finished for another ten years or so.  The general consensus is that it will be at least twenty years before “fourth generation” nukes could become a widespread reality.

Here’s the basic reason why nuclear power is a dumb idea, second generation, fourth generation, tenth generation, no matter:  it’s an incredibly complex, expensive, and potentially very dangerous way to boil water.

Can you say, “Rube Goldberg,” boys and girls?

The real “first generation” nuclear power plant is located 93 million miles from here.  It costs us nothing to build or maintain.  It has been running safely (if you discount sunburns and skin cancers) for about four billion years, and will probably continue to function without any need for human intervention for another five billion years or so.

Using a common, well known technology, referred to scientifically as a “mirror,” we can focus the energy from this reactor, which, to throw another scientific term at you, is referred to as “sunlight.” Focusing sunlight on water will, under the right circumstances, make the water boil. The steam thus created can be used to turn a turbine and create electricity. Of course, generating electricity is only one of the many things we do with oil.  It’s not so easy to find substitutes for lubricants and plastics, to name the first two major non-fuel uses of oil that come to mind.

These “mirrors” could easily and rapidly be widely deployed all over the world.  It would not require creation of any more of the environmental disasters known as “uranium mines,”  or “uranium processing/reprocessing facilities.”   It would not amass large quantities of long-lived, or even short-lived radioactive material that might poison a neighborhood or a continent due to human error, natural disaster, terrorist attack, or the ravages of time.  Unlike a nuclear power plant, this technology would be relatively cheap to build and maintain.   It would not take a bunch of PhDs to run it.  It would be a decentralized, low-tech, relatively non-polluting source of energy.  Power plants could be equipped with “flywheels,” another fairly-low-tech, well-developed technology, so that they could keep providing power when the sun isn’t shining.

A second prong of the alternative to increased reliance on nuclear power is a combination of conservation and lowered expectations. The general consensus seems to be that money spent on energy conservation, dollar for dollar, saves five times more energy than the amount of electricity generated by a dollar invested in nuclear power plants.  And, speaking of investing in nuclear power plants, it’s worth noting that nuclear power, which, when I was a kid, promised “electricity too cheap to meter,” only maintains the appearance of a competitive pricing structure because it receives huge government subsidies, loan guarantees, and insurance backing.  Private investors won’t touch it.

Can you say, “the invisible hand of the market,” boys and girls?

Would “fourth-generation” nuke plants really be inexpensive to build and run?  We’ve heard this claim before.

Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and, in his words, “not a total opponent of nuclear power,” had this to say about nuclear power as a solution to runaway climate change:

“Counting on new nuclear reactors as a climate change solution is no more sensible than counting on an un-built dam to create a lake to fight a nearby forest fire.”

It’s important to note that many of those who promote nuclear power are in the pay of multinational corporations that profit from it, while those of us who oppose its use can expect no financial gain for our stance, and in fact will find the resources of those multinationals brought to bear on us in an effort to dismiss our concerns and ridicule us for expressing them.  But I digress.

As I was saying, there’s lowering our expectations.  The last two hundred years of human history have been a radical departure from all that preceded them, as we have discovered and consumed stores of fossil fuels that took millions of years to accumulate.  All of us in the First World enjoy riches beyond the imagination of the wealthiest of our very recent ancestors, and, unless some remarkable breakthrough is made very soon, our wealth and power will be the stuff of the legends of our descendants as they, like our ancestors, gather around their communal fire pit after a long, hard day of herding, gathering wild foods, working at handicrafts, and tending their crops.  It would have been thoughtful of us to consume the planet’s resources slowly and carefully enough to leave something for future generations, but we had to get rich quick making Barbie dolls and cell phones and superhighways and cars to drive on them.   Too bad, great grandkids, we spent your inheritance.

I wish I had been this eloquent and informed when I was in conversation with nuclear dude at the “Blue Gold” movie.  That’s why I write these talks out instead of trying to do them off the top of my head!

I did give him the short version of what I’ve just told you, and I’m glad we had the conversation, because it gave me a chance to review and document my opposition to nuclear power.   You’ll notice I have done what I could to steer away from current controversies raging over the level of danger from the Fukushima plant and the toxic legacy of Chernobyl.  From my point of view, it is irrelevant whether fifty or a million people died as a result of Chernobyl, or whether northwest Japan has become a short-term or long-term evacuation area.  If neither one of these disasters had happened, nuclear power would still be a foolish idea, an incredibly inefficient amount of bureaucracy, centralization of power, and concentration of resources just to boil some water.

Monkey clever, but not very wise.  We had better do better than that.

music:  Afrikaan Dreamland, “Dance and Survive”








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