Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Lesson of the Japanese Meltdown

As the world's population continues to expand exponentially into the 21st Century, humankind's demand for food, water, space, shelter and energy multiplies right along with it.

In America, perhaps the only bastion of care against the relentless advance of the development and exploitation of nuclear power as an "alternative source" for energy generation, we have seen a retrenching of the pitched battle between the forces advocating an expanded use of nuclear power, and those questioning its ultimate safety and viability.

25 years after the disaster in Chernobyl, the consciousness of the danger and threat of nuclear accidents and non-disposable waste among the American public has been receding. President Obama--widely characterized as a liberal by the media during his political career--even went so far quite recently as to endorse the idea of new nuclear power plant licensing.

The technology of nuclear power generation has changed little since its inception in the 1950's. The concept seems relatively simple, but because of the difficulties involved, and the highly volatile and nefarious character of radioactive materials, it's an inherently risky business. Basically, it involves the setting into motion of a low-grade atomic reaction, controlled and insulated against escape (leaks). Everything that comes into contact with, or near, the actual reactive chemistry, becomes permanently and dangerously contaminated. There is no known way of "neutralizing" the "spent" radioactive materials from nuclear reactors, which lasts in this poisonous and contaminating form for thousands of years. No sensible solution to the problem of our growing "shit-pile" of radioactive waste has ever been brought forth. In the United States, "stock-piles" of this waste continue to build up, while jurisdictions argue about where and when it can be "dumped."

Primitive humans simply threw garbage into the backyard, or just outside the village. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, society has been struggling with the spectre of a burgeoning mass of "disposable" matter, which threatens to overwhelm our capacity (environment) to deal with it. Things which will rot or decompose are more easily managed, since the familiar material transformation of organic materials back into inert or harmless residue can be managed with eventual success. But with the rapid increase in the creation of "synthetic" materials, of which radioactive material is the most stubbornly persistent over time, we're looking at custodial obligations which will certainly outlive us by several millennia. This is an unreasonable faustian bargain to enter into, and everyone realizes this. Counting on some scientific breakthrough down the road to "solve" this growing problem is sheer unfounded speculation. We know that given the rate of deposition of this material, there's no way we can eventually "jettison" the stuff into outer space. We're stuck with this poison, essentially, forever.

The unfolding disaster in Japan, following the compromise of several seaside nuclear power generation plants along its Eastern seabord, from earthquake and tsunami, has proven that any "confidence" we may have had about the presumed safety of this plant technology is imprudent and unfounded on reality.

Officials speaking on behalf of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear generation plant in California, asked to respond to the probable risks of a parallel incident here, responded with contempt that "our facility is built to withstand any seismic event up to 7.0 on the Richter Scale," and pooh-poohed the dangers of a similar disaster occurring there. And yet the whole California coastline is right within the "ring of fire" fault lines of the tectonic plates, where earthquakes, volcanic activity, and related phenomena are inevitable. We do not yet have--and may never have--the means to predict accurately when or where such events are going to occur. As I speak, we may be on the verge of a seismic event anywhere between Los Angeles and Seattle, which would endanger the lives of millions, and utterly bring to ruin the works of man over thousands of square miles. It is irresponsible, given what we know about the risks of handling and managing radioactive materials--among the most dangerous and resistant materials, right up there with Anthrax and the Ebola Virus--to believe that the "trade-off" of risk versus benefit, would justify the construction of any more such power plants in the immediate future (100 years).

If science were to advance to a stage that permitted us to generate nuclear power without creating the mountains of intractable waste associated with our current technology, that might be one argument in its favor. But prudence dictates that the simplest road to energy "self-reliance" and a moderate temperance of our consumption of the planet's limited reserve, is to reduce our demand. Advocates of those who want to reduce the advance of global warming suggest that a switch from fossil fuels to nuclear power is a "transitional" strategy to husband humanity into the next phase of its development. But if demand keeps outstripping supply at the current rate, no amount of conservation or elaboration of available sources is going to be able to meet it.

The single central force driving consumption on the planet is population. The high levels of consumption of resource associated with highly developed societies, such as the United States, are unsustainable, especially if that model is replicated in other parts of the world. Human greed and desire being what they are, it's unreasonable to presume that people around the world, seeking to enjoy the prosperity of the West, are likely to voluntarily "moderate" their demands and expectations in the interests of prudent regard for the future. People are selfish, and can always be counted upon to postpone difficult decisions and sacrifice in exchange for temporary gains and pleasures.

We know from ecology that the biomass on the surface of the earth is a finite, interconnected and inter-operative system. As we eat away at, consume, and befoul that system, the effects will multiply and spread throughout. If we go down the road of nuclear power generation, we can expect increasing numbers of "incidents" or "accidents." And given our limited ability to handle the problems associated with it, particularly the growing mass of waste, we are promising our descendants that the burden we place on their shoulders will significantly reduce their chances for a viable life on this planet. It's a promise we shouldn't be making.

The Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami are expected to have a sharp effect on public opinion in the rest of the world, about the desirability of expanding our investment in nuclear power. If we are prudent, and careful, it is possible that people may finally acknowledge, given the choices between greatly increased risk, and moderation of demand, that the second option is, at least for the immediate future, the sensible one.

Let us hope that this unfortunate disaster in Japan becomes the occasion for a soul-searching reexamination of our commitment to a growth-oriented energy policy. That would be the best outcome of all. Disasters often cause such reappraisals. The price we pay for not learning from defeat and failure is more defeats and failures. Ultimately, a constantly expanding population, accompanied by a constantly expanding economy (GDP) can't be sustained. We can have a time of reckoning, or we can ignore the evidence and go on pretending.


Kirby Olson said...

I'm a bit uncomfortable with your harping about population, but the premise here is sound.

That is, I don't want genocide of some sort to be the answer we seek. Short of that, however, I can't understand how we can reduce global population buildup.

I think you're right a giant disaster is around the corner. A guy on the news circuit now is claiming we will have a 9.0 in the Cascadia region within a month. In the year 1700, a similar event flattened whole forests near the Olympic peninsula and sent a 300-ft. high wave travelling at 600 mph into the Japanese coast.

Records in Japan indicate the tsunamogenic effect of the cascading water which obliterated entire towns on the Japanese coast.

We now have early warning system so Japan would be ok. Also, much of Seattle and Portland (inland, and separated from the ocean by mountains) would be ok, except for older buildings made with brick and mortar, which would likely tumble, crushing all of their occupants.

Towns on the coast would be levelled by a tsunamogenic event of the 9.0 order (we're due).

Reactors up and down the coast would be likely to boil. The 7.0 for which they are built to withstand would be mild compared to a 9.0 which we're about to see.

They do have a new method of sealing nuke puke in glass and storing it deep underground, which is relatively safe. But working reactors are likely to release huge amounts of radioactive materials on the populations of the left coast. One of the only things I liked about BO was his energy policy which I thought was meant to bring about enhanced use of solar power. Now he's gone all nuke puke in his ongoing attempt to pander to whomever might be willing to elect him. He must like the White House kitchen resources or something.

We need to get going with solar and wind. They will employ more people. Nuclear should be illegal. The French have it, but they are not sitting on active volcanos, or on seismic reactivity, as the left coast is.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

As noted in the essay above, the greatest threat facing humanity today is overpopulation. All of our other problems are only symptoms.

Here are three poems that address this issue.

Corner Lot
(country living)

Those trees growing wild
on that wooded corner lot, thick
with birds and beasts,
always made my day.
Every morning I admired them
as I made my way to work.
I made my left turn slowly to avoid
those who lived among them,
making their way home
in the pre-dawn light.
But one sad day I turned the corner
to sorrow and regret.
No longer wooded. A plowed up field
of mud and broken sticks.
All who lived there gone away.

Unsated hunger and desire,
encroaching need, eating land
like locusts eat the grain,
the population spreads.
Each one wants what we have had:
the privacy and solitude and peace,
and so as surely guarantee
that what they seek will by
their finding it be gone, lost
through the very effort to obtain.

Spreading upon us like a pox,
the population smothers.
I pass a corner lot now filled
with an emptiness of life,
replaced by an asphalt driveway,
a cultivated lawn and a mailbox
just like all the others.

Copyright 2008 – SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

And Counting

I can’t count all the people overwhelming
this world and each other, the millions
that fill the roads, swallow the land.
It seems now that only more children are raised
in place of peas and corn,
tractors traded for mini-vans and bright,
yellow busses and dump trucks.

We feed only ourselves,
a cannibal culture.
Nests and trees and rabbit holes sold
for a backyard patio, deer trails for playgrounds
and a brand new store.

Copyright 2010 – Leftover Stew, Gary B. Fitzgerald


The sea came right up the mountain that day.
First we ran from the beaches, inland,
ran up the hills toward the mountain.
The sea followed.
We ran farther, as fast as we could.
It followed with an awful sound.
We ran up onto the mountain
but the sea came after us anyway.
Nowhere left to go now.
We drowned.

Copyright 2010 – Ponds and Lawns-New and Corrected Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

Craig said...

I'd be willing to consider magmatization. Active volcanoes with accessible pools of molten rock seem like an ideal receptacle. The nuclear waste will melt and be diluted, reducing the concentration exponentially. A lava flow or a major eruption might release it but only after further dispersing and diluting the radioactivity. It all came out of the ground to begin with and that would seem to be the most natural and logical way, return the waste to the soil where and as it was prior to mining and fuel processing.

Curtis Faville said...


This is one I hadn't heard before.

I think you misunderstand the nature of heavy metal radioactive substances. They're basically indestructible. They can be "dispersed" but that dispersal is harmful to anything it touches. And they live thousands of years. That's the problem with "putting them" anywhere, we can't predict how our use of the earth's surface is going to change, or what exigencies might interfere with our "fail-safe" plan(s). In nature, this kind of radiation on earth isn't a common occurrence. Radiation from outer space is much more common.

What is done to "purify" radioactive substances occurring naturally on the planet, converts it into a form which is inherently poisonous. Putting this into live, or active, or potentially active, volcanoes would be like throwing the dice. We don't know what the outcome would be. We can't simply, as you suggest, "put it back where it came from" because it wasn't there (in that form) to begin with. We've created a monster. You can't perform the equation backwards to get yourself out of the tunnel; because the tunnel only leads in one direction. The tunnel behind you is sealed off.

Welcome to the future.

Craig said...

A little more expensive and somewhat less chancy option might involve using a fusion bomb to create a cavern measureless to man where accumulated waste could be disposed of on a periodic basis with subsequent underground fusion blasts. Fusion would produce temperatures sufficient to both melt and neutralize most forms of radioactive waste. If the purpose of the blasts is to eliminate radioactive waste, it should be possible to get a waiver on the test ban treaty.

J said...

"our facility is built to withstand any seismic event up to 7.0 on the Richter Scale.

In other words, any big quake (SF 1906 was 8.0+) and it's...Homer Simpson mutant-time for Kali-land.

One of the only things I liked about BO was his energy policy which I thought was meant to bring about enhanced use of solar power

What ?? Kirby's gone green! Scary--tho maybe he's following orders from some Lutheran pastor or something. Even the nazis were into organics, of a type