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Nuclear Roundup

Published by marco on

The Fukushima I Nuclear Accidents (Wikipedia) page is quite good and the “Reactor status summary” somewhere in the middle of the page is updated often.

 Wikipedia Reactor Status Summary

In addition to the reactor status information, there is a crowdsourced map of microsievert values from 215 Geiger counters across Japan. These are (ostensibly) real-life readings, but it’s hard to know whether to believe it or not. They certainly look legitimate, but it’s the Internet, so take it with a grain of salt.

 Status as of March 27th, 2011

Rounding out the images is a the following chart, which illustrates the relative sizes of various radiation doses, including the current output of Fukushima (illustrated in green in the bottom left-hand corner of the upper right-hand box). It includes a couple of measurements that show 365 times the background radiation at a few places 50km from Fukushima, but also notes that other locations nearer to the plant showed barely any elevation. Again, it’s just information; don’t forget your Mark Twain.[1]

 Radiation Dose Chart (XKCD)

And then there’s the article Going Critical by George Monbiot with a quite pragmatic look at the energy situation, posing a lot of thought-provoking questions.[2] He, too, referenced the XKCD graphic above:

“For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com(2). It shows that the average total dose from the Three-Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers. This, in turn, is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. I’m not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective. (emphasis added.)”

He goes on to discuss alternatives to both nuclear and fossil fuels, noting that there are a lot of questions that remain largely unanswered by the more strident proponents. For example, intermittent energy sources like solar and wind are not well-suited to the instant- and always-on grid to which we’ve become accustomed (about getting rid of that lifestyle, more below). The one truly scalable battery for such needs is converting power to potential energy by pumping water into mountains and getting hydroelectric out of it on demand.

“As the proportion of renewable electricity on the grid rises, more pumped storage will be needed to keep the lights on. That means reservoirs on mountains: they aren’t popular either.

“[…]

“And how do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways? Rooftop solar panels? The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment at which you fall out of love with local energy production.”

This line of argument presupposes a national or international energy grid; perhaps we can also rid ourselves of such a thing and go to local power. Even if we could get everyone to reduce, the energy demands of nearly 7 Billion people cannot be met efficiently without global pooling of resources. If every community goes it alone, the world will quickly devolve into a post-industrial-revolution-level nightmare of pollution and destruction. While things are not nearly perfect—or even good—today, things are still far better than they were when power was deregulated, highly localized and, necessarily, privatized. As Monbiot mentions, “[t]he damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating […] wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad as well as most seatrout and salmon”

So we can’t localize power anymore—not unless we can really see our way to going back to a stone-age existence[3]—and low-impact, alternative energies are either not quite ready (missing battery-reservoirs) or never will be able to take over current demand without becoming just as dirty as the solutions we have now. If nuclear is to be abandoned at the same time, countries will go running back to fossil fuels, where there will be immensely powerful corporations welcoming them with open arms and soothing words.

But back to Monbiot:

“On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power(10,11). Thanks to the expansion of shale gas production, the impacts of natural gas are catching up fast(12).”

Given that as an alternative, we should be very careful about allowing ourselves to be scared into abandoning nuclear power. The crisis at Fukushima has not yet been resolved, but it has also not yet turned into the Chernobyl that was predicted by some of the hotter heads. That disaster may still come, but it does us no good to ignore the possibility that nuclear may still be the cleanest fuel choice we have, despite all of its faults.

There are no easy answers.

Perhaps we should instead focus our energies on getting nuclear power out of the hands of “the liars who run the nuclear industry” and into the hands of another organization. Sure, the government may also end up screwing everything up, but it hasn’t yet proved that it will.[4] In fact, it’s government regulation that’s kept the nuclear industry in check enough that, so far, “[a]tomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small”. Perhaps we should just get the private industry out of the equation entirely—it’s not like they’re willing to do anything without subsidies anyway. We’re already paying for nuclear with our taxes, we might as well be running it.


[1] The one about there being three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.
[2] George Monbiot is the author of the excellent book, Heat, which examines ways in which we can escape further climate change by either changing how we get our energy or by changing how much energy our lifestyles need. There are far more efficient ways of doing things, which would help a lot; the only luxury for which he could not find a solution was private air travel.
[3] Or Bronze-age or whatever. And that’s not to say that we won’t go there involuntarily, but I can’t see a voluntary transition for any country for which it would make a difference to climate change.
[4] Except of course for evangelical libertarians, for whom the inability of government to do anything well or efficiently is a article of faith that cannot be belied by any amount of proof.