Mar 132011

Its inevitable that, with a number of nuclear plants in Japan on the edge of a meltdown, there will be a backlash against nuclear power, which many people regard with discomfort anyway. Even if the Japanese plants are contained and a meltdown is prevented, it will still rank as the third worst nuclear disaster in history. No one believes that they’re anything like the plant in Springfield, but those images have likely burrowed into the popular consciousness, along with theĀ  horrifying reality of the nuclear attack against Japan during WWII, a lingering memory of Cold War nuclear standoffs, the meltdown in Chernobyl and the partial meltdown in Three Mile Island, and half a century of sci-fi horror.

Let me lay out my bias before I continue: Nuclear power gave me a house to live in, food to eat, and the financial freedom that allowed my mother to stay at home and homeschool me and my sisters. I was a comfortable kid. What’s more, I ate it up. I loved talking to my dad about nuclear science. I got to go on a tour of the plant as a kid, and what is impressed on me now is a sense of awe and a little bit of fear over the enormity of this almost antique left-over from the scientific idealism of the first half of the 20th century. I, like my parents, heaped scorn on those ignorant hippies that couldn’t see that nuclear power was the answer to diminishing fossil fuels and environmental damage.

Let me also, before I continue, clear up some misconceptions about nuclear power.

1.) THEY DON’T FUCKING EXPLODE LIKE A BOMB. Nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors are two different things. You may have heard speculation in the news as to whether or not countries like Iraq or N. Korea had “enriched uranium.” Its U-235, which is the sort of uranium that goes in to bombs and missiles, as opposed to U-238, which is used in many nuclear plants. Less than 1% of naturally occurring uranium contains U-235, so you have to enrich it if you want to build a weapon. This process is (supposed to be) a secret. To take Chernobyl as an example, the core overheated because of a combination of human error and sloppy testing practices. This heat actually did cause a number of explosions, as the increased heat generated a ton of steam, which caused too much pressure. There were fires, more explosions, but my point is that none of them were nuclear explosions. The image that some people have of looking on the horizon and seeing a mushroom cloud over the plant is impossible. I’m not trying to diminish the impact of Chernobyl; it was a horrible event and there are no excuses for how the test was approached, the immediate response of those in charge, and the response of the Soviet government.

2.) They don’t put out radiation like some kind of glowing monster. In fact, “ounce for ounce, coal ash released from a power plant delivers more radiation than nuclear waste shielded via water or dry cask storage.” (FYI, that article is a little hysterical, but the point is still valid.) There are no open drums full of neon goo lying around. Whatever concerns there are about nuclear power (and there are many) the idea that nuclear plants are pumping out radiation into a river like Mr. Burns’ plant and making three-eyed fish is ignorant.

Clearly there are other concerns, nuclear waste storage being chief among them. Most, plants store their waste on-site, although that will obviously not last forever, and many of them which were meant to be temporary are being used far longer than intended. This is due to a number of things, not the least of which is politics. The issue isn’t simply that places are needed for storage, but they have to withstand all conceivable natural disasters and remain intact and operational for thousands of years. The possibility of a leak is unthinkable. More extreme measures like strapping all of it to a rocket and shooting it into space are too expensive. (And, to me, inconsiderate, although to who exactly I’m not sure.) Nuclear power is extremely clean in terms of climate change, but waste storage is a specter that refuses to leave.

Additionally, building and maintaining a plant is among the most expensive sources of energy. Exact figures vary on the type of plant, its location, and the interests of the one doing the estimation, but it takes a long time to build them and a long time to recoup the cost.

Finally, accidents tend to be catastrophic. The Chernobyl disaster was a mixture of poor planning and ugly government cover-ups–they didn’t admit there was an accident until radiation alarms started going off in a plant in Sweden. Hundreds of workers died, and the 10km radius around the plant is the most irradiated place in the world. There is controversy surrounding the exact impact of the incident, but its clear that it has had an impact on the health of people in the region. The lesson from that disaster and the partial meltdown in the Three Mile Island plant were well-learned and plants are safer than ever, but no safety measures are perfect. (Its worth comparing nuclear disasters to disasters linked to fossil fuels. A nuclear disaster is more newsworthy than a plant fire or an oil spill. Consider the impact that burning fossil fuels has had on the environment against the impact of a handful of nuclear accidents. Consider politicians arguing against radiation poisoning while they say nothing about the measurable and definite impact that coal plants have had and continue to have.) (One final interesting side-note: one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history couldn’t destroy the containment buildings in Japan. They were tested by launching jet-propelled projectiles at them before 9/11.)

So I’m stuck. I can defend the family business as both idiotic and legitimate criticism of nuclear power increases. I can conclude that the risks are worth it and continue irritating everyone I know with my opinions whenever it comes up. Or I could decide that the risks and costs aren’t worth it and turn my back on the industry that helped raise me. I’m not worried about being demonized, of course–my parents are more reasonable than that. But its an additional layer of uncertainty in an already uncertain issue. It’s difficult not to stay in apathetic cynicism as politicians step in and make things even more confusing and difficult with the bare minimum of education.

I can only wait and hope for enough radiation for superpowers.

Stephen Hull is roughly a quarter-century old and writing in places like Canceled Forever, Some Experience, his notebook, bathroom walls, etc. He lives around Chicago.

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