21 March 2011

Marc Estrin : Sweeping the Elephant Under the Rug

Sweeping it under the rug. Graffiti by Banksy.

Sweeping the elephant
under the fiery rug
The fact is, Mr. President and others, nuclear energy is not clean. It is filthy. And lethal. Even without an accident.
By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / March 21, 2011

It's hard to imagine how Japan will recover from its triple catastrophe, or what the global fallout -- radioactive, political, economic -- will be. But there is one group of people who have already recovered -- the nuclear power zealots, captained by President HopeandChange.

"This isn't Japan," they astutely observe. "We don't have tsunamis, and let's not talk about earthquakes which haven't happened yet so let's not consider them. And our nuclear plants are better designed than those dumb Russian ones, more modern, chock full of new safety devices."

Obama is still pushing nuclear energy as "clean", now with a little less emphasis on "and safe," but always asserting "clean":

The hard sell is on. Fukushima? Move on, move on, nothing to see here.

Move on? OK, then, let's move on. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

I've always felt the emphasis on accident potential should be a lower priority for anti-nuke activists. Possible accidents are far too dismissable to the optimistic American mind.

I've thought, rather, that we should emphasize the problems with normal, daily operations, with not a tsunami in sight. The fact is, Mr. President and others, nuclear energy is not clean. It is filthy. And lethal. Even without an accident.

"Nuclear energy" is not just the power plant, of whatever "safe" design. "Nuclear energy" is bigger than that. It begins with uranium mining, and ends with decommissioning -- or doesn't end at all when we look at the need to safely store high-level radioactive waste for thousands and tens of thousands of years.

Let's take in the big picture of this energy touted as "safe."

Before we even get to the plant, there are the multiple dangers of mining and milling for workers, and for the environment, as the waste from mining operations and rainwater runoff contaminates ground and surface water with heavy metals and traces of radioactive uranium. Further uranium enrichment and fabrication of fuel rods add to the health and environmental burdens,

Then the dangerous materials have to be transported over long distances by large, protected vehicles, to fuel the individual plants. And of course the plants have to be built at great financial and environmental expense, and must be seated at huge water sources for cooling.

At the river or shore, heavy metals and salts build up, and the water temperature is raised as it cools the pile, threatening the local ecology and wildlife, and contaminating local land with toxic by-products, possibly forever. This, under normal operation. Nuclear power -- clean?

Then there are the 2,000 metric tons of high level waste produced by, say, our 103 U.S. plants. At present, we store that waste on site, no adequate underground storage having been found. Beyond the spent fuel, there is all the equipment in the plant which gradually becomes contaminated with radiation, and is itself radioactive waste, which will need to be buried.

Let's think more carefully about what it means to successfully store and manage radioactive waste. Some radioactive isotopes decay quickly, in a few hours. Others, like U235, strontium 90 and cesium 137 have half-lives tens of years, meaning, say, 120 years until they are essentially "harmless." Maybe.

But the half-life of plutonium (created in reactors, and the "payoff" in "breeding fuel") is 24,300 years. Whatever plutonium is created under "normal" circumstances must be kept out of the environment for half a million years. No tsunamis. No earthquakes. Just normal.


Let's not do the half-million year dance. Too silly. Let's say only as long ago as from the birth of Jesus.

So the Romans, in a great scientific breakthrough right after the aqueducts, have discovered how to make inexhaustible energy from certain rocks in the ground. But people die when they get too close, so Roman ingenuity and lead is applied to the now-hot rocks, and they are contained.

The containment must be continuously tended to by the various barbaric tribes that follow the fall, by the churchmen of the middle ages and the warring lords of the Renaissance, by the monarchs of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the various revolutionaries of the 19th, during two world wars and several others in the twentieth century, and continue now in the current age of vying international corporations and "terrorism".

That's only 2,000 years, give or take -- one tenth the half-life of plutonium, and one 200th of the time needed for it to become "safe."

So much for clean storage under normal operating conditions.

And then there is the embarrassing subject of decommissioning. Assuming the power companies -- or more likely the taxpayers -- can afford it (they probably can't), they will find that decommissioning a nuclear power plant doesn't just mean turning out the lights and walking away.

Reactors cannot do their thing forever. The intensity of continuous bombardment by high-energy sub-atomic particles weakens, strains, and fatigues the building materials, which must eventually give out. The radioactive walls of a decommissioned reactor must be cut up under water by remote control.

This is not cheap. Or clean. Or safe. Just "mothball" it in cement till it cools down? the concrete would be long turned to dust before the nickle-63 or carbon-14 decay to safe levels. Different isotopes require different burial strategies. Safe decommissioning methods have yet to be found.

The rug is on fire in Japan. But the ongoing all the above is has been swept under it by the "clean" nuclear crowd.
[Marc Estrin is a writer, activist, and cellist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

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