One of my long standing personal codes is to wait a week before commenting on a large event. For one, I am not a reporter or passing along information but opinions and observations. The amount of misinformation and speculation is always highest in the immediate moments after an event. The natural disasters of the Japan earthquake and subsequent monster tsunami were devastating in their own rights, destroying numerous lives and livelihoods, and crippling a nation already struggling with numerous issues and small trials in comparison. It is in the observations of the aftermath of an event like this we are all humbled and reminded of our insignificance as inhabitants of this planet, as well as our minimal impact and ability to control even a fraction of a percentage of the raw power and potential energy locked inside our spinning ball or rock, metal, water, and gasses.
The impact of these events on the human condition are not going to be the focus of this blog post. This is an unfolding real life tragedy and not something to be made into some sort of macabre theater as the western media has geared up to deliver via their tentacles of outlets. I could rail on against the media’s portrayal and overt glee in covering an event in a way that plays to our fears and curiosity, this is too easy and would be a waste of time, energy, and pixels. As a student of life and self proclaimed watcher of the human condition I am more concerned on the basic tenants of the reporting world and much larger issue which is being used to generate and validate the most horrible of fears.
My favorite comic book hero led his imaginary life based on one simple statement, with great power comes great responsibility. Our modern news outlets need to place this simple statement at the head of their mission statements, core values, or what ever the business fad of the decade is that reminds employees of their company’s focus. I have long considered modern news as a bane of the present society. Since the days of deep throat and the Watergate scandal the news outlets have become hooked on the potential power of shaping, swaying, and driving public sentiment capable of destroying the most powerful individuals, corporations, and governments. This new found power has gleefully been leveled at those the news rooms feel are threats and ignored to those they feel are allies. They throw their power around with little to no regard to the impacts on the public in general and society in whole. Who is watching the media and placing a check on them? Good question as it appears to be no one. Ok, so I have a small rant here, but its over now.
My issue is the unfolding nuclear crisis. I was not a big fan of science or math in high school, and focused my science studies in college to earth and electrical over biology and chemistry. I did participate in college prep classes and that led to science fairs. One of my fonder memories was a science paper I wrote on nuclear energy. I am biased on this topic as I am very pro nuclear power. I have studied this well beyond middle and high school and continue to read up on it. The US Navy have been using nuclear reactors on its ships since the USS Nautilus was launched in the early 1954. Guess how many nuclear accidents and melt downs have occurred on US Navy ships? None, with over 5,400 nuclear reactor years of service and operating a current fleet of over 80 nuclear powered ships there has been 0 incidents of meltdown or serious accident with a reactor. All this on floating war ships of various configurations. On land based, obviously much larger and more complex, reactors the safety record is less convincing. 27 nuclear incidents have occurred since the 1950’s, including the current issue in Japan. Of these 27 incidents only 8 have occurred since 1990 and of these 8 only 1 explosion and 1 incident of critical mass event occurred resulting in 3 deaths and 4 leaks (2 of which were containment water leaks due to human or maintenance error). The current events are not counted as they are still unfolding. Of all the reactors globally we have 14,424 reactor years of service or 3 times the amount of the US Navy’s.
The safety of of course a grave concern, however we have to practical and rely on logic, risk aversion/acceptance, and common sense to seek a way forward from this. Listening to or reading the news and it is hard to surmise if the ineptitude of TepCo and conflicting information or fear mongering of the media and environmentalists is justified or warranted. The situation is bad, no doubt about it and there are real hard lessons to be learned from this, but we have to be realistic and place the situation into its proper perspective. In 21 years we have only had 8 incidents, of which only 3, including the current one, were serious risks to the general public. This is from over 443 global reactors in 29 countries and generating 14% of global electricity production. 62 are under construction and 158 are planned. Given our need for electricity and aversion to fossil fuels and inability for wind or solar to match we have to wonder where we will get the power to charge cell phones, mp3 players, power tv, computers, internet and telecommunication services, electric cars, medical machines, etc.
We have fallen into an old and predictable media trap. Vilifying an industry based on an isolated and unpredictable event. The current situation is occurring at an old, 1970’s era power plant that should have been shut down and replaced 10 years ago. While the fears and impact of a nuclear event are serious and need proper attention and commitment, we should not let that stand in the way of a critical supply for the one resource we as a species can not survive without. Japan alone has 55 reactors generating 25% of their power with 2 under construction and 12 planned, or were planned. In order to generate that much power from conventional sources would require over 110 of the world’s largest coal fired power plants to make up the same power (the largest nuclear reactor is in Japan). Think of all that green house gas, sulfur dioxide, mercury deposits in ocean fish, and other environmental issues we are trying to run away from.
We are correct to take heed of this current crisis and take a step back to review the present situation. We own it to our species and future generations to act properly and with progress and advancing ourselves in mind, not running away from “what ifs”. Every nuclear power plant constructed prior to 1990 should be shut down and replaced with modern plants built off of all the lessons learned and experiences gained, that is called progress. The sheer generating power of a nuclear reactor can fuel the growth needed to progress our societies without wrecking our environment. What about the waste, what about it? Nuclear materials come from deep within the Earth, the heat and pressure cause electrons to be added to heavy metals to the point of stepping up the periodic table and becoming more heavy. For this reason we should take spent fuel rods and return them to their point of origin or recycle them, deep within the Earth to continue the decay process and complete the chain.
We need to update and progress our current positions to incorporate the knowledge gained over the last 30 years. Add this to an updated realization of threats and possibilities and we can improve the safety and reliability of the plants to take into consideration all the possible knows we can engineer into them. This will challenge and advance multiple industries as only through adversity and challenge can we progress and advance. New reactors seldom have issues or incidents. There have been multiple lessons learned over 30 years including this current one where the industry can positively respond. Face the facts, solar, wind, landfill gas recapture, geo-thermal, wave capture, and bio-fuels can’t come close to matching even oil or natural gas power plants much less coal or nuclear. Either we will have to go back into the dark ages, limit global population growth, replace land for planting crops and habitation for “green” energy production, or use what we know will work and is available now. If we can find and perfect fusion then we can abandon fission, until then we need to use what we have.
For the counter point groups in Germany, the USA and now Japan whom question and demand the ceasing of all nuclear power plants, why now? If nuclear power is so scary, so dangerous, so evil… why aren’t you demanding the UN, NATO, and EU to sanction, disrupt, and take action against Iran and North Korea, both being classified as rogue nations with suspect motivations and aspirations including militaristic ambitions for which nuclear weapons are either an over part of or strongly suggested to be apart of. Of the 14% percent of world electricity production and 443 plants that would require massive polluting coal power plants numbering over 900 equal to the largest one in the world in South Africa, now how green and environmental is that? The demand for coal would explode, causing strip mining, driving mining companies deeper into the mountains to top cutting or deep Earth extraction increasing mining accidents and issues, of which China has numerous each year resulting in hundreds or deaths to power the world’s most populous society. If German, a responsible and engineering innovator isn’t allowed by its environmental left to continue updating and advancing nuclear power then what is their alternative? What sources of power do we have today, on the shelf so to speak, to use? Notice they are rallying and demonstrating to shut down nuclear power based on the 7th largest earthquake in recorded history and subsequent tsunami, but not providing a viable alternative. Solar, only good for 8 to 10 hours a day for most of the year. The amount of land solar requires and the inability to use that land for much else has negative environmental impact (taking away absorbed heat to the planet’s surface resulting in who knows what. Wind, even less as wind speeds have to be within a specific speed to operate – too much have to shut it down, too little and well no power. Add in the dead birds, headaches due to flicker effect, and limited areas they can be deployed and well, not enough places. Hydro, requires dams and reservoirs netting decreased river sediments robbing river valleys and delta of vital nutrients necessary to support river bank and brackish water eco systems. Landfill gas recapture yields far too little power potential and releases pollution. Geo-thermal is limited in where it can be used and usually requires applications close to volcanic susceptible areas as well as pumping in water into these areas which may or may not be a good thing. The rest are all experimental or low yield solutions.
While the unfolding crisis at the 6 reactors in Japan are frightening and worrisome it should not be a clarion call for absence from the best solution we have to meet the expounding need for power that drives our very survival. If we had abandoned air travel after the Hindenburg or all the air crashes leading up to the post war era where would we be? If we had abandoned rail travel after the numerous derailed trains and run away locomotives and head on collisions in the last 2 centuries where would we be? How about shipping with all the wrecks at harbors, sunk ships, or pirates, where would we be, well not in the new world for one. How about space travel, with the test flights gone wrong, rockets exploding on lift off, or re-entry, where would we be? Our modern risk aversion societies have weakened our spirit of perseverance, retarded our spirit of inspiration and creation, netted a culture of fear and anxiety. The real issue is not nuclear power or natural disasters, its our outlook of the world and our place in it. We have always lived on the edge of survival until the last 200 years. Too long ago it seems to remember what it is like to live by luck, wits, and sheer determination. Japan will rebuild, just as Indonesia and Thailand did in 2005. Time will heal the scars, but will it steel our resolve or crush it in regards to nuclear power? This is a question that needs to be thought out, carefully and rationally, not due to a knee jerk reaction for a sporadic and rare naturally occurring event that is part of our environment.