Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Will Be the Lesson of Fukushima?

As someone who lived a gentle breeze away from Three Mile Island when its nuclear emergency took place, I have long been concerned about the proliferation of the technology to meet our increasing energy needs.

All of the chemical engineers I have known -- particularly my own brother, who was not a nuclear expert, and my favorite hiking companion, who was -- tried to persuade me that nuking was safe, clean, efficient and, while not perfect, still the best alternative to fossil fuel energy.  Their arguments -- particularly regarding improved safety technology since TMI -- were cogent.

Once, atop a mountain in southwest Virginia, my hiking friend and I looked eastward where once treed peaks filled the horizon, and were horrified to see moonscapes of mountaintop removal projects to obtain coal to fuel power plants. At that  moment the arguments for nuclear energy seemed particularly compelling. After all,  Chernobyl could never happen again.  Nor could TMI.

Now, tragically, we know otherwise.  We know that something unspeakably terrible can happen even in a technologically advanced society that has employed the best available science to make its nuclear plants safe.  Surely our hearts bleed for the people of Japan, on whom we inflicted Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as they now suffer the horrors of a powerful earthquake, a tsunami and new nuclear disaster.

Today we know not how all of this will end.  Workers have returned to the Fukushima nuclear plant to attempt to prevent the unspeakable from happening.  None of the world's nuclear experts who have been commenting on the disaster in Japan knows if this can be done.  Like us, they can only hope.

But this much is clear: Nuclear power is neither safe nor clean.  And, as the slogan elsewhere on this page reminds us, "Nature bats last."  Our planet has a fiery core; it has fault lines; its thin envelope of compatibility with human life has been tampered with by the very humans it protects.  We will have earthquakes; we will have tsunamis; we will have hurricanes; and we will pay the price of our tampering with Nature.

Nuclear plants  leak radioactive waste from underground pipes and radioactive waste pools into the ground water at sites all over the world. Science has yet to devise a method for adequately and safely handling long lived radioactive wastes.  Nuclear waste disposal was my hiking companion's  particular sub-specialty.  He spent the twilight of his working career trying to deal with the waste problem at the Hanford site where the first atomic bombs were created.

Despite his faith in technology and his fellow scientists, there is still no safe, satisfactory way to deal with nuclear waste.

Several nuclear plants in this country are sited on, or perilously close to, fault lines. Perhaps that fact alone will prod us away from further nuclear dependency, away from filthy fossil fuels, and toward safe, renewable energy sources. Technically feasible renewable energy sources in the world are capable of producing up to six times more energy than current global demand.  Even now, nuclear plants around the globe deliver less energy than renewable sources of power.

Consider the recent coal mining disasters.  Consider the cost in money and wars of sucking a finite supply of petroleum out of the earth.  Consider the environmental consequences of gas and oil drilling.  Consider TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima.

Wind farms and solar panels do not kill.


  1. On a cloudy day like today there is some solar light that filters through the clouds, but not a sufficient amount. Also on a day that the wind is weak, the huge wind turbines of west Texas are idle with no generation of electricity for the grid.

    We need to transition toward greener technologies, but realize that does not happen over night. Wind and solar are great choices, but what are you going to do at night when you are using that power to recharge your car and it is freezing cold outside? Are you going to sacrifice the power to your home for the benefit of your Chevy Volt that can go 40 miles on a charge? Where are the recharge stations at your destination within the 40 miles?

    1) Nuclear - we are seeing 1st hand one of the negatives.
    2) Natural Gas - probably the best available choice right now, burns clean with little emissions, and in abundance, but the distribution of it is questionable. The pipeline system in the US is antiquated and can not be trusted to transport any combustible fuels.
    3) Coal / Shale Oil - The excavation of it is expensive and the results to the landscape can be devastating for years. Looking at our history of mining disasters should tell us this one.
    4) Eco-Geeks - Those in Massachusetts and California that did not want oil derricks off their coast also do not want wind turbines.

    Bottom line, we will have to find both short and long term solutions, and there will be arguments from all parties, but we will have to do something quickly to break away from our dependency from others. China is one of our major stockholders and if they decide today to pull in their markers then the effect on us and the world will be global recession.
    Our soul emphasis on developing an energy strategy should be greener technology with no dependence on others for our needs (presently we are supporting Islamic terrorism though our involvement in their politics, wars, and buying their oil).

  2. "Nature bats last." I like that phrase. Good piece.