The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Meltdown: Nuclear’s Future

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I was born within a year of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have always been aware of The Bomb. I remember Saturday afternoon air raid sirens, bomb shelters, drills in school on how to hide under our desks.

Maybe we were little fatalists, but grownups lost a lot of their authority in all this. We all saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki on TV and we could figure out that hiding under our school desks was futile when we were going to be vaporized in minutes. In other words, I think those of us who grew up in the cold war dealt with nuclear terror but we remember it at some level, and this sense changed us and our culture.

I full well understand that the things being done in a nuclear generating plant in no way can lead to a nuclear detonation, but there is a potential for tremendous damage from radiation. The fear that people express seems out-sized in relation to this potential damage. Some people adopt Luddite notions when it comes to nuclear power, others insist on ironclad guarantees that are not even asked for all sorts of other risky endeavours.

Yet, some people still do wonder about mushroom clouds. Readers of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal continue to ask if there could be a nuclear detonation, when they write comments on the Fukushima nuclear accident stories. If if these urban, educated readers ask, what do less sophisticated people understand and believe and fear?

Reading as much news as I could about the partial meltdown at the plant in northern Japan, which was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami combination punch on Friday, I had the feeling that the level of fear was inordinately high.

The focus on the nuclear accident in the midst of vast destruction from the natural disaster looked to me to be self-absorbed and callous. More than 10,000 people were killed and 400,000 were homeless in Japan. But the nuclear accident gradually pushed the natural disaster off the front page.

Politicians talked of danger and the need for caution in pursuing the goal of energy independence here. Commentators and reporters started to say the new accident could slow and might halt plans to restart nuclear power growth after more a standstill of more than a generation. Among ordinary mortals, there was a growing fear expressed.

I did a very informal survey of attitudes, using a couple hundred people who comment on newspaper stories as subjects. I chose an article in the Times on Monday about the issue. By my count, 57% of commenters were anti-nuke, 11% were pro nuke, and 32% were either neutral or they discussed other things.

When I recounted, this time adding up the number of people who recommended comments, rather than count the comment writers, 71% were anti-nuke, 2% were pro-nuke and the rest said something else.

Some of the comments were wild: One said: “This should provide a picture for those still touting nuclear as an option. Fools. You were all warned years ago and yet this devil technology is on the table as a solution to our energy issues as well as global warming.”

The stories through Monday evening were not particularly alarming to me. Japanese officials didn’t sound particularly forthcoming, but, hell, they were busy. The reports were sometimes tangled and confusing, but it was a rapidly changing story.

At the Wall Street Journal, an editorial bluntly called the entire discussion “Nuclear Overreactions.” The Journal and others were praising the stoic and disciplined Japanese for not panicking, and urging us to continue to pursue a nuclear program.

I read through a number of more technical sites like World Nuclear News, M.I.T.’s Nuclear Information Hub, and the Energy Collective. These were calming and informative, and they also expressed irritation because of inaccuracies in the media and because of the public’s inordinate fears.

Some of the more analytical observers pointed out that we live with considerable risk every day.

People live in tall buildings in Tokyo and in San Francisco, where there is always a threat of earthquake. They trust the engineers who tell them the buildings are earthquake proof.

People undergo elective surgeries that carry some risk. They take dangerous jobs for high pay. Some pursue dangerous sports for fun. You could come up with a very long list of personal dangers that you’re willing to undertake.

Of course, something like a nuclear generating plant is not a personal risk but a public decision. As such there is a very much a trade off for society. We all adopt some risk and we get a payoff.

The fact that Japan gets 30% of its electricity from nuclear power is repeated everywhere these days. But the United States gets 20% of its electricity from the nukes. As others have pointed out, the other 80% is generated in ways that carry many health and economic risks, but they aren’t tainted with the nuclear baggage.

And if we follow the fear, what’s going to make the 20% nukes provide? Almost everybody I know happily says that we as a society must cut back on our consumption of energy, but such a declaration isn’t worth much unless you’re clear on what you are willing to give up. Everyone I can think of owns one or more air conditioners, a big screen television, a computer or two, certainly a refrigerator. If you don’t live in Manhattan, you probably own a car, perhaps one for each adult.

During the East Coast blackout in 2003, millions of people got a taste of life without all that stuff. In my neighborhood, we are unlucky. The electric company restores power one district at a time and we are last. We had no juice for around 36 hours. It was quite a jolt. Don’t kid yourself. You may not like the pure green world that sounds so simple.

I know I’m sounding terribly politically incorrect. And in fairness I need to point out that situation in Fukushima deteriorated in the last 24 hours. There was a new explosion early Tuesday morning and a considerable amount of radiation escaped from the plant.

I don’t want to brush away the risk, but my point is that we ought to double-down on nuclear power research, and make it better, and reduce the risk. We should not run in terror because it’s nuclear. At the same time, it’s insane not to go after new cleaner technologies. The “devil technology” that we have is not nuclear power, but coal, gas and oil. Make no mistake, they are killing us.

A Twist of Fate

This hasn’t seemed to get much play, but a report from the Bangladesh online newspaper BD News said the government is moving its diplomatic mission in Tokyo out to a safer place in southern part of Japan.

It’s an irony, but officials said two possible safer locations are Hiroshima or Nagasaki. “We have also issued a directive for about 12,000 Bangladeshi nationals in Japan to move to safer places,” officials also said.


Written by theunbiasedeye

March 15, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Posted in Business, Technology

One Response

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  1. The news out here (I mainly watch NHK in Japanese) has been very good about getting out information as to the risk to people from the nuclear troubles. So far there isn't an issue outside of people who live within 30km of the power plants. It is amazing to me that people are so worried about what might come from these power plant problems (right now it looks like there will be no injuries from the power plants) when there was an earthquake (which our infrastructure handled fairly well I think) and then a devastating tsunami. The engineering that went into those power plants has made it such that in the worst case, there are no massive explosions or radiation leaks, but controlled releases of slightly radioactive steam. Steam that is less dangerous than an intercontinental flight.

    Fugu Tabetai

    March 15, 2011 at 11:44 pm

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