A Freeway in Hell

My thoughts on the nature of our late capitalist society. The title should give some clue what I think of that! US 101 or I-80 as metaphor for our imperatives. Besides worrying about what sort of black hole we are speeding into, I like airships. One reason being the almost inescapble desire to have one to get out of a traffic jam!

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Location: Sonoma County, California

Grew up a military brat, Californian-in-exile, reactionary libertarian-essentially spent the 70s on Mars, for I am hearing impaired and I did not know what the music was saying. Generally still don't unless I listen to it over and over or find the words captioned on a movie or somewhere on line. Came "back" to California to begin my adult life, have not lived elsewhere since. No regrets there despite our problems here. Have studied physics, more math than most human beings will ever need, worked on spaceship projects (well, one) at JPL. Lived with a wonderful disabled person who lives no more--L Natasha Littletree RIP October 2004. I have a life plan, just kind of vague on some of the short-term stuff.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Where have all the nuke plants gone?

Back when I read a lot of science fiction in the 1970s, when I was in junior high and high school, I used to be a believer in many if not all of the planks of the modern Republican platform. I placed great store in advancing technology opening up doors and holding off otherwise certain disasters such as power crises. In particular nuclear power seemed on the whole the power source of the future. Why is it that today I no longer think so?

Well, there are several problematic aspects of nuclear power I was unaware of. Besides the danger of accidental breakdowns during operation, what are we to do with the waste products which will remain dangerous for centuries or millenia after we have made use of the metals? This is the problem of disposal and the only solution proposed so far is to find someplace full of suckers who won't realize their danger or political losers who don't seem to have the power to resist, and sneak it into their neighborhood when they aren't looking or can do nothing to stop you. Not even as right-wing a state as Nevada has people that sold on the rightness of the corporate line or that stupid; both the state's Senators (Democratic Minority leader Reid and Republican Ensign) are dead against the proposed disposal site. But if not Nevada, where? And if we outsource it to India--might we not regret it, for a leak even there might ultimately affect us here, and someone digging down and stealing some only slightly cooled wastes to deliberately fling at someone or put in their water would be more likely on the soil of poor exploited nations than in those regions where the power was once of some use.

Meanwhile, in order for known and likely radioactive ores to serve as power metals for "centuries" it is necessary to build breeder reactors which will create plutonium to be fissioned in power reactors. Plutonium is a much more dangerous material than uranium is.

At some point or other someone will speak up for fusion. We have not yet accomplished commercialy feasible sustained nuclear fusion. If we can, with an unknown amount of investment over an unknown period of time, develop that, we will indeed be freed of fears of depleting the power supply for perhaps millenia--presumably in that time we will develop still better alternatives that could even keep up with the exponential growth of power usage such a system might allow. But barring truly radical breakthroughs every practical method of harnessing the power of fusion involves capturing the energy it would release _mainly_ in the form of fast neutrons, in a blanket of fissionables that would be transmuted into plutonium in much the same way as in a fission breeder reactor. So actually such a system would involve precisely the same risks and costs as I outline below, except that if the plant is cheap enough then we will be doing it all on a bigger scale with even greater risks of something going horribly wrong.

And here we come to a crucial point--all this discussion of safety refers to a rational world where people have no malice. In reality there is a great deal of discontent and viciousness floating around the world, from disgruntled employees to religious fanatics who think they should kill the world's population because it is God's will. In between there are angry, desperate politicans, crazy soldiers, and dictators contemplating being removed from power. In this context--consider the actual history of nuclear power.

1) long before there was a power industry, there was a weapons industry.

2) Economically, nuclear power never did fly in this country. It took decades of gung-ho boosterism by the "Atomic Energy Commission" which used to be in charge of both regulating and promoting nuclear power to persuade private power conglomerates, even the largest ones with the biggest and most stable markets (best for nuke power, that requires a steady output) to buy in. When they did--they found the plants and the metals incredibly difficult and expensive to build and use. Rates have not gone down where nuke plants have been built, they have gone up. And this despite a package of incentives that included total freedom from liability in case of an accident. Other nations that have developed nuclear power aggressively such as France or the USSR, did so with massive government subsidy and guarantees--including comparable guarantees that the government will protect the plant operators from lawsuits or screaming lynch mobs if something goes wrong.

3) I believe this is because industry boosters delude themselves on the economics of fission power. It is actually difficult to locate, mine, and refine the basic ores. Then isotopes have to be separated (a very laborious process); radioactive materials worked with, and transported to power plants where they must be installed and then years later, removed, reprocessed--the waste disposed of in a way that will not come back to haunt us. All this takes an economic toll. In fact I believe even the meagre profits that have come to American nuclear plant operatons are heavily subsidised by the taxpayer.

4) There is a symbiosis between the nuclear weapons industry and the power industry. A nation determined to make the weapons will need to mine far more ore than they can use for weapons--for to make a nuclear explosive you need to concentrate isotopes not needed in such concentrations for power purposes. If they can use some of the rejected material for power generation this represents a recovery of some of the cost of the weapons program. Vice versa, a nation that runs a "peaceful" nuclear power program is in the position of being able to divert material into a weapons program fairly easily. Therefore I am alarmed by any nation that does either because it will entail the other. Even those nations like Japan, Germany, or Australia which participate in nuclear power but won't develop weapons are operating in a global economy that does include nuclear weapons programs; I believe that in a world without nuclear weapons nuclear power would not have even the appearance of profitability.

5) Meanwhile with mining and enhancement operations going on, breeder reactors producing plutonium, trucks rumbling across country hauling dangerous plutonium into dispersed plants and hauling equally dangerous wastes out--there will be plenty of opportunities for people to steal some radioactives--if not fissionables to make an actual nuclear explosive, then poisonous radioactives to make a fallout bomb with. We must also consider the danger of corrupt people in the process who sell materials for personal graft (as well as idealist fanatics who work their way into the system to get access to them) and the danger of corrupt officials who order materials diverted. Finally we need to consider the risks involved if terrorists with no inside access decide to just assault a nuclear plant, battering their way in to steal what they can and do what damage they may, including release of radioactive materials and melting down the plant deliberately, or just blowing it open.

All these risks might be necessary to face if nuclear power were the only way. However I don't believe this is true--many alternative sources of power exist, and if we had spent a fair share of development dollars on them during the Reagan and Bush Administrations (and Clinton did not do much for these investigations either) we probably would not be discussing "cheap" nuclear power as an option--it would be eclipsed by alternatives. But as I mentioned, we do have a nuclear weapons industry and bypassing our nuke power industry makes paying for the former more difficult, so corporate and governmental interests converge on pretending that nuclear is the only power source the future offers. Remember, these are people who upon finding a working solar power system installed in the White House, its development already paid for, saving heating costs already--ripped it out at whatever that cost, and cheerfully paid for more heating oil.

They are also the most irresponsible administration ever to occupy that house. Giving them a go-ahead for nuclear power is like handing a 16-year old who is swigging a bottle of vodka the keys to a Hummer. Yeah, he might survive the inevitable crash--that is part of the problem. The bigger part is, all the innocent bystanders who would not.

With a whole world of innocent bystanders around who never promised not to hold us liable, I don't think we should go nuclear unless we absolutely have to. And if we ever do, I would much prefer putting the Army in charge of designing, building, and operating the plants as well as mining the metals, and centralizing as many operations as possible in fortified compounds which the materials never leave. The charade of private enterprise would be too costly and risky to maintain with fission power; we tried that experiment already and it is not worth keeping up nor would we have the luxury for it in such a national emergency. No corporation should be trusted with the sort of blackmail potential fissionable materials place in their hands. Perhaps no army should be either but we've had that situation since 1945 and we know more or less how to deal with it and how reliable they are. Not quite as reliable as they should be unfortunately--it would be best to get out the fission business completely.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Half Sigma said...

This is just a lot of fear-mongering.

Everytime you drive in your car your counting on the science and engineering behind the car to prevent it from careening out of control and killing you. In the same way you have to trust the safety and science behind nuclear power.

Even when cars work the way they are supposed to, tens of thousands die per year in car accidents. In contrast, no one has died in the U.S. from a nuclear power plant accident.

5/09/2005 6:17 PM  
Blogger Mark H. Foxwell said...

You didn't read the main points. I said nothing about power plant risks--granting the idea, for the sake of your argument, that whatever it takes to prevent accidents will be done. The other idea in your response to what I _didn't_ write is that inevitably accidents will happen. And all the history of nuclear power reminds us this is certainly true there too.

What _you_ won't address is that the kind of damage a nuclear accident can do is different in character from what other accidents tend to do. Other accidents tend to kill or injure people on the spot and that is the extent of it. With the release of radioactive materials we have essentially a batch of potent poisons, which get dispersed but by virtue of their radioactivity, can do serious damage in even very small quantities, so their dispersal becomes an ongoing and spreading problem. And persistent; many of these materials remain dangerous for thousands of years. Long after our civilization has come to whatever end it will, the problems we create will remain.

All of this risk might be necessary if we have no alternative to nuclear power to solve our problems. It might even be rational to accept these risks if the expected damage inevitable problems would cause is less than the damage that the liabilities of other power sources might do.

But the bulk of my post was devoted to the idea that there are people who will _deliberately_ seek to cause a nuclear crisis in many different ways. Commitment to nuclear power means we have to factor those risks in too. We might plan to reduce those risks by addressing the problems in global society that cause people to consider using radioactive materials as weapons, to use or threaten to use. But that is an imponderable.

The fact is that we do have alternatives to nuclear power. This should raise the bar when we consider how much damage we should be willing to accept.

It is also a fact that the historical track record of the nuclear industries--including military weapons systems--is less than stellar in the crucial matters of maintaining security. Entire bombs have been inadvertently dropped (in Spain)(not detonated obviously); missiles have popped out of their silos (Arkansas in the late 70s or early 80s); an entire nuclear submarine (with I believe a complement of ICBMs aboard--the USS Thresher) has been lost with all hands and may still, decades later, be sitting on the bottom of the Atlantic waiting for someone to come raid the wreck. Or to rust like the Titanic spilling all its materials into the ocean. Maybe not this century, maybe not until we are all long dead. But we are still responsible for any damage it may do in the future. These things have all happened and been disclosed by our own military; we don't know what has been kept secret by all the nuclear powers of the world. We also know that our own research establishments deliberately allowed releases of radioactive gases in Washington state and covered it up for decades while researching the (numerous and devastating) health consequences for the people downwind. Again, Lord only knows what the Russians, Chinese, French, British, Israelis, South Africans, Indians, North Koreans, and I lose track of who else might at this point have developed a weapons industry has done. Or what else we have done that has _not_ been disclosed.

Thus, we have little grounds to assume that the safety of innocent bystanders will be considered carefully by nuclear industrialists of the future. Perhaps if we change the rules as I outlined and physically contain the industrial centers and monitor everything coming out of those zones, we can be more confident unnecessary risks might be minimized. However, the general political program of our current leadership, the people proposing to go ahead with more nuclear power, is not generally characterized by openness and healthy skepticism of the authorities. Nor is the Bush administration likely to create a government bureau of nuclear activities that handles the stuff in one uniform and closely watched organizational structure--they are all about granting enterprise to private corporations that are actively shielded from public accountability. At the same time these companies are frequently guilty of violating whatever rules they are given to operate under. It is not, five years into complete Republican control of the Federal government, a question of unreasonable rules, these are in fact the rules the industry has proposed and the Administration and a compliant Congress enacts as law and policy. But they break those rules anyway, so flagrantly they get caught at it despite the system being designed not to be accountable and the regulators being in their pockets.

So it would be particularly crazy to hand such a risky and unnecessary industry over to a batch of connected private enterprises under the lax and irresponsible authority of the Bush administration.

All of this is true even if there is never another power plant accident in the history of humankind. Of course I actually think that the rate of such accidents under our gimcrack regime will go up, and with an increased number of plants this means I think that within a single generation there will be enough "accidents" to seriously shorten all our lifespans. All quite unnecessary.

We are five years into the Bush regime. We _know_ they lie, we know they screw up and cover that up, then do nothing to make up for it when caught at it, we know their policies benefit only a few while imposing extra costs and in many cases direct suffering on the majority in the nation and the world at large. We also know that our systems of nuclear security have been flaky for generations and the reasons for that have not been addressed. We know that even in political times when there was more reason to fear the wrath of a damaged or threatened public, accidents did happen, and that the system's major strategies for dealing with them included censorship and telling protestors to shut up and stop being fear-mongerers, and protecting responsible parties from liability. And we know that around the world more and more people are turning to terrorism as a political strategy, and that nuclear materials would be an attractive goal for them, to either acquire or cause to be released.

More than nuclear power plants, I fear mindless, half-baked, ideological lies.

What distinction exactly would you make between Bush's position and yours again? That collective bargaining is OK because you have noticed that you yourself can benefit from it? Get richer and you won't benefit directly from it any more and then you can join the R's without a twinge of conscience. By then you will have gotten rid of that anyway (or you will never fit in and not be allowed to get rich.) Or if you try to face all the facts and not just the ones cynical interests have let past their filters to guide you to support them in whatever they want, I think you will find many of the premises you work under now more and more far-fetched and unreasonable. Those reactionaries have _reasons_ to be adamantly opposed to the idea of collective bargaining, you know. Adopt their point of view and these reasons will seem compelling. But you can't adopt their point of view and face all available facts without murdering your conscience. That choice is yours.

5/09/2005 7:10 PM  

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