Addressing the Nuclear Elephant in the Room

In some future history of this period, if there ever are any, we will excoriated by our descendents for refusing to implement the nuclear solution to the climate crisis.

First, let’s assume there’s a man-made climate crisis. That is the majority opinion, in certain circles. Let’s accept that as a given. This requires ignoring a body of scientific opinions that reject this assumption, but never mind that. Let’s also assume that ignoring the problem, as 2018 Nobel Laureate in Economics  William Nordhaus has urged us to do, is simply not acceptable.

Now, quick: what is the single most powerful, plentiful and non-polluting  energy source ON this planet.

Okay, you already read the title of this essay, so you know where this is going.

Maybe it is time to let the nuclear genie out of the bottle and accept the nuclear solution to climate crisis conundrum.

At present, in the United States, fifty percent of our “non-renewable” energy electrical service is delivered by nuclear power plants.  In California, there’s even a move afoot to re-categorize nuclear energy as a renewable energy source instead of a consumable one.

If we replaced the other fifty percent of our non-renewable power plants (those that are fueled with coal, oil, and natural gas), we would move the goal posts back at least a full generation, giving us more time to figure out the rest of the energy conundrum.

That’s a matter of simple math, not hard to do…but people, here and around the worried, are terrified of nuclear energy because our thought leaders have very stupidly prejudiced them against nuclear power by playing on fears of repetitions of Three Mile Island ,Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Now, right away, the anti-nuclear crowd is getting ready to trot out their statistics proving that we don’t need nuclear energy in our power equations. Those statistics are bogus. (We’ll get to that later in this article.)

Third generation nuclear reactors are much safer than the reactors that have failed in the past. Nothing is perfectly safe, and there are certainly good reasons to be careful with nuclear energy, but there’s no good reason – other than prejudice – to ignore the nuclear component to the energy problem.

There is one glaringly obvious fact that no one wants to talk about: Nuclear power plants do not emit gas house gases.

Right there, in one step, we have  the ultimate solution to the climate catastrophe….if we are willing and able to embrace it.

Three major nuclear accidents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi – may have permanently soured the ardor of most nuclear advocates, but this may be a “baby and bathwater” situation for us.

Sure enough, nuclear power is hazardous…very hazardous in theory, but a lot less hazardous in fact than we imagine it to be.

There have been fewer deaths from nuclear power operations since dawn of the nuclear age in 1939 (excepting only the death tolls at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were deliberate not accidental) than from pollution-related illnesses in just one year…but it isn’t the short-term effects that worry us about nuclear power. It’s the long-term effects that turn the genie into a demon, contamination leading to birth defects, spontaneous abortions,  various cancers and genetic damage to future generations.

That’s all very terrible stuff…but that’s a very long-term set of scenarios when compared to the impending collapse of our climate, along with our economies, and our civilization in the lifetimes of some of the people reading this article.

Climate scientists are all in agreement that something bad is happening…and that it is only going to get worse from here on out. Regardless of whether you believe that climate change is human-made or not, it is indisputably here right now…and it might, according to some experts, be too late for us to do anything about it.

Unless, of course, we turn to a relatively clean, non-gaseous, and virtually unlimited supply of electrical energy from nuclear power.

It takes around three to five years to bring a third generation nuclear power plant online, unless you have to fight your way through the administrative and legislative red tape that surrounds each nuclear power plant. It will take more than 20 years to fully retrofit the existing economic structure to a renewable energy system.

We don’t have 20 years to spare.

Sure, solar energy can be relied on to provide a substantial percentage of our electrical energy requirements….but solar energy requires either fantastically expensive energy storage systems to provide electricity when there is no sunlight…or rely instead on backup electricity from an electrical grid which is currently sourced from coal, oil, gas and nuclear sources.

In fact, nuclear sources currently account for fifty percent of the backup power generation needed to backstop a solar energy system.

There are of course other backup systems:

Wind power: relatively inefficient compared to solar power because of the mechanical devices required to produce the electricity, relatively more expensive to build, and also requires backup power systems.

Hydroelectric: reliable, relatively inefficient compared to solar, intermittent when compared with a future of droughts and freezing winters, unless you happen to have a Niagara Falls handy.

Tidal hydroelectric: also very expensive and, of course, it requires location along the seaboard, which is of course problematic if we believe that the seacoasts are going to become inundated within the lifetimes of people being born today.

Geothermal: non-polluting, relatively cost efficient, simple equipment, not intermittent, doesn’t need back-up systems…but you have to either drill way down deep or locate in an active volcanic area like, say, Yellowstone National Park.

There are many other potential solutions to the climate crisis. Some address reductions in CO2 emissions through alternative energy sources, none of which can catch up with the growth curves of developing industrial nations. Some address carbon sequestration through reforestation and other techniques designed to recapture loose carbon dioxide but those solutions do not address the energy problem.

Reducing emissions and sequestering carbon dioxide are laudable goals. We all want to keep on breathing as long as we can. However, without electrical generating capacities that can meet present and future demands, we are not going to be able to maintain an industrial civilization….if we even want one.

So, yes, nuclear energy must play a role in the mixture of energy sources….and then I look at the picture  I stole from The Guardian.  It shows the water storage tanks at the Fukushima plant. They are all full of contaminated water.

The operators of the Fukushima plant are going to run out of storage space for contaminated water in 2022, at which point they will have no choice but to release that contaminated water into the Pacific ocean, slowly, of course, over a long period of time.

Here a question for you all:  why are they still generating contaminated water?

The answer, obviously, is that they haven’t solved the problems at Fukushima and that they are still using fresh water to cool down the reactors.

This, in turn, raises other questions:

Why not RE-USE the contaminated water to cool the reactors, instead of pouring clean water into the reactors and contaminating even more water?  I am sure there must be a logical answer to this obvious question.  I’m am still waiting to hear it.

Why not use hydrolysis to break down the water into oxygen and hydrogen and then burn the  hydrogen as fuel? All it takes is electricity.

This would almost certainly eradicate the other contaminants, but it might not affect the tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen. However, the dissipation of contaminated hydrogen could be easily accomplished by filling balloons with the gas and allowing them to rise into low earth orbit where they could be exploded, releasing the tritium more or less harmlessly.

Tritium has a half-life of 12 years, which means that it would be effectively dissipated within 48 years. That deterioration will occur whether it is stored in a concentrated form as water or a diffuse form as hydrogen gas. In fact, it would probably deteriorate more quickly in gaseous form than it would in its water form.

(Ironically, the extraction of tritium from water was one of the crucial steps in the development of nuclear energy and now we’re facing a superfluity of tritium, which was once so rare that a major part of The Manhattan Project was to extract enough tritium to make a nuclear bomb or two.)

So, yes, there are all these good reasons to re-think nuclear energy…and then you look at the picture again, and wonder whether you have gone completely nuts.

Which is worse, instantaneous annihilation in a nuclear war, less rapid but equally inescapable extinction from catastrophic climate change, or a much more gradual, centuries long extinction from increasing radiation levels?

It is very clear that the people in control of making this decision have already decided but the people in question aren’t the people you think they are and I know this because I am one of them. Former hippies, New Age folks, health nuts, progressive, liberal Democrats.  These are the people standing between us and a nuclear future.

They have decided in favor of a fairly rapid extinction level event consisting of catastrophic climate change. The specifications of that extinction level event are so difficult to contemplate because of the complexity of the systems involved that it is easier to scare people with the largely empty specter of nuclear poisoning, making half-assed attempts to thwart climate change seem like the most reasonable path by comparison with nuclear energy, even though it is doomed to fail.

So, here’s a choice for you to think about:

Which would you prefer:

Dying quickly once the climate change demon changes the climate so much that the crops won’t grow, the distribution systems break down, and people who once lived ensconced in the cornucopia of plenty die from the lack of everything they once had…

or

Dying relatively slowly from increasing background radiation, which might not ever kill you at all, and might not kill your descendants either, while sweating out the prospects for nuclear war or terrorist attacks with nuclear weapons.

Well, here’s a hint:  That genie is already out of the bottle. Anyone who wants a nuclear bomb can get one without a great deal of time or effort. All it takes is money. We’ve been living under that threat since 1991, the year the Soviet Union broke up into its component parts and the First Cold War came to an end. (We are in the Second Cold War now, in case you haven’t noticed.)

We’ve been living in a world of increasing background radiation for seventy-five years and, until recently, life expectancies were increasing from year to year, at least here in the United States. They still are, in other parts of the world, and it is an open question as to whether the decreasing life expectancy in the United States is due to radiation, pollution, our shitty health care system, or plain old exhaustion.

Maybe we have hit that tipping point. The question is whether you want to go down starving, freezing cold or boiling hot, dehydrated, isolated, and unable to escape, or  go down while living well-fed in a clean, comfortable, technologically sophisticated environment that just happens to be slightly more radioactive than it used to be.

Here’s the choice point: nuclear energy or climate collapse.

Oh, yes. There are grandiose plans for a Green New Deal, with everything in it, including the kitchen sink, a one-size-fits-all, all-in-one plan to do everything that needs to do be at the same time… and that’s the big mistake.

Gee. The Soviet Union used to try this sort of thing with their five year plans, which always had to be revised every three years because none of their five year plans ever hit their marks.

The Democrats have conflated the urgent necessity for addressing climate change right now with every single social issue on their laundry list of liberal issues that have to be dealt with right now.

Well, no, they don’t. When your house is on fire, you don’t stop fighting the fire to place an order for a new roof. If you don’t put out the fire, you’re not going to need a new roof. You’re going to need a whole new house and, guess what, there aren’t any other houses to be had, not in this solar system, or anywhere else that we have found so far.

So, let me ask that question one more time: nuclear energy or climate collapse.

That’s a sucker bet if I heard one. If you picked the Door Number Two, see me after class.

The clock is ticking.

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