Technophilia03: Reharnessing the Atom

The original form of this article, much like my prior Technophilia columns, was a post on this blog as well. Nuclear power is initially mindboggling expensive – something in the order of ten billion dollars a plant for a modern nuclear reactor – but its promises massively outstrip that initial cost.

There’s really no excuse to still be afraid of nuclear power, not after so many advances have been made to make it more efficient and safer to boot. There is nothing eldritch or unknowable about the otherwise monstrous strength locked in the atom. It is a beast we’ve tamed before, and a beast we’re even better at taming now – yoke it, and let us prosper for the coming centuries.

Approximately thirty years ago, an accident happened. A coolant valve was accidentally left open, and the people that were then in charge of the facility were inadequately trained to recognize or even deal with the situation. The loss of necessary coolant and tardy response time to the threat led to the partial-meltdown of the infamous Three Mile Island facility – and with it, the total cessation of nuclear power development in the United States.

That was perhaps a hasty and overly reactive move on part of our nation.

When looking at the Three Mile Island incident from the vantage point of thirty years, it soon becomes obvious that the threat it represented was, by far, overblown. The first and most immediate fact about the incident was of the lives it claimed – namely, none. Absolutely none. None were harmed in the incident, and nobody contracted anything from the spew of radioactive iodines that were released by the partial meltdown. As hard as it is to believe, the most catastrophic accident in the history of American nuclear power did about as much damage to public health as a puff of charcoal smoke floating in from your neighbor’s backyard barbeque.

The actual damage was in opportunity lost: opportunity, that is, to have weaned ourselves from oil dependency not now, not ten or twenty years down the line, but years ago. With the ghost of Hiroshima and Chernobyl lending a standing wave of fear to Three Mile Island, the public was besieged with apocalyptic tales of nuclear winters, cannibalistic mutants roaming the streets and the slow creeping eldritch glow of radioactive green waste poisoning the land and sowing the seeds of cancer across the populace. The fear of nuclear power utterly outstripped the need for more power: even if petroleum-powered generators were cruder, less safe, and less powerful than nuclear reactors, the fantasy of a nuclear wasteland outweighed, in the minds of voters and politicians, the benefits reactors offer.

But it is nothing but a fantasy. Nuclear power, for all the tall tales and science fiction written about it, is perhaps the safest form of industrial-level power generation available to us. It isn’t bound by the geographic limitations of geothermal power, outstrips both wind and solar power in availability and output, and competes equally or superior to petroleum while avoiding the monstrous political landmine of basically indebting ourselves to the whims of OPEC and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the technological advances of thirty years, especially in this era of accelerating advancements, have made nuclear power absolutely safe.

Nuclear power’s safeness is hard to believe, certainly, but the facts stand readily. France has operated nearly their entire power grid off the output of just four reactors with nary an incident for decades, as does much of the rest of the EU. Our military regularly operates hulking kiloton warships and submarines off nuclear power, as does Russia – again, with a decades-long record of safety they’re eager to boast about. Most importantly, however, is the fact that Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are both examples of what we now consider to be almost primitive nuclear power plants – though complex in form and execution, the technology behind them aren’t only thirty years old, but nigh onto forty or fifty.

These days, we can do a lot better. Be it simply a better and more sophisticated piping design to prevent the specific human errors that doomed Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, or advanced materials technology that allows for the creation of self-regulating plants, such as pebble-bed reactors, there is no need to ever again have human error, with emphasis, potentially cause ecological catastrophes via nuclear power.

But it doesn’t stop there. Even older designs are inherently safe – and green. Florida’s nuclear power plants, whose exhaust pipes pump irradiated water out into the ocean, are famously used by the otherwise endangered manatee species to keep themselves warm in the winter – specifically because the water is irradiated, and therefore warmer than the otherwise frigid Atlantic currents. Nuclear atmospheric exhaust, which takes the form of water vapor, is inherently safer than any form of petroleum power – which, as a note, actually produces far more environmental radiation than nuclear power, despite using coal or gas instead of uranium.

Finally, the biggest and most factual concern over nuclear power also has its answers now: nuclear waste and its potential for weaponization or dirty-bombing terrorism has, thanks to the technological advances of nations still wise enough to invest in nuclear research, can now be reprocessed for further use – or, for certain plans involving civilian, backyard reactors, even use fuels that are inherently safe to manage and store for extended periods. Forget about the whole Superfund controversy when you can simply reduce, reduce and reduce yet further the half-life of the fuels used for our industries’ eternal thirst for more power.

It is long past time that we abandon the thoughtless hysteria of the past, and embrace again the power of the atom.


~ by Gonzo Mehum on May 12, 2009.

2 Responses to “Technophilia03: Reharnessing the Atom”

  1. Well if we can indeed reduce the half-lives of nuclear waste and find efficient and safe ways to get rid of them, then maybe, yes, we can still depend on nuclear power as an alternative means. But the fact remains that nuclear fission still produces much waste and that there is far too much time and energy spent in clearing that waste (including using fossil fuels and other exhaustible resources) as well as maintaining a plant. It is not just about funding; it is also about the whole environmental aspect seen in the entire cycle, for example extracting the uranium needed.

    If we had nuclear fusion, things would be so much easier, but that technology is still barely off the drawing board, much less under a state of control that is necessary in a nuclear plant.

  2. From an opportunity-cost analysis alone, Panther, I’d still go with fission power. A single nuclear powers most of Florida – four powers all of France. Imagine how many conventional coal and petroleum plants you’d need to cover that, and how high an intrinsic cost /they/ have – both for continuous operation and for the mining needed to keep them fueled, especially given how much faster they use their fuels compared to a nuclear reactor. You can’t do industry without pollution, but you sure as hell can make it a hell of a lot more efficient.

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