Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Nuclear dictatorship

Here is a good treatment by Raj Patel of nuclear energy. While I used to think nuclear power could be a good part of a low-carbon energy strategy, I have recently been thinking otherwise. I now feel like nuclear power is a real liability, not just because of the recent tragedy of Fukushima, but because I've become more convinced of the concrete possibility that many of today's institutions of modern, prosperous life may be on their way out of existence.

Many of the world's nuclear reactors are located near sea level, so as sea level rises over the next few decades, the reactors would corrode and leach radioactive material into the ocean. I don't know if all the nuclear reactors' radioactivity, spread throughout the ocean, would in the end render the oceans forever unusable for humans and wildlife, or simply become so diluted as to resemble existing background levels of radiation. But even in this latter, "better" scenario, it seems irresponsible to use this power source today, if we can't guarantee the responsible, safe management of its waste for the next few thousands or millions or years (which we can't). So my concern with nuclear power isn't so much the demonstrable short-term deaths directly attributable or not to radiation poisoning, but rather the long-term dangers that we haven't even pondered, much less come up with a credible way of managing.

Perhaps if we could forever count on the conditions prevailing in the world during the latter half of the 20th century, conditions of relative prosperity and stable governance, we might be able to claim that we could manage nuclear waste. But it is a real possibility that much of the world order will at some point in the future collapse or at least change to the point where we won't have large, centralized bodies to regulate and manage nuclear waste. If a coal plant were left to rot and fester in a post-government world, it wouldn't be a big deal. If on the other hand it were a nuclear plant, just leaving it be would lead to radioactive leaks and explosions. This is why Dmitry Orlov has said that nuclear energy is even more dangerous than nuclear weapons. For him, nuclear weapons are like a gun laying around, that may or may not have a responsible owner. But nuclear energy is like heating your house by burning bullets, claiming all the while that everything is under control (until of course it gets out of hand).

On top of the possibility that in the future we won't have a reliable regulation structure for nuclear power, even with our current, supposedly responsible governments, most countries have been unable to do anything with nuclear waste. In the US, and I imagine in lots of other places, most nuclear waste (spent fuel rods that are no longer useful for electricity generation but that remain radioactive) is simply kept stored in pools on site at the nuclear reactor that produced it. There are ideas to create waste disposal (really storage) sites in underground caves or mines, but this has not yet materialized in the US. Another possibility would be to build breeder reactors, which as I understand them re-use nuclear waste to generate more electricity, and keep fissioning the radioactive elements until they become inert lead or something similar. But in both of these cases, there's much concern about transporting nuclear waste (which could be stolen and turned into weapons) to a centralized, known site. I believe this is why nothing gets done on the matter.

So my proposal is that, at least when it comes to nuclear waste disposal, countries should implement dictatorships. It seems that the vacillations and short attention span of democracy are not conducive to dealing with problems of million-year lifespans, so we should have an iron-fisted nuclear czar, with a lifelong appointment to set up a long-term solution to nuclear waste disposal. Only once we have a viable solution (or at least a stable rug under which to sweep the problem) can we even think of considering nuclear power as a realistic, somewhat responsible option.

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