Thursday, March 17, 2011

The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind

It's fantasy that safety, as engineers can deliver it, is a guarantee. Safety, as engineers can deliver it, is a reduction of risk.

In May of last year, as Deepwater Horizon spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Things fall apart and Digging deeper holes were two of my blog posts that made this argument. I wrote on 3 May:

As for nuclear power, those intrepid fission fans are again promising everything will be just fine if they're allowed to build baby build. In February the prez pledged $8,000,000,000 (count the zeros...) to guarantee financing for a new round of nuclear-powered fallacy. [...] We can only hope that Obama's plan to revive that lunacy gets torpedoed. Before the plants get built, I mean. Because ... well ... things fall apart.

The relevance of that hope is bitterly underscored in this past week. Over the past six days the world has watched in horror as natural, known, expected, statistically likely events -- an earthquake and a tsunami -- have wreaked havoc and death, decimating, among many other things, the safety systems meant to protect densely populated communities from spectacularly dangerous nuclear technology. As far as anyone can tell, it's going to get worse. It's probably going to get a lot worse.

Earlier this week I quoted John M. Broder of the NY Times, from his article U.S. Nuclear Industry Faces New Uncertainty. The gist of that article is that nuclear plant disasters in Japan are likely to erode confidence in nuclear power as a means of addressing U.S. energy consumption. I didn't excerpt any of the counterpoint paragraphs from the Broder article, so here are some bits that focus on what the Republican party's leadership has to say on the question:

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, said that the United States should not overreact to the Japanese nuclear crisis by clamping down on the domestic industry indefinitely. Republicans have loudly complained that the Obama administration did just that after the BP oil spill last spring when it imposed a moratorium on deepwater oil drilling until new safety and environmental rules were written. "I don’t think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy," Mr. McConnell said on "Fox News Sunday." [...] "My thought about it is, we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan," Mr. McConnell said.

What. A. Pandering. Snake.

As if engineering failures in Japanese nuclear power plants have no kinship to engineering failures in nuclear power plants in the United States. Or, even more laughable, as if the United States does a better job at assuring safety than Japan. Here's what a USA Today editorial of several days ago had to say on that topic:

If any country understands this interplay of earthquakes, waves and buildings it is Japan, which has developed stringent building codes and well-rehearsed evacuation plans. [...] And yet, as the continuing stream of bad news from Friday's quake indicates, even the Japanese couldn't save themselves from a temblor of such magnitude so close to shore. Here in the USA, this should be sobering. When the capital of Haiti was leveled by a quake last year, Americans could at least take comfort from the fact that buildings here are much stronger and safer. The Japanese quake sends the opposite message. Earthquake-prone areas here are pockmarked with schools and other facilities built decades ago that don't meet earthquake safety standards. The Utah Seismic Safety Commission recently concluded that 60% of a sampling of 128 schools did not meet federal guidelines. A 2007 study in Oregon found that roughly 1,000 schools, or 46% of the state's total, had a high or very-high risk of failure during a temblor.

Pandering Republicans Senators aren't the only ones waving a flag to preserve unsustainable levels of energy consumption and corporate profit. Here's the conclusion of a NY Times editorial also datelined on Monday:

This page has endorsed nuclear power as one tool to head off global warming. We suspect that, when all the evidence is in from Japan, it will remain a valuable tool. But the public needs to know that it is a safe one.

Boosterism aside, what we're seeing in Japan is clear evidence that nuclear power is not safe, and will never be safe. Not while earthquakes, tsunamis, faulty valves, and human errors persist. And that's, well, forever.

Satisfying energy requirements of a culture built on massive distribution of goods across the globe, high-tech warfare, inefficient human transport, digital-everything, the intertubes that carry information between digital-everything, and energy-intensive food production is a road leading straight off the cliff. Down down down ... to much much more of what we're seeing in Japan this week.

The SF Chronicle's editorial board hit closer to the mark in yesterday's editorial:

Suddenly, nuclear doesn't seem so safe. The truth is that it never has been. As we're learning from Japan, it's impossible to ensure full stability with the nuclear energy production process. Japan was known for being extraordinarily cautious with its nuclear energy plants and safety procedures, and disaster still struck. All that means is that there are too many contingencies and too many opportunities for things to go wrong.

As Homo sapiens, we do have options other than destroying ourselves and taking much of the rest of the planet's life with us.

We could, as a collection of human cultures and a single human species, consume a whole lot less. Burn less oil and stop running nuclear reactors (never mind building more!). Stop 'resolving' our differences with murderous, energy-guzzling, economy-draining, solution-diverting wars. Eat foods that are less processed, and grown closer to where we live. Work closer to where we live, or vice versa. Stop driving Hummers.

But, really, I can't pretend to have a fully developed and articulated plan for getting us to that place of radically lower consumption. I don't. Not in my back pocket. Not on the back of a napkin. Not on my iPad. I don't even have an iPad!

A start toward a plan might be collective demand of our leaders -- including the President who wants to prop up nuclear investment to the tune of $8 billion, the Senator who pretends that American exceptionalism makes our nuclear reactors safe, and newspaper editorialists who counsel humans to act like ostriches -- to address U.S. 'energy needs' by developing policies that radically reduce consumption.

In theory -- a caveat required due to lack of anything like consensus on these questions among the U.S. electorate -- in theory we could demand of our leaders a swift and certain end to policies and pronouncements that assure Americans we needn't worry.

In theory we could collectively ridicule and ignore brain-dead promises that everything's going to be just fine so long as we keep shopping.

But will we?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
Digging deeper holes
Things fall apart


  1. Generating energy with nuclear power is a Faustian deal. Read on:

    US nuclear plants located near geologic faults
    Two years before an immense coastal earthquake plunged Japan into a nuclear crisis, a geologic fault was discovered about a half-mile from a California seaside reactor — alarming regulators who say not enough has been done to gauge the threat to the nation's most populous state.

    The situation of the Diablo Canyon plant is not unique. Across the country, a spider's web of faults in the Earth's crust raises questions about earthquakes and safety at aging nuclear plants, amplified by horrific images from Japan, where nuclear reactors were crippled by a tsunami caused by a 9-magnitude quake.

    The Indian Point Energy Center, for example, lies near a fault line 35 miles north of Manhattan; on Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a safety review at the plant.

    But none of the questions are more pressing than in quake-prone California, where about 10 powerful shakers — stronger than magnitude 7 — have hit since 1900.

    At issue at Diablo Canyon is not what is known, but what is not.

    Read more:

    Our potential catastrophe

    Japan's nuclear reactors are melting down after years of nuclear-industry assurances that its plants are safe.

    Meanwhile, we in California have the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant just 242 miles south of San Francisco ("Japan crisis may chill support for reactors," Business, March 15).

    And who operates that nuclear plant? Pacific Gas & Electric. Yes, the very same folks who couldn't handle a simple gas pipeline safely in San Bruno are operating a nuclear power plant just a few hours drive from us.

    Nuclear-industry experts assure us that Diablo Canyon is safe, despite being on the ocean front in a big earthquake zone. But didn't PG&E assure us that its gas pipelines were safe, too? If we get hit by the big one followed by a tsunami, the San Bruno gas explosion and fire might seem very minor by comparison.

    Time for us all to get up and demand that Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant be closed immediately.

    Michael Wong, San Francisco

    Read more:

    Matthew Felix Sun

  2. There was a nuclear plant planned - digging had begun! - for Bodega Head, a finger of land at the north end of Bodega Bay. It was stopped so long ago you've probably never heard of it. And a good thing, too. Bodega Head is a lump of granite that traveled on the Pacific Plate up from the Tehachapi Mountains. In other words, the nuke plant was being built ON an active fault.

    "All that was left of their plans was a big hole in the ground that locals dubbed "The Hole in the Head." The hole eventually filled up with rainwater and is now this "pond" which serves as a freshwater sanctuary for birds and wildlife."

  3. Oddly, the link I provided in the above comment seems to have vanished:

  4. @Glenn: Thanks for that bit of local history ... before my time in California, and I didn't know about it. If they'd built a power plant at Bodega Head I suppose my trajectory as an activist would have taken some different turns: the Abalone Alliance would have had a much bigger presence in the Bay Area in the 1970s and 1980s.

  5. Hmm. Well, what do you make of this: The issue is that it isn't a zero sum game: of course nuclear power isn't safe, but it's a lot safer than oil and coal. Since a sudden turn towards careful consumption isn't going to happen, I tend to favor heavily regulated and as safe as possible nuclear power coupled with an almost maniacal investment in alternative energy and a huge reduction in our use of oil and coal. The bottom line is that if you think nuclear energy isn't safe enough now, watch how the industry goes into a totally unrestrained build if we don't have viable alternatives before we start running out of oil and coal - then you'll see risk.

  6. @Steven: Actually, Godin's post doesn't change the calculus for me. It is indeed a zero-sum game when it comes to choking out life in our one and finite biosphere when the problem of resource consumption and recycling is considered over a human-scaled time period. We're choosing as a species to consume as we do; that "a sudden turn toward careful consumption isn't going to happen" is not an existential condition, it's a choice that social animals (them be us) are making as individuals and as groups. What's zero-sum about the game is that when we transform (produce and consume) resources that throw our one and finite biosphere out of whack the blowback's on us and every other thing in our world, living and inert. Every human policy choice that doesn't lead precipitously toward careful human consumption is a policy choice for mass death, and not just human death -- they don't call it a great extinction for nothing ... and in case you wonder, I myself do not think that a 'keep fiddling because it would happen no matter what we did' position is morally sound.

  7. Hm. Well, I don't think "keep fiddling" is a legitimate position, either - you're just a lot more optimistic about human nature (and its short-sightedness) than I am. I struggle a lot between making individual decisions - because that's what I can control - and just living my life, because I feel like it's close to a moot point (or do I live based on what I believe because that's how I WANT to live my life, and so forth). I think that those social animals (us) are hardwired to make bad choices, and as the technology to make world-destroying choices becomes more and more available, mixed with a brain that only favors the social over the violent in the best conditions, well... let's just say that calling you more optimistic than me isn't the same thing as calling you an optimist.

  8. @Steven -- So long as you're not calling me an optimist, we're cool ;-) ...