This topic has been kicking around in my head for a long time, long before I ever started blogging, and now in the wake of Japan’s issues with the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, more of this information is coming to light and being discussed, where it had been ignored and denigrated before. The issue isn’t simple, and many, many people will find elements contestable – I’m not worried about that, as long as they’re diligent enough to weigh the factors realistically and without bias, rather than simply trying to find evidence to support their current viewpoint and ignore the rest. This issue is not political and is not partisan; if your viewpoint incorporates words such as, “Obama Administration,” and “environmentalists,” seriously, your mind is too small to be messing with this. Go watch Talking Head TV and imagine you’re well-informed, someplace where you can’t bother the adults, okay?
There was a push recently, with concerns over global warming and energy crunches, to sell nuclear fission power as “safe” and “clean,” apparently using definitions of these words that do not match the common perception. Nuclear energy was being promoted as our way out of dependence on foreign oil, the way to reduce or even halt greenhouse gas emissions, and as an environmentally friendly option for the power needs of the US at the very least, but often the world as well. And it’s true, the plants themselves produce only trace amounts of greenhouse gases, the production of the fuel only marginally more. If greenhouse gases were the only threat to public health and energy concerns, then such plaudits might be accurate. However, this is hardly the case, and considering things solely from such a standpoint is either grossly misrepresentative or criminally ignorant.
Let’s do a quick overview. The idea behind nuclear (fission) energy is that the proximity of two elements that produce ionizing radiation will create heat, copious amounts of it, and this heat can be used (in lieu of contemporary heat sources like burning coal, natural gas, petroleum products, and garbage) to turn water into steam; this expanding gas is used to turn turbines that make electricity. No waste gases are produced, and even the steam water is recycled. It’s exactly such simple explanations that are used to allay public concerns over nuclear power, but there’s a leetle bit more to it than that.
The key part is, the elements necessary to produce this heat effectively and in large enough quantities are kinda toxic. As in, among the most dangerous substances known to life. Virtually all toxic substances require actual contact with someone to produce ill effects, but ionizing radiation is way different: toxic effects, and in fact dangerous heat-producing effects, increase with proximity. For the typical nuclear fuels required by most power plants, the fuel rods themselves aren’t terribly strong – the real action comes when you’re introducing two types within a certain distance of one another, where their interaction produces enormous heat and no small amount of ionizing radiation. It also changes the very makeup of the fuel rods themselves over time. The dangers from this radiation not only depends on proximity to the elements themselves, but also the amount of time exposed, since the effects are cumulative and can overwhelm the body’s ability to heal.
A small side note: I refer to “ionizing radiation” to distinguish it from common radiation such as photons emitted from a large variety of sources. An electric bulb radiates, in both visible light and infra-red (heat,) as does your stove and even your own body. Ionizing radiation refers to the specific forms of both energy and particle production that we typically call “radioactivity.” Some of it is relatively benign, and can be blocked with a piece of paper, such as Alpha Decay. Beta and Gamma Decay start to become a different story. “Decay” simply refers to the fact that radioactive elements, or radio-isotopes, are unstable in nature, and will spontaneously change their state by emitting either energy or subatomic particles, or both, whereupon they will change into a stable element and remain that way. It’s the energy and particles that make up what we commonly refer to as “radioactivity” or “radiation.”
There’s another key property in all of this, and that’s something called “half-life.” Half-life refers to the amount of time that radioactive elements have potency, and it’s slightly confusing. Expressed as a period of time, a half-life is how long it takes for half of any given radioactive mass to decay to a stable state where it is inert and no longer toxic. Given a kilogram of Uranium-238 and a half-life of 4.468 billion years, this means that in 4.468 billion years, only half of that mass will have changed to its inert form of Thorium-234 – the other half kilogram of material is still U-238 and still radioactive. In another 4.468 billion years, the amount of radioactive material has now dropped to 1/4 kilogram, and in another 4.468 billion, now only 1/8 kilogram. That’s how it works (and this time frame is indeed the half-life of U-238.) Generally, in ten half-lives, a radioactive element has decayed enough to be effectively inert throughout. Welcome to the world of nuclear decay rates.
This might make someone think that a short half-life, like that of Dubnium-262 (34 seconds) would be better, making the substance far less dangerous, but this isn’t quite the case. What it means is that the decay, the release of energy and particles, takes place very quickly, almost exploding outwards from the element, so short half-lives usually mean a very high level of toxicity until the element decays enough. Pick up a piece of Dubnium-262 during that six minutes of its effective life, and you’re getting a whopping dose, much more so than the equivalent mass of Uranium-238, which you could survive easily, and in fact may notice nothing more than a slight warmth.
All of this is necessary to understand what it is we’re talking about with nuclear energy – and I made a specific note above about “fission” energy, which is what every power plant in the world uses. Fusion is different, and could potentially be quite useful, if we could do it – right now, it seems to be impossible to produce in sustainable ways (we manage it in the heart of a fission chain reaction, which is how high-end nuclear weapons work, but this is short-lived and the fission produces lot of bad effects.)
Nuclear fuel rods are very reactive, and have to be to produce enough heat energy to generate steam in sufficient quantities. They typically have an effective useful life, and once past this, they are removed from service and stored – right now in the US, almost always directly on the premises of the nuclear plant itself. They’re stored because they’re nowhere near being inert, and require both separation and constant water cooling, and shielding, for a period of time (typically about five years) before they can be safely packaged and taken somewhere else. This leads us to the two main problems.
Fukushima Daiichi ran into initial problems when the cooling infrastructure was knocked out, and the spent, unusable fuel rods in storage at the plant overheated, rupturing their storage and releasing radioactive gas and particles into the atmosphere. This had nothing to do with the reactor itself – this was the waste products of the reactor, long ago removed from service. Spent fuel rods, while lacking the power to produce efficient heat for optimal energy needs, nevertheless are still highly potent and very reactive, as much as 99% of their initial processed fuel power, and in fact may be even more toxic than originally manufactured because of the reactions within the plant core. They will remain at a level of extreme potency for years, and in fact, this is the largest issue with nuclear power at this point. The waste produces enough ionizing radiation that the storage pools do literally glow, an effect called Cerenkov Radiation. When you see photos of storage pools and there’s a blue glow in the water tank, that’s not fancy lighting. That’s the residual radiation from “spent” fuel, and the water is necessary to halt that radiation and keep the temperature down – unless it runs dry like one of Fukushima’s pools did. This is the waste product of nuclear power. Pools very much like Fukushima’s exist at most nuclear power plants throughout the world.
At this point, everyone and their brother is jumping up and down about “reprocessing,” the ability to take these spent rods and re-refine them into usable fuel again. Theoretically, this can be done until the remaining waste is virtually inert – in practice, it’s not anywhere near the “solution” it’s claimed to be. It’s expensive, elaborate, and inefficient, enough so that the energy costs shoot up tremendously. It produces massive quantities of toxic byproducts, and it poses its own issues, such as damage during transportation and the costs of reprocessing reactors. Nuclear reactors are very expensive to build, and recouping the costs takes decades. Reprocessing is literally a proposal to build more nuclear reactors to support the nuclear reactors we already have – in fact, to deal with their aftermath.
Or, we can safely store these spent fuel rods until enough time has passed that they are inert – again, in theory. Remember that bit about half-lives? Yeah, that’s the issue – some of these fuels, as well as the by-products (like contaminated handling and transportation vessels, reactor and plant materials replaced through maintenance, “polluted” by-products of the reactions and processing, etc.) have half-lives in the thousands of years. What kind of storage, exactly, is supposed to be “safe” for such a period of time? Can we account for the past thousand years of even seismic activity on any continent we care to name? Are we sure that water sources will not, and can not, break through any long-term storage options to carry such materials out into the drinking water and soils?
Oh, yeah, there’s this little bit of useful knowledge in itself. Even a tiny amount of weakly radioactive material can be exceptionally damaging when introduced into the human body, where it is likely to be retained indefinitely. A dental x-ray isn’t any big deal – until you leave the machine on constantly and drag it around with you, which is what absorbed radioactive particles do. They can be incorporated into plants from contaminated soil, and ingested by ourselves or our food cattle, and carried along in our water supplies.
We may view accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima as isolated occurrences, freak events that normally would not happen. But we can’t judge on “normal,” and before either of these plants were built, the best engineers had the foresight to incorporate countless safety features. Chernobyl had plenty of functions to prevent runaway reactions and dangerous heat buildup – until they were all shut down by inexperienced plant operators in a “routine” test. Three-Mile Island had plenty of coolant backup systems – until they failed to both operate properly and give correct condition indicators. Fukushima was built to withstand a 7.8 magnitude quake – until a 9.0 magnitude struck, followed by a tsunami. The thing about a nuclear reaction is, you don’t stop it by cutting the fuel flow; it runs by itself, and the infrastructure is necessary not to continue power production, but to keep it from going out of control. Once started, the produced heat isn’t going away quickly – it needs to be managed constantly. It’s a little like running your car at full throttle the moment it’s started, and requiring the brakes to keep from flying off the road.
And as I mentioned earlier, even the waste products, the spent fuel rods, need their own constant infrastructure just to be stored.
You’ll hear supposedly intelligent pundits (like The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams) telling us that Chernobyl wasn’t as bad as predicted and isn’t an issue anymore, which is why you need to be very careful about listening to rhetoric. Note carefully how many aspects of the topic they manage to avoid or downplay. Chernobyl sits in a vast “exclusion zone” where people are still not allowed to reside within, twenty-five years later, and the soil contamination is considered far too high to grow food plants or raise livestock from. There’s an entire graveyard of vehicles, millions of dollars worth of equipment, wasting away nearby because the metal is too contaminated to risk the use of. And the Sarcophagus, the containment of the ruined reactor that remains literally hot to this day, is crumbling and will need (expensive) replacing. Groundwater seeps under this reactor are monitored for the eventual contamination that will occur, to see just where the toxicity ends up going. Adams himself seems to think that thyroid cancer being “treatable” makes it a non-issue.
This is the rather curious meaning of “safe” and “clean” that is used by proponents of nuclear energy.
And all of this is occurring under a government that is a mere vestige of the one that created the mess, and cannot possibly afford to handle the ongoing maintenance required to keep people from harm, for the next several decades to centuries. It’s very easy to find gross exaggerations of the effects of Chernobyl – far too easy, really, which is unfortunate, because most people can’t handle subtle things like exaggeration, and somehow think that since some purported facts about Chernobyl are lies, that all of them are, and Chernobyl isn’t an issue at all. But the efforts put into damage control of that little “freak accident” (I mean, c’mon, let’s be real, how often can you count on human beings to do something stupid?) were vast and costly to the government and the community – the entire city of Pripyat had to be completely abandoned and the land surrounding it closed off to all human use. Even when vehicles are allowed within, they recommend distancing them significantly so that occupants are not following in the dust wake of another vehicle, for the additional exposure that can take place from inhaling particles in that dust. This, mind you, occurred in an area that was already sparsely populated and undeveloped, unlike a large percentage of locales where nuclear power plants reside in the US and Europe.
The Fukushima Daiihchi plant in Japan is effectively decommissioned, by the way – the emergency measures of pumping seawater into the lines to maintain temperatures low enough to avoid catastrophe ruined the whole system. Unfiltered saltwater does that. Once the fuel rods can be safely withdrawn, the plant will be shut down, for either rebuilding or simply remaining offline for years until the spent rods can be removed from storage to another location and the plant safely dismantled. While it seems we have now passed the point that this is likely to occur, had the reactor actually melted down as feared, it would then have to be sealed up for an indefinite, but very long, period of time, like Chernobyl – there is no effective way of cleaning it up, at all. [Note: When this passage was written, either no reactor had melted down yet or the news of it had not been disseminated. But yes, three reactors at the plant underwent core meltdown.] We can only wait until the toxicity drops to a level that allows brief exposures to try and contain and remove the mess. During that time, there is the constant threat that groundwater infusion or another earthquake can introduce radioactive elements into the water or nearby sea – you do know Japan relies on fishing for food and economic stability, right?
If some kind of economic breakdown occurs, or a change of government or something similar that upsets the funding structure of the long-term maintenance that even undamaged offline plants require, the toxic remains stand the chance of being ignored, the maintenance measures unfunded and forgotten.
The chance of this is low, you say? So is the chance of the US, the world’s superpower, going through economic crisis. The Soviet Union in the seventies, when Chernobyl was commissioned, was a superpower too – nobody planned on total collapse there either. Now, we’re concerned about the stockpiles of old weapons there, the abandoned biological warfare labs, the rise of nuclear terrorism, and the vast amounts of mismanaged waste.
Remember, this structure must remain in place for years simply to remove the fuel rods from the plant itself, and decades to centuries (or more) to maintain a safe place for the waste products. How’s your knowledge of history?
Systems break down – and sometimes, aren’t even implemented effectively in the first place. Right now, countless nuclear power plants operate with known flaws and issues that remain uncorrected. Why? “Well, it’s too costly at this time.” Sound like any politician you know? Even with the structure in place and adequate contingency plans, we’re not even capable of following them. And while this is only distantly related, there are contingency plans for medical nuclear waste, too – specific procedures for the handling and dismantling of items like radiation therapy machines. Until someone simply walks away without following them.
The same pundits who tell us nuclear power remains safe because we know how to keep it safe, seem to ignore that we have enough trouble with maintaining low-tech, easy to repair structures such as bridges. That administrations change constantly, and politicians seem dangerously short-sighted – since many terms are limited, “foresight” only lasts until the next election has passed (or the media moves on to another topic.) That competency is far from the first hiring principle in the States anymore, and the loose regulations on energy companies mean they operate solely on profit concerns. And that the history of nuclear safety in the US is not only far from reassuring, it’s criminally negligent.
Again, this isn’t your typical freak accident or natural disaster – nuclear accidents, and even failure to maintain containment of waste, can last for centuries. Is it bad when wildfires run out of control? Now picture the fires burning for hundreds of years across the same kind of areas – except you can’t see it and have no idea where it’s really burning, until people start developing cancer at much higher rates than normal (and by then it’s too late.) The smoke is colorless and odorless, the fire invisible, the path unpredictable. Do you still want to call it a natural disaster? Of course, this is ignoring that there is nothing natural about it and that we are not idly standing by while it happens – we’re the direct, and knowing, cause of it. We’re simply betting that it not be too bad.
That’s the entire history of nuclear power, by the way: betting that we’ll escape the worst effects. Dry storage casks of spent fuel rods are already failing (less than 1% into their necessary containment life,) dump areas are seeping, storage pools at nuclear plants are getting full – all because the problems of what to do with the waste were to be solved later. We never knew what to do with it, since we have never figured out how to make something safe and stable for thousands of years. But we proceeded anyway, and pro-nuclear nitwits are still urging us down this path like teenagers with their first credit cards, sure that the future will sort it all out. Is “foresight” really that unknown a concept?
Now, pause for a second. The waste, the after-effects of accidents, the infrastructure to maintain, and the toxic effects of the elements for centuries to millennia to come, are all to produce electricity that we used up long ago – perhaps watching “Mork & Mindy” or “Dallas.” It is used to produce the electricity to power exciting toys like iPhones and giant flat screen TVs. To run freaking leaf blowers, for fuck’s sake, because you know how much of a hazard leaves are to have lying around, and how dangerous rakes can be in the wrong hands.When we see photos of the cities at night from space, with their sparkly glowing areas, this is light, electricity, being sent into space for no reason at all except remarkably inefficient designs. Any light not shining onto the surfaced to be illuminated, that bounces off of low cloud or humidity cover and makes it impossible to even see objects in the night sky, is completely wasted. TVs and radios left on for “ambience” and because, supposedly, it makes a “better shopping experience” is environmental damage that is completely pointless. We’re actually discussing an energy option that can have ridiculously toxic and hazardous effects for time frames we cannot fathom, longer than we have even had written records, because using electricity efficiently is too fucking inconvenient? Seriously?
Is it sunny out? Go outside, and look directly at the sun. Did that hurt? Yeah, it’s a stream of photons, energy, getting past your tiny little contracted pupils, a hole just a few millimeters wide, and hitting your cornea – too much energy for you to cope with. Now cover your lawn with dots the size of your pupils – how much energy is that? I’ve melted plastic in a few seconds with a focusing mirror from a telescope that was only ten centimeters across, and watched water boiling furiously from one about a half-meter across, on a hazy polluted day in Philadelphia. Ever been to the ocean? When do the waves stop? They don’t? Yeah, that’s all energy – free, clean (in the proper and intelligent sense of that word,) and constant. The entire planet (and many others) runs on it. The uranium ore that we refine to run these power plants is created by geothermal activity, a tiny fractional byproduct of the vast heat directly beneath our feet (and a finite supply itself, by the way, just like petroleum – it takes thousands of years to create uranium and push it to the surface.) All we need to do is find efficient ways to use all of this naturally-occurring energy. Many options are already in place, and research continues into more effective methods. But the corporations that profit from privatized energy provision aren’t in a hurry to relinquish their stranglehold, so our PAC-bought government still subsidizes and caters. Bear in mind, however, politicians can only receive contributions from lobbyists and special interests while they are holding office. We do actually have some power over this.
That is, of course, if we don’t spend it instead trying to argue that nuclear energy solves problems, ignoring all of the ones that it creates.
Meanwhile, we can be a hell of a lot more efficient. Shut it off, do it manually, or even question whether it’s needed in the first place. You don’t need to buy a hybrid car, you simply need to shut off the TV show too stupid to even be aired (that’s most of them.) “Angry Birds” is not a necessity, and neither is Facebook. Leave the laptop home, and take a book instead. Let the kids use the freaking school bus. If it’s less than two kilometers (or a mile, if you prefer,) walk. It’s better for you anyway.
Kindly don’t try to argue that some of these are petroleum-derived and have nothing to do with nuclear power or electricity. Our entire energy system is interactive, and what gets used in one way takes that resource away from another potential use elsewhere. Not to mention that we still need to wean off of petroleum anyway, and getting into good energy habits shouldn’t be selective based on worst effects (or anything else, really.)
Any accident, any exposure, any expensive containment, is too much. One case of thyroid cancer from contamination is too much – it isn’t better because it’s not your child. This is a weird aspect of human perception – “we” (as a society) need the power, but “they” are an acceptable casualty of it. Try reversing it – “I” will gladly risk my life, so “you” can be a self-indulgent prick with a gadget fetish. How’s that work?
By all means, don’t take my word for it – or anyone else’s, either. Stay informed. Just remember: today is the “tomorrow” where we were supposed to have already corrected those issues we put off decades ago.
Wikipedia’s page on Chernobyl
Wikipedia’s page on Three-Mile Island
Wikipedia’s page on Fukushima Daiichi
Wikipedia’s list of nuclear power accidents by country
The Kyshtym (or Mayak) disaster. Money quote: “[T]he CIA knew of the 1957 Mayak accident all along, but kept it secret to prevent adverse consequences for the fledgling American nuclear industry.”
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory – government oversight at its finest.
A map of the nuclear waste hazards in the former Soviet Union.