Spreading a Little Nuclear Love

Yes, it’s bad. Yes, it feels like a tiger by the tail. But when the fossil ball is over, nuclear is going to feel a lot more cozy, because what’s the alternative? Dam every creek and river in the land? Build our houses out of photovoltaic sheathing? Blot out the sun with windmills?

Hydro is not environmentally friendly and even if it was, it’s not unconditionally safe for human consumption. Solar’s cool and I love the idea of a house built out of solar panels, but how’s it going to work when the sun is blotted out by windmills? And besides, a lot of people (i.e. important people that have the power to do something about something) say alternative energy will never meet our needs. Right. In other words, it’s not cost effective for developers to develop it.

I say, someday there will be enough money. You’d be amazed at how much money will be available once the fossil ball is over.

However, before all that and after we’ve completely drained the Arctic National and other star-crossed pristine places, we will consider and reconsider nuclear. Oh yes, nuclear is definitely going to smell sweet soon. And not because of the Cesium-137 in the air, either.

No question the situation in Japan is horrendous, worse probably than what they’re letting on about. But right now, no one is looking at the bigger picture. No one is asking why? We’re just jumping to conclusions and assuming it happened because nuclear is just a bad idea. A bad seed. An incorrigible, evil son. A simmering volcano, ready to erupt when the time is right (An appropriate image considering the Fukushima plants are located on the Fiery Rim).

The reason we feel that way is because it’s not easy to understand nuclear power. There’s a lot of energy in each little atom and unleashing it feels like letting loose the Kracken. The Kracken is fine, cute maybe even in a scaly kind of way, when it’s behind bars. But it becomes uncontrollable by us little people once the gate is lifted. It’s big and ugly and eats virgins when they let it out.

Perhaps, like the Kracken, nuclear is too powerful and scary. But back in the day when we first got fire, that was scary too. One uncontrolled burn and the whole forest would go up in smoke and then we’d be naked on the plain where we didn’t belong. We’d only come down from the trees the week before and now they’re all burnt up.

Eventually we got fire under control, didn’t we? With the sticks and flint and all. We’re not as scared of it anymore. When our own house is burning down, sure, we’re upset, but we don’t set up rallies and subcommittees to study alternatives. ‘Course we don’t depend on it like we used to. Nowadays a fire means little more than a cozy evening with a glass of pinot and a dark-haired guy with pectorals that… nevermind.

We will get our nuclear shit together just like we did with fire. I know this because a while ago I worked at the local nuke plant. I had just graduated college and it was two years after Three Mile Island (TMI). The industry was scrambling, the public uncivil, the NRC pissed. Within the space of two years, every nuke plant in the land doubled its staff and upgraded its hiring procedures. No longer did they simply hire navy nukes right off the boat regardless of whether they’d actually run a reactor or merely swabbed the deck. Now they hired people that had gone to college and studied stuff. Some of them even majored in the latest, greatest field of study: radiation protection. They made us all take more classes too. Typical night school extension courses like fission theory, crafting with lead shielding, 101 things to do with leftover boron.

There were too many of us and we were overqualified. There was no way the industry would not get itself into shape. We were stepping all over ourselves looking for something to do. And we found things. Problems. Solutions. Conditions changed in the U.S. nuclear milieu. They didn’t run the nuke plants in the cavalier fashion of the fossil plants anymore, letting things go and laughing at rules. Nuke plants became expensive, but safe. Safer actually. Nothing is 100% risk-free.

Then Chernobyl happened. And all the PR gains from stellar safety records the U.S. nuke program had achieved were slipping away. No nuclear plants have gone online in fifteen years. Oddly the Challenger disaster happened at roughly the same time as Chernobyl, and NASA’s well back on track even after a second disaster, Columbia, has us scratching our heads over lessons not learned. Perhaps explosions in the sky don’t affect those of us on the ground, so no rallies and subcommittees against the space race.

The U.S. nuclear industry has pretty much stagnated. It’s in free fall as old plants are decommissioned and no young blood is added to the mix. Things were beginning to look up, though. People were getting brave. Gas was getting expensive. Even the democrats were getting on board. People started to believe that maybe Chernobyl happened because the plant was badly designed and poorly managed, not so much because human beings can’t be trusted to run a fission reaction properly. TMI wasn’t nearly as bad, right? I mean, maybe Chernobyl was a failure of communism. Communism itself failed. How can you trust it to run a fission reaction? We were poised to regain our confidence.

And now this.

Is anyone asking the right questions? Like: How come the diesel back up generators at Fukushima only lasted 24 hours? Did they not have any gravity feed for safety injection fluid? Are six reactors in one location a good idea? Why are there any reactors located in the Rim of Fire at all? I’m just asking because we have our own Diablo Canyon to worry about.

Before we go off half nuked, maybe we need to go back and reassess the situation. Perhaps we simply need to requalify our engineers, safety inspectors, plant managers, and piping diagrams. Did the Japanese cut corners? Are we? Do we need to beef up our staffs? How fortuitous when so many of us are out of work.

We can have our nuclear power, I’m sure of it, but only if we stay vigilant and stop staff cuts. Life is complicated nowadays. We don’t just farm and eat what we grow and take care of all of our personal needs ourselves like we used to when all there was to do was work and go to church. Our needs now include gas for the SUV, manicured lawns, food from half way round the world, tickets to stadium concerts. Why not train those out of work workers in quality inspection, ANSI standards, OSHA requirement, and fission theory for chrissake. This is the 21st Century. We need to have more people involved.

Unless of course you’re ready to line your house with photovoltaics and windmills. Because what with all the iPads, Ford Escapes, and stadium concerts something’s got to give. I suppose we could go back to burning trees. But then there’s the carbon footprint problem.

Mark my words, we’re going to be jonesin’ for a little nuclear love before too long.

Sue Lange
Former employee of Palisades Nuclear Power Plant (read her satire on the subject, Zara Gets Laid, in Uncategorized, a Book View Cafe ebook).

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Spreading a Little Nuclear Love — 8 Comments

  1. My contention (after spending a year and a half working on the case as a paralegal) is that what truly killed the US nuclear program was not TMI or Chernobyl, but WPPSS. More particularly, the WPPSS bond securities default litigation. Too many banks got burned badly on that one. I sat through one of the depositions. 40 law firms there, 80 lawyers. I leave the rest of it to the reader’s imagination.

    Granted, the WPPSS nuclear plant program was waaay too ambitious for the times (cost overruns due to just-in-time designs, for one thing) and poor plant siting (Satsop, not Hanford). But the bond default pretty much guaranteed that bank financing for new plant construction was going to be a tough thing to attain.

  2. What worries me most about nuclear power is what the Japanese problem shows up: we’re still not planning well enough to handle all the problems, mostly because we don’t know as much as we think we do. The Japanese plant was supposed to be good up to an earthquake of 8.0 on the Richter scale, and apparently seismologists didn’t expect that area to get a quake even that large, much less one that went to 9.0.

    The same can be said for oil drilling — witness what BP did to the Gulf of Mexico.

    The other thing that worries me in general about energy is how much water we waste and pollute to produce it. I’ve been following the natural gas fracking in Pennsylvania and Texas, and that requires a lot of water and potentially can contaminate local water sources. Nuclear plants need a lot of water, too. Maybe because I live in the southwest, where drought is always an issue, I’m sensitive on this point, but while I love energy as much as the next modern human being, water is an absolute necessity for human survival.

    But then, given the amount of sun and wind here in Central Texas (not to mention in West Texas), we really could provide all our energy with plotovoltaics and wind turbines, and good planning could place those things so that they didn’t cause any more annoyance in the landscape than, say, cell phone towers and freeways. It would take money, though, and coal (alas for our air) and natural gas are a lot cheaper, for now.

  3. I agree that using nuclear energy is unavoidable (and perfectly fine if done with the proper safeguards), other energy methods are not clean either (the gas cracking has set faucets a-fire in West Virginia and Colorado) and water may be the crucial quasi-hidden variable. At the same time, communities in reasonably sunny parts of the world have gone off the grid based on stored solar.

    Whether NASA ever got back on track after Challenger (itself a sign of things gone wrong, because that was the first time administrators overrode engineers) is another matter.

  4. If ever there was an economic, political and labor climate in which we absolutely CANNOT trust that cutting corners and oversight and safety will be the case, it is this one.

  5. Speaking as an ex-nuke it seems clear that we need to do a serious re-appraisal after this accident. What were the basis of the reactor protection analysis? How did those assumptions compare to what was experienced? Precisely what went wrong and how could it have been avoided in the first place?

    Then, taking that data, do a formal re-examination of US nuclear plants in light of what has been learned.

    It’s all about risk-management and it’s highly technical. We need to keep our oversite agencies funded and working. Rules may pose a problem for businesses but they are there to protect the public from business interests who chose to make assumptions that are insufficiently conservative.

    Good essay. Thank you.