I have been reading James Mahaffey’s Atomic Accidents, an account of failures of nuclear technology. This is merging in my mind with responses to climate change, which are now desperately needed.
For a long time, my position on nuclear power has been that it would be an excellent technology if we could find saints and angels to run the system. Lacking a supply of those, we had probably best solve our energy problems in another way. This book, if anything, confirms me in that position. But time is running out to avert planetary disaster from climate change and nuclear power does not contribute to global climate change. Perhaps it is time to rethink nuclear power.
1. On the safety of nuclear power technology
Mahaffey is a long-time researcher and engineer. He advocates the use of nuclear power and regards the book as a defense of the technology, pointing out that all large-scale power generation systems are subject to deadly failures. This is true, and yet nuclear technology is different.
For people who do not know the issues here, I will review some of the facts, both good and bad.
First, it is fairly hard to create a nuclear bomb; reactors designed to generate power cannot spontaneously turn into nuclear bombs.
However, reactor failures have produced some of the most spectacular furnace and boiler explosions in history. At Chernobyl, poor design and operational decisions led to the vaporization of much of an entire reactor core. This speaks to my concern about personnel. It is easy to feel superior to the Soviet engineers and operators, who made many poor decisions. Mahaffey rightly points out that Soviet authoritarianism made matters much, much worse in Chernobyl, and I wonder about deaths in North Korea’s nuclear programs. But the relentless cost-cutting of Western designers and operators in capitalist economies carry their own risks.
The dangers of radioactivity are to some extent overrated. Responses to exposure are variable, and sometimes simple steps can prevent major injury. Yet almost no-one knows those steps, so people exposed are apt to make deadly mistakes. Even trained, knowledgeable people sometimes get it wrong.
Anyone who works with electricity knows that, with the best will in the world, with training, with careful safety codes and component engineering, people will sometimes forget or, worse, say “hold my beer” and injure or kill themselves. These problems are even worse with nuclear power, where the dangers lurk in places we do not imagine. When it comes to nuclear power, our intuitions are wildly wrong. I am reminded of Algis Budrys’s 1950s science fiction novel Rogue Moon, where a complex alien installation of unknown purpose on the far side of the moon consistently kills people who make wrong moves. There are many deaths as the installation is studied and mapped.
Nuclear fuel kills in that way. The shape of nuclear fuel influences its reactivity, in contrast with anything of our familiar experience. Simply pouring fuel-containing liquid from the standard long, thin storage tube into a fatter conventional tank can lead to a spontaneous nuclear reaction (“criticality event”) and deaths. (And don’t even think about organizing those long, thin tubes in a neat close-packed array. That is a nuclear reactor.) On top of which most elemental nuclear fuels are pyrophoric; they catch fire on contact with air, combining the dangers of nuclear accident with those of chemical accident.
Human error enters into nuclear disasters in another way: a number of major disasters could have been prevented if operators allowed automated shutdown mechanisms to operate. We are not as smart as we think we are.
Common power reactor designs are based on light water technology. These are scaled up from relatively safe naval designs. Unfortunately, in scaling them up they become both more dangerous and harder to manage. Safer designs have been proposed but, for reasons of cost, have not been pursued. Experimentation is in any event difficult, and here we come to a social problem of the West which Mahaffey only touches on: success in this area consistently requires both good management, and a willingness to spend what is necessary. Capitalist design and operation of nuclear power generators is risky; safe use of nuclear power requires a social commitment of resources, something nearly impossible in any extant economy.
Finally, I will briefly point out that Mahaffey does not even address the potential ecological risks of nuclear contamination. Credible research on the impact of the Chernobyl reactor explosion indicates long-term ecological harm. If we continue to use nuclear energy in a careless way, there will be more harm.
The bottom line seems to be that we may be able to use nuclear power safely if we become competent socialists.
We are on the edge of planetary disaster. Opposition to the use of nuclear power and yet rising demands for energy has led the world to embrace fossil fuel electrical generation. This cannot be sustained; it is already changing the earth’s climate. Yet we can hardly say to the world’s people that they must accept widespread poverty.
Our environmental problems can in time be solved but time is what we do not have. We have dawdled, and we have perhaps 15 years to act.
I have been an alternative energy researcher, and alternative energy has something to offer these problems, but I do not see how we are to deploy any alternative energy technology quickly enough to save us. What safe nuclear power, deployed widely, might be able to do for us is buy time, time to reduce our population to a reasonable level, time to raise the world out of poverty so that our birth rate falls, time to mitigate the damage of climate change. Despite the risks, it is time to consider nuclear power again.
This will require discipline which is not characteristic of our civilizations. The so-called “green revolution,” hyper-intensive technological farming, was intended as a stopgap measure. Instead it has become permanent, and aggravated the problems of environmental degradation, enabling our population to grow even further. Deployment of nuclear power to mitigate climate change could easily follow a similar path. If humans on earth are to have a future, we must not simply swap one potential disaster for another.
I have no conclusions. Nuclear power could save the world from global warming. It might also poison the world, or simply enable continued environmental destruction. I do not know which. What do you think?