Perhaps our prayers have prevented a full melt down at Japan's nuclear plants, but one thing is for sure - Man's illusion of playing God or at least having control over our planet's environment, evaporated as the first plant exploded and then the other.
You may now say the previous paragraph was a rash statement. After all, nuclear power is safe, right? Please allow me to substantiate why I stand by those words:
In 1979 I interned with an Environmental Company that was conducting several studies at a new nuclear power plant that had yet to start operations. These studies were to have results "before" operating so they can be compared to "after" starting up. The plant to this day has never operated to create energy from nuclear power, but that is another story.
My first visit to this nuclear power plant while under construction included a brief tour. At the front gate was a tower, it reminded me on the towers in the old television show call Hogan's Heroes. I was told there was a guard with a machine gun in the tower and remember this was 1979, not post world 2001.
This nuclear power plant was reported to have a long operating life of forty years. A plant engineer told that to me very proudly. I eventually asked that engineer two questions. The first was, "What occurs after forty years, reconditioning of the reactor or replacement?" The answer depended on different variables. If necessary, the contaminated core could be sealed up and the plant would be closed down. Welcome to the real world of making money today, leaving major problems for tomorrow. How fast is forty years? Well if this plant did open, today it would be about 9 years away from its expected life span expiring.
The second and last question I was able to ask was, "What are you going to do with forty years of radioactive waste?" This time I remember the answer having a smug overtone. I was told that the first twenty years of waste was going to be buried right there on the property by the nuclear power plant. I thought to myself, not far from a fairly large body of water and not far "above" the domestic drinking water table. I was then informed that the second twenty years of radioactive waste would be shipped to a facility in another state and buried within a mountain. Additionally, I was told shipping the waste out of state would not be necessary, because in twenty years we will have the technology to breakdown the radioactive waste to harmless levels.
My response caused my brief tour to end abruptly. I had spoken words similar to the following, "Oh really, it takes Mother Nature over 5,000 years to complete one half-life* of certain radioactive waste and the stuff can still kill us, but we are going to figure all that out in twenty years?"
*One half-life is the amount of time for the atoms, that are radioactive, to disintegrate to half of their original radioactive level.
Also please refer to an article I wrote ten years ago called: A U.S. Energy Plan
Here we are some 32 years later and science is not one step closer to knowing how to breakdown radioactive waste to a safe level for humans. So in about 9 years if that nuclear plant operated, we would have bequeath to the human race and our planet, 40 years of radioactive waste. Twenty years buried in the back yard of almost one million people. Another twenty years being shipped, some how, through New York City.
Now this is the concerning part. That line the engineer tried to sell me 32 years ago, is being used again by a "few" politicians and people in the nuclear industry. I personally was told this line again by a young, want-to-be-a-politician. When I heard, "In twenty years we will have the technology to make radioactive waste safe" my mouth dropped open.
Because of this complacency presented to me 32 years ago and the naive beliefs presented today, I do not believe that I made any rash statement. So the question that begged to be asked then and now is:
What are you going to do with the waste?
Also how can we be sure the containment packages for the waste will not fail? How can we be sure the stored waste is secured not just from nature, but man himself?
Nevertheless, let us continue to examine additional sources of knowledge:
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster started in April of 1986. I say started, because many believe the rippling effects have yet to cease. Most of Western Russia and Europe had radioactive contamination of their atmosphere. The Soviet economy was paralyzed by the war they had to fight with 500,000 workers in order to contain this catastrophe. The evacuation of people continued from 1986 to 2000. To date about 350,400 people had to get up and leave their lives, knowing they and their children's children would never return. Arguments will continue for decades about how many lives were lost or cut short as a result of radioactive contamination. One Russian publication on Chernobyl stated that 985,000 excess deaths*** happened from 1986 to 2004.
***UPDATE: The word "excess" was used and is always questionable. Especially now that reports from the UN, WHO and several other organizations state the death toll directly related to this disaster is less than 100 people. Of course, just one death is a horror. Additionally reports from 2006, state a debatable number of 16,000 deaths could be realized over time for the entire continent of Europe. In 2020, thank God, this number has yet to be realized.
As of 2020, significant improvements and changes have been made in waste storage and new 4th generation nuclear plants will have less waste and reuse old waste. My concerns were always about the waste because we were building the cheaper boiling-water reactors that produce more waste than a pressurized-water reactor. Sadly, when a new reactor that had far less waste and was proven to prevent the same kind of disaster at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the Clinton administration in the 1990s ended the program and killed the budget. So due to lies by the process of omission and politics, the newest and safe generation nuclear reactor was Axed. This Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) achieved safe, efficient, and low-waste nuclear energy, but the truth was of no concern to our political leaders at that time, just the tide of popular misinformation.
From this disaster the country of Italy made a decision to shut down all of their nuclear power plants and they did. Within years they made up for the difference in power with wind turbines and solar. Then prior to Japan's ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Italy had a committee begin to explore the possibility of using nuclear power again. Within days of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants exploding, the decision for Italy's nuclear future was made. There will be no nuclear power in Italy, they will find a better way.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant catastrophe is truly a slow-moving nightmare. Today's news reports claim that Japan will be dealing with this nuclear leak for decades and the radiation contamination will continue well beyond.
A mother of a 32 year old worker at the Fukushima Daiichi facility spoke to reporters while crying. Her son and his fellow workers accept that some of them will probably die from radiation sickness within a few weeks. They accept this in hopes to save the lives of others and their nation.
Now as all this is occurring, I have to endure radio commercials from owners of nuclear power plants. I say endure because of the way the words in the commercial are spun. Words like, "Our nuclear power plant was built to withstand an earthquake 100 times more than strongest earthquake in this area". Saying 100 times more, does not mean much because the Richter Scale indicates a tenfold increase between whole-numbers. A level 6 earthquake is ten times greater than a level 5 earthquake. The difference between a level 7 and a level 9 earthquake increases 100 times. So if the strongest earthquake recorded in the area is a 5.2, and then a level 8.5 earthquake hits, you are well beyond the "100 times stronger than" statement in that commercial.
So who is being rash? Who is playing the odds with people's lives and our planet's ability to support our lives. Using oil or coal fired plants are not a solution. We are better than this nuclear risk, because we already have the technology such as Hydrogen Fuel Cells from our space program. We just have to make them readily available. When the price to pay for nuclear power includes our own lives and our planet's ability to support us, then it is time to find another way. If America doesn't, Japan will. As Japan comes through this disaster, they will shut down all their nuclear power plants. Today from the United States, the world's largest concrete pump truck is being flown to Japan on the world's largest cargo plane from Russia. Eventually these nuclear power plants will be entombed with concrete, like in Chernobyl. Japan will entombed the Fukushima Daiichi facility and it will stand as another monument in that country for the destructive force from mankind, not nature. The entombment will stand for man's short term solutions and long term consequences. Then Japan will be reputed by producing fuel cells that run from H2O (water) on demand for safety and don't need transmission lines. All starting from the very technology America has been using on our Space Shuttles since 1981.
So the question once again, as I stated ten years ago in my article: A U.S. Energy Plan, Who in our country is bold enough to start a monumental effort that will embrace all these facts, evaluate them and implement the best long term solution for all of the people today as well as for our tomorrows? If America keeps walking down the same bumpy road, instead of finding another way, I just pray there isn't a cliff at the end of that bumpy road.
Updated Blog Post - Article on EnergyHotwire.com to GoingTrueGreen.com Blog
Bill Lauto, at GoingTrueGreen.com
International Sustainability and Energy Consultant
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