Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nuclear Power: My Comment Round Up

I have been writing various responses related to nuclear power on blogs and on Facebook. So, instead of writing a detailed post trying to reconcile all of that, I'll just share what I have already written.

Claudia over at her Ashtanga Yoga blog offered a post questioning the level of panic being sparked by major media outlets about the reactors in Japan. Even though it's a very dangerous, unstable situation, I agree with her about the panic issue. Here's what I wrote:

The problem with much of this is that producing panic in the short term is just adding to the suffering already occurring. It does nothing to address the issues at hand.

It may be that what ends up happening in the next week or two isn't as terrible as the media is reporting. But with radiation, it's what happens in the next 20, 30, 40 years that really matters. People who have great financial interest in nuclear have routinely downplayed and even denied the causal links between chronic illness and death spikes that occur years after these kind of disasters.

And I for one think the truth on those issues must be put front and center. Furthermore, the truth of the completely out of whack consumption patterns of those of us in industrial/post industrial nations that leads to heavy investment in dangerous energy sources also should be front and center.

So yes, the short term panic isn't helpful, and certainly keeps people buying papers and consuming media. But I'm greatly concerned that too few of us will connect the dots between our greed driven, excessive lifestyles and the "need" for heavy reliance on destructive energy sources.

Over on Facebook, I shared a link to an article about nuclear power by the writer Norman Solomon. A friend of mine, who is in a Materials Science & Engineering grad program responded to the article with this:

Many of the problems with the current nuclear power infrastructure are not intrinsic to nuclear energy. While I agree that the current defense of nuclear energy by our leaders in response to japan's tragedy is reflexive, it is equally refl...exive to rail against the "split atom" and any attempt to harness its potential. Issues of meltdown are artifacts of a 50 year old technology that needs to be moved away from. Current technologies incorporate high temperature power limiting, which slows the reaction as temperature increases, eliminating the possibility of meltdown, which Japan is struggling to stave off. Issues of nuclear waste are bound up in States Rights and the NNPT. Right now we could very easily reduce volume of waste in the US by 90% through purification/separation and recycle nearly all purified remainder eliminating need for further mining. No system is perfect, there will always be disasters, spills, etc and harm to life is now and always will be repulsive. However, while immediately more shocking, that damage pales to the lasting damage of burning every carbonaceous scrap on this earth. We are 6 billion people on 1 planet and we need energy. We desperately need better conservation, but even then we need more energy than can be made renewably (solar, bio, wind, hydro, geothermal ...). I will take a state of the art nuclear power plant over a coal burner any day.

This issue of either nuclear or more coal/oil is a troubling one, and certainly something that needs to be considered. However, there are other, perhaps bigger issues to consider. I wrote:

I figured you'd disagree on this. I understand there are other issues involved, and that things can be done to make the whole process safer. In fact, I don't doubt that there are modern technologies being created that better facilitate the ...issues being experienced in these older reactors.

I'm also convinced the coal burner issues won't go away. Even if more nuclear ends up being available for use, people will find ways to justify continued coal use and mining. This is an issue of human greed in my opinion, maybe more so than safety.

I have stood against nuclear for my entire adult life. Maybe longer. For some reason, it's been a topic I have had interest in since at least my high school days. No one has ever presented an argument that makes it seem worth doing, and I have seen many - some much more articulate and considerate than others.

The way I see it, we humans need to learn how to live as one of the many members of this planet. We use too much of everything, and expect to be able to maintain lifestyles even our recent ancestors would drop their jaws at. There have been some great changes around issues of recycling, better technologies for vehicles and electronics and the rest, but none of it has addressed the larger issue of humans - especially in industrial/post-industrial nations - living completely out of balance with the natural world. As much as the lack of safety is an issue for me, the larger issue has always been that industrial and post industrial nations are filled with too many entitled people - us included- who have lost touch with the very planet they live on, and were born out of.

It's an issue of perception and way of being, in my view, as it is about any particular form of energy.

This is really where my Zen and yoga practices come in. As I see it, too many of us have really "wrong views" of our relationship with/to the planet that we come from. Too many of us have entirely centralized narratives telling us all the time "You are separate from the planet. It's there for your benefit. You can have anything you want if you just figure out how to use it." This is a grand, collective delusion, and until more of us start facing it together, we will continue to be spinning our wheels between poor choices like coal and nuclear power that, as they are being approached right now, are just the props of our addiction.

My father responded that if my friend wants more nuclear, he can put it in his own backyard. Now, there's plenty of worthy criticism when it comes to NIMBY arguments, but I think they are wonderful tools for talking about energy issues. I've spent lots of time in Western Pennsylvania, which is part of the eastern U.S. "coal region." I don't get the sense many folks out there love living next to coal piles and strip mines that have destroyed the land, and polluted the water supply. And many of the people who do live next to all of this are poor or barely middle class, and either relied on mining or associated industries as a source of income, or couldn't really afford to move away. And when it comes to nuclear power, especially nuclear waste, it's a similar situation, at least here in the U.S.

Finally, in response to a previous post, Petteri commented:

"We have the tech to dispose of nuclear waste, and produce nuclear power in a way that's safe and sustainable. We're not doing it. The reason is the same as why we're not producing more of our electricity from solar or wind power: it costs more."

I do think there are better technologies available now, and that some of the issues of these older nuclear reactors could be dealt with. However, I'm not convinced we are really close to actually being able to work in a fairly "safe" way with nuclear energy. The levels of human hubris are, like the radiation in Japan, too high as far as I'm concerned.

I have heard plenty of people say we have the tech to deal with waste, but I honestly don't believe it. Too much money is tied up in nuclear - it's a huge cash cow. And I'm convinced that greed is driving some of that sustainability talk.

As for solar, wind power, and the rest. Unlike nuclear, coal, oil - all of which have had decades of government financial underwriting in many nations, and corporate focus - wind, solar, and others have really not be financially supported.

I don't think nuclear is a black and white issue. It's possible that someday, it could be harnessed and dealt with in a safe way. But I'm absolutely convinced that worldwide, we still haven't really moved to put the majority of our eggs in the box of things like solar, geothermal, wind power. And until those forms are given the heft that oil, coal, and nuclear currently have, we'll never know if they are truly viable or not.

So, there's a somewhat wide-ranging discussion of all of this. Last night, I realized that I have had an eye on the power and threat of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons ever since I was a kid seeing images of Chernobyl. I was 10 years old when that happened, just old enough to realize how awful what happened there was. And I guess that sparked an interest that, for example, led me to fall in love with the writing of Buddhist and environmental activist Joanna Macy. Her work around issues of nuclear energy has certainly influenced my own views.

I'd like to conclude by saying I honestly don't know what the collective path to a healthier relationship with the planet is. I believe that some shift in consciousness and action in that direction has already begun, despite the continued greed, views of separation, and disasterous mistakes. But what I do know is that it cannot stay at the level of debating energy sources, light bulbs, and recycling tactics. That's all useful to some degree, but without a larger shift in consciousness, it's just moving shells around within the frame of the same old game.

So, while we offer our prayers, donations, and metta to the people in Japan, lets consider the bigger picture questions - and lets be willing to hold them, day after day. To give them our attention, even if the answers never come in our lifetimes.


Anonymous said...

The estimates for deaths from Chernobyl are from a few thousand to over 700,000 over the years. A high price I think for cheap electricity.

Brikoleur said...

Something that's always puzzled me about the categorically-no-nukes crowd: why single out nukes? Why don't I see anywhere near the same passion about coal and oil than nukes? Private automobiles? Suburban sprawl? Biodiversity? Depletion of fisheries? Desertification?

I get what you're saying about us needing a radical change in our relationship to the planet. However, I don't see how you get from that to nukes. What you're talking about there are consumption, value, and lifestyle choices – things we do and value as individuals. Nukes are a production choice: how we produce something we want to consume.

There are only three things I can think of that give rise to this kinds of passions: veganism, fur farming, and nukes. From where I'm at, none of these are exactly rational, and the passion is nowhere near proportionate to the real importance of any of these things.

Nathan said...

Petteri - I've been outspoken about all of the issues you mention. Maybe not every one of them on this blog, but certainly I have written here about cars, suburban sprawl, oil and coal, and the general way cities/suburbs are built. I can even think of a few posts talking about the loss of species diversity.

I have also never owned a car, which has been a sacrifice in a region that could give two shits about intelligent public transit options, and building cities where people can move around fairly easily without cars.

Now, I know you said crowd, but if you're adding me into that crowd, I certainly don't fit the single issue view. And actually, I don't think that's a fair assessment of many people who are against nuclear energy, at least those I personally know or whom I have read about.

"Nukes are a production choice: how we produce something we want to consume."

Perhaps if we had a more right relationship with the planet, we might not need so much energy to produce shit we don't need to consume in the first place.

So, you think I'm just being irrational here in linking nuclear power to our relationship with the planet, eh?

I'm a little too irritated about all of this to write anymore right now.

But I find arguments that suggest that anyone who has a strong emotional response to a subject - even if that response is tied to thoughtful back up information - are just being irrational and have no credibility - I find these arguments abusive. They're a great way to shut down conversations, and dismiss those who aren't ultra cool and rational all the time.

People get too passionate about all kinds of issues, but often they are right on about at least some of what they are saying and doing.

How about all those passionate, pissed off people in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya? Or Wisconsin, which isn't as dramatic and urgent of a situation, but still?

I personally think being too rational about critical issues is one of the roads that has historically lead to hells.

Brikoleur said...

Nathan, I wrote another of my long-ass replies to this, but given that you already said that you've listened to such arguments your entire adult life and they've failed to budge you, I don't think there's much point in putting you through another one. It would only annoy both of us.

I know you walk the walk, and I have a tremendous respect for that. I think it's better to leave it at that.

minddeep said...

Thank you Nathan, thank you Petteri. You two are highly intelligent, good-hearted men, and I very much appreciate both of your points of view. Where I am at this point, is wishing wholeheartedly that a critical mass is going to wake up and support educated decisions regarding the future of our world. Things like, population control, weaning from coal, in favor of optimal combination of renewable energies and yes, also nuclear if absolutely necessary, banning GMOs, discouraging meat consumption, taxing fuels and car transportation, encouraging public transportation, etc . . .

Unknown said...

thanks for wading into a difficult debate in the first place. I think it's hard to think clearly in all of this when so much emotive stuff is happening in a very RIGHT NOW sense in Japan.

You will notice on our map that Australia is nuclear power station free - but even here the debate still rages.

Nathan said...


I hope that you all in Australia are able to find other solutions. It's really a hell of a burden to have so many nuclear plants to deal with, especially when many are out of date, and growing more dangerous by the minute.


Claudia said...

Nathan thanks for the link and your thoughtfull article, there is a lot here, and yes we all need to pay attention, pay more attention do our part. You know? looking at your map I started wondering about the powerplants in non-developed countries, say, India.

Japan has had no loittering during the catastrophe, which is almost a miracle, what would happen in a country where resources are not so fast.. it worries me a bit... I hope this tragedy as bad as it is, serves as a wake up call, I hope we all, like you suggest, pay more attention.

Nathan said...

Good point Claudia. Japan is well networked. People can get around pretty quickly, even under these kinds of conditions. In fact, even much of the U.S. is behind in terms of mobility possibilities in the case of a disaster. We saw it in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina. Those who were poor, without access to cars, were basically screwed. It would easily be worse somewhere with even less options.