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Nuclear Hippie Paranoia

So here's why surfing the internet is bad: on Friday the 17th I wasted my entire day reading Defective Yeti archives. In addition to neglecting my paid work, I forgot about the public consultations going on that evening in downtown Kitchener. These consultations were being held by the Ontario government to determine whether Ontario should pursue more nuclear power.

Oy. Nuclear power. As a lapsed environmentalist, my gut says no and my brain says maybe. Deciding to build a bunch of nuclear plants is a big decision. They are expensive, Big Money projects. Economic optimists love nuclear power because, y'know, human ingenuity and all that, and also nukes generate lots of electricity with not-much uranium. In fact, lots of people who call themselves "environmentalists" support nukes wholeheartedly. They say that nuclear power is the cleanest, most reliable way to serve our energy needs.

Me? I worry -- not so much about reactor accidents, but about the huge costs and timelines associated with the technology. We're talking about stuff that stays dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. The idea of engineering safe storage for even a thousand years -- irrespective of what happens in human history during that time -- is crazy. Even 30 years (which is the first stage in Sweden's disposal plans KBS-3 is nontrivial. If the empire collapses and Sweden runs out of money, who will take care of its nuclear waste? Yes, we have smart engineers who have worked on the problem. Yes, we can bury the wastes or transmute them. What guarantees of safety can we offer against human malevolence?

I am not claiming that our disposal techniques are unsafe. I am saying that I see a lot of people taking the issue of waste disposal cavalierly. I'm glad we can get a year's worth of electricity from one reactor's worth of fuel. I am not so happy that we have to deal with fallout of our electricity for decades or centuries or millenia.

Look at Chernobyl. Yes, yes. Those wacky Soviets did a stupid thing and we will never make such a mistake again ever. That's beside the point. We still have to deal with the mistake that was made. The sarcophagus is falling apart. If it is not repaired it could fall apart, releasing all kinds of nasties across the countryside (again). The USSR fell apart. Russia and the Ukraine and Belarus are broke and corrupt. Who is going to solve this problem? Where is the money going to come from? Who has the political will? You can be sure there will be a great big outpouring of sympathy and emergency funds when the sarcophagus does break and release its poison radioactive cloud of dust, but who is solving the problem NOW? If the answer is "nobody", then why should I believe that we are responsible enough to deal with the nuclear waste we are generating now, and will continue to generate in the future?

Chernobyl happened only twenty years ago. You aren't even supposed to bring it up when discussing nuclear power, because it's passe and the pro-nuclear people will jump all over you for scaremongering. Sweden puts its waste into storage for thirty years. There's math somewhere in there.

There are other issues. Transporting the spent fuel to sites is expensive because you need to protect against accidents and attacks. Nuclear reactors don't last forever, and you have to dispose of them safely once they are no good anymore. And let's not forget that uranium is a scarce resource. If uranium becomes the new oil we can expect another level of political intrigue to protect our supplies.

Maybe the thing I like least about nuclear power is that it's so centralized. You build these reactors and put all your eggs in one basket. Since you get so much output from nuclear power people worry less about wasting electricity. We leave our lightbulbs burning and our uptimes long for no good reason.

That's not the future I want to see. I want a fuzzy-bunny future where we focus on using our electricity more wisely, and then diversifying our assets to generate electricity in many different ways. Why not lower the barriers to entry for electricity generation, and then really open up the market? We already know how to harness wind and water electricity. With some refinement we could make photovoltaics cheaper, come up with better biodiesel and biomass schemes, harness the power of lightning, use water energy that is being wasted in storm sewers now. These things are not beyond human comprehension -- we just need the will and human ingenuity. These decentralized electricity production schemes would be robust to single-point failures and would allow small groups to take ownership of their own electricity production. As new technologies come up we could incorporate them into our generation schemes, and bad ideas (PV?) would disappear.

None of that happens with nuclear generation. We don't take ownership of our electricity (so we conserve less) and we are stuck with whatever designs happen to be state-of-the-art when we build reactors -- regardless if some new and better technology comes along. How is that cool-headed pragmatism?

Unfortunately, the Ontario government can't afford to be utopian. My guess is that they will go ahead with nukes, because we need to keep those lightbulbs burning. That doesn't excuse me from surfing the Internet instead of showing up in person to voice my opinions. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

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