Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): No such file or directory in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): A link to the server could not be established in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): No such file or directory in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): A link to the server could not be established in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): No such file or directory in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): A link to the server could not be established in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): No such file or directory in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): A link to the server could not be established in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): No such file or directory in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): A link to the server could not be established in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): No such file or directory in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786

Warning: mysql_real_escape_string(): A link to the server could not be established in /home/lukeodom/otherbrothersteve.com/wp-content/plugins/statpress-reloaded/statpress.php on line 1786
A View from the Altar / The nuclear tragedy of Japan
Skip to content

The nuclear tragedy of Japan

The nuclear power aspects of the unfolding tragedy in Japan highlight basic issues about modern living.  First among these is that modern living is no longer a lifestyle choice, and we need to think through how we got here.

How luxuries became necessities

When society reached the point where most people had cars, everyone wanted zoning laws to keep commercial businesses and industry out of our residential neighborhoods.   Presto, we all became dependent on cars and mass transit.  With housing and work now kept by law at a distance, very few Americans can actually walk to a grocery store and back.  Undoing this situation would take literally decades and would strand trillions of dollars in buildings, roads, and other investments.   Modern living made us dependent on living modern.

Repeat this scenario through every major, life-changing advance in technology.

For example, when electric power became one of the invisible, background features of modern life, everyone plugged in and assumed it would be there.   Now the societal “reach” of electricity has grown beyond description, more than any other modern invention.   No major industry in America can actually function without reliable electric power supplies.   Just think about the most basic functional requirements: Your office or store can’t run without it. Traffic cannot be managed without it. Gasoline and diesel refineries cannot run without electric power.  You can’t cook food or wash clothes without it.

The depth of our necessity

Your city can’t furnish drinking water without electricity.  Your family likely doesn’t keep a lot of sacks of dried grain or a year’s inventory of canned goods like your great-great grandparents did.   Truth is, most commercially prepared foods in low-rent metal cans don’t last that long anyhow.   No, in the interest of food quality we tend to keep stuff in the freezer and depend on fresh supplies weekly to keep things going.  We get these from grocery stores which have huge refrigeration units, and they’re supplied the same way from warehouses with even bigger coolers.  Publix and Safeway don’t have mechanical cash registers.  They have laser scanners.  Try using those when the lights are out.

Banking depends on the internet which, in turn, depends on electric power.  You can’t use a credit card or operate an ATM without power.  You couldn’t fill up your car without a credit card reader and electric pumps at the station.  Virtually nothing in your home will work without electric power from the hot water heater to the fridge to the stove.  Even your wireless home phone needs power.  Your cell phone won’t go more than a day without a charger, and even the cell phone tower and central computer system needs juice after the backup generators are out of fuel.

All this depends on giant quantities of electric power — power on a scale the general public is ill-equipped to comprehend — gigantic, staggering, stupendous power, hundreds of millions of horsepower that are cranking 24/7 for year after year after year.  That’s what the power companies are doing all the time.

Doomsday scenario when the country goes dark

The Republic of Texas recently experienced a blackout because they’ve let their power system get too dependent on natural gas and wind power.  In the past, utilities jealously protected their regional fuel mix.  Texas lost sight of that and suffered the consequences.  But the rest of the country is in the process of doing that too.  We can’t build coal plants because of environmental strangulation, and we can’t build nukes because of political enervation.  Wind and solar are ridiculously too small.  So gas-fired generators are all the utilities can build, and the country is rushing headlong into a massive over-reliance on natural gas.  Eventually we’ll become nationally vulnerable to a repeat of the Texas regional problem.

Imagine a scenario, a summer heat wave, for instance, in which cascading faults made the whole country went dark.  Nobody really knows how long it would take for the whole grid to perform a total black start.  Some experts have said it would take years.  Personally, I think it might only be a few months based on utility response to disasters.  People would be straining all their creativity to get the first few plants up (likely hydro plants and certain nuclear plants), and these would provide the wherewithal to get the rest running.

Let’s be optimistic and say that we’d be only 90 days in the dark.  During that time, America could not refine gasoline or pump it into your car, could not transport, store, or sell food, could not conduct commerce except face-to-face cash transactions or barters, could not run the internet, could not turn on a computer, could not run telephone networks after their back power supplies ran out of gas, could not keep emergency generators going for hospitals and maybe not even for our 100-odd nuclear plants which would put us in the same situation the Japanese plants confronted.  We could not turn the ponderous wheels of government or really do much of anything.   America without electric power would in 24 hours be driven to her utmost extremity just to stay alive for the next 24.   We would be starving and thirsty in the dark.

As Robinson Jeffers said, the purse seine has closed about us.  Modern living has made us dependent on living modern.  There is no point in pretending we are not trapped by our technology.  We are trapped, all 310 million of us.  Even the tough survivalist blowhard with a sack of dried beans and a bazooka to defend them, yes, he is in the same fix as the rest of us.

The ugly cost of our pleasant new necessities

Consider the social cost of transportation.  It is an appallingly expensive Faustian bargain.   Traffic accidents claim about 40,000 American lives per year.   In the past 50 years, that’s about two million lives lost to the convenience — now become a necessity — of having a car.  We have no idea how many paraplegics we have made.

I picked a 50-year time frame because that’s about how long the commercial nuclear power business has existed in the United States.   In that much time, not one member of the American public has ever gotten sick or died from radiation emitted by a USA-designed commercial reactor.   That’s actually a stunning record of safety, one that is unparalleled by any similar, large-scale technology of any kind.   Pick your industry; I don’t care what it is, and I’ll just about guarantee you it’s cost more lives than commercial nuclear power.

Now that safety record is being challenged in Japan and could result in lost lives if things go badly. Each life is a personal tragedy, and I am by no means minimizing that.

But it’s important to realize that the lives threatened amidst Japan’s emerging nuclear calamity are no more or less significant than the lives that were lost just by living too close to the sea or by driving cars.  The mere fact of modern living requires us to balance individual risk against public need.  Transportation has been judged such a pressing public need that we’re willing to accept millions of untimely deaths to secure the benefit.  In America, about 6000 people per year die in falls from ladders, and accidental electrocutions claim about 1000 lives per year.   Again, society knows all this but accepts the cost because of the public benefit.  We have said electricity is worth the deaths of a thousand of our countrymen every year.

Where to go from here

In the days to come, the nuclear power industry will be under harsh and disapproving scrutiny.  Already there are “experts” claiming they said all along this would happen and will happen again.  But we must remember that there is no risk-free way to live, and modern living has made us dependent on living modern.  Doing without electricity would cause the biggest loss of life of all.

What’s needed, therefore, is for public leaders to rebuff the notion that risk can be eliminated.  The fact is, risk can only be managed.  Genuine leadership requires clear thinking, and coolly recognizing what the facts are, then persuading the public to deal rationally with the facts as they are.  Neither America nor Japan is in a position to suddenly pull the plug on nuclear power.  France depends on nukes for about 80 percent of its power.  Nuclear power just isn’t going away any time soon.

Our attention, then, needs to be turned toward getting the maximum benefit from the lessons learned and making the technology even safer.  Maybe some future breakthrough in solar power conversion or energy storage will make coal and nuclear generation obsolete.  Until it does, we have to face the reality that burning coal and splitting uranium are just given features of the modern world and work at making them better.  For the Japanese, what was actually the bigger danger, living next to a nuclear plant or living by the sea?  And while you’re thinking about that, look at your car, your ladder, your electrical outlet, maybe your house near the ocean, and put things into perspective.

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *
*
*