Behold the power of the atom

>> Thursday, March 05, 2009

Over on Slate, Timothy Noah observes that the Obama administration has effectively killed the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Mr. Noah deems this a good thing; I can't agree one bit, although it seems perverse that I can't criticize the President for doing what was necessary and unfortunately inevitable.

The problem is that the most radioactive thing about Yucca Mountain was always the politics. Even the repository's "advocate" in the last Presidential election cycle, Senator John McCain, said he'd go through with the project at the same time "he would never permit transport of nuclear waste through his home state of Arizona en route to Nevada"--the waste repository being necessary and good, it would seem, so long as nobody had to drive past his house to get there. That is, Yucca Mountain is the essence of NIMBY politics: even the most ardent advocate of nuclear power is liable to blanch at the thought of spent reactor rods being driven past his front door or buried in his back yard, and of course those waste products have to end up somewhere. (I will confess that even I, who thinks that nuclear power is a better option than coal or oil and a more accessible option in the short term than solar or wind, would have to take a deep breath before agreeing that you could put radioactive waste in the ground near my home, and I would need reassurances about the amounts and how it was being stored, etc.)

The reality, too, is that this isn't really a partisan issue. It looks vaguely like one because we don't really have what I'd call a proper, old-school conservation movement founded on striking some reasonable balance between preservation and use with a focus on sustainability and the idea that certain resources are a part of a public trust, i.e. if they are to be used, they are to be used for the benefit of the People and not the profit of private, corporate interests. What we have, really, is a shrill and fruitless debate between environmentalists who advocate no use and, for want of a better and less-charged word, exploitationists. Perversely, at the extremes both sides share in common a result: nobody will actually enjoy or draw any benefit from the natural world either because doing so would violate its pristine quality or because it simply won't exist after some corporation has raped it to death. These "sides" tend to simplistically be lumped in with the left (environmentalists) and right (exploitationists), despite the fact that there are those on the left and right who, if they did join an environmental movement, it would be that all-but-defunct traditional conservation movement I mentioned in the second sentence of this paragraph.

But, getting back to the point, the Yucca Mountain repository was never really a partisan issue: it looked like one because environmentalists opposed to the project mostly stack up on the left and those who supported it mostly stack up on the right (and some supporters, I suspect, did so solely as a knee-jerk reaction to "tree-hugging lefties," not because they actually have given any thoughts to the practicalities, advantages, and difficulties with nuclear energy). Really, Yucca Mountain was a fear issue: there is no doubt in my mind that if Yucca Mountain had been located in Arizona, Mr. McCain would have found his greener, backpacking, save our Earth, think of the children side. And there was not exactly a long list of state lawmakers lining up to beg for tons of nuclear waste to arrive in their hometown; indeed, Senator McCain's "not on my roads" position is not the least bit unique to him, and is shared by any number of governors, senators, representatives, mayors, etc. of all political stripes. (Indeed, let us take this as appropriate a time as any to note that in 2002, when the Governor of Nevada was obligated to file any objections to Yucca Mountain's startup, the Republican Governor at the time, Kenny Guinn, did so.)

Even if McCain had somehow been elected in the face of history, I think Mr. Noah is correct that Nevada's Senator Henry Reid would be fighting him tooth and nail, and I have little doubt he'd have the backing of Nevada's current Republican Governor, Jim Gibbons. There would doubtlessly be Republicans lining up on the pro-nukes side; the farther from Nevada, the more staunch the support.

All of which is to say that I think the President's actions have a certain inevitability to them. This is less about policy than it is about political realities, stemming a drama that only unfolded as far as it did because the previous presidency was insular and remarkably unconcerned with domestic politics or popular opinion (really, when your approval rating is stuck in the low twenties, how much of a liability is several million tons of radioactive sludge?).

Unfortunately, this bowing to the political reality doesn't address the real underlying problem: we have an insatiable and growing demand for energy, we cannot afford to continue adding CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the environment, nor can we afford the other environmental and political consequences of prying millions of tons of carcinogenic, teratogenic hydrocarbons from the ground, buying and selling them on an international market dominated by national and corporate thugs, bullies, blackmailers and terrorists, and then shipping them across oceans and overland at such cost and risk. Hydrocarbon fuels are, at this point in the game, A Very Bad Idea, and very 19th Century, too--and not merely because there's something primitive and Dickensian about burning coal; the economic and geopolitical math of fossil fuels makes far more sense in a colonialist and imperial world order than it does in an age of many independent nations.

Nuclear energy is at least a short-term solution. It ought to be self-evident that there are preferable forms of generating power: if reality isn't a restraint, by all means let us have a ring of solar satellites transmitting microwaves to Earth-based collector stations tomorrow. Also, please, may I have a pony? But even modest forms of green energy have their limits at present, and will take time to deploy. And we must also note that nothing is free: there may be forms of relatively green energy, such as tidal farms, that will put some imposition on the environment in exchange for efficiency and a low-carbon footprint.

France and Japan produce a large percentage of their energy via nuclear power, and with a safe operational record. And there are frontiers in nuclear power that show enormous promise: e.g. pebble bed reactors promise a great deal of safety and stability over many current designs. But going down this road means some effort has to be made to rehabilitate nuclear's reputation, to put accidents like Three-Mile Island into perspective and recognizing that Chernobyl was a consequence of bad design and human error, not a testament to some inherent danger of the atom.

Given that the public discourse on such things seems to be between people who endanger lives by spiking trees and people evidently incapable of forming a thought more nuanced than the ridiculously moronic "Drill, baby, drill," I suspect we have many more years of burning dead dinosaurs ahead of us. So the evil atom won't be getting any of us. Nunavut may be the breadbasket of the world, the next President of Russia may have your balls and the President of Iran your soul in hock, and we may all be living one hundred miles further inland than we used to while we constantly bitch about the damn heat....

But the evil atom won't be getting any of us.


3 comments:

John the Scientist Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 12:26:00 AM EST  

Dude, atomic energy has no chance at all. The MRI you get at the hospital? The real, scientific name of the instrument is NMR - Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

But the docs found no one wanted to go to anyplace for anything "nuclear"-related, despite the fact that the nuclei in question were in the water molecules in their own bodies.

So they took the "magnetic" part, because magnets are cool, right? Nothing scary an nu-cu-lar 'bout that.

Rationality is precious because it's so rare.

vince Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 11:57:00 AM EST  

Finally, a reasonable analysis. Nuclear energy plant design has changed a lot in the last 20 years, and while they have drawbacks, the most dangerous part of them are the human beings involved in the day-to-day operation.

I support alternative methods of generating electricity, such as solar and wind. But they have their limitations as well, especially when it comes to providing consistent power if they are the primary source. Wind needs bigger and much faster responding batteries, for example.

In my opinion, nuclear power plants are far superior, environmentally speaking, than coal fired plnts, based on what I've read.

Leanright,  Monday, March 9, 2009 at 1:25:00 PM EDT  

I can think of no other place more appropriate for Nuclear Sludge, than the Nevada Desert. Anyone who have ever driven through that part of our country would understand :)

That also goes for much of Arizona.

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