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Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Canticle for Fukushima

by John MacBeath Watkins

On-and-off reports that the Tokyo water supply had been contaminated with radioactive iodine have spread fear about nuclear plants. We've been through this before, with the Chernobyl nuclear plant and Three Mile Island, but those came at a time when the move to nuclear power was stalled by economic problems. This comes at a time when the nuclear industry appeared ready to pick itself off the mat.

Apparently that's not going to happen.

But the funny thing is, fiction about nuclear technology has been largely based on nuclear war, and in most cases undersold the threat of radioactive fallout. Perhaps the most famous post-apocalyptic novel is A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller. In that book, the public has reacted by attacking those whose knowledge made nuclear war possible, and only a religious order keeps a few scraps of knowledge about technology alive.

But people dying young of strange cancers is not an important part of the plot, nor is it part of most post-apocalyptic science fiction. Much of such fiction deals with that favorite trope, mutants, and with the breakdown of society, but the only one that comes to mind which deals with radiation as a central problem is Nevil Shute's On the Beach, in which Australians who know the radiation from a northern-hemisphere nuclear war will eventually kill them deal with the knowledge of their forthcoming deaths.

Shute, who was an engineer, had a better understanding of the effects of radiation than most writers. The basic problem -- that we can't protect ourselves from the fallout that would follow a nuclear war -- is perhaps more terrifying than the other scenarios, but less visually appealing, and less interesting from the standpoint of the basic question so much of science fiction deals with: What makes us human?

The tsunami associated with the Feb. 11 earthquake was the worst in more than a millennium, and it overtopped the  breakwaters and drowned the diesel generators that were supposed to provide backup power for the cooling systems of the Fukushima I and II reactors. The impact of the failure of the safeguards on those reactors has a greater impact on public perceptions than Chernobyl, because these are plants designed by General Electric and tended by Tokyo Electric Power Company under the guidance of highly regarded Japanese regulators. Chernobyl didn't even have a containment vessel: The theory seems to have been that nothing would go wrong. The Japanese plants, while not especially new, were considered to be safe designs being handled by safe and expert operators.

And of course, we should also keep in mind that while the ghostly menace of radiation is connected in our minds with Hiroshima, alternatives to nuclear power are not free of risk. Seth Godin notes that "For every person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,000 die due to coal, adjusted for the same amount of power produced..."

Not that this will make a difference to nuclear power's chances for a comeback. 

In my humble opinion, the nuclear industry was less likely to make a comeback than most people perceived. The thing that stopped its expansion was the 1982 Washington Public Power Supply default on $2.25 billion in bonds for nuclear plants that went far over budget and never generated any electricity. As long as businessmen and utilities were willing to go to bat for nuclear power, they were able to get permits and financing. Once the industry showed it couldn't build plants anywhere close to on time or on budget, financing dried up, and so did any interest in going to bat for permits.

Flash forward to the present day, and consider the economics. Fracking technology has opened up more natural gas resources, bringing down the cost of this relatively clean way of generating electricity. Although the French have had some success with standardized designs that have brought down costs, those plants don't compete in the kind of market for electricity the U.S. has. The French can raise rates as they need to so that they can pay for the plants. Even "clean" coal plants may prove more economical than nuclear plants.

The only chance nuclear had was that the government might take global warming seriously and institute either cap and trade or a carbon tax. This would have made fossil fuel plants pay for some of their external costs associated with climate change. Coal-state Democrats and the Republican Party in general were opposed to any effort to cut coal usage, so that's not going to happen.

Of course, the nuclear plants can have their own external costs. The problem of disposing of their waste remains unresolved, and my favorite solution -- pyramids that glow in the dark -- has yet to gather any adherents other than myself. The basic problem with nuclear waste, that it remains harmful for a very long time, is going to be thoroughly cemented into peoples' minds for a generation to come.

The technical problem the Fukushima plants exhibit can be solved. Some additional backup system could be built into the plants. But it's going to take a long, long time for people to forget that any system we can design can, under some circumstances, fail. That's part of the lesson of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but another lesson is that we must learn to live with technology, because going backwards can take us back to a less civilized -- and less human -- existence.


  1. FYI:

    One of the interesting things about modern nuclear power in the US is that few really understand how it works day to day, and I include in that bin most scientists and journalists who are commenting to the media on the topic. It’s kind of treated as a black box from which occasionally spews toxic goo. While not necessarily leading to incorrect assumptions, this is perhaps not the best way to look at any of our potential energy supplies if we are to make better decisions about them in the future.

    Hundreds of nuclear workers are busy every day at every reactor. What are they doing? If you look on the bookshelves you won't find much of an answer.

    I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. My novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person — as I’ve been hearing from readers.

    The novel is free online at the moment at . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments.

    Unfortunately, my media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I’m not an acknowledged “expert”. I just do the nuclear stuff for a living. And I think I have explained it well in a non-yawn-producing manner. But it’s a bit of a tree falling in a forest………

    I believe there isn’t a perfect energy solution – just options – each with their good and bad points. And we’ll make better choices about our future if we first understand our energy present.

  2. Sorry, that got stuck in my spam folder or I would have published it sooner.