Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear Reactors: Full Speed Ahead

Amid all the horrors engulfing Japan (and the rest of the world as it watches in fear and trembling) not only via the earthquake and tsunami, but also via the possibility, increasing hourly, of one or more nuclear meltdowns, it is “encouraging” to note that some intrepid Americans are undaunted. Today, for example, that great representative from Texas, Joe Barton, was badgering Energy Secretary Stephen Chu in a hearing before his Energy and Commerce Committee. Barton—who some may remember as the “bright light” who apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward: “I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong is subject to some sort of political pressure that is again in my words amounts to a ‘shakedown’ so I apologize” (seriously, those are the words he used) and who, it was later revealed, has received some $1,330,160 in “oil money” during his career—kept asking Chu if the Obama administration’s earlier promise to push for the building of more nuclear plants in the U.S. by providing loan guarantees of $56 billion still held. Chu answered in a complex way, and Barton persisted: “Is that a “yes?” Chu danced a bit more, but then answered, “Yes.” Barton then asked a further question amounting to the same thing, and this time got a prompt “Yes” from Chu. “Ah, you’re learning,” chortled the chairman; for he had the answer he wanted. The United States was not going to be deterred by a little meltdown in Japan, or by the rising panic among the world’s peoples about all the nuclear power plants that could spew radiation in unforeseeable directions due to unforeseeable accidents, or the minor problem of what to do with all that spent fuel lasting millennia. Hell no! Energy is needed, plutonium is needed, and real men like Barton aren’t afraid of what a little radiation does to the human body (nor, it seems, is the Obama administration), so it’s full speed ahead.

So here we are. The Japanese are running out of options to cool down these out-of-control nuclear reactors. They’ve been pumping sea water, probably using fire trucks in tandem to get enough pressure to pump the water onto the fuel rods, or replace the evaporating water from the pools storing spent rods still generating radioactive materials and heat, but they’re running out of fuel to keep the fire engines running. Worse, they’ve just this morning had to allow the skeleton crew (no pun intended) of 50 workers or so to take a break because the radiation levels were getting too high even for these sacrificial lambs. Meantime, the temperature in these reactors keeps rising inexorably. 2500 degrees. 3000 degrees. It’s hell on earth.

Herein lies the crux of the matter. Nuclear fission creates heat. So does just the normal process of radioactive decay of the materials that are used in the fuel rods (i.e. even after the reactor is shut down). The geniuses who designed this technology figured that all they’d have to do was keep the process cool with water. Keep circulating water to cool the fuel rods and all would be fine. But all isn’t fine. Electricity to pump the water fails. Generators to replace the electricity are stored in the basement and a tsunami floods the basement and disables the generators. Then sea water gets pumped in, but that also has its limits. Helicopters are called in to dump sea water into the blown-apart reactors (the explosion caused by the steam created by water on hot rods, and the release of hydrogen which blows up), but the radiation is too high for the helicopter pilots to fly over the reactors. In short, the breakdown and remedial measures amount to a chain reaction that mimics the chain reaction that creates nuclear energy (and bombs) in the first place.

This hellish, impossible-to-control technology is the reason that governments, like the Obama administration, have to guarantee the loans needed to build these reactors. Investors on Wall Street want no part of this stuff. Banks won’t take the risk on their own. And why? Because the whole process is too hazardous, too fraught with potential disasters: Three Mile Island; Chernobyl; and now Fukushima. So whose money is going to fill the gap? Why, yours and mine, courtesy of the United States government, which pledges that if anything goes wrong (and how could it not go wrong eventually?), the federal government will pay off whatever loans or costs have accrued. And they are huge. Because though it seems “free,” this is expensive technology. And the only entity willing to take the risk by subsidizing it is the government. Reminds us of that other huge risk the government provides welfare checks for: war, the insanely expensive machines of war.

But will the world backtrack from its insane nuclear gamble? Hell no. We need war; we need energy. And so we get Joe Barton, that dimwit who considers global warming natural,

I believe that Earth’s climate is changing, but I think it’s changing for natural reasons. And I think mankind has been adopting, or adapting, to climate as long as man has walked the Earth…Adaptation is the practical, affordable, utterly natural reflex response to nature when the planet is heating or cooling, as it always is.

Global warming? Just adapt, says Joe. Nuclear meltdowns? Just adapt. And the Obama administration, in the face of pressure from the likes of Barton, has to demonstrate its courage even in the face of planetary disaster. It’s what we elect these big boys for, after all: Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead.

Lawrence DiStasi

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