Monday, February 07, 2005

The Gamma Cathedral

Discussions on the timescale for building a new set of nuclear reactors to power the future in lieu of oil led me to ponder timescales relating to our existing, shoddy, nuclear infrastructure.

Before we hit 2020, we had better have cleaned up our nuclear mess. Our peak energy strategy should be to make any new nuclear reactors contingent on same. I know many of us won’t be happy to hear this, but it is highly likely that all available uranium will be used somewhere and converted into nuclear waste as we prop up our civilization of cars and toasters.

One issue is nuclear waste. This junk needs to be graded by half life and the glop that lasts more than 200 years needs to be glassed up and put in a geologically stable part of the country. Damn the cost. Oh – Yucca is a bad site. And yes, it sucks that this stuff will need to be shipped somewhere. The alternative? It stays where it is. Kind of like a decommissioned reactor.

The wild card scenario for me is the possibility for meltdown. Yes, I’m going to fear monger a bit. My apologies, Tom Ridge. Sadly, these scenarios describe reality – More so in a Peak Energy economy. I’ll get to that. First, let’s take a trip.

Ever take this legendary motorcycle ride through Chernobyl? The pictures are real; the first person narrative presumed fictional.

What does Chernobyl have to do with us? Plenty, but I need to step carefully here. I’m not a nuclear engineer. I am fascinated by how things work, and how they fail. And I’m more than a little worried about our power grid in the upcoming ten year period before the hypothetical swathe of new nuclear reactors even have a prayer of coming online. Energy utopians gloss over details such as this. I won’t.

Chernobyl. During an ill conceived emergency systems test, meant to simulate a loss of power to the reactor from the grid, Chernobyl began to melt down. Human error then finished the job. Listen to Alexander Yuvchenko, minutes after the accident.

From where I stood I could see a huge beam of projected light flooding up into infinity from the reactor. It was like a laser light, caused by the ionization of the air. It was light-bluish, and it was very beautiful. I watched it for several seconds. If I'd stood there for just a few minutes I would probably have died on the spot because of gamma rays and neutrons and everything else that was spewing out. But Tregub yanked me around the corner to get me out the way. He was older and more experienced.

This from the first hour, when most people in the neighboring city of Pripyat were still sleeping. The following days were ghastly. Water was dumped on the molten core, and split on contact into hydrogen and oxygen, exploding. Radioactive ash spewed as hapless firefighters had their DNA unzipped. Behind the reactor, a forest glittered red at night, glowing ash littering the branches. Dead men drained the pool of water under the reactor and filled it with liquid nitrogen, finally stalling the inferno. Had they failed to drain the water pool, the resultant explosion would have likely tossed every particle from the core into the atmosphere.

What is left of Pripyat? Check it out. Goosebumps. Background radiation will render Chernobyl uninhabitable for hundreds of years. And it could have been worse. The nightmare scenario for a meltdown of any given reactor is that a molten core will burrow down until it hits the local water table, exploding underground. That did not happen at Chernobyl.

Here in America, we have democratic processes that aid us in keeping our nuclear plants safe and accident free. Take this organization, for example, and there are plenty of gadflies (environmental groups and the like) to keep the pressure on. Ours is a free and pluralistic society; we support dissent; and the butt headed mistakes made in the Ukraine in 1986 don’t apply to us here and now. Some will correctly disagree, but for the sake of the argument I am making here, I will ignore them as I strain to pat America on the back.

Great. Now, what if the lights go out? Did you know that most nuclear reactors in the US do not power themselves, but rely on the general power grid to run almost all their systems – including the cooling systems? (Because the power grid is forever, amen.) The backup is typically a Diesel generator. New, fourth generation plant designs have features like gravity assisted emergency cooling. There are no fourth generation designs in operation in the United States.

So we’re talking peak energy here. What are some effects as the peak settles in? Supply shortfall of methane gas is imminent. Petroleum supply problems could occur at any time. Coal is the only energy we can rely on right now. Coal notwithstanding, we’ve got brownouts and blackouts in our future. Especially on the East Coast. Where reactors are scattered like pennies in a fountain.

Now, a successful reactor shutdown following power loss is a beautiful thing. And we’ll get to see these systems tested again and again in the coming years, as brownouts and blackouts become more prevalent.

As civil society degrades.
As spare parts become harder to acquire, expertise fading.
As plants with this flaw get dinged repeatedly by power loss.

It only takes one.

(Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) is seeking to close down the Indian Point nuclear power plant 22 miles north of New York City.

"After Chernobyl, 1,000 miles around the plant were uninhabitable. One hundred miles around the plant are permanently uninhabitable," he said. "One hundred miles around Indian Point would be all of New York City. So, imagine a world without New York City. Well, the terrorists already have. According to the 9/11 Commission, Mohammed Atta cased Indian Point before deciding to bomb the World Trade Center. But he believed, erroneously as it turned out, that the plant must be so heavily guarded, that it would be impossible to crash an airliner into it."

Can we get this fixed? I often conceive of the coming years as a kind of holding action, in which we prevent as much damage to the environment as possible, while waiting for Peak Energy to enforce a more measured existence for humanity. Preferably retaining our technology, while living along permaculture and viridian lines.

If we don’t fix our existing nuclear infrastructure, I believe we are walking a tightrope through the peak years.

The seed has been planted, but has not yet bloomed.


At 8:04 AM, February 07, 2005, Blogger Phila said...

What I find funny is that the Right has been yearning to use global warming as an excuse to build more reactors...but can't quite bring themselves to admit global warming is real. So instead, they talk about how nuclear's better for the environment, which is really laughable. The only possible solution to waste is vitrification and onsite storage, and it's both expensive and dangerous. You're right that Yucca Mountain sucks, but it's also true that any centralized storage site, fed by a network of rail lines, is a bad idea. The only worse idea is reprocessing, which is a complete disaster and astronomically expensive.

If there's going to be a new push for nuclear, we're going to have to look at all the externalities this time...all the cradle-to-grave costs for taxpayers. I think we'll find we simply can't afford it.

At 7:30 PM, February 07, 2005, Blogger monkeygrinder said...

With nuclear energy, we have a Pandora'n problem on our hands. I am personally in favor of decommissioning every nuclear reactor in the United States, and the world.

I mean, what exactly is the point of generating another one hundred years of nuclear waste? So we can enjoy our ridiculous lifestyle, (I'd call it decadent but I am an amoralist and have no issues with decandance as such) for the short span of time that encompasses our individual lives?

One of my friends points out nuclear energy can be a stepping stone to what is next. Great. Why not swim? What IS next?

But we know the reality:
It requires sophisticated engineering to SHUT OFF a nuclear reactor. Botch it, and one can grey a landscape right up.

There is no political will to SHUT OFF reactors, because this would result in a feeling of irritability in the general populace, kind of like one feels after watching television for more than an hour straight.

My pragmatic answer to all of this is to try and tie some safety and re-engineering of the past infrastructure as we go forward with new sites. Tie one to the other, and the net sum of the future might be better.

Since I also believe we are running out of time to solve these issues, I'm trying to chart a reasonable course, heaping appropriate scorn on the energy utopians.

And the waste? Hanford, Rocky Flats. Don't wanna think about Russia. Downstreamers the world over. It is with us. It is our most lasting legacy. It is our cathedral for future generations, a polished stone that glows blue in the hand.

I know that transporting waste to one spot is dangerous. Don't care. Right now it is scattered across 1000 sites, of varying quality.

After Peak energy, there is a chance nuclear engineers will stop going to work.

And the waste will sink into the ground, with the memories.


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