Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Nuclear Power and Environmentalism

I am an environmentalist.  I favor attempts to save all endangered animals (knowing that most attempts will fail), I know that Global Warming is a definite reality (and almost certainly caused by humans), and am fully aware that we are poisoning our seas with Mercury, our air with Carbon Dioxide, and our land with nasty chemicals.   

Nuclear Power is very safe.   Today, that is.  Back when they built Chernobyl, the Soviets claimed they did not need a 'containment vessel' to trap radioactive gas. That is most of the reason why Chernobyl was worse than Three Mile Island (thousands, of deaths vs a possible two in Three Mile Island).   Truthfully, the world had already figured it out before the Russians built Chernobyl, but the USSR was cheap and arrogant.   The recent problem in Japan is in part because of two factors:  1) they used a relatively weak containment vessel as opposed to the best one and 2) they went with a badly designed, active cooling systems.  Even with the poorly designed cooling system, they managed to keep the situation from getting out of hand.   The Fukushima Daiichi containment vessel may have cracked, but it exists and contained much of the radiation.  This gave Japan time to deal with the issue.  Worst case scenario, the deaths from the nuclear problems are going to be less than a thousand, despite the fact that they are dealing with an earthquake, tsunami , and volcano eruption (small though it was) at the same time they are preventing a nuclear disaster.

So, if Chernobyl killed thousands, and Fukushima Daiichi might kill hundreds why do I say it is 'very safe'.

First of all, the earthquake plus tsunami killed many thousands of people.  Are you going to blame the buildings  that failed on the buildings or the earthquake and tsunami.  This was a disaster, but the cause was seismic activity.

Second of all, radiation has a bad rep.   Did you know that all humans are already radioactive?  We have always been so, even before the nuclear age.  Sleeping next to another human being increases your exposure to radiation.   Truthfully all living things are radioactive because all living things are carbon based life forms.  When paleontologists do "Radiocarbon dating", they are examining how radioactive the carbon in from organic matter is, years after it stopped eating/breathing in radioactive carbon. That means that anything that is alive or used to be alive is radioactive.

Including Oil, Natural Gas and Coal.  Honestly, most of the radiation from oil, gas and coal comes from impurities, not the actual fuel.  Oil and gas drilling releases radium and radon.  The radon goes into the atmosphere, the radium tends to be collected.  There are state and federal rules to regulate the radium and other radioactive byproducts of oil.  But the radiation danger from Oil and gas is generally not considered that dangerous, at least when compared to ... coal.

The problem is that coal often has uranium and thorium impurities.  When the power plants burn coal, that leaves ash high in uranium and thorium.   Some of that ash is light enough to float on the the hot air and carried into the atmosphere.  Other is simply placed in land fills.  When both a coal plant and a nuclear power plant are working perfectly, the coal plant releases 100 times more radiation  than the nuclear power plant.  (Source: JP McBrides' 1978 article in Science Magazine)

If you live near a coal plant, you get more radiation than someone working in a nuclear power plant.   OK, your chance of death from a properly working coal plant is greater than from a properly working nuclear power plant.   What about emergencies?   Well, Japan has just proved that with a modern nuclear power planet, even after an earthquake AND a Tsunami, the danger is minimal.

More importantly, the mining of coal has additional problems besides the radiation.  There are cave ins, black lung disease, nitrous oxide (smog) , sulfur dioxide (acid rain), environmental issues with mining waste, and mercury (that's where the mercury we eat in fish is originally coming from - burn the coal, release the mercury into the air, rain it down to the oceans, fish eat it).  Every year people die directly from coal mining (not counting the indirect side effects of burning the coal).   Most years people don't die at all from nuclear power plant, from obtaining the material all the way to use.  In fact, there has NEVER been a single confirmed death in the USA from an accident at a nuclear power plant, not in all 50+ years of operating them.  (The possible two deaths I mentioned from Three Mile Island were theorized to be the possible cancer deaths from the radiation released).  This compares with 100,000 American miners killed in accidents the past century due to coal mining, not counting those affected by black lung, radiation, mercury, asthma (via the smog), etc.   In the US alone, on average a thousand people die from mining the coal. each year.  If we had 10,000 people die today from a nuclear accident (far worse than Chernobyl), coal would still have killed more people.  China has an even worse reputation, (4 times as bad a safety record).   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_mining

Coal industry causes a  larger number of direct deaths.  But people are willing to accept thousands of deaths of workers, but not of non-workers.  Coal also causes more 'indirect' deaths, but it doesn't have the false connection with bombs.  Nuclear power plants are not more similar to nuclear bombs than a coal plant is to a TNT bomb. But we fear nuclear plants more than coal plants.  That is human nature, but not reasonable.

Nuclear power is safer than Coal.   There is no reason not to allow new nuclear power plants to be built, particularly if we have strict standards for the containment vessel and similar issues.  We need the electricity, we know how to deal with the danger. Allowing coal mining but preventing nuclear power plants is foolish.

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