Broken Power Line, Lebanon, 2005
If the Fukushima disaster really causes us to give up on nuclear power, I hope to God it won't mean more coal, because that's what's really destroying the planet. I'm feeling terribly depressed about it. Unreasonably depressed, perhaps. At some level, I'm still the teenage nerdy techno-utopian that I was a quarter-century ago. The 1950's dream of abundant, clean energy has always held a special allure for me. Imagine what we could do with it – eradicate war and hunger, go to the stars, pursue the arts and sciences... Yeah, it was a beautiful dream.
I still think we have the technological capability to do it. A thorium-based economy is totally feasible, and we know how to make nuclear plants safe. The Fukushima disaster has, however, shaken my already fragile faith in our social capability.
We could do nuclear right, but we're not. The plant was to be decommissioned this month. It's forty years old, which is about 20 years more than you should run a nuclear plant. It wasn't designed for a seismically unstable area to start with: the reserve power generators were at the bottom floors, within reach of the tsunami, and the cooling systems were not on the same concrete block as the reactor cores. Now there's talk of spent fuel going re-critical, which could only happen if some pretty huge corners were cut – stacking so much of them in the cooling pond that re-criticality is prevented only by boron plates or boric acid in the water.
I still think that nuclear power itself is a red herring, and the anti-nuclear movement has in fact done enormous harm to our efforts to find a way to live sustainably on this rock. The problems are with our society, with its insatiable thirst for energy, and the economic incentives that prevent it from being produced sustainably. The way the cards are stacked, that means that whatever's cheapest in the short term will get built. That means coal and keeping old nuclear plants running. If we managed to address those social problems, I think the issue with nuclear power would go away by itself. Perhaps we'd find that we could produce all the power we need from renewable resources; after all, we've only begun to explore those possibilities. Or perhaps we'd take nuclear security seriously enough to use that technology responsibly.
There's a lot of spent fuel sitting around in cooling ponds all over the world. It can't stay there forever. I don't believe that burying it is a responsible solution; it'll be there for thousands of years, radiating away, as our civilizations rise and fall. The only way we know of to really get rid of it is yet more nuclear technology – the so-called fourth-generation plants that China has just decided to research on a massive scale. The anti-nuclear movement will reflexively oppose funding that research, or building those plants. As any new technology, it'll be riskier than the more mature technology it replaces. It could well be that there will be a disaster in one of those plants. Given the political cost of nuclear power now, how likely is it that that research will be properly funded?
The worst outcome is that we're going to be building new coal and oil, running our existing nuclear plants beyond their expiry dates, and having that spent fuel sitting around in ponds until the inevitable happens and Fukushimas and Three Mile Islands and Chernobyls become routine occurrences rather than once in a quarter-century tragedies. And that, I fear, is the way things are going, thanks to the combined efforts of the power companies pushing for the cheapest solutions and the anti-nuclear lobby pushing against anything atomic.
Living in denial is looking increasingly attractive these days.