Friday, March 18, 2011

Knowledge is Power... Nuclear Power

It's not going to be another Chernobyl, but that doesn't seem to make much difference anymore. Even though the struggle to cool down the reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear generating station continues, the mere fact of the crisis has pushed nuclear energy back into the spotlight, out in front of a public that after seventy years still has deep reservations about the whole thing. The public's vague unease, and general unfamiliarity with, the basics of nuclear power is itself fueling a critical reaction in the Western memescape.

Personally, I think that a big part of it is that a lot of people still think of nuclear power, in deep in their hearts of hearts, as some kind of black magic. Like something out of myth, some shadowy evil thing that can kill silently, invisibly, and poison the land. Make no mistake, radiation is dangerous - but I have to wonder how many people subconsciously assign agency to radiation, who deep down think of it not as a force of nature, but some ghostly, stalking predator.

The news media hasn't been much help. The news media is never much help in this regard. Hell, yesterday CBC News ran an article dealing with concerns raised about Columbia Nuclear Generating Station in south-central Washington state, the Pacific Northwest's last active nuclear plant and the only source of nuclear power within 1500 kilometers of Metro Vancouver. We should be concerned because Columbia "uses the same kind of radioactive fuel rods as the Fukushima reactors."

Not that it's not built to withstand a magnitude 9 megathrust earthquake, hundreds of kilometers away from the fault line where this quake is most likely to occur. Not that its emergency diesel generators are vulnerable to ten-meter tsunamis of the sort that are the actual cause of the Fukushima crisis, which we all know are totally common on the Columbia River. That it uses the same "radioactive fuel rods." You know what? I guess that makes it - gasp - a nuclear reactor! I'm no nuclear engineer, but isn't it safe to say that the problem with Fukushima Daiichi was not that it uses radioactive fuel rods, but that it was designed in such a way that mechanical pumps were necessary to get coolant to the reactors, and not in such a way that gravity would do the pumps' work?

None of that matters to the media, it seems. Right now, people are keyed up and scared shitless about atoms and radiation. The other day I saw a news ticker about how people in British Columbia were stocking up on "iodine" pills - putting aside the question of whether this was a typo or people were actually stocking up on iodine instead of potassium iodide, which is what you want when you want to protect yourself from thyroid cancer - because of fears of a radioactive cloud blowing across the Pacific.

Keep in mind that the Pacific is big. It is, in fact, more than seven thousand kilometers from Tokyo to Vancouver. If radiation is such that iodide would become a good investment here, I very much doubt that any human would be able to survive on Honshu without glowing. But many people only have a surface understanding of it - for many people, it's a case of radiation coming, and radiation is bad.

The Pacific Ocean, viewed from the west coast of North America. Not pictured: Japan.

Here, I think, psychology plays a role again. The ocean is big and wide, without any barriers - but that bigness is in itself a barrier to something like radiation. According to an article in the Deseret News, which demonstrates that even people in Utah are worried about transpacific radiation, the main health risk comes from iodine-131, which has an eight-day half-life. If you're only familiar with the term in context of Gordon Freedman, half-life refers to the amount of time required for half of whatever stuff you're talking about to decay. So if you have one hundred units of iodine-131, after eight days only fifty of them will still be radioactive. And it's not as if they'll stay in a big lump during the time it takes the winds to blow them across the ocean.

I mean, really - it's not even 3700 kilometers from New Westminster to Pickering. If there was a radioactive crisis at Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, while I would be deeply concerned for my friends and loved ones and the millions of people who live within a hundred kilometers of its reactors... would people on the Pacific coast still be stocking up on potassium iodide?

As a culture, we've needed to deal maturely with the pitfalls and possibilities of nuclear power for decades now. It's unfortunate that in this time of crisis, the media seems dedicated to the idea of the worst-case scenario.

god damn when I started writing this it was going to be about dams

No comments:

Post a Comment