Friday, December 16, 2011

Waiter, Waiter, There's An Atom in My Water

One of the most precious things in the world a person can have is a sense of perspective - the capability to understand the degree to which something is important in the grand scheme of things. It's precious specifically because the vast majority of people either don't have such a sense, or sorely need to calibrate it. It's easy to make a mountain out of an anthill when you don't really understand mountains, and it's very easy to freak out about nuclear power when you only have a limited grasp of how nuclear power actually works.

In his editorial for the January/February 2012 issue of Analog, Stan Schmidt called for perspective and understanding in the wake of the Fukushima disaster - covering, incidentally, similar ground as I did at the same time - but one thing he wrote struck me in particular. "I live near a nuclear power plant," he wrote, "and I often marvel that a routine plumbing repair there is front-page news; I can't think of any other industry in which such treatment would even be considered."

It only took a couple of days for the Canadian media to prove the accuracy of that. On Wednesday, it was reported in the Globe and Mail - not on the front page, thankfully, but high up in the science/environment section - that the presently inactive Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station, New Brunswick's only nuclear power station, experienced a spill of four to six liters of radioactive heavy water while the plant's moderator was being filled. Note that this was specifically in the reactor building, and it was cleaned up by staff and it's no longer an issue.

Still, for some people, uttering the word "radioactive" in the context of a nuclear plant is like Pavlov ringing one of his little bells. Also on Wednesday, the Globe ran a follow-up article - about the spill of four to six liters of radioactive water inside a nuclear power plant, just so we're clear - about how the Conservation Council of New Brunswick is seeking more information about what happened, because "there are too many unanswered questions."

I've got an unanswered question, right here - do you have any idea how nuclear power generation really works, really?

Presented for your consideration, six liters' worth of containers. I didn't want to waste any water, so just pretend that they're full.

The website of the CCNB describes nuclear power as "not green, not cheap, and not needed" - which, when you consider that "Cutting Greenhouse Gases in NB" is in the same section of the website, tells you the degree to which this organization seems to be rooted in the real world, just like how it claims that Canada reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% below 1990 levels in 2020 is achievable... I suppose technically that's true, in the sense that it doesn't really violate any physical laws, like how I could just lie down in front of the SkyTrain when I go to work. Just because it isn't impossible it doesn't mean it's going to happen.

Too, there's the separate Nuclear Free NB website, which is exactly what you'd expect - the main logo is all red clouds, and the second post is selling bumper stickers carrying the message "FUKUSHIMA: Don't Let It Happen Here!" Because, you know, Fukushima Daiichi didn't experience catastrophe because it was hit by one of the most powerful earthquakes in the last ten thousand years and one of the most powerful tsunamis in the last thousand, and because it had been incompetently managed. People seriously advocating this should first be able to explain a mechanism for how a nuclear plant situated near the coast of the Bay of Fundy, shielded by Nova Scotia from the open Atlantic, far from any active fault lines, could "happen" the way Fukushima did.

Here, they're making perfect the enemy of good. Personally, I consider anti-nuclear organizations like this to be unwitting stooges of the true enemy, the big fossil fuel lobbies. If Point Lepreau was to be decomissioned, what do you think would make up the generating gap? Would it be renewables, or would New Brunswick just follow Germany's sterling example and replace its non-polluting, zero-carbon nuclear infrastructure with dirty, polluting, carbon-heavy coal? Coal's no stranger to New Brunswick - my great-grandfather was a New Brunswick coal miner.

But in the end, these things get traction because too many people have no understanding of how nuclear power plants work. It's not like in Blowups Happen, where constant monitoring and intervention was necessary to keep the plant from going up. Nuclear power is, on the whole, the safest form of power generation we have. Keep in mind that, even almost a year later, no one is known to have died as a result of the Fukushima disaster. Estimates range wildly for the toll of Chernobyl, from 30,000 to 985,000 premature cancer deaths... but compare this to the main alternative, coal power. Earlier this year, a report by the American Lung Association estimated that in the United States alone, thirteen thousand people are killed every year by power plant pollution. At this point, even by Greenpeace's estimate of 200,000 early cancer deaths, American coal plants have killed far more people than did Chernobyl.

We face grave challenges in the years to come, and if we want to have a hope of coming out the other end with any kind of strength, we cannot afford to discard zero-pollution, zero-carbon power generation because it gives some people the willies. The answer to that is education and proper oversight. It would be a dark future indeed that didn't have nuclear power in it.

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