Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Atom of Reaction

As I write, they're still fighting to bring the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi back under control. I understand that reactors 5 and 6 have been cooled to safe levels, and even though they were the ones least affected by the earthquake and tsunami, any victory here is a good one. We need all the victories we can get at Fukushima; the entire concept of nuclear has already taken a hell of a beating from it. A recent poll found that eighty-seven percent of Switzerland's population wants to terminate the Swiss nuclear power infrastructure, and the Vancouver Observer carried an article from the head of Greenpeace's nuclear campaign about how Fukushima should be an example to us all about why we should dismantle our nuclear plants and dedicate ourselves to renewable power.

Personally, at this point, I think it would be folly to go nuclear-free; it wouldn't result in a pure renewable-power utopia, but an even wider reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas power to replace the massive baseload generating capacity that nuclear generating statiosn are built for. I'm glad that Ontario is continuing to go ahead on its nuclear replacement project; hell, while I lived there, I was thankful that so much of Ontario's electricity was nuclear-generated, so that I could be assured that my lifestyle wasn't built upon a foundation of burning coal.

In the end, it's all about psychology. It's the same reason, I think, that a lot of people don't accept the idea of climate change: it's too slow to be seen, and it's practically impossible to specifically connect any one event to it. Nuclear accidents are something else entirely. They dovetail perfectly with the way humans have developed to perceive threat; it's something immediate, demonstrable, and obvious. Except, of course, that it isn't obvious - we can't see radiation, and as I wrote about the other day, I believe this is a significant factor in why some people are especially skeptical or fearful about nuclear power. The Swiss nuclear reactors are exactly as dangerous today as they were a month ago, but people are keyed up and seeing patterns everywhere.

And I think it's a bit unfair, anyway. It goes back to that whole "black magic" aspect that I believe a lot of people have regarding nuclear power. Would we be reacting this way over something like a hydroelectric dam collapse?

An aerial photograph of the Revelstoke Dam in the interior of British Columbia. This photo was originally taken by Wikipedia user Kelownian Pilot, and is used here in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license under which it was released.

The Revelstoke Dam on the Columbia River is one of the linchpins of British Columbia's electrical generation system; it was dams like these that allowed this province to keep the lights on without burning coal. It holds back enough of the Columbia that it's created Lake Revelstoke, five kilometers north of the town of Revelstoke. I've checked terrain maps for this area on Google; the Columbia winds through a rather narrow and deep valley here, and it's in this valley that you'll find Revelstoke and its 7,500 people.

What do you think would happen if the Revelstoke Dam were to be compromised? For now, let's not concern ourselves over the how - maybe it was an earthquake, maybe it was an asteroid, maybe the dam just didn't want to be a dam anymore. The result of the failure is stark: Lake Revelstoke empties itself back into the Columbia River in the form of an exceedingly large and exceedingly fast wave. A lot, in fact, like a tsunami! With only a five-kilometer separation between the dam and the town, there's a very limited window of opportunity for people to get out. People would die; it's probable that thousands of people would die. It would be a terrible, horrible disaster.

But do you think that, in the days afterward, you would have environmental organizations agitating to bring down the world's hydroelectric dams, or the people of Ontario polling in favor of turning off the turbines at Niagara Falls? Would we take a collective step back from hydroelectric power? Would we remember, in the same breath, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Revelstoke?

Somehow, I doubt it.

It all goes back to psychology in the end, I think. A wall of water's something we can see with our own eyes; a wall of water is something we can try to get away from, even though once it's got to the "wall" stage you'd have to be damn lucky to make it to safety. But radiation is black magic; it kills invisibly, and we can't even agree on how many. I've seen estimates of Chernobyl-attributable casualties range from four thousand to one million.

I just don't know where we can go from here.


  1. If a dam breaks, we probably wouldn't dismantle all dams, but maybe restrict living downstream. Once that disaster flood is over, you could easily be growing food in that area within the year.

    If a nuclear plant or waste storage spills radioactivity, the surrounding land will be contaminated for many years as well as the population. The inhabitants may not be immediately killed and washed away, but the pain is very long-term.

    It's not black magic to me, it's science, economics, and politics.

    Concentrating the generation of power in the hands of a few encourages greed, influence, and bad decisions for the general public.

    Rather than subsidizing the monster projects (both nuclear and hydro), that tax money instead could be used to support passive power generation solutions for individuals. Encourage all new buildings to incorporate solar and wind designs. Excess power would be sold back to the grid.

    Put the money into upgrading the power grid too, so that it becomes more like the Internet. A blown transformer should not cause half a continent to lose power.

  2. We are using nuclear energy as if we are capable of containing any given situation, the fukushima plant is still leaking and releasing toxic shit, but we are not been warn