Monday, March 14, 2011

An Unrequested Fission Surplus

I really hate the term "meltdown." Sure, it is technically accurate - for nuclear engineers, who know what they are talking about. If you are not a nuclear engineer, a meltdown means that the nuclear fuel has overheated and melted, causing damage to the reactor core. I would be willing to bet that the average person on the street, for whom The Simpsons is likely their only source of information about nuclear power, thinks that "meltdown" means something along the lines of "the entire nuclear plant melts down into the center of the earth and leaves a big, sizzling, glowing green hole behind it."

With the crisis still underway at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan - a plant which is, mind you, still intact after being hit by the fifth largest earthquake in recorded history as well as a tsunami - the word "meltdown" or its non-English equivalent probably appears on the front page of every significant newspaper in the Western world. This is not going to be another Chernobyl, but no matter what happens, nuclear power is going to take yet another bruise.

You'd think the media could use this opportunity to educate the public - to expand awareness of how nuclear power actually works, the pitfalls and the possibilities, rather than just go to ridiculous extremes like articles about fallout being carried across the Pacific to the West Coast. But no. The atoms are going to kill us - they're going to melt us, then kill us.

The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station in Pickering, Ontario

This post's title comes from the early Simpsons episode "Homer Defined," which dealt with Homer averting a meltdown at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant - and I can't help but think that that episode, and things like it, have been incredibly influential in shaping the nuclear memescape. Simply put, these nuclear plants are not going to explode like nuclear weapons - that is entirely impossible. People only think so because unless you make the effort to educate yourself, nuclear reactor design and nuclear weapon design are equally black-box. It's not as if they taught me about gun-trigger vs. implosion nukes back in high school.

It's almost as if the debate has been consciously engineered over the decades to be as scary as possible for the average person. I mean, just look at that word "meltdown." Melting means really super hot, which means get away! Go! It pushes primal buttons. It doesn't matter that, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, seawater injections are underway at Fukushima Daiichi to cool the reactors. The media has already pushed out its narrative, and that's "this is terrifying and you should be terrified."

Words matter. We should choose them carefully.


  1. Seems like the Japanese nuclear plants may hold together, even though they may have to be totally rebuilt after the damaging salt seawater used as a coolant. These plants were also designed to survive in a major earthquake zone. If a similar quake hit offshore California, I don't think that their nuclear plants would fare as well. Loss of California farmland to radiation pollution would be devastating. I still find the costs and risks too great to support this industry. A good fusion plant, maybe.

    Best solution, to me, would be a more distributed, personalized power generation model, using hydro, wind, solar, and even geothermal where applicable. Like the Internet, it would be less vulnerable to natural disasters. The megabillions spent on the nuclear power industry seems like a very short term plan that makes a few rich at the expense of the general consumer.

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