Fossil Fuel Fukushimas

Published in the op-ed section of The Cavalier Daily, April 15, 2011.

There are several epiphanies that have made me sit up from mental slumber in my modern physics class this semester, but I suppose the one I should tell you here is the fact that the neutron was discovered only in 1932. Our basic understanding of fission didn’t arrive until August 31, 1939, when Danish Niels Bohr and American John Wheeler published their milestone analytical paper on nuclear fission in a decidedly academic manner: U-235 splits open like an eggshell? U-238 is more like a crumbling brick? Cool.

And the next day, Germany invaded Poland.

German-speaking and English-speaking scientists suddenly found themselves on opposite sides of the war and the next part of the story everyone knows: the atom bomb was developed, tested and dropped on Japan, all only 13 years after the discovery of a particle that made it all possible.

From its very infancy, atomic science was intimately linked to enormous violent explosions in the public imagination. If similar circumstances had gripped the life sciences – suppose PCR had been discovered shortly before a huge world war – perhaps juries would have no respect for DNA testing, relying on a technique that would have also made viruses that killed millions of people; thermocyclers would be regarded as dangerous objects.

The Fukushima reactors, first commissioned in 1971, are quite primitive. Previously, scientists only knew how to use reactions that captured only 0.5% of fission energy – imagine driving a car that ran on an open coal fire – and from these reaction schemes many nuclear reactors around the world were built. What happens to the other 99.5%? It ends up in nuclear waste, the energy being released very slowly as biohazardous radiation; the production of nuclear waste is a bit like deadly carbon monoxide and soot from bad engine designs. There is a lot of wasted energy in these wastes, as one might observe from the fact that spent fuel pools need to be actively cooled for years, and they produce so much heat that they can reach thousands of degrees Celsius, catch fire, melt metal and even reach temperatures that cause water to split into hydrogen and oxygen.

Eighty years since the discovery of the neutron, many of the chief complaints of nuclear power – runaway reactions and nuclear waste – have been theoretically solved by state-of-the-art designs of Generation IV reactors. However the public opposition to nuclear energy in general has been so great that it has significantly inhibited their funding and development. Indeed, UVA used to have its own nuclear reactors, out behind O’Hill; but public pressure since Three Mile Island triggered forces that led to their decommission, and led to the elimination of many of UVA’s own nuclear science programs. How can we seek cleaner solutions when even future scientists among us are prevented from pursuing the field?

But hasn’t the disaster in Japan shown us how disastrously foolish nuclear energy is? Perhaps Homo erectus should have concluded the same thing about fire. The disaster only shows us how old designs should be scrapped, and new, cleaner and more sophisticated designs adopted. Had TEPCO listened to rather than ignored advice to reform reactor design, this disaster would never have happened. Conventional power, some argue, doesn’t have the capability to cause mass death and devastation. But this looks selectively at a problem. In China, over 6000 coal miners died in 2004 alone – and that’s only as much as the Chinese government will admit. Over 100,000 were killed in the United States in the past century. Working on an oil rig – like the one that caused the Deepwater Horizon oil gush disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year – is one of the most dangerously unpleasant jobs in the world. And then there are the nasty oil refineries that plague any ride down the New Jersey Turnpike or a drive past Baltimore. Spent mines and oil fields are generally vast, devastated wastelands that neither man nor animal can inhabit. 4000 workers develop black lung every year in the United States. Coal plants release more radioactive waste into the air every year than nuclear power plants.

In terms of lethality, fossil fuels are like the Civil War surgeons’ tents before Louis Pasteur and Florence Nightingale, compared to the modern sanitized hospitals of nuclear power, despite the occasional malpractice scandal. If the public becomes informed enough to get over their paranoia of nuclear energy and permits the development of Generation IV reactors, there is enough nuclear fuel to power the world at current consumption rates for 24000 years. That will I think, probably give us the time to completely scrap fossil fuels and allow a transition to even cleaner sources of energy.

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