I have been writing various responses related to nuclear power on blogs and on Facebook, so instead of writing a detailed post trying to reconcile all of that, I’ll just share what I have already written.
Claudia over at her Ashtanga Yoga blog offered a post questioning the level of panic being sparked by major media outlets about the reactors in Japan. Even though the situation in Japan is very dangerous and unstable, I agree with her about the panic issue. Here’s what I wrote:
The problem with much of this is that producing panic in the short term is just adding to the suffering already occurring. It does nothing to address the issues at hand.
It may be that what ends up happening in the next week or two isn’t as terrible as the media is reporting. But with radiation, it’s what happens in the next 20, 30, 40 years that really matters. People who have great financial interest in nuclear have routinely downplayed and even denied the causal links between chronic illness and death spikes that occur years after these kind of disasters.
And I for one think the truth on those issues must be put front and center. Furthermore, the truth of the completely out of whack consumption patterns of those of us in industrial/post industrial nations that leads to heavy investment in dangerous energy sources also should be front and center.
So yes, the short term panic isn’t helpful, and certainly keeps people buying papers and consuming media. But I’m greatly concerned that too few of us will connect the dots between our greed driven, excessive lifestyles and the “need” for heavy reliance on destructive energy sources.
Over on Facebook, I shared a link to an article about nuclear power by the writer Norman Solomon. A friend of mine in a Materials Science & Engineering grad program responded to the article with this:
Many of the problems with the current nuclear power infrastructure are not intrinsic to nuclear energy. While I agree that the current defense of nuclear energy by our leaders in response to Japan’s tragedy is reflexive, it is equally reflexive to rail against the “split atom” and any attempt to harness its potential. Issues of meltdown are artifacts of a 50-year-old technology that needs to be moved away from. Current technologies incorporate high temperature power limiting, which slows the reaction as temperature increases, eliminating the possibility of meltdown, which Japan is struggling to stave off. Issues of nuclear waste are bound up in State’s rights and the NNPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty].
Right now we could very easily reduce [the] volume of waste in the US by 90% through purification/separation and recycl[ing] nearly all purified remainder, eliminating need for further mining. No system is perfect; there will always be disasters, spills, etc. — and harm to life is now and always will be repulsive. However, while immediately more shocking, that damage pales to the lasting damage of burning every carbonaceous scrap on this earth. We are ix billion people on one planet and we need energy. We desperately need better conservation, but even then we need more energy than can be made renewably (solar, bio, wind, hydro, geothermal …). I will take a state-of-the-art nuclear power plant over a coal burner any day.
I figured you’d disagree on this. I understand there are other issues involved, and that things can be done to make the whole process safer. In fact, I don’t doubt that there are modern technologies being created that better facilitate the issues being experienced in these older reactors.
I’m also convinced the coal burner issues won’t go away. Even if more nuclear ends up being available for use, people will find ways to justify continued coal use and mining. This is an issue of human greed in my opinion, maybe more so than safety.
I have stood against nuclear for my entire adult life. Maybe longer. For some reason, it’s been a topic I have had interest in since at least my high school days. No one has ever presented an argument that makes it seem worth doing, and I have seen many — some much more articulate and considerate than others.
The way I see it, we humans need to learn how to live as one of the many members of this planet. We use too much of everything, and expect to be able to maintain lifestyles even our recent ancestors would drop their jaws at. There have been some great changes around issues of recycling, better technologies for vehicles and electronics and the rest, but none of it has addressed the larger issue of humans — especially in industrial/post-industrial nations — living completely out of balance with the natural world. As much as the lack of safety is an issue for me, the larger issue has always been that industrial and post-industrial nations are filled with too many entitled people — us included — who have lost touch with the very planet they live on, and out of which they were born.
It’s an issue of perception and way of being, in my view, as it is about any particular form of energy.
This is really where my Zen and yoga practices come in. As I see it, too many of us have really “wrong views” of our relationship with/to the planet that we come from. Too many of us have entirely centralized narratives which constantly tell us, “You are separate from the planet. It’s there for your benefit. You can have anything you want if you just figure out how to use it.” This is a grand, collective delusion, and until more of us start facing it together, we will continue to be spinning our wheels between poor choices like coal and nuclear power that, as they are being approached right now, are just the props of our addiction.
My father responded that if my friend wants more nuclear, he can put it in his own backyard. Now, there’s plenty of worthy criticism when it comes to NIMBY arguments, but I think they are wonderful tools for talking about energy issues. I’ve spent lots of time in Western Pennsylvania, which is part of the eastern U.S. “coal region”. I don’t get the sense many folks out there love living next to coal piles and strip mines that have destroyed the land, and polluted the water supply. And many of the people who do live next to all of this are poor or barely middle class, and either relied on mining or associated industries as a source of income, or couldn’t really afford to move away. And when it comes to nuclear power, especially nuclear waste, it’s a similar situation, at least here in the U.S..
Finally, in response to a previous post, Petteri commented:
“We have the tech to dispose of nuclear waste, and produce nuclear power in a way that’s safe and sustainable. We’re not doing it. The reason is the same as why we’re not producing more of our electricity from solar or wind power: it costs more.”
I do think there are better technologies available now, and that some of the issues of these older nuclear reactors could be dealt with. However, I’m not convinced we are really close to actually being able to work in a fairly “safe” way with nuclear energy. The levels of human hubris are, like the radiation in Japan, too high as far as I’m concerned.
I have heard plenty of people say we have the tech to deal with waste, but I honestly don’t believe it. Too much money is tied up in nuclear – it’s a huge cash cow. And I’m convinced that greed is driving some of that sustainability talk.
As for solar, wind power, and the rest. Unlike nuclear, coal, oil – all of which have had decades of government financial underwriting in many nations, and corporate focus – wind, solar, and others have really not be financially supported.
I don’t think nuclear is a black and white issue. It’s possible that someday, it could be harnessed and dealt with in a safe way. But I’m absolutely convinced that worldwide, we still haven’t really moved to put the majority of our eggs in the box of things like solar, geothermal, wind power. And until those forms are given the heft that oil, coal, and nuclear currently have, we’ll never know if they are truly viable or not.
So there’s a somewhat wide-ranging discussion of all of this. Last night, I realized that I have had an eye on the power and threat of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons ever since I was a kid seeing images of Chernobyl. I was 10 years old when that happened, just old enough to realize how awful what happened there was, and I guess that sparked an interest that, for example, led me to fall in love with the writing of Buddhist and environmental activist Joanna Macy. Her work around issues of nuclear energy has certainly influenced my own views.
I’d like to conclude by saying I honestly don’t know what the collective path to a healthier relationship with the planet is. I believe that some shift in consciousness and action in that direction has already begun, despite the continued greed, views of separation, and disastrous mistakes. But what I do know is that it cannot stay at the level of debating energy sources, light bulbs, and recycling tactics. That’s all useful to some degree, but without a larger shift in consciousness, it’s just moving shells around within the frame of the same old game.
So, while we offer our prayers, donations, and metta to the people in Japan, let’s consider the bigger picture questions — and let’s be willing to hold them, day after day, and to give them our attention, even if the answers never come in our lifetimes.
Nuclear power plant. Photographer Unknown.
Explosion at nuclear facility, Japan. Courtesy of Reuters
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