Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Earth Shakes, Sea Surges, Nukes Blow

[Update: Kennis has contributed this video, which nicely ties together my recent themes of poop and nuclear disaster into a single tidy, child-safe package.]

Have you ever tried to recruit concert pianists? Rather a difficult job, wouldn't you say? Now, suppose you had to tell them right away that concert pianos sometimes explode, and that when they do some part of the audience, there to listen to a bit of Liszt, is burned to death on the spot, while most of the rest suffer a horrible death from radiation poisoning a while later? Oh, and the concert hall then becomes an off-limits radioactive crater, and anyone who was ever your fan would then look forward to bearing children who die of childhood leukemia or any number of birth defects. Lovely!

The nuclear power supporters might still be able to recruit some knuckle-draggers to do their bidding, but what good would that do? They might very well detonate the old grand piano just by playing “Chopsticks” or “Three Blind Mice” during their very first recital. Supposing that the grand piano was actually a water-cooled uranium or recycled plutonium-fueled reactor, and that you were a knuckle-dragger, you'd certainly summon a fire engine or two, and ask them to pump seawater into your grand piano, to cool it down. Not that the Japanese had any choice at that point, but, speaking strictly as a lay plumber, I find seawater to be ever so slightly problematic when pumped through an overheated boiler, never mind a nuclear reactor that's about to blow. I think I would rather moonlight as a lay electrician than listen to a nuclear engineer expound on the benefits of seawater in a nuclear reactor. Declare your incompetence forthwith and fade away now, please, thank you!

Paging Mickey Mouse!
Ultimately, the problem is with the people who designed and built these things, not with the people who have to suffer horribly and die when they explode. You see, you have to be a certain sort of person to say “Sure, using a precariously controlled subcritical nuclear pile to boil water to run steam turbines to generate electricity is a great idea!” That sort of person is called a sociopath. Having worked with quite a few of them, I know a thing or two about sociopaths. They are always around to make ridiculous things happen and take credit for them while they can, but when these ridiculous things go horribly wrong, as they inevitably do, they are nowhere to be found. They have this knack for promoting the knuckle-draggers just in time for them to take the fall for what appears to be their own mistakes.

Three years ago I wrote this into the Collapse Party Platform:
I am particularly concerned about all the radioactive and toxic installations, stockpiles and dumps. Future generations are unlikely to be able to control them, especially if global warming puts them underwater. There is enough of this muck sitting around to kill off most of us. There are abandoned mine sites at which, soon after the bulldozers and the excavators stop running, toxic tailings and the contents of settling ponds will flow into and poison the waters of major rivers, making their flood plains and estuaries uninhabitable for many centuries. Many nuclear power plants have been built near coastlines, for access to ocean water for cooling. These will be at risk of inundation due to extreme weather events and rising sea levels caused by global warming. At many nuclear power stations, spent fuel rods are stored in a pool right at the reactor site, because the search for a more permanent storage place has been mired in politics. There are surely better places to store them than next to population centers and bodies of water. Nuclear reservations — sites that have been permanently contaminated in the process of manufacturing nuclear weapons — should be marked with sufficiently large, durable and frightening obelisks to warn off travelers long after all memory of their builders has faded away.
And now I will say it again: Shut it all down. All of it. Now. Please.

23 comments:

Jonathan Sammy said...

Wonderful article. I have been reading your blogs on all subjects for a number of years and you are always proved right. As soon as the Japanese reactors started malfunctioning , I had to check your blog and I was not disappointed. I truly hope this is a wake up call for policy makers around the world.

Keep up the good work

thetinfoilhatsociety.com said...

One of the headlines I read recently was that U.S. senators are calling for a moratorium on further nuclear reactor building here. Let's hope it comes to pass. And stays that way. Permanent moratorium.

Harry James Krebs, Jr. said...

I was in the former USSR in November of 1992. At the Canada-USA Institute,in Moscow, we were told by the former USSR officials: "This is what we have learned in our collapse, we hope it will help you when you have yours."

lagedargent said...

Haha, only you could come up with this loaded grand piano stuff. Whenever I'll pass by our concert hall, from now on, I'll be reminded of it in appreciation.
And, of course, you're absolutely right on the moral aspects of nuclear engineering. Whatever happens next, this part of Japan will become a no-go area for decades, I guess.

Ian said...

The first thing I thought of after hearing of the Japanese nuclear mess was your warning coming from the Collapse Party Platform. As I rode along the Metro-North Hudson Line and passed Indian Point, what also came to mind was how useless a predictor of collapse becomes as things are falling apart. As much as credit is due, people will not give a moment's thought to "Oh, hey, remember that Bob guy? He sure was right, wasn't he?" What is most likely going through their heads is "Shit! What do I do? What do I do?!" That's where you permaculturists, composters, depavers, aquaponics people, and radical thinkers come in and say, "shit into this bucket," "place all your windows on the south side of your house", "throw some fish into this bathtub", and "redefine capital and wealth as functioning ecosystems and soil fertility." "Come over to my home, working examples abound."

Joe said...

Civilization can't handle fission projects safely due in part to complacency creep. Playing with fire applies in the truest metaphorical sense of the phrase.

knutty knitter said...

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto ....crash, crash, BOOM!

I am so glad this country stuck to its anti nuclear guns through thick and thin.

And I'm so sad that others didn't...

viv in nz

Steve said...

I see two problems with nuclear power.

The first is that the supporters of nuclear power fail to do the cost-benefit calculations to incude the extremely high cost of the low-probability events that triggered the current situation. This is the same kind of blindness that led financial institutions to ruin a couple of years ago, and will lead them to ruin again (except that they will again be bailed out) within ten years.

The second is that the opponents of nuclear power aren't sufficiently rational. It's not that I have no sympathy with the emotional arguments, it's just that they won't convince people trying to make difficult planning decisions in a rational way.

The fact of the matter is we are up shit creek without a paddle in so many ways that it's more or less inevitable that some catastrophe will more than decimate human population in the next fifty years. So arguing (as I have seen someone do) that we should make trains flood-proof (might have saved 400 lives) is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

lemmiwinks said...

The reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are not graphite moderated reactors, that was the medium which your countrymen chose for the shoddily constructed and ultimately ill fated Chernobyl plant (they also neglected to include any containment vessel other than a heavy lid which was promptly blown off when the pressure built up inviting a subsequent hydrogen explosion to ignite the graphite and spread parts of the now molten core far and wide.)

Indeed, when compared with Chernobyl, the situation in Japan is a shining example of how to handle a nuclear catastrophe when the necessary critical infrastructure has been destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Don't get me wrong, I'm suitably horrified and worried (though I have stopped short of laying in supplies of iodine supplements.) I would simply point out that as far as benchmark nuclear disasters go, this one is, on balance, going rather smoothly.

In the event of a complete core meltdown at one or all of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors we will find out how well the "core catcher" works I suppose.

What will almost certainly be misinterpreted as my defence of nuclear power will probably see me labeled a knuckle-dragger and/or sociopath, oh well, so be it.

kollapsnik said...

lemmewinks -

You are right, the moderator rods in the Fukushima reactors are hafnium, not graphite. Graphite combustion was one of the major complications at Chernobyl. Hafnium autoignites if sufficiently fractured or pulverized by explosion.

Dr. C. said...

Yes, by all means, turn it off now. All of it. But nobody's going to do that, are they? Until the pain is sufficient enough to convince them it was a mistake from day one. Unfortunately we're no where near that yet.

Elizabeth said...

Look at this. I was amazed:


http://www.channel4.com/programmes/what-the-green-movement-got-wrong/video/series-1/episode-1/what-the-green-movement-got-wrong-chernobyl

Karabas said...

Moratorium on local installations – may be. Will it stop sales of the technology (which guaranties future disasters) – nope. Some, like Pakistan, will want it, some, like Japan with Fukushima, will have to (under the gun point), those who resist will be declared undemocratic with all the following consequences... opium wars all over again.

P.S. Canada again was reprimanded for sales of asbestos to developing nations. Come on, it’s not like it’s going to be brought back by the wind.

Patrick said...

"Until the pain is sufficient enough to convince them it was a mistake from day one."

And I'd say the pain has to take place in someone's wallet. As long as a few people are making money on this technology, hand-over-fist, a few accidents here and there will be deemed (by the profiteers and their politicians) tragic accidents, but worth the risks. Just look at the war machine.

tim nelson said...

"And now I will say it again: Shut it all down. All of it. Now. Please."

Amen to that, and i am not a christian.

And do whatever it takes to deal with the poisonous material, storage, whatever.

i agree with Dr. C., its doubtful any steps in that direction will be taken. maybe if we're lucky they won't build more reactors.

The Q said...

sites "should be marked with sufficiently large, durable and frightening obelisks to warn off travelers long after all memory of their builders has faded away"


This reminded me of:

http://www.cthulhulives.org/shoggoth/screening.html

"Each and every one of us has got a shoggoth on the roof... It's not easy having a malevolent shapeless monster hanging over your head..."

If you don't know it, check out HP Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" story from the early 20th century. An ancient civilization of "super-scientists" created the shoggoths to serve them, but their creations got out of control....


For a more serious treatment of the same theme, see Koyaanisqatsi (A film both beautiful and horrifying)and note the Hopi prophecy.

mmorgue said...

germany takes down 7 nuclear plants... for now.
I hope this decision (a) will be permanent and (b) serves as an example.
eike

tristes_tigres said...

A book by Russian PhD chemist, who worked as a schoolteacher in the US
Check this out:
"Классная Америка" by Айрат Димиев. Chapter 13 is called "The Union of soviet Socialist Republics of America"

wagelaborer said...

I agree with Patrick. There are those who profit from building the reactors, and those who suffer.

They're not the same people.

Therefore, the money (Obama budgeted $36 billion this year) will flow to General Electric and Bechtel, and where the radiation flows is of no importance to our ruling overlords.

And it doesn't matter how many people show up for demonstrations, or how many impassioned letters are written.

There's money in dem dere nuclear plants.

Jerry McManus said...

Excellent post. I loved the line:

You see, you have to be a certain sort of person to say “Sure, using a precariously controlled subcritical nuclear pile to boil water to run steam turbines to generate electricity is a great idea!” That sort of person is called a sociopath.

Sounds a lot like this snippet I've been posting on deaf ears over at The Oil Drum for a few weeks now:

Nuclear energy is like grilling in the garden over a pile of hot lava. Works great, that is if you don't mind how difficult and expensive hot lava is, or the occasional explosion that takes out the entire neighborhood, or the fact that what's tipped into the dust bin will be lethal for thousands of years. Otherwise, enjoy your steak!

Cheers,
Jerry

Jon said...

Now a week into this catastrophe, with arriving passengers from Toyko setting off radiation detectors in American airports and all, I wonder how smug lemmiwinks feels now?

I still can't wrap my head around the wrongheadness of the Fukushima complex. Aren't the Japanese supposed to be some of the most technological and competent people on the planet? Building a 6 reactor complex on a beach next to the ocean in an earthquake zone and storing the hottest spent rods above the reactors... What where these people thinking? Almost as bad as building 37 (now aging) nuclear plants around a fresh water basin holding over 20% of the world's fresh water, the Great Lakes of NA.

You're so right Kollapsnick, they're sociopaths. Sad, isn't it.

Justin Sawell said...

@Ian ""Come over to my home, working examples abound."

No, I won't be saying that at all.

I've given up trying to help people "get it", now I'm waiting for "it" to get them.

If anyone wants some of what I've worked for, they'll be contributing a day's back-breaking labour first, while I ask "Who's laughing at me now, AR$EH0LE??"

Justin said...

"I still can't wrap my head around the wrongheadness of the Fukushima complex. Aren't the Japanese supposed to be some of the most technological and competent people on the planet? Building a 6 reactor complex on a beach next to the ocean in an earthquake zone and storing the hottest spent rods above the reactors... What where these people thinking? "

This is something I keep seeing up. You get it, the Japanese are not a stupid or careless people. There engineering is superb, they think long term, they've experienced nuclear bombings, and they still couldn't prevent a catastrophe that looks easily avoided in hindsight.

Why would anyone think we can do any better?

I've seen others point to what went wrong there and say that we'd never be so careless, that technology is safer now, and so on. This exactly the hubris that led people to think that they could put a reactor on an earthquake/tsunami prone coast with careful enough planning. That is the risk of nuclear energy right there. The amount of waste being generated, waste that as soon as it is generated represents a long-term commitment for us to maintain, is rather horrifying. Our species is building its own coffin.