Monday, January 16, 2012

The Nuclear Problem

The climate debate is as hot as its been since I've been alive these days, and regardless of which side you come down on on the question of climate change itself, people are generally optimistic about opportunities to reduce carbon (as long as it doesn't cost them anything!). I've heard a lot of talk of Nuclear Power on both "sides" of the issue (those who support the idea of AGW and those who are opposed), both in favour of adopting further Nuclear Power and abolishing its use. Much of this talk happened after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan early last year and the subsequent meltdown of the Fukishima Dai-Ichi plant. There has been plenty of discussion of FDI since then, and an autopsy of the event isn't the focus of this little blog; I aim to discuss the larger issue.

Being a fan of physics since a young lad, I've always had a fascination with nuclear physics. Fission and fusion transmute elements, the only reactions that change the fundamental nature of the atoms involved. It was a modern-day alchemy, and the atomic fire was Einstein's famous equation realized in brilliant, complete way. Indeed, without an understanding of the way nuclear radiation affects the cell, the nuclear fire seemed like a nigh-infinite, wonderfully clean way to power our world.

But then I learned that radiation doesn't end when the reactor fuel is spent. Nuclear emission continues, with the radioactive after-products of the fuel lingering for years, decades, and centuries afterward. Modern reactor designs can't burn just anything for fuel: they need very specific elements, in precise measure, finely moderated by just the right mix of barriers to emission to keep the whole thing from exploding. These after-products, useless as fuel, continue to irradiate and so must be stored, away from people.

Mightn't that be worth the cost? There are all sorts of places in the world where people never go anyway... what's wrong with storing the fuel there? Apart, of course, from ecological damage, transportation costs, security costs, damage to industry workers, and whatever happens if there's ever an accident.

It's just not worth it. You'd think Chernobyl would have made us realize that. You still can't travel there safely. The places where nuclear weapons have been detonated have been rendered safe for human life faster than the locations of nuclear power accidents.

No comments:

Post a Comment