April 04, 2011

Fukushima fallout

Japan's most immediate infrastructure challenge (thinking in stark economic terms) is power generation. A friend in Japan relates that when asked what they need the most, the people in the Tohoku region (around Sendai) say, "Send electricity."

The Fukushima's forty-year-old reactors were scheduled for retirement, so once things stabilize, Tokyo Electric will probably install gas turbine generators. The one meme the talking heads have all agreed upon at this point is that the "nuclear renaissance" has been stopped in its tracks.

Personally, I'm a nuclear agnostic. In the U.S., natural gas is the best solution in the near and medium term (heck, we could export it to Japan), though coal will continue to dominate (most of Utah's power comes from coal) because it's so cheap and plentiful.

But a country like Japan has no real alternatives to nuclear if it wants anything approaching energy independence.

Even if solar and wind could the surmount the storage, transmission, and baseload power problems, Japan's geography and weather make them less than viable. Japan would be ideal for geothermal--if the huge gap between theory and application could be bridged and scaled up.

The current state of the art nuclear designs eliminates most of the problems revealed at Fukushima. If we abandoned every initially risky technology instead of improving it, most comforts of modern life would not exist, starting with the automobile.

We happily live with enormous risks when we really want something. Forty years ago, cars were death traps. In the U.S., traffic fatalities per million miles have dropped by more than half in that time. But cars still are death traps, the direct cause of 1.2 million deaths around the globe every year.

Chernobyl included, the mining and burning of fossil fuels causes more direct and indirect deaths than nuclear by several orders of magnitude. The psychological problem is that, like airplanes, the risk is concentrated, and the ability of the individual to control his own fate greatly diminished.

I know the feeling. I'm not afraid of flying, but I wouldn't live in the River Bottoms. When my mom was growing up, the River Bottoms north of Provo was rural farmland, so-called because when it flooded in the spring, the land was often covered by the Provo River.

The completion of Deer Creek Reservoir in 1941 put an end to the flooding, and now the River Bottoms is home to upscale McMansions and office parks.

The odds of Deer Creek Dam failing in my lifetime is about zero (though dams elsewhere have failed with horrendous results). But given the choice, I'd rather not have to think about it. That's the human animal for you: existential dread has become our postmodern fear of the dark.

As I said, I'm not emotionally vested in this fight, other than disapproving in general of political/industrial "solutions" at either end of the green spectrum that only survive through massive government subsidies. A government subsidy won't change the laws of physics or economics.

So the following prediction is made in the abstract: environmentalists who seize this opportunity vilify nuclear do so at their own peril. They will be admitting that the whole carbon emissions business is not that important, not apocalyptic, and the least frightening of their fears.

Nuclear paranoia will drag down all the overpriced and heavily subsidized "green" solutions with it. When Germany steps back from nuclear, count on it sneaking Eastern European coal and Russian gas through the back door. Ah, I love the smell of green hypocrisy in the morning.

A case in point is a proposed nuclear power plant near Green River, Utah. Emery County is already home to five coal-fired plants. It's where most of the electrical power in the state comes from. How badly to environmentalists want to replace them? Not that badly.

For me, at the northern end of Utah County, Green River (also known as "the middle of nowhere") is well out of my existential dread zone. So I sincerely don't care. But then I also don't lose one wink of sleep worrying about atmospheric carbon dioxide or "climate change" either.

You know people are serious about solving a problem when the solution switches from pie-in-the-sky hypotheticals (if Uncle Sam would only give them a big enough chunk of money or twist enough arms) to what's actually sitting on the table in front of them.

This is another example of how much environmentalists and religious dispensationalists have in common. However firm their belief in the cataclysmic end of the world, very few (thankfully) act on those beliefs, other than to fervently proclaim them. Because by faith are we saved.

Related posts

Sendai earthquake
Apocalypse not now
Not an apocalyptic thriller

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
4/05/2011 5:53 AM   
In addition to the example of the automobile, the long tradition and culture of coal-mining in Appalachia is a reminder that humans do not mind taking chances when they believe they understand the risk. The problem with nuclear is people do not understand it and as a culture we do not care to make the attempt.

I am not a fan of wind storms. The "The Wizard of Oz" movie impressed on my young mind the dangers of tornadoes. I don't like monkeys either but that is beside the point. As a homeowner the most frequent cause of property damage has been wind. Snow, rain and earthquakes don't faze me but wind does.

The wind storms I experienced in Utah were quite severe. I distinctly recall 3 over a 7 year period that ripped off siding, tore of shingles and flipped over fences, trampolines and basketball hoops.

In Maryland the wind is generally a consequence of severe thunderstorms, with the exception of Hurricane Isabel. In general the wind doesn't blow as long but with all the trees the impact is even more shocking. When you walk into your backyard and see a 6-inch branch javelined 2 feet into the ground it makes one pause.