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The Doomsday Machine
The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World's Most Dangerous Fuel
By Martin Cohen, Andrew McKillop
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Martin Cohen
All rights reserved.
NUCLEAR ENERGY IS THE ENERGY OF THE FUTURE
The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here — now — today. Who can doubt, if the entire body of the world's scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, that this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage? — The glowing promise of Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech, 1953
WHEN MOST OF US THINK ABOUT NUCLEAR POWER, we picture white-coated scientists laboring in control rooms worthy of the Starship Enterprise. Yet when the Japanese nuclear plants started to melt down in 2011, the world was horrified to see that the scientists had disappeared and in their place were low-grade workers trying to hose seawater into the overheating reactor core.
Incongruously, since nuclear power has a 50-year pedigree in the old-nuclear countries, like Britain, France, and the United States, which makes it as much traditional as technocratic, the package still carries the slogan that it is our future energy, even if this claim dates from the era of black-and-white television. While everything else has changed in the economy and society, some things have not: Nuclear power has always been produced in neat but sober, huge, domed reactors and squat, windowless ancillary buildings on a distant skyline, emitting almost nothing visible, unlike those fume-belching nineteenth-century coal-fired power plants. So the story goes: nuclear power plants were always surrounded by gaunt but functional electrical transformer farms and run by calm, fatherly figures seated in front of consoles fit for rocket science.
But that image was finally dashed when at least four, and possibly more (for all anyone seemed to know) of the Japanese nuclear plants at Fukushima started to melt down in March 2011. Gone were the comforting, fatherly scientists, replaced by masked hardhat workers risking their lives to cool the reactors and fuel rod ponds with seawater in scenes of utter devastation. More than 150,000 Japanese were hustled out of their homes and livelihoods and moved away from the 12-mile total exclusion zone, perhaps forever.
In a single stroke, food and meat from the region became potentially radioactive. Long-lived particles, such as those of cesium-137, which can cycle through an ecosystem for decades, were scattered for hundreds of miles, ready to be taken up by plants through their roots and redeposited back into the soil when the plants rot down.
The thing about nuclear accidents — unlike, say, coal mining accidents — is that their effects are not all felt at once, and the consequences can last for centuries. In this sense, nuclear power is the future. But let's first step back in time, to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly of December 8, 1953. There the often-underrated Dwight D. Eisenhower, the only five-star general to become US president and an unabashed nuclear bomb enthusiast, gave what later became known as the "Atoms for Peace" speech. Speaking from the podium in Le Corbusier's modernist UN building in New York, Eisenhower offered the entire world a particularly American vision of the future, a world not only of "abundant electrical energy" but also with enough power to satisfy the needs of "agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities."
Actually, in those days, the UN buildings contained a grim exhibit of remnants from the cities destroyed by the first atomic bombs. A glass wall looking out toward New York City was covered in dark depictions of wailing women and crying children. And, indeed, Eisenhower's speech started with a noble apology for having unleashed the power of the atom in the first place before swiftly moving to "the future" and America's generous offer to share both the technology and the fissile material with the world — with countries prepared to accept certain rules — notably that atoms must be split solely for peaceful purposes. Doubtless the representatives of India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa all applauded enthusiastically at that.
Eisenhower hoped that his speech would create a huge new market for nuclear energy, led by the American firms General Electric and Westinghouse, but another goal was to distract attention from the country's ongoing series of hydrogen bomb tests, which continued smoothly following Eisenhower's presentation at the UN; the 1954 Bravo test was the United States' "biggest bang" ever. In the Pacific, Marshall Islanders still remember seeing the "second sun" — an intense fireball 1,000 times more powerful than Hiroshima — and the 20-mile-high mushroom cloud. Two years later, though, the Pacific Island tests did stop. The finale was the Flathead test of June 1956 at Bikini Atoll lagoon — a test of a dirty bomb. Because the cheapest and easiest Doomsday Machine to make is not a nuclear reactor at all but a cobalt bomb cluster. Each such gizmo is an ordinary atomic bomb encased in a jacket of cobalt. When it explodes, it spreads a huge amount of radiation. A small number of these bombs could extinguish all animal life on Earth, leaving just the insects. Undeniably, from the military perspective, nuclear power gives you real bang for your buck.
And, in other ways, Eisenhower's instincts were also right. At its heart, a nuclear reactor is a glorified steam engine, boiling water or pressurizing gas to turn turbines. Technologically, it scarcely matters that it uses radioactive metals rather than coal. It is only the financing that is complex and mysterious.
ECCENTRIC FOUNDING HEROES OF ATOMIC MYTH
If we travel back in time to the 1930s, the founding era of atomic and nuclear science, engineering, and weapons, we will find such strange behavior — and such strange facts — that the supposedly seamless high-tech image of the atom simply collapses.
The cases of Enrico Fermi, the Italian American physicist and "godfather" both to nuclear energy and the bomb (who received the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics for identifying new elements and discovering nuclear reactions by his method of nuclear irradiation and bombardment), or theoretical chemists such as Niels Bohr and the Curies, or the Einstein and Chandrasekar Bose rivalry slash friendship, and even the real "father" of the Big Bang, Georges Lemaître, provide a strange mix of the best and worst motives. These high priests of the atom were in many cases driven by jealousy and rancor and were often simply wrong.
One example is the strange attraction and revulsion that Albert Einstein and Georges Lemaître exercised on each other, sometimes characterized as a struggle between the supposed pantheism of Einstein and the doctrinaire Catholicism of Lemaître. To some, this ideological split would explain why Einstein for many years pooh-poohed the Big Bang theory of Lemaître, which persists, relatively unchanged, today, although Lemaître called it "the hypothesis of the primeval atom."
Much more closely related to the emerging science and technology of first nuclear weapons and then nuclear power, we find that a number of the early atom scientists, such as the United States' J. Robert Oppenheimer or Germany's Werner Heisenberg, flagrantly touted the idea of atom bombs from the mid-1930s on. They did this to be heard, to get funding, and to become directors of prestigious laboratories — research labs running atom projects with an obvious military bias.
One of these, from the early 1940s, was Enrico Fermi's Manhattan Project. Its aim, of course, was to develop weapons of mass destruction — monstrous weapons to kill civilians, young children, elderly grandparents, cats and dogs — all indiscriminately, all uncaringly, unthinkingly even. But not through the exploding of nuclear reactors, mind you. These lethal devices were just a by-product.
One might ask why, if nuclear power is the energy of the future, it has taken so long for it to supply less than 6 percent of the world's energy. Even this meager achievement accounts only for commercial energy, excluding the requirements of world total primary energy of all kinds. In that case, nuclear power's share drops even further, to about 2.5 percent.
JARGON BUSTER: PRIMARY AND SECONDARY ENERGY
The key point about world energy is that it is almost all thermal. Whether it is created by burning coal, oil or gas, or firewood or dung, or even running nuclear power plants, the first thing produced is heat. This heat is what is defined as primary energy, and for nuclear plants, getting economic value out of primary energy almost invariably involves upgrading it to electricity — energy in a form people can use more easily and thus be made to pay for.
Heat energy from coal can be used directly to run stoves in homes, smelt iron in factories, or even to toast muffins. The same flexibility applies to gas. However, the heat generated by nuclear power rarely has any direct and immediate commercial value. Only when it is upgraded or converted to electricity is it viable.
Chances are that Japan's nuclear disaster — which occurred in reactors designed in the 1960s (one of which was only days from its fortieth birthday) — will actually shift the nuclear industry backward. Modern atomic and nuclear physics has a term for this, originally coined to describe black holes: the "event horizon," a context from where no return is possible, a time, matter, and energy nexus where the outcome cannot replicate the start of the process. In the words of Lemaître, explaining that evocative primeval atom theory: "A tomorrow for which there is no yesterday."
THE NUCLEAR POWERS
Despite its nuclear power ambitions, as of 2010, India falls just outside the top 12, at number 14, just behind Taiwan.
1. Nuclear capacity in operation and under construction as of January 2010, Public Services International Research Unit figures. The total world installed capacity was 375 gigawatts that year.
2. 2008 International Atomic Energy Authority figures.
3. As of 2009, according to the Statistical Review of World Energy. Typically, electrical energy is about half of all primary, or commercially tradable, energy a country consumes.
4. Assumptions about national energy vary widely. For example, in France, a significant proportion of home heating is by locally chopped wood sold on the black market, but little of this appears in energy statistics. In the table, it is conservatively assumed that electricity provides one-fifth of total energy, not just so-called primary (commercial) energy.
5. Lucky old Ukraine inherited many of the former Soviet Union's power stations, including Chernobyl.
Today, for the nuclear industry, an event horizon is emerging. The industry is facing economic, financial, uranium resource, technology, environment, and public awareness, and other forces and factors that could generate a nuclear winter, after which no recovery will be possible.
The Fukushima disaster, which quickly reached level 7 on the international scale for nuclear accidents (the highest possible level, the same as Chernobyl), was an old-style atomic industrial disaster, similar to a long but little-known string of disasters stretching back to the dawn of the atomic age.
And the cost of the Japanese nuclear setback will likely be as high or higher than Chernobyl, even though the immediate death toll has been lower. Taking the real economic damage from Chernobyl as approaching the equivalent of $250 billion in today's money, this incredible sum is still a mere fraction of what it might have been had the radiation from the plant not sterilized for decades, and perhaps centuries, a region of relatively sparse population and low-value agricultural land, in its 3,000-square-mile total exclusion zone. Such luck does not apply to the unfortunate Japanese; the Fukushima site is in much more densely populated northeast Japan, in valuable agricultural land. Its location approximates much more closely the pattern, distribution, and density of nuclear power plants in most countries.
Environmentalists and health specialists will argue for decades about the significance and effects of this latest nuclear accident. However, economists and politicians, including many who previously supported nuclear energy, are in agreement on one thing: For the Japanese and for the nuclear industry as a whole, the Fukushima incident is an unvarnished, unmitigated economic disaster.
Yet the specialist journals and the Sunday papers still insist that nuclear energy has a bright future. Oil is running out, coal is too dirty, renewables are simply irrelevant. Nuclear, they insist, powers the world's major economies and is poised to power the emerging world too.
We have been long told that, compared to the depleting, outdated, polluting, and geopolitically controversial resources such as oil, natural gas, and coal — or the expensive and difficult-to-exploit renewable energy sources such as wind and solar — nuclear energy is the perfect solution. There's a nearly unlimited supply; it is clean and green; and it is cheap — so what is not to like? Opponents to nuclear power seem almost to share the delusions of King Canute warning the tide to turn back.
Take the world's biggest economy, the United States. Potentially, the United States can produce and enjoy 100,000 megawatts (MW) of nuclear electricity each year — far more than any other country. That is nearly enough for each of the country's 120 million or so homes to simultaneously boil a kettle and watch television. (But there will be no energy left to take the subway to the office, which would be unlit, unheated, and shut anyway.) Similarly, sometimes we are impressed to read that nuclear power is the key element in the French economy, providing nearly 80 percent of French electricity, and that in the Far East, China is racing to install new reactors to power its new cities. In neighboring Japan, the share of nuclear power "in the national energy portfolio" is 30 percent, as Nassrine Azimi wrote recently in an authoritative opinion piece for the New York Times that put into context the "existential moment" that was Fukushima. Plus nuclear is poised to provide India with a quarter of all its electricity within, say, the next ten years. No wonder that even the oil-exporting powers of the Middle East have got the nuclear bug. The United Arab Emirates has a plan to build four new reactors to generate "about a quarter of the Emirates' power by 2020"; Iran and Iraq have built small reactors; and Saudi Arabia is planning a nuclear-powered city. A nuclear-powered city! That beats those eco-villages with grass on the roofs.
Yet this picture is much more myth than reality. Sprinkle it with just a few plain facts, and it quickly dissolves.
AMAZING FACT: SAVE ENERGY!
Despite the huge fleet of reactors in the United States — twice the number of its nearest competitor — nuclear generation provides only about 5 percent of the country's energy. It provides a much more important-sounding proportion of the electricity, but that is neither here nor there. Industries (or even home heating systems) at present burning coal, oil, and gas — the fossil fuels that make up about 85 percent of America's energy mix — could as easily (if not as economically) use electricity, and vice versa. And of course, simple energy conservation measures could immediately save many times that amount of energy.
In France, even after 35 years of nuclear power development, the "nuclear dreamland" still gets only one-sixth — about 16 percent — of its final energy from nuclear power. The reality today is that almost half of France's energy consumption still comes from oil (despite the nation having almost no oil reserves of its own).
India's expectation that nuclear power will supply a quarter of its electricity by 2050 seems more than a little optimistic, as at present nuclear power supplies a mere 2 percent of the country's electricity, which equates to a pitiful near-zero percentage of its energy — despite the fact that 20 reactors already are humming. What is really going on in India, a land where most people are still not connected to the electricity grid (what grid?), is that large amounts of money are being directed toward the business interests of a new, nuclear elite.
Excerpted from The Doomsday Machine by Martin Cohen, Andrew McKillop. Copyright © 2012 Martin Cohen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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