Comments: This Blows!

The other huge unanswered problem has to do with the long-term storage of nuclear waste. The current situation is nothing more than huge storage pools of waste filling slowly at each plant location. That sounds like a storage solution to believe in. In the late 70's the Yucca mountain repository was proposed. How's that multi-billion dollar boondoggle looking today? So we've spent dozens of billions on empty promises, but we have no long-term repository, and we're building new reactors on credit again? Plus, we're subsidizing such reactor projects due to our liberal-minded concern for... the environment? Not to end with melodrama, but it chills my blood to think about sequestering a material for a million years. Imagine the statistical odds of a problem, when the time scale is that long.

Posted by jeff in chicago at March 3, 2010 02:19 AM

We know that the answer to the long-term storage of nuclear waste is to burn much of it as nuclear fuel, there just hasn't been much success in doing that, compared to the success of turning it into armor piercing rounds.

This is Bill Gate's latest thing right, with the "travelling wave" reactor he's out doing PR stunts for, which seems to be more or less the same thing as the SSTAR reactor under development at Lawrence Livermore labs. China is the last country working on pebble bed reactors, blah blah blah.

If breeder technology doesn't come online they'll run out of U238 and the problem will rather solve itself, sooner or later.

The byproducts still have to be stored somewhere, but that seems like a better problem to have than the status quo of dumping energy byproducts into the atmosphere.

But yes, this is a strange allocation of resources when we're bombarded with enough energy from the sun every day to adequately fuel civilization, such as it is, some insane number of times over.

Posted by buermann at March 3, 2010 03:40 AM

Ah, here's the rub. There is much more on our plates than just these technical scientific questions.

I followed from the other thread mistah charley ph.d's directions to the Coffee Party so I could read his quotation of chris floyd's program for simultaneously ending the empire and saving the domestic economy, and I heartily approve the goal, but it's only possible to agree with that program if one has some assumptions in mind about what is scientifically possible to address the energy issue that humanity faces. Aaron and the commenters appear to have a more informed view on that. I can recognize the hidden assumption, but I really don't know very much about the technical questions.

The unstated assumption relates to what we truly can do to address the twin issues of energy and climate change. Apart from choosing to live in ignorance bliss until the Rapture comes, we have absolutely no choice but to do that to deal with climate change. The threat to the global ecosphere posed by nuclear waste is miniscule in comparison, or at least so says James Lovelock, author of The Living Earth and proponent of the Gaia hypothesis. (Lovelock's opinion strikes me as informed and concerned, but I am no expert.)

If we're going to avoid nuclear altogether, solar and wind power and other types of green energy will need to carry the whole load. Can they do it? I can only provide one sure answer that exists apart from science in the realm of political economy: Green energy can't carry that whole load under our presently dominant international economic system, finance capitalism. That won't happen. And that poses some really big complications.

Ironically, to get rid of our unbridled system of international finance capitalism, it will be necessary to cut the legs out from under American nationalism. American nationalists claim to hate international finance capitalism, but in fact they are its one indispensable friend, because they insist that no international organization can have any teeth.

The direct and immediate consequence of there being no real international body capable of preventing international chaos is that the US military fills the void, increasingly eagerly. It leaves the United States 'the indispensable nation' that Madeleine Albright claimed we have become more than a decade ago. But that, of course, changes our whole society (so long republic, hello Empire) and also invites other nations to look after their own interests in the same way we do, because they won't just trust us to do the right thing. There is a global battle being played out for control of the last great deposits of oil and gas, which are in Central Asia. Not only are Central Asian hydrocarbons therefore a powder keg waiting to explode, they are also a carbon dioxide bomb.

And so we come full circle. We were just talking about nuclear power, but that led to climate change, and then to empire, and then to nationalism and internationalism. And that's because we can't just talk about nuclear power, or climate change, or the United Nations, or the opportunity cost of running the Empire. Any of that is like talking about an elephant by feeling its left leg. Or a tusk. Meanwhile, the whole elephant is most definitely there, and it's about to sit on us.

Posted by N E at March 3, 2010 08:50 AM

Who is NE? Sounds to me like he's nailed it - and everyone else is right too, of course.

Is there any way to keep the elephant from sitting down?

Posted by Grandpa Ken at March 3, 2010 09:34 AM

While we're on the subject of giant elephants — I don't see any hope for people 'like myself' (basically powerless unemployed kids) — but as a species, we really need to disperse from the small room full of grenades that technology has made of the planet.

We can't wait for some miraculous 'warp drive'. Got to do it the hard way — I'm talking Orion starships — old school, hard-nosed Clarke-Heinlein style. There is only so much usable fissile material on the planet, and we can't afford to waste it making electricity to power video games.

Posted by Cloud at March 3, 2010 10:42 AM

Thank you Grandpa Ken. I would tell you who I am, but I'm still not entirely sure. I'm glad you got past my 65 typos and grammar mistakes. I am better at questions than answers, but my suggested Elephant Control Options are:

1) Adopt the old Epicurean motto=="eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!" (That seemed to be the gladiators' approach too, but then the Romans were just Greeks with testosterone poisoning.)

2) Read Aeschylus and join the existential battle of futile resistance. Enact The Myth of Sisyphus on a personal level. This can be done while posting comments at ATR (my personal boulder of choice.)

3. Do both 1 and 2, though this will cause identity confusion.

4. Form a revolutionary party to stop the use of carbon dioxide and/or finance capitalism (aka the WTO) (The FBI must already have done this a few dozen times by now, so you can probably just find a local affiliate and join.)

5. Seek out another solar system, galaxy, or parallel universe where video games generate energy rather than consuming it. Save a seat for Cloud.

6. Take mushrooms or other psychedelics until the elephant looks really sexy. A happy death is always good.

7. Above all, remember the wisdom of Ross Perot's first VP candidate, Admiral James Bond Stockdale (I kid you not about that middle name), who was a mistreated POW in Vietnam for many years and said people really would be wise to remember something that he learned the hard way: The worst they can do is kill you, and that probably isn't so bad either. (That's as liberating as my tips will get.)

8. Also try to remember the wisdom of Carl Jung, who said advice is a great thing. It never hurt anyone, because nobody pays any attention to it.

More seriously, subject to all that, explain to anyone willing and able to listen why we are fighting a losing battle against history by trying to police the world to sustain a global economy that increasingly doesn't serve the interests of most Americans, that is sure to do a worse and worse job of doing so over the coming decades, and that may well culminate in national and even global self-destruction either through resource wars or climate catastrophe. And find an emotional hook to use to pitch that, because I suck at that.

Posted by N E at March 3, 2010 01:16 PM

Has anyone here seen the movie Collapse? I read the book about a month ago and Mike Ruppert is very convinced the elephant is going to sit down soon.

@Aaron, are you familiar with the work of Dr. Ernest Sternglass? He contends the amount of radiation released during the Three Mile Island accident was harmful contrary to the claims of the nuclear lobby.IIRC, the summary I read in one of the editions of Project Censored said that about 400 children in the area developed thyroid disorders that some later died from according to Dr. Sternglass. I too grew up near East PA, actually South Jersey to be exact, and I've heard stories like this for many years.

I'm also wondering when the GOP is going to start ripping on Obama about how he's "taking the nuclear power industry down the road to socialism." I wonder when the Tea Partiers are going to wear signs "Keep the Gov't out of our Nuclear Industry!"

Posted by Walt C at March 3, 2010 01:37 PM

@Walt C - I'm somewhat aware of the issue, which I've thought about more often in recent years. I'm certainly open to the idea that the radiation releases from TMI were much greater than we were told. I mean, we're told the truth only so very rarely.

I actually grew up in Lehigh County, which since TMI (according to the article you linked) has experienced the highest rate of thyroid cancer in the nation. My mother and I often discuss the large number of weird cancers and other ailments which are alarmingly prevalent among long-time residents.

Generally I've thought either a) that's just what it's like when ones' elders get older, they start talking about people dying all the time, or b) it's the result of long-term exposure to pesticides and agricultural chemicals (I grew up on a farm in a rural area). But obviously there's a c) option as well: radioactive fallout.

Thanks for pointing this out to me. I'll be honest that it's literally never occurred to me before. Which is a pretty good indication of rather effective brainwashing, when I pause to examine it, given that I have both the knowledge and the scientific tools to think about it carefully.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 3, 2010 06:41 PM