Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Nuclear Solution

We have had about a week or so now since the devastating earthquake in Japan. While the news reports concerning the nuclear power facilities appears to be mediocre-to-good (as in half the earth isn’t going to slide away), there’s still a lot of ambivalence about what this means for the future of nuclear energy.

I’ve always been fascinated by nuclear power. Of course, I mean this in a Bachelor of Arts way, not an engineer way. I’m an idiot as far as things like this are concerned. As far as I know there is a big cast iron swimming pool-shaped thing somewhere that some dump truck backs up to, unloads a truckload of coal into it, someone squirts some lighter fluid and throws a match on it, they slam a lid on it and flip a switch, and the end result is that it makes my air conditioner run all night long each summer.

In physics class the books always had a schematic showing how nuclear power works. It always seems so neat and clean. Some element gets real hot real fast, which causes steam to form and turbines to run, which then generates electricity. At some point the stuff we’re burning doesn’t create smoke but a small amount of excrementally radioactive material, which then must be disposed of in the congressional district that has the least amount of clout. There are a lot of fail-safes involved because when I say “real hot” I mean “China Syndrome hot” and this is what makes it simultaneously efficient and worrisome.

So when the reactors in Japan started going wonky, they brought some physicist on the air to tell us how this all worked. Which, of course, had to be dumbed down for the general audience. Their response was scarily similar to what I just wrote in the above paragraph. But even when you could see through the simplistic model to the incredibly complex science he was describing, you could tell that we're really still talking about steel tubing and concrete containment centers, not space-age elements and Jetsonesque engineering.

I'm even still astounded at some of the solutions. Fire hoses and rain barrels? When some of the workers were exposed, a reporter casually mentioned that "luckily, they could wash all the radiation off." I just assumed radiation was like poison or radon, where it seeps into your body and starts the Hulkinization of your body that can't be arrested without massive medical intervention. I didn't realize you could hose yourself off afterwards and be A-OK.

Certainly, I know it's not as simple as that, and that there are different types of exposure. I guess I'm just surprised that many of the solutions involve plenty of rather mundane and unadvanced technologies. Which I suppose is a good thing, especially when the advanced technologies fail us.

Of course, in the long run, this hopefully won't stop the advancement of nuclear power. Despite all of the worrying and scares, it's still the most promising energy source out there. (Look up the fatalities of coal mining as compared to nuclear.) What's happening in Japan is clearly an outlier. While the contamination is unfortunate, right now if that's the worst that happens, it's still safer than other carbon-based forms of energy production. (Apology to Japan: I am fully aware that the act of me writing that sentence just increased the chances of a meltdown significantly, because the world is engineered to make me look like a fool whenever possible.) Still, I'm watching what happens to the reactors with interest, and hopefully things will be back online soon.

1 comment:

  1. I would like to point out a book aimed squarely at someone with a BA's interest in nuclear -- it goes well beyond the clean schematic to show what the hundreds of people working at a nuclear reactor are actually doing. Yet it's not a tedious rendition of engineering and labor stuff, it's a fun read. An airport paperback, if you will.

    “Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power” culminates in an accident very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem.) The author (me) has worked in the US nuclear industry over 25 years. There is nothing like this book on the market -- I have provided a never-seen insider's perspective on the people, politics and technology of this controversial energy source. Believe me, the real world of nuclear (good and bad) bears little resemblance to what most people think -- and I include in that group most of the journalists, academics and advocates currently chatting away on TV and radio.

    Rad Decision is currently available free online at . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments - there are plenty of them. There is also a paperback version available and a PDF download. (I apologize that the book's drawings do still look like schematics. Hard to avoid that, and also hard to add all the gnarly human stuff onto a blue print.)

    Unfortunately, my media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I'm not an acknowledged "expert". I just happpen to do the nuclear stuff for a living. (I guess that was a faux pas on my part, if I ever wanted to be on TV, talking seriously with a news anchor.)

    This isn't a pro-nuclear screed. I believe there isn’t a perfect energy solution – just options – each with their good and bad points. I think we’ll make better choices about our energy future if we first understand our energy present. A view from the inside would really help in this process.


    James Aach


    “I got to about page four and I was hooked, I couldn’t put it down… It was very easy to read, the characters were well described, and they were vibrant.” - DAVID LEVY, noted science author and comet discoverer.

    "It's very nice." - MY MOM


    "Thanks for making this available online. I saw your link in a comment about the Japan earthquake/tsunami March/2011. Your novel explains the workings of a nuclear plant, so that a layperson can understand. A very suspenseful read!" -- VICKI