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Newsletter - Update September 5, 2013 (Nuclear power)

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  • Gerry Agnew
    I have written on this subject for sometime now, but the ongoing mess which is Fukushima compels me to do so again. During my enforced absence in the
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 5, 2013
      I have written on this subject for sometime now, but the ongoing mess which is Fukushima compels me to do so again. During my enforced absence in the disastrous Southern Alberta flooding in the last few months, I have still managed (courtesy of my daughter's laptop which is well away from the flood zone) to keep relatively abreast of this sorrowful issue. Strictly speaking, what follows is more of a rant than the analysis I usually send along. However, I wished to get it off my chest as it is a subject which I feel strongly about. With this having been said, here is the letter!
      It seems to me that having a nuclear reactor is akin to flying in a jet aircraft. You purchase a ticket, board what amounts to a giant pressurised beer can under a security system which used to be reserved for travelling heads of state, and listen to what is only a little less than official propaganda telling you just how safe flying in this manner is today. Amazingly, you do tend to get to where you want to go, and the odds do favour you here. If we compare this to nuclear power we see much the same sort of thing. We see a giant structure whose owners continue to tell us that nuclear power is the safest power generating system on the planet and how it is "the indispensable asset" for the world going forward. In other words, "this is what you've got - shut up and enjoy it". This is true, except when it isn't.
      I hate flying to be frank and live in mortal dread of a pilot saying to all the crammed-in passengers "Well, folks, it looks like we have some interesting news for you. We will be landing in Calgary on time, but perhaps in a field near the airport because of currently unknown mechanical problems. It is just a safety precaution and if you just do what you have been told to do in cases such as this, I'm sure you will all be just fine". It seems to me that jet flying on balance is safe enough, but you always have to live with the slim possibility that something could go disastrously wrong, which would then spread your molecules over several acres across a field of a very annoyed farmer. When flying works well it does what it is supposed to do. When nuclear power works well, it also does what it supposed to do. When it goes wrong, it can be something which could be described in the Biblical Book of Revelations.
      In 1986 we saw "something go wrong" at Chernobyl in the then Soviet Ukraine. Today, I still read stories about how this horror "probably came to pass" and how, for thousands of years from now this area of the world will probably be a radioactive wilderness. I would contend that it is irrelevant as to why it happened: it did, and that is the bottom line. Of course, in the aftermath of something which could have caused Europe to die, glowing in the dark as it did so, we were told that "New protocols will be written to make sure that this never happens again". Perish the thought that a shareholder, private or government would ever have to suffer the inconvenience of an interrupted cash flow! Not too much happened for the next generation until 2011 when Fukushima in Japan suffered what could be, if some of the more alarmist projections are accurate, an event so hideous that the Pacific Ocean itself might be at risk. How many hundreds of millions of people live off the bounty of this giant body of water? FAR too many it seems to me.
      Nuclear power proponents will immediately claim that "all reasonable safety measures were taken into consideration during the construction of Fukushima" and therein lies the tale of probabilities.What these poor souls are saying is completely irrelevant! Yes, under normal circumstances this plant (even though it was constructed using now far outdated blueprints from the late 1960s) is safe and the odds on anything happening are such that winning the lottery would seem an everyday occurence, but so what? It happened and the damage is so extreme that even the plant owner TEPCO is asking for overseas help. The result from this one in a billion chance of a major earthquake and tidal wave hitting the Fukushima plant is such that the catastrophic results are out of all proportion to what these odds purport to be! Is it truly worthwhile to try and knock a few cents off the cost of a kilowatt hour of electricity and risk the planet in doing so? As is with the case of a jet aircraft, when things go wrong many people die. They cannot walk away from a jet slamming into the ground at 600 mph. They are finished, despite the odds being in completely in their favour at the outset of their journey. When Fukushima goes wrong, it may be that hundreds of millions in East Asia will ultimately die. It is clear to me that risking even a small chance on this is completely unacceptable. If nuclear power can do damage on this sort of scale, and without question it has been shown that it has the potential to do this, it must be banned in favour of an alternative power source.
      So, on balance is the chimera of limitless nuclear/electric power actually worth it? How much can our energy dependent society rely on ever increasing demand for energy of all types without realising just how serious the overall situation could become if one of these "freak accidents" happened again, in a city like New York for example? Evacuating New York City with goodness knows what knock-on economic effects is not something which a wobbly economy really needs to be frank! Yes, we have back-up facilities for the major banks/brokerage houses elsewhere in the United States in case of something like this happening, but the sense I get (and I have worked on one of these when I lived in Seattle) is that these are for show and are never expected to be used for anything of consequence. What would a Fukushima in the world's second largest financial centre do to major credit ratings, quite apart from the terrible damage measured in human costs? No one wants to know or calculate these because it would interrupt cash and profit flow and who wants to focus on such negative material?
      Chernobyl showed that human error (in all probability) caused that disaster and Fukushima showed that we are acutely vulnerable to natural events: no matter how unlikely. Three Mile Island in the US seems to have shown that equally terrible things could have happened there as well, but we were fortunate as it turned out. How many more times will we be continually lucky before something truly unbelievable happens which cannot be rectified? Then we would see major changes to our lifestyles which would probably be permanent, with governments running hither and yon trying to mitigate things which should have been done decades previously. Fingers will be pointed and probable show trials would be seen everywhere as heretofore wealthy corporate heads bow low and say how sorry they are that all of this has come to pass.
      Is this really the risk we want to run for what would be, by comparison, only moderate gains? Risk/reward is upside down I think!
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