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October 1, 2009

Nuclear Nervousness

Nukes Are Friendlier And Don't Have To Be Big

For those who don't subscribe to the Mailing List, or otherwise haven't come across it, the Lew Rockwell Column recently featured an article of mine entitled Nuclear No-Contest. The many responses that it generated have been overwhelmingly supportive--see the mail letter that we sent out for some examples.

One thing that stood out, however, was the irrationality of the reflexive fears that have been implanted by 30 years of alarmism and unbalanced reporting on the subject. Several respondents went out of their way to draw my attention to instances they had managed to dig up of equipment malfunctions at nuclear plants, an incident in Japan where two workers died (from a steam pipe rupture, not anything due to the plant's being nuclear per se), poor judgment on the part of management, and so forth. Very well, accidents have occurred in the industry, people have died, and dumb things happen. But we already knew this. So what was their point? What it was apparently meant to convey was that no accidents of any kind can be tolerated when it comes to nuclear because the consquences could be catastrophic on a major scale, which seems to reflect the perception of a large sector of the public. But when one gets away from lurid emotional plays and down to some hard numbers, the reality turns out to be not so at all.

The ultimate disaster scenario that opponents have dwelt on endlessly is a total melting down of the reactor core. To say that such an event is unlikely is putting it mildly, as the article at LRC tries to make clear. But even if all the "what if?s" were to come true, and it happened, the consequences would not be as calamitous as the world has been led to believe. Since it has never happened, the conclusion has to be based on simulations and studies, but the same methods that have proved reliable in other areas of engineering where there have been sufficient actual events to verify the calculations indicate that it would take one meltdown somewhere or other in the United States every two weeks to match the level of fatalities and health damage that coal-burning does now--not in a worst-case accident, but in the course of normal operation that we accept as a matter of course. (Source: Bernard Cohen's superb treatment of every facet of the subject, The Nuclear Energy Option.) That's in the real world--not from exercises in imagination stretched to its limit, but bodies on slabs, widows and orphans, busy emergency rooms, and filled hospital beds. One thing that would be sure to kill more people than any energy industry is none at all. So which of the choices would the critics prefer?

The other recurring reservation was distrust of large, centralized generating facilities and the monopoly by state or corporate controlling interests that many assumed a nuclear policy would necessarily imply. The LRC article focused on large, 1,000 Megawatt plants in order to make comparisons based on what was installed, working, and proven, as opposed to fanciful excursions into what might be. (Contrast that with what we hear from the solar lobby.) But in fact there's nothing inherent in nuclear technology itself that make such an approach necessary. A piece entitled Neighborhood Nukes that I posted in September last year described the Hyperion modular reactor, built from sealed, truck-transportable units each capable of delivering 27 MW of electricity--enough to power a small town--which could be run by a local authority or operator. The subject is commanding a lot of activity worldwide. A good survey of current developments and proposals is given in the Encyclopedia of Earth under the heading Small Nuclear Power Reactors, by Ian Hore-Lacy.

Note also, four new titles added to the Heretics catalog:

Terrestrial Energy, by William Tucker

Power to Save the World, by Gwyneth Cravens

A Case for Nclear-Generated Electricity, by Scott Heaberlin

Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century, by Ian Hore-Lacy

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