Micro-nukes? That's the big idea?
I'm afraid. Very afraid.
On my birthday, which is supposed to be the first day of spring, I opened the March issue of National Geographic, my favorite magazine, only to find a prescription for the darkest of winters -- the nuclear winter that will be the most severe winter of our discontent. But the tone of the article suggested everything was rosy in the bright big beautiful tomorrow of atomic energy.
The article is titled "The Big Idea - Small Town Nukes", authored by Chris Carroll, and its appearance in a magazine that has inspired and guided me since childhood frustrates and frightens me.
As a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who was awarded for my own work in "Small Town Renewable Energy Solutions" (particularly in teaching communities how to build low cost but effective solar hot water systems, urban-waste-to-household-cooking-gas biofuel systems and how to install small scale photovoltaic and wind systems along with do-it-yourself greywater, roof-top gardening and recycling regimes) I'm worried that our beloved magazine has run an article on the most dangerous of energy alternatives that reads at times like a piece of 1950's nuclear industry propaganda.
To me this is perhaps the most frightening article the magazine has ever published, not just because of what it says, but because it seems in its tone to support the centralized energy lobby at a critical time in our earth's history when all the cards must be on the table. I love National Geographic. And I admire its family of scientists, explorers, writers, photographers, film-makers, editors, radio and television producers, marketers, merchandisers, publicists etc. more than any of the people I've encountered in any other enterprise on the globe. So I speak as someone afraid that other admirers of the magazine and society will think this article is an endorsement of the deployment of small nuclear reactors around the world. Read it yourself and let me know if I'm over-reacting. After three pages of glowing commentary (pun not intended) for what I consider the terrible idea of encouraging the widespread use of radioactive material in many "mini-nukes" to "solve our energy problems" the article seems to toss off the unresolved issue of highly radioactive waste in one glib sentence. It says nothing about how a massive deployment of "small town nukes" will affect proliferation or increase terrorist threats, to say nothing of the dangers of having radioactive material shipped to every Bedford Falls in the world.
It doesn't talk about the health of thorium and uranium miners and plutonium processing factory workers and their families (we saw the consequences and the horrible deformities of babies and children when we met with the doctors studying this in India). And it doesn't talk about how this initiative to "decentralize" nuclear energy through micro-nuke deployment, while keeping centralized control of the manufacture, sale, installation, servicing and fueling of the reactors, will affect the true decentralized distributed energy sector which is working with safe, clean, renewable energy sources that can never become a health or security threat.
It also doesn't talk about the impact that a new era's false promise of "electricity too cheap to meter" will have on the real green energy business. The "carbon free, relatively cheap" mantra that leads the article reinforces the climate change scare tactics the industry uses to get environmentally concerned citizens to approve these horrible devices. And I think it is a red herring. We already have plenty of net carbon zero technologies (if we are really concerned with global warming) that are safe and can be immediately deployed. Any stock broker can tell you that a diverse portfolio is safer than reliance on a single stock, and while the article gives a nod to the idea that small town nukes wouldn't be able to meet all energy demand (if only because the demand is said to be growing too fast, with the intimation that regulators move too slow, and even block innovation!) there is no discussion of what having deployable small reactors that can be profitable for a wealthy minority will do to the investment landscape for true small businesses and start-ups.
My fear is also that a green light for small scale nukes will kill off the true green competition, just as the subsidies for oil prices did in the 70's and 80's when oil embargo shock prices initially encouraged innovations in renewable energy. Naturally nobody in their right mind is going to let the private sector use the free market to create a competitive nuclear industry -- we are ready to go to war when countries like Iran start working on their own domestic nuclear power, to say nothing of letting every small town around the world make their own nukes. The reactors will, as usual, be manufactured in cooperation with governments (which is necessary for something so dangerous) by a limited number of large companies but, as Amory Lovins points out, will be subsidized by tax payer money so that they can out-compete other nascent idustries with large start-up and capital costs. And the downstream profits will go to just a few big business players with close ties to Eisenhowers' famous "military industrial complex" (and foreign equivalents). That's just one of the threats I perceive.
As a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who is working on small town renewable energy issues I am deeply dismayed, disturbed and depressed. It isn't only that the push that the U.S. and France and others is making for this initiative is so frightening (we're supposed to be fighting nuclear proliferation at the same time?), but the fact that such an important magazine that stands as an authority on global issues is publishing such uncritical material on the subject. Please read it yourself and see if you agree. I think it sounds more like an advertisement than a report. As we used to say in Dobbs Ferry New York, to express shock and concern "hey, Nat Geo, what's the big idea?"
My cousin Charles, a former Navy man who worked on nuclear submarines, read the article and had similar misgivings. He commented,
"What the @%$! is wrong with them? Maybe a big influx of energy corp. dollars? This is awful -- and I speak as a former reactor operator."
This out of character National Geographic article deliberately compares the mini-nukes being proposed for the rest of us to the small reactors on nuclear subs, as if that somehow makes them okay. The public has this weird warped impression from what I think is a hijacked and backwards "small is beautiful" campaign that somehow our military's ship-based mini-nuclear reactors are safe, have never had accidents and don't create unmanageable toxic waste. But this is contradicted by the evidence (see this list of accidents with small reactors since the 1950s). Charles has told me over the years about the worrisome things he saw and learned when he was on a submarine working with the reactors and why it made him want to leave the armed forces.
If you read Hayden White's "Tropics of Discourse" and deconstruct the trope of this article it is clear that it contains linguistic subterfuges. The dangers of deploying "small town nukes" are glossed over with such finesse and utopian optimism you would think we were reading General Electric public relations pieces during the shrewd "atoms for peace" campaign. To say that civilian nuclear energy has no link to atomic proliferation is to ignore history. India fooled us all in 1974 by signing up for atoms for peace and turning around and making and detonating a nuclear bomb, spurring Pakistan to do the same. Today, the American and French mini-nuke agendas, which Japan, Korea and China are also interested in pursuing, is to lease these reactors to all the other countries (supposedly so they won't have to make their own radioactive fuel), come in, pop them in the ground, connect every town and village to them, and then come back 30 years later to refuel them. As if nothing changes in 30 years (no, the Berlin Wall didn't come down; no the Soviet Union didn't dissolve, placing a huge nuclear stockpile in the hands of unstable forces that has led to leaks of material to God knows where). As if giving everybody a small town nuclear reactor which contains material that will remain deadly and toxic for tens of thousands of years isn't a manifestly bad idea during an era of unpredictably large storms, threats of emerging diseases, orange and red terror alerts and huge social, political and environmental changes.
What I fear most, even IF we could solve the terrorist and environmental and health threats, and find a way to deal with the waste, is the idea of making towns and cities dependent on ubiquitously distributed radioactive energy sources that demand high security everywhere. Talk about setting up conditions for a climate of fear that will justify police-state fascism! If you read F.A. Hayek's 1944 classic "The Road to Serfdom" (which he wrote in exile from Nazi Germany) it doesn't take much of a cognitive leap to see how the "mini-nuke" path will lead us inexorably down that same road.
The thing is I normally really admire Chris Carrol's writing and articles. His article on "Hi-Tech Trash" and its impact on the health of African villagers who are on the receiving end of the environmental insult was a real eye-opening experience (http://ngm.nationalgeograp
What can we do?
Well, you might write National Geographic and Mr. Carrol and ask why such an unbalanced report was published, and urge that when we are talking about dangerous energy sources a full and balanced discussion of the cons and pros is always available (we aren't talking about something benign like solar hot water here, which can harm nobody, after all, and articles always talk about the "threat" of "noise" and possible "bird mortality" when talking about wind farms, the deforestation and land use contradictions like "food vs. fuel" that affect biofuel production; you rarely read an article on solar energy that doesn't point out every little disadvantage, from economic competitiveness to competition for sunlight and space. I think we should be much much harder on alternatives that cause mutations, and deformities and cancer along their supply chain and that can lead to unconscionable catastrophic situations).
Another thing you can do is engage in public debate about the issue and inform yourself as much as possible about the risks and alternatives. And lets compare things fairly -- can we really say, as Carrol does at the end of the article, simply "With any of the new reactors, of course, there will still be radioactive waste to contend with" as if this is something trivial? If this is a fair way to address the concern, logically then, we should be saying about things like the continued burning of fossil fuels, and "clean coal" initiatives, "with any of these technologies, of course there will still be carbon dioxide to contend with".
And if we say that, then we should ask, "which is easier to contend with -- deadly radioactive waste that can fall into the hands of crazies and contaminate our air, food and water, or a substance like CO2 that we breathe out of our own lungs every day and that has been part of the planet's nutrient and sequestration cycles for billions of years?"
If dealing with nuclear waste, a waste that contains elements like plutonium that didn't even exist on this earth until recently, and which biological systems have no mechanism for coping with (to say nothing of human societies) is so trivial, then dealing with carbon dioxide should be regarded as even more trivial.
And if that is the case, then the whole case for having nuclear reactors and investing so much in their supposed role in bringing CO2 levels down, becomes a sham.
Or maybe Solar CITIES should stop trying to get funding for teaching community catalysts how to build solar power and biogas power systems on their roofs and backyards and should apply for grants to build home-scale nuclear reactors instead. Want to pitch in and help us do that? We promise to come and make one in your small town too!
(Above is the image from the March issue, copyright National Geographic 2010. Care to try this at home?)