Fear of a Nuclear Planet

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , , | Posted on 2:01 PM

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Before this last semester's nuclear and chemical engineering class, I had a very different view of nuclear power and politics: under the same sort of general 'nuclear power is bad' stance (equal parts B-movies and Chernobyl) which seems common to lay persons in the US, I viewed the goals of preventing proliferation and nuclear power as being essentially the same. Obviously, I thought, both needed to be reduced. Weren't they essentially the same problem? Weren't they both going to bring about the apocalypse (and giant glowing ants)?

Some of my misconceptions about nuclear power and proliferation stem from the way nuclear power is reported; nonproliferation and nuclear power are often paired in reporting, by people who do not necessarily have the background necessary to understand the technical and/or political events which make up newsworthy events in nonproliferation and nuclear power. Reporters tend to focus, sometimes with ghoulish glee (as do film-makers and game developers) on accidents, threats, scares and/or completely implausible scenarios. I play and love Wasteland, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Fallout, but can no longer consider them even mildly plausible as descriptors of what nonproliferation means, and the current system in the US for maintaining safeguards at nuclear power sites.

After Fukushima, fears over catastrophic disaster have only increased. Some of those fears are justified; reactors all over the world sometimes should be, for lack of a better word, upgradedSecurity could always be tightened, and the voluntary nature of participation in nonproliferation regimes could give developing nations a chance to create secret nuclear programs.

The engineering class I took used publicly-sourced information (nothing classified) and basic instruction in IAEA procedures, current events and science (historical and present efforts to increase safety, and progress made on nonproliferation goals) to made a damn good case for problems with the way nuclear power and nonproliferation are linked.

It is true that the nuclear fuel cycle produces waste which can be used in the manufacture of Plutonium 239 weapons, and that enriching the Uranium through any of the commercial weapons could, if it continues well past what is necessary for use in power plants (the threshold is 25% Uranium 235, at which point it can be used to make serious mischief). However, the nature of nonproliferation treaties and political alignments make doing so a problem without a fully funded program which can be hidden, meaning that it has to be a funded, state or governing body authorized program, not something which can be done in the basement, to the specs required for modern reactors or to get large scale fission.

I will not claim that the IAEA can prevent all problems. This article, while laughably misinformed (at 90% enrichment, you are so very far past what you need to cause problems), points to one of the key problems: sensationalism of some of the risks, minimal information about the science and safety procedures involved and the refusal to acknowledge the need for nuclear power.

Concerns over Iran are well-founded, for reasons that can be googled on any of the sites I link to. Seven hundred, plus 350 more centrifuges, ensures that should Iran choose to enrich for weapons, they will be more quickly able to do so. I won't fault the reporter for providing an explanation of why enriching to 27% could be an accident, as we are talking about the public, here.

However, several concerns complicate the issue; there's no way to get around the fact that nuclear power is currently necessary. We in the US are, for the most part, privileged enough to have regular access to power in both public and private venues (assuming, of course, that any individual examined can pay the electricity bills and is not homeless.)

We have power partially because of our nuclear power plants; natural gas alone does not provide enough energy, wind and water alone don't provide enough energy and coal (combined with other fossil fuels) is so damn bad for the environment that it shouldn't be an option. Nuclear power does produce waste and have an environmental impact, comparatively less (without an accident) than fossil fuels.

It is necessary for (and, in fact, part of nonproliferation treaties) nations to have access to power for their citizens, even nations like Iran, which is one of the things which complicates international relations-- we and other developed nations share peaceful use technologies with developing nations due to the need for international stability (frequently accomplished through economic growth in these nations, which tends to strongly motivate peace.) Reporting on this issue often does not cover the reasons why developing nations are so desperate to maintain their nuclear power plants, and that part of our diplomatic mission is to help these nations find ways to join the international community.

This contributes to the often exaggerated fears of nuclear power, providing a significant obstacle to efforts to reduce emissions and humanely understand the concerns of developing nations. Those two things are a much more realistic fear than glowing ants, mutants and a nuclear wasteland.

There are good reasons to fear a nuclear planet. I wish they were the ones which came to mind for the general public.

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