As nuclear nightmares unfold on top of chaos and catastrophe in Japan, we are forced to witness how terribly unforgiving nuclear power really is. It will get much worse if systems continue to explode and rupture, as seems probable.
More irradiated fuel in reactor cores and spent fuel pools will be exposed, and will melt and burn explosively. Radio-nuclides, including plutonium from MOX fuels made from nuclear bombs, will spew into the atmosphere and contaminate the global commons, causing premature death and disease throughout the world for hundreds of thousands of years.
How could this happen? Not by accident. Human folly, greed and arrogance are responsible for this horrific event.
While earthquake and tidal wave are natural forces, people built nuclear reactors next to tectonic faults and by the oceans, and not only in Japan. There, people decided that earthquakes could be withstood, and that sea-walls could be made big enough to keep tsunamis out. Not this time. In their arrogance, people had such confidence in their barriers and protections that they put back-up systems on low ground just inside the sea wall.
No, this horrific event is not an accident. It is the predictable result of a series of foolish, greedy, arrogant and, it turns out, really stupid human decisions.
It isn't as if there were no voices warning against this madness, year after year, for decades. In Japan, North America, Europe and wherever else nuclear power plants have been built, concerned and informed people have attempted to prevent or remove nuclear threats by pointing out hosts of scenarios that might lead to disaster, and by identifying multitudes of cost-effective, reliable, abundant, safe and clean options for providing electricity. But these alternatives would interfere with market share for energy cartels. So the madness continues, with blessings from politicians and from bureaucrats whose first priority is to keep their butts covered without rocking the boat.
Well, the boat's been rocked, and the butts are bare.
And it's not as if it can't happen here in Minnesota. Just because it took an earthquake and tsunami to breach barriers in Japan doesn't mean that any number of different scenarios are not capable of breaching them here. Critical reactor parts and components that we know are aging and deteriorating due to stress and neutron bombardment could break and fail, causing nuclear operators to lose control. Undetected corrosion could lead to disaster. A reactor operator, perhaps drunk or drugged or fatigued, could make a series of mistakes, leading to component malfunction and cascading failure. There are dozens of ways in which terrorists intent on inflicting massive damage could penetrate protective barriers and lay waste to reactors and spent fuel pools -- which, by the way, at Monticello as at Dai-ichi, is six stories up in the air.
It doesn't have to be like this. Nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of Minnesota's electrical generation capacity. Energy efficiency alone could displace most of that, if we were to finally get serious about replacing inefficient lights, refrigerators, motors and other un-controlled and obsolete equipment, and install the most efficient commercially available end-use devices to perform those functions. The boat's been rocked. Maybe now enough people will realize what their stake is in this energy business to make some changes.
George Crocker is executive director of the Minnesota-based North American Water Office, which describes its mission as "to phase in modern renewable energy and energy efficiency systems and technologies, and to phase out destructive electrical generation technologies and obsolete, abusive energy management practices."