Published in the October 2007
issue of the Canadian
Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.28, No.3.
It Was the Best of Technologies, It Was the Worst of Technologies
by Jeremy Whitlock
And now, dear students, please cast aside all you've learned thus far in Social Behavioral Analysis 101, and accompany me on a journey to the erratic side of mass psychology.
Consider, if you will, the morning of July 16, 2007, when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake shook the northwest coast of Honshu, Japan, wreaking $100 billion in damage that killed 11 people, injured 1000 others, flattened hundreds of homes, and left about 9,000 refugees.
In one of the biggest non-events of that day, all four operating units at the nearby Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant shut down without incident, as designed. Happily, this transpired despite the plant's location a mere 16 km from the epicentre, with local accelerations significantly exceeding the seismic qualification of the station.
Unhappily for thousands, the seismic qualifications were similarly exceeded for most structures in the region, and while that fact boggles the mind in one of the most earthquake-prone and technologically advanced countries on the planet, it remains a reassuring fact that the inherent conservatism of reactor design allowed the cores at the world's largest nuclear plant to safely shut down and remain protected despite the shortcomings of the seismic code.
But, to the crux: Ask anyone about Japanese earthquakes and you'll hear of the reactor that burned, the incompetent engineers, the radiation leaks, and how all this makes reactors anywhere on the planet an insane idea. ("We Almost Lost Niigata!", the inevitable rallying cry)
Not that there wasn't a fire (in a transformer), some structural damage, and a minor radiation leak that pales next to what is likely found in municipal wastewater. But in terms of human suffering, it was a non-event.
It was more than a non-event; it was soaring testament to the foresight and conservatism of reactor safety designers. It was a gushing good-news story that screamed: "If Mother Nature does the unexpected, probably the best place to be is inside a nuclear facility!" (And that goes for terrorism too, by gum.)
So why the mix of fortunes, an age of wisdom and an age of foolishness?
Quite simply, there are two nuclear technologies: one of Light and the other of Darkness. There is the nuclear world that most governments and scientists know, and the one that the people know. Both exist. Both are as real as a heart attack on a congested freeway during an unnecessary evacuation.
The virtual nuclear world (the one that killed millions after Chernobyl, almost destroyed half of Japan and not to mention Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and routinely accounts for most of the deformities and disease within 100 km of each nuclear installation) is a powerful construct of the mass consciousness: a "memoid" if you will, held together by half-century-old memes as strong as the day Oppenheimer became a shatterer of worlds.
It was memoid marketing that drove Energy Probe to label the Canadian deep geological disposal plan for nuclear waste as "50% safe", prompted by a federal environmental review that declared the technology "technically sound" but "unsafe from a social perspective". That bridge crossed the two worlds, and upon that bridge the next many decades of Canadian nuclear used fuel management will be built.
Moreover - and this is the point - it is the only way that used fuel management can ever happen.
This yin and yang, after all, are deeply rooted in the nuclear psyche. One could easily argue that the memoid nuclear is much bigger and more real than the real nuclear.
It is clearly good that we can detect radiation down to the decay of single atoms. It is also clearly bad that we can detect radiation down to the decay of single atoms (witness the worldwide angst over a handful of becquerels at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa).
It is clearly good that we can store all of our waste product in one place. It is clearly bad that we can store all of our waste product in one place.
It is good that fission offers millions of times higher energy density than any other energy source. It is bad that fission puts this much energy all in one place.
Ergo, nuclear technology has the best safety and environmental record of any energy source. Nuclear technology has the worst safety and environmental record of any energy source.
We have everything before us, we have nothing before us; we are all going directly to Heaven, we are all going the other way.