Friday, April 08, 2011

Pass the Plutonium

Don't count nuclear power out.
People think that Fukushima will mean the end of nuclear power, but I'm convinced it's the opposite. We're going to lose our nuclear virginity over this accident and start seeing the world as adults. In fact it's already happening.

Exhibit A is George Monbiot, the left-wing British columnist and global warmingfanatic with the Guardian who explained to readers three days after the
earthquake, "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power." 

Monbiot's point is quite simple. For years we've lived with the impression that a nuclear meltdown is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off, killing thousands and leaving whole landscapes uninhabitable. Now we've had one and look what's happened. The fourth worst earthquake in history has failed to crack open the concrete containment and the difficulty arose only because the utility didn't have enough backup electricity on hand. Fukushima remains a horribly dangerous situation and the workers who are bringing the reactor under control ought to be given a parade down Broadway when it's finally over. But what has the toll been so far? One worker died in a steam explosion and others have been exposed to levels of radiation that may increase their chances of getting cancer somewhere down the line. But this is basically an industrial accident. As Monbiot points out, coal mining in China kills more people in a week than ever died as a result of Chernobyl.
One by one, the nuclear myths have fallen. In the immediate aftermath, reporters and commentators right up to Bill O'Reilly were anticipating a dreaded "meltdown" would be the equivalent of a nuclear bomb. In fact, a meltdown simply means the fuel has melted to the bottom of the steel pressure vessel, which is inside the concrete containment structure. In days of yore environmentalists dreamed up "The China Syndrome," which had the fuel melting through the pressure vessel, then through the concrete containment and continuing on its way to China until it hit groundwater, at which point it would cause a steam explosion that would kill everybody in Los Angeles -- or at least that's what Jane Fonda was told. Three Mile Island proved this wouldn't happen. Fukushima has confirmed it.

Another hot button has been plutonium, an artificial element formed in a reactor. (Plutonium is forged in supernovas, along with all the other heavy elements, but it disappeared on earth long ago.) In the effort to portray nuclear power as the devil's handiwork, Ralph Nader once labeled plutonium "the most toxic substance ever known to mankind." In fact it is about as toxic as caffeine. Bernard Cohen, the tireless crusader for nuclear common sense, offered many times to eat as much plutonium as Nader would eat caffeine on "The Tonight Show" but Nader never took him up.

Failing to convince anyone of plutonium's toxicity, Nader next announced that "one pound of plutonium would be enough to kill everyone on earth." The scenario here was plutonium, if ground into fine dust and breathed in by everyone on earth, would eventually give everyone lung cancer. As the late Petr Beckmann responded, "So would tomorrow's production of hatpins kill everyone on earth if carefully placed in each individual heart."

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