Back in the “olden days” when I was an undergrad, I had a wonderful physics professor who liked to sit around and chat with his students after the lecture was over. I was grateful for those little talks because I learned a lot more from the informal discussions. He always had something interesting to say and provided plenty of food for thought.
I distinctly remember his chat with a few of us about how using nuclear energy seems to be an ideal way to boil water to-create-steam-to-generate-electricity, but that the spent fuel would remain radioactive for a longer time than humans beings had heretofore had a written language.
I remember all of us staring at him, waiting for an explanation. He wanted us to figure it out on our own though, so we made a few weak stabs at it before we realized what he meant. Written, and certainly spoken, language has changed enormously over time, and who’s to say it’s set in stone, even today? If we bury nuclear waste somewhere and put up a nice sign saying something to this effect: “Don’t open this chamber. It contains deadly nuclear waste than can wipe out whole populations if it gets into the air or water.” Would anyone understand it in 10,000 years?
We all had a little laugh at that. Who knows? But of course, that scenario was only a little mind-game compared to the real possibility of nuclear power plant accidents, and this was back before Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl. The professor was just interested in hypothetical accidents caused by man or Acts of God. I remember that he mentioned the folly of building a plant on or near a fault line. We also talked about acts of terrorism, missile attacks, the impact of a smallish meteorite, and so on. Just brainstorming. Idle speculation. Anything can happen, theoretically.
Now, of course, something did happen, and we’re left to wonder. Nuclear energy has its plus side: no CO2 in the atmosphere, mainly, but even a small accident at a plant has the potential for catastrophic consequences. Then what?
Like you, I’ve been watching the news closely, especially as it pertains to the power plants. If anybody can handle this, it’s the Japanese. They’re right up there at the top. Very tech-savvy, they are. If they can’t prevent a core meltdown and the subsequent release of radioactivity into the atmosphere, and/or heaven forbid, into the ocean, then probably no one can. Not even us.
It’s a frightening prospect. Even if there is but a radiation leak close to the plant(s), the land around those facilities will be uninhabitable for a long, long time. Nobody lives in Chernobyl these days. How would they handle hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens and care for them in the meantime? How would we do it if it happened here?
Personally, I love the idea of nuclear power. The reality of it is another thing entirely. If something goes awry at a coal-fired power plant, the effects would generally be local and not last for generations. A few years ago, a landslide of spent coal at a plant in Tennessee buried homes and 300 acres in toxic sludge and polluted a couple of nice rivers. It was bad, but at least millions of people weren’t put in jeopardy. There’s a lot about burning coal that isn’t good though. We need to find safe ways to sequester the CO2 produced. We’re going to need to continue to burn coal for a while longer until we figure out more efficient ways to use natural gas, wind and solar, perhaps on micro-levels, with each home or apartment building generating their own power needs at some point in the future. Nuclear power is probably not the way to go. It’s too dangerous.
Here’s hoping, and praying, that the Japanese get a handle on those reactors. We’re all pulling for them.