Time to Stuff the Nuclear Genie Back in to the Bottle
By Cam Mather
I was reading an article in the paper the other day about how France’s nuclear industry is trying to dispose of its nuclear waste. France has a lot of nuclear waste because 80% of its electricity comes from nuclear reactors. Many years ago, when the U.S. was preparing to bury its nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain in Nevada I remember reading about how they were trying to determine what signage to use on the mountain once it was full of nuclear waste, so that future generations would stay out. Since it will take 100,000 years to cease being hazardous, and there’s a chance that no one will be speaking English at that point, they were trying to come up with some scary symbol to warn future generations to stay out. We’re talking skull and crossbones, razor-wire kind of scary.
It seems to me if we keep using this stuff the likelihood that there will even be “future generations” becomes less probable. In France they’re thinking about using “landscape geology” where they plug up the holes with different soil so that different vegetation grows over it, so let’s say 50,000 years from now, some hotel developer will say, “Hey, there’s two kinds of soil here, let’s not put the pool there.”
The Fukushima disaster reminded us of the danger of nuclear power. We saw the explosions live on TV. We know the area around the plant is contaminated. We know you can’t grow food anywhere near the plant and that much of the waste ended up in the ocean and air. And since most nuclear plants have fuel stored temporarily in pools that require constant water circulation, which requires outside power, it just increases the likelihood that one shock to the system will be compounded by causing a nuclear mess.
When I say it’s time we put the nuclear genie back in the bottle I don’t say it lightly. More than 50% of the electricity generated in my province of Ontario comes from nuclear reactors. It forms the “base load” which is always on, and as demand grows during the day we add different sources – hydro, coal, natural gas, in order of cost. So we can’t continue to live the way we do in this province without nuclear power. Well, I can, but others apparently can’t. We won’t be able to keep living a life of endless comfort and infinite power without nukes, but I think it’s time to talk about our reliance on nuclear power. Germany has said it will be out of the nuclear biz by 2022 and Belgium by 2025. I believe Italy is also opting out.
So I’ve been thinking about how someone who lives off the grid like me can still enjoy a pretty typical North American lifestyle without endless, cheap, often coal- or nuclear-created electricity. I think one of the secrets is by living in synch with nature the way our ancestors did. Busy urban dwellers that work all week might pick “Saturday” or “Sunday” or “Monday night” as the time to do laundry. Well not Monday night, because that’s football night. Nothing will change this. Here at Sunflower Farm, when the laundry basket is full and we’re running low on socks and underwear, it isn’t laundry day unless it’s sunny. The washing machine uses electricity, our well pump uses a lot of electricity, and our clothesline uses solar and wind energy to dry the clothes. Quite simply, if it ain’t sunny, we ain’t washin’.
I know suggesting that people wait for a sunny day to do their laundry is like a declaration of war to some people. I’m comfortable with that, because I think this concept of leaving a deadly legacy of nuclear power for 100,000 years is not something most people think much about. If people gave some thought about where all of their limitless power is coming from, they just might be willing to make some changes. I think most parents love their kids. Most of us would do anything necessary to help our kids, including giving them a kidney if they needed one. But alter your lifestyle so as not to leave them a ticking Chernobyl/Three Mile Island/Fukashima time bomb? Well no, that’s not in the cards. It’s not a clear and present danger. The laundry has to be done on Saturday. Sunday is the day to vacuum. Wait until a sunny day to defrost the freezer? I don’t think so.
While I don’t expect this blog to change the world’s behaviour, I do think that more and more people are realizing that there will have to be big changes to how we live. Our lifestyle is up for negotiation whether we like it or not. We can either have input on it and embrace it, or have it forced upon us.
I’m sure experts and others will scoff at my simple mindedness. “How will the factories make stuff without the nuclear base load?” If the factories can engineer products as amazing as automobiles and iPads and power inverters, surely they can figure out a way to make their own base load energy. And I’ll bet that while they’re at it, they’ll use combined heat and power to capture and utilize all that heat that centralized power plants waste. ‘But Cam, what about all those street lights that keep cities lit up all night?’ One of the reasons that cities are so well lit is because we have base load power to use up at night. Amazingly enough, I can get around pretty well at night here in the country without streetlights. I can even drive at night. My car has this fantastic innovation called “headlights.” Let’s deep six the nukes and give every city dweller a flashlight for their nighttime walks.
Yup, I’m a crazy, simple dreamer. I want to stuff the nuclear genie back in the bottle. We as a society just don’t seem to be able to discuss the fact that no country that uses nuclear power has yet developed a system to properly dispose of it. There just doesn’t seem to be a place that won’t leak, and a container that won’t break down over time. And yet we continue to debate nuclear power as if it’s a contender for new power generation on a cost basis. It’s not. If we incorporated the cost to insure nuclear plants (which governments, not ratepayers bare because no insurance company would touch a nuclear plant) and the cost to properly dispose of the waste (which doesn’t even seem to exist) into the price of the electricity that the plant generates, it simply isn’t competitive with any other system.
I can live a great life with power that was generated from the sun and the wind and stored in my batteries. I shift my big loads to the days when the sun is shining and I “power down” my lifestyle on cloudy days. I love living this way. Humans have done it for centuries. We all may be doing it sooner or later anyway if we don’t realize that this endless growth mayhem is going to end in tears.
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