Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nuclear Legacy, or "What the Hell Were We Thinking?"

The truth is that no amount of PR from the nukemeisters will make anyone with a scintilla of knowledge about the truly devastating evil that is the nuclear industry change their minds about using nukes.

What I am concerned about is the cleanup. Around the world, 436 nuclear reactors are burbling along, creating tons of waste that will ultimately be radioactive for 240,000 years, longer than some believe that modern humans have been around. When we reach the post fossil-fuel era, we will suddenly be faced with 436 sites that will require indefinite monitoring and protection for a quarter of a million years. Humans can barely see far enough to avoid traffic accidents. They can't see climate change coming or peak oil. They have the time horizon of their ancient ancestors who were concerned about the next five minutes and the space they could actually see.

How are humans going to be able to protect these sites?

Will we build fortresses around them? Establish priesthoods that take on a religious duty? Or, more likely, will they gradually become abandoned, becoming weird places where malformed children are born and strange diseases reign?

I see the latter as the ultimate result of our shortsightedness. These sites will not be properly cared for. The plutonium, uranium, cesium, strontium, etc. will be spread slowly across the landscape.

What will it be like? Imagine Chernobyl and Fukushima only 436 times over. Whole regions largely made uninhabitable. Of course, people and animals will inhabit these lands as they are now. The difference is that, unlike Fukushima and Chernobyl, future squatters will have no idea about the dangers they face. If we are lucky, a mythology will grow up around the plants filled with cautionary tales that warn of certain doom and monsters born to screaming mothers.

The problem of the nuke plants is an extremely long-lasting problem, and it is not the only such problem. Thousands upon thousands of mine sites which require constant fossil energy to run water pumps to keep the mines from filling up and spilling their toxic contents across the landscape are waiting for the energy to dry up and the slow seepage of heavy metals across the earth to begin. But that will be fodder for another post.