Monday, February 13, 2012

Nuclear Genies

As I was prowling Huffpost as I sometimes do, I found this quote from Dan Agin, in a book review,

“Quantum physics...would be nothing but an entertaining philosophical idea except that when you formulate the idea quantitatively you can use the equations to predict nearly everything that happens on Earth and in the entire Cosmos to a fabulous degree of accuracy.”

In a recent public radio interview, the physicist Michio Kaku expressed a similar sentiment:

“We physicists can project 10, 15 years into the future with near mathematical precision.”

Agin was lamenting the poor state of awareness in America, about quantum physics. Based on these quotes, I am more inclined to lament the poor state of awareness in quantum physicists. I presume this is a sentiment widely shared among physicists. Please physicists, tell us the outcome of the debt debacle in Europe. What will happen with climate change? What is the arrival of peak oil going to look like? Surely, with such understanding, you can save us in our predicament, in this, our exponential growth on a finite planet?

Without putting too fine a point on it, this is what I despise about science, and scientists, particularly physicists. Their infernal attempt to project perfect understanding, to inject perfectly rational predictability into universal processes. Their desire to deny the irrational, to eliminate the subjective, to refuse what can't be measured. In short, to turn us all into unfeeling machines, to denigrate what makes this life so worth living: love, feeling, connection. Communicating with scientists, particularly physicists, I sometimes feel like my not having the specialized background means I have no sense, that I am somehow less evolved, less than. Is it condescension, or am I projecting?

It is not merely that Agin and Kaku are pretending toward some quasi-mystical ability to predict the future, they are implying that all is well, that there's no need to be concerned about the progress of civilization on Earth. It's not surprising this comes at the same time the federal government has authorized the first nuclear reactor construction in 25 years. The Georgia facility-design is said to be impregnable, entirely self sustaining even without human input. If that doesn't sound like hubris, I keep wondering about the two existing facilities in Minnesota, on the Mississippi river. I can't get anyone to take seriously the idea, that decommissioning the ones we have is going to be a problem, after the credit bubble pops, peak oil kicks in, and climate change takes it's toll. The one thing Americans cannot, will not, shall not abide apparently, is using less energy. The high priests Agin and Kaku assuring us, everything is under control, technology will assure we needn't ever think about it, we can go about being good American consumers with our blinders on. My blinders don't prevent me from contemplating what would happen to the Mississippi river with a disaster at Prairie Island Nuclear Facility. A nuclear facility on an island in the middle of a major river? You tell me we don't worship technology as if it were God.

Everything is under control? I'm inclined to think, whatever control we think we have is an illusion. Claiming to be able to predict the future 'with near mathematical precision' is the epitome of control as illusion. That sense of control (delusion) is pervasive throughout the culture, or at least it was prior to 2008. We are less sure about what control we have now, but you can expect, when the credit bubble pops, our lack of control over the economy is going to shift, to an attempted control over people, authoritarian style.

In the comments section on a piece of propaganda on Huffpost, about the rebirth of nuclear energy in America, I had this to say:

“There is no such thing as clean, safe nuclear power.” Here are three of the responders.

Markkocaldo: Actually the safest form of power there is. No deaths in 50 years of operation.

MrBIgp: Actually it is true there is no perfectly clean, perfectly safe energy source. However, nuclear is the cleanest and the safest we have.

Atom4Peace1: Ask the US Navy.

(My reply) WHD: Mining it isn't clean on the front end, and there's nothing clean about disposing of it. That, and tell me we are going to properly decommission every one of those facilities after the credit bubble pops, peak oil kicks in, and climate change takes it's toll. Two cautionary tales, Chernobyl e Fukushima. No deaths by radiation indeed.

And I presume the depleted uranium from the Navy and elsewhere in the military is used at the end of bullets that have been scattered around the landscape of the Tigris and Euphrates, and in Afghanistan? Atoms4Peace?

Atom4Peace1: DU is off topic. This is about safe reactors which USN has a spotless record of. Thresher was non reactor incident.

WHD: You brought up the Navy. And I would ask every serviceman, would you use such weaponry on American soil?

Atom4Peace1: they use it on San Nicholas island on goats.

If there is anything more pathetic than me picking fights in the Huffpost comments section, I'm not sure what it is. But this particular exchange, somewhat edited for clarity, is emblematic I think of the madness of Americans. First, pretend that nuclear is only for power. Second, act like because we are Americans, we can't do anything wrong. Third, embrace anything that is big, powerful and destructive. Fourth, maintain empire. Check that, there is something more pathetic than me picking fights in the Huffpost comments section. It is me thinking Americans have any real desire to question the path of Empire.

Not questioning Empire, we are likely to be surprised when the collapse comes. And then I wonder, when things go to hell, as they surely will at some point, is our military going to spread nuclear material at the end of bullets across the American landscape? How do you recover depleted uranium, once it is dispersed by bullets? You don't. Do Americans have sense enough not to ruin their own landscape? Clearly not, if you take our suburbs and agriculture as the measure.

Hey Agin and Kaku, sage predictors of the future. Am I wrong?


Unknown said...

Hi William

I saw your comments on the Huff.Post article about the Anusara yoga crap. Both your comments were right on!!!

William Hunter Duncan said...

Blessed be.

Joel Caris said...

Fantastic post, William. I worry about the decommissioning of nuclear power plants a half century or century from now, when we simply can no longer run them. (I may be being optimistic with my timeline there, too.) And then, of course, there's the maintenance of the storage facilities for nuclear waste. That maintenance is going to fall by the wayside, and then what?

Of course, that's been an issue already in my neck of the woods with the Hanford facility. If we can't even take care of this waste during the height of industrialism, what chance do we have in a post-peak energy world?

But then, maybe this is appropriate in a certain dark way. I suppose it makes sense that the site that created Plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb should become a cancer eating at the American landscape and her people. We can't engage in that kind of cruelty, destruction and inhumanity without reaping our own special reward.

As for the comments at HuffPo, they demonstrated the exact frame of mind that is much the basis of our destructive behavior: reductionism. We can't look at the whole nuclear picture, including the industrial infrastructure behind the whole thing--mining, construction, so on--and we can't look at the moral realities of nuclear, including all the military applications and its destructive uses, we can only look at a power plant successfully functioning for a bit without killing anyone. Which even in itself is ridiculous. Chernobyl doesn't count? Fukushima? Or are we claiming no one died from those meltdowns? And discounting the incredible amount of destruction done by them?

Completely insane, if you ask me.

Also, I discovered your comment over on my blog in my spam folder a few days ago. Not sure why it went there, but I belatedly published it. Sorry it took so long! Usually the spam folder actually catches spam, not legitimate comments.

Of The Hands

William Hunter Duncan said...


As I understand it, most of the 104 nuclear reactors in America are reaching the end of their design life. Decommissioning, rebuilding, building new, are all extremely capital intensive. Most of these facilities are not going to be viable another fifty to one hundred years. Capital is drying up world-wide. With less capital, and less fossil fuels in the pipeline the next twenty years, we are going to have to face serious design and storage issues with most facilities. That is going to be a tricky thing in a contracting economy, probably leading to ever greater risk, inertia leading to extended usage of aging facilities, and likely a significant accident sooner rather than later. Extremely soon, if the global economy enters free fall.

Joel Caris said...

Ah yes, an excellent point. I totally whiffed on that simple reality. I actually had heard that in recent times, that most of the nuclear reactors are coming to the end of their life, but forgot that crucial tidbit. They therefore obviously won't be running in 50 years or beyond.

Which takes us to the other simple reality of nuclear power, even aside from all the very critical ethical, moral and environmental issues: it's not going to happen financially. I'll be shocked if many nuclear power plants are able to secure the necessary credit to be built, outside of some serious intervention from the government (which isn't an impossibility, of course.) I would see that as a good thing. But as you note, the decommissioning of all these expiring reactors is probably not going to be smooth, featuring neglect and dangerous overuse. I agree it's one of the more concerning aspects of our future.

Luciddreams said...

the nuclear issue is one of the two facts that I have fallen back on when questioning whether I'm doing the right thing by moving and dropping out. My house is 6 miles from the Catawba plant as the crow flies.

The second reason is that I'm 20 miles from Charlotte NC...a problem for various reasons (this years democratic national convention being one).

And yeah, hubris...I don't know what else to say. It appears that the human race is desperate to remain hopeless. All the more reason to start now.

John Wheeler said...

I've been friends with a number of physicists. I think the problem is not so much hubris or ignorance as it is myopia. Or maybe more appropriately, the opposite of macular degeneration, where the central vision remains clear but you lose all your peripheral vision. Or the "if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" phenomenon. If it's not a problem they can solve, they can't see it.

If you think decommissioning nuclear reactor in 50 years is going to be a problem, check this out:

Quite scary stuff.

William Hunter Duncan said...


Yes, the Sun has the power to put an end to civilization in a matter of days. The writer Joseph Lawrence is convinced this will happen in 2012, this being a solar maximum, and also one in which the poles of the sun shift. Even hyper-optimistic Michio Kaku is a little freaked out. The irony is, this is no mystery even to our government, which released a report in 2008 very much outlining the threat of a CME-induced collapse of the grid, which went something like, 10 trillion dollars and ten years to replace, with a Carrington type event. They did not have the courage to make the nuclear connection. The irony is, it would only take the relatively paltry sum of 200 million to "innoculate" the grid, but we are so enthralled with our greatness and infallibility, we can't seem to bother.

I saw your comment on Apocalypse? as well. Thanks for the input all around. Welcome to the blog.