May 1, 1998

Nuclear Power

The tremendous menace of this day and age is not the stockpile of nuclear weapons which human ingenuity has devised, but the grim fact that the men in charge of them are as mediocre as those who invented them are brilliant.

Peter Ustinov, 1968

After all of the fuss that was made over the 72 pounds of plutonium-238 that was shot into space in the Cassini probe, no one seems to be even slightly perturbed by an agreement reached by the presidents of the United States and China to sell 100 nuclear power plants to China. Neither the liberals nor the conservatives seem to have a problem with it. I assume that, along with the reactors themselves, the fuel is also included, the active ingredient of which is uranium-235. After a reactor has run until the fuel is exhausted, guess what one of the many by-products will be? You guessed it: plutonium; and it won't be a mere 72 pounds. Plutonium-239 is the nuclear explosive that demolished Nagasaki. Any country with a nuclear power plant has the essential ingredient to make an atomic bomb, should it choose to do so

As we learned from Chernoble, the potential for disaster in a single reactor is immense. While we know that many people around Chernoble have been killed and many more will have their lives shortened substantially, it is impossible to know how many people worldwide will have their lives shortened. The one thing that we can be sure of is that it will be a substantial number.

There are 430 nuclear power plants in existence in the world today. Each of them has the potential to become another Three Mile Island or, much worse, a Chernoble. Adding another 100 reactors increases the risk considerably. The waste from all of those power plants will have to be buried somewhere, and left there forever. Or worse, the waste plutonium-239 can be used to make atomic bombs; lots of them.

Nuclear power plants are no longer being built in this country. Besides the hazards of radioactivity and the chance of an accident, when you factor in the cost of the disposal of nuclear waste, nuclear power is prohibitively expensive. Without massive government subsidies they would be so expensive that no one would even consider building them. This is also true of the power plants that are exported. At the same time that the building of nuclear reactors in this country has ground to a halt, our country has been exporting nuclear power plants to just about any country that can afford to pay for them; either with oil revenue or borrowed money. There are a few exceptions such as Iran, Iraq and Libya, but that could change at any time.

So far as I know, France has not had a major nuclear plant accident large enough to be detected outside of France. By now, they have probably developed the skills and skilled people needed to operate a reactor safely. This is not true of third world countries. A big fuss is being made about the so-called greenhouse gasses carbon dioxide and methane, but little or nothing is said about the manufacture of more and more radioactive isotopes. What global warming will do is really not known. Nor is it known whether man or nature plays the major role in the process. In contrast, radioactive isotopes, if released, are sure to kill or disable many people. Those isotopes will emit radiation for such a long time that eventually everyone will believe that the observed high rate of gene mutations and cancer that will exist in the future are due to "normal" background radiation.

At the present time the world faces two problems that are so immense and dangerous that they dwarf just about any threat that is likely to exist in the immediate future. Those are the stockpiles of nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. When I contemplate those problems, it seems to me that most of the things that I have objected to in the past are trivial. I have been swatting at gnats, while these immense problems cast an ominous shadow over mankind.

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