Is the Nuclear Industry Toast?

As I write this there is a dearth of information about what is happening at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants. At least one of the reactor containment vessels may be damaged. Some of the cores may be melting and at least one of the spent nuclear fuel pools (which are outside of the containment!) may be low (or out of) water and burning. It doesn't look good.

It isn't all bad either. This will likely not turn into a Chernobyl, but frankly that isn't saying much. But the question I ask is this: “Is the Nuclear Industry Toast?”

One of the problems with the nuclear industry all along has been the combination of a low probability of accident (or so claimed) with the disastrous results when there is one. Nuclear material is just plain dangerous to work with, period. Then there is the fear that goes along with nuclear “anything.” Radiation is scary. You cannot see it, you cannot avoid it and it can kill or maim you. This leads to an irrational fear among people. As I write this pharmacies in California are running out of Potassium Iodide pills because fearful people on the West Coast (of the US) believe that they may be saved if they take these pills (no, and don't!). Yet the risk to California is very low.

So combine catastrophic failure modes with irrational fear and what you get is an industry in trouble.

Now I have been an advocate for Nuclear Power for a long time, and my rationale is a little bit weird. If you know me, or just read enough of my posts, you know that I am a computer/network security aficionado. One of the things that I preach when it comes to computer and network security is to attempt to work with Human Nature, not against it. Against Human Nature, nothing may stand!

So let's talk a little bit about human nature. Humans are fickle, humans have a short memory. Humans want to be comfortable. Humans take a stand that someone else should be inconvenienced in the name of their cause, but not always them. I'll never forget the bumper sticker I saw on a gas guzzling SUV that read “Split wood, not atoms!” So it is very easy to say that we should do away with nuclear power while our lights are on and our gas tanks are full.

Lets roll the clock out a few years, maybe a few decades, it doesn't matter. There will come a time when fossil fuels become scarce. I am not sure when that will be, but it will happen! People will want energy. Conserving energy is a good idea, but it only takes you so far. Alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar are promising, but not a sure thing to provide our energy needs. That leaves nuclear reactors as a very important future energy source. And when the lights are off and the gas is rationed, there will be a desire, no, a demand for nuclear power. With that will be a demand to build reactors... and quickly. And they will be built, and they will be built quickly.... and probably dirty, as in quick and dirty.

So what should we do? If you believe, as I do, that nuclear energy is inevitable (unless something better comes along, which is fine) then we should be doing research NOW to find ways to make it as safe as possible. Build the reactors, but do so with all due care and with a maximum attention to safety, even if it means that nuclear energy isn't as cost effective compared to other alternatives today, it will matter in the future.

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