It is time to re-open the matter of Yucca Mountain and view it as an investment in our children’s future.
I consider myself to be one of the “techno-hippies,” like Stewart Brand, who have been pushing for the “new nuclear renaissance.” I am not unaware of the drawbacks! But we believe the newest fission power designs are light years ahead of the kind of boiling water reactors that broke down in northeasterm Japan following quake and tsunami damage.
With climate change, pollution, energy shortages, and dependence upon unsavory petro-princes all in mind, these new designs still seem worth careful prototyping. Indeed, more than ever, so that the crotchety designs of 50 years ago can be retired.
Statistcs are telling. The number of people who have died, per megawatt-hour of power produced by each type of energy system, are by far highest for coal and oil… and by far lowest for nuclear power. Lower even than solar. By an order of magnitude.
Nevertheless, the terrifying situation in Japan is rivetting and compels an open mind to new thoughts. Some lessons leap out at us.
First, the horrific behavior of the Tokyo Power company, both before and during the crisis, is an archetype of what can go wrong when a single, monolithic institution is in charge of critical infrastructure and also responsible for its own accountability. This crisis was avoidable, even in the face of nature’s unprecedented fury.
But the lies and shortcuts taken before the calamity pale next to those uttered during the aftermath. The lessons are clear:
We should never, ever allow a single agency or company the power to issue reassuring “truths” without competing sources of verification and scrutiny. A demure, respectful society like Japan appears to be particularly prone to this failure mode. In contrast, such independent sources exist along the west coast of the United States in about a dozen of the finest universities on the planet… and hence, the efforts by Fox News to drum up panic over a “Japanese radioactivity cloud” failed to gain credibility. (See this further example of top-notch “journalism.”)
Likewise, any new nuclear endeavors—indeed all risky-bold new endeavors of any kind—should be surveilled and monitored by multiple independent groups that include the most devoted enemies of the program! True, these are the most irksome people to have around when you are trying to get things done. But they are also the ones most likely to leap upon any potential failure mode and make absolutely sure that it is attended to. Critics are the only known antibodies against the self-deception of bright guys, who all too easily assume they have got everything sussed.
Here are the twin principles of error-avoiding transparency:
1) Paranoid critics should be given full access to all information and full voice to all of their concerns. They should then be part of the routine inspectorate that pokes at every complacency.
2) Once their concerns have been dealt with, those same critics must not be allowed to decide whether we move forward.
Reiterating that point: While improving transparency and caution, we must return to being a people that willingly takes on bold endeavors and difficult challenges. Here is the one area where the left can be just as jibbering loony as the right. A plague of timidity will not help us triumph over the problems that we face. However it is rationalized, by dunces at both ends of the spectrum, cynical anti-ambition propaganda is a poison that may kill all hope.
Clearly, the disaster in Japan shows us that the used fuel rods that spend five years cooling down in pools next to today’s light-water nuclear reactors are more dangerous than most of us were led to believe. Hence, it is time to re-open the matter of Yucca Mountain. The U.S. needs a semi-permanent nuclear waste facility and the exuses given for delaying this are simply dumb. For people who don’t give a damn about the world a century from now to howl about some hypothetical leak that might occur in 10,000 years is utter hypocrisy.
How about betting on our children? I am 99% certain that the canisters stored in Yucca Mountain won’t have to last 10,000 years! They will be withdrawn in less than a century, like deposits in a bank! By descendants who are far more advanced than us and who see those rare elements as unmatched resources for fabulous projects! Why is no one able to even mention this most-likely outcome?
Promise the State of Nevada a 5% royalty on anything ever withdrawn from the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Resource Bank and Reserve. If they really can think in terms of deep time, they should leap at the investment.
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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