As I write, March 14, 2011, three nuclear reactors in Japan have been destroyed by a 9.0 earthquake. Radiation levels are on the rise. The world watches helplessly, wondering if escaping radiation will eventually find its way to them.
This may turn out be one of the more significant events of my lifetime.
The story of Japan and its recovery after WW2 has been one of fantastic success. Their industry brought us the world’s greatest bicycles, the modern camera, video, motorcycles, and cars. Where would we be without Shimano, Nikon, Sony, and Honda? The amazing thing is that Japan did this with little energy and resources of their own. Somehow, they managed to pay the premium required to import the resources they don’t have and still produce the worlds’ greatest products. Unfortunately, they decided they needed nuclear power plants. Unfortunately, the horrible dark downside of nuclear energy is unfolding.
Nuclear fission contributes about 1/4 of Japan’s energy. For reference, 1/5 of US energy is nuclear. Cheap and available energy has made both our countries very productive. But is nuclear power really cheap? As I write, elevated levels of radiation are being measured in Tokyo, 100 miles to the south. Think about it… how would you feel if you were experiencing this right now? Could you afford to clean this mess up? Is there enough money in the world to clean this nuclear mess up? Is the risk really worth the chance?
I have a personal experience with a nuclear power plant that forever altered my life and that of my family. Let me tell you my story:
Diablo Canyon Nuclear power plant, 1982
In the late 1970s Carol and I built our home on the top of a mountain between San Luis Obispo and Diablo Canyon in California. We had heard that a nuclear power plant was being constructed about 7 miles away. We never saw it because it was hidden from view by a ridge of mountains and a blocked-off road. No one could see it. “Out of sight… out of mind” meant that we did not think about it. Then the rumors began. It was not safe. It was built over a known earthquake fault. It was built “backwards.” Many of the workers were said to be druggies. Who knew what was true and what was not? One thing is certain… Diablo Canyon nuclear plant was engineered to handle only a 7.5 shaker. Japan just experienced a 9.0 quake. Today, experts acknowledge that what happened in Japan is likely to happen here, on the west coast, sometime soon.
The Vetter Front yard, 1983
Was this going to be a safe place to live? Every reactor is allowed to routinely release radiation and that ionizing radiation would be especially dangerous to the rapidly dividing cells of babies. We were making babies.
What made things confusing is the fact that some background radiation is normal. Some is not. God did not give us receptors to detect ionizing radiation. We cannot see it, smell it or feel it. If we are subjected to dangerous exposure, we probably won’t know until later. Much later.
Wouldn’t it be a good idea, I thought, to know what normal background radiation was in San Luis Obispo before the reactor was activated? That way, we would know if the nuclear power plant had changed anything. Nobody could tell me what the normal radiation was so I bought a scintillation counter to find out. Turns out it was what our government said was normal. Great! So far, there was nothing to worry about. In 1982, I offered to fund and erect a big downtown display panel so the locals could know, too. The display would present these two simple messages:
“The current time is: “XXX”
“Your background radiation is: “XXX millirems”
Unfortunately, local bureaucrats would not consider such a display. They said it would scare people. Instead, they made up little brown stickers and ordered them to be placed in public places… bathroom doors, etc. I still have one
San Luis Obispo's way of telling visitors that they were in a “nuclear evacuation zone”
Siren information? What was that? We were to turn on a radio that may or may not be working? Then what?
Locals would know to leave. Unfortunately, there are only two roads leaving San Luis Obispo… one to the south - where most of the prevailing winds blow (with the radioactivity) and one to the north, which passes over a very steep grade. The grade could easily become clogged. Then there would be no safe exit.
This bureaucratic solution was no solution at all, as far as I was concerned. When the NRC allowed Diablo to open, I moved my family to a safer place. I know of only one other family that moved away. My dear college buddy and business partner, Jim Miller stayed and died of a brain tumor in 2001. He was raised in the shadow of another reactor north of Chicago, called Zion. Was there a connection? Twenty-five years later, I don’t see the brown stickers around San Luis anymore. Hundreds of beautiful and very expensive houses have been built within a mile of the nuclear reactor. You’d never know there was a reactor there. You cannot see it or hear it. You cannot smell or taste it.
Which brings us to today and the push for plug-in electric vehicles. I have friends who get teary-eyed thinking about the plug-in Nissan “Leaf” and the Chevy “Volt”. Do they think electricity is free? Electric vehicles will require the generation of more electricity, which will consume more coal, more oil and gas and encourage the construction of more nuclear plants.
Reporters say there is no power in the grid in many places of Japan. They say there is no fuel at the pumps. Are we not witnessing in Japan the dark side of nuclear energy?
It is not that hard to see this happening in United States, is it?
The solution is simple: We must learn to live better on less energy. We need to be converting sunlight into electricity to power our plug in vehicles. Not oil. Not coal. Not nukes. The energy needs to be locally generated, renewable and sustainable.
My contribution to the solution is in streamlining vehicles. Streamlining allows less energy to propel us farther and faster. Streamlining allows us to live better with less energy.
Less energy means we will need fewer solar panels. Less energy means we can shut down our nuclear power plants. Without nuclear power plants, we will never have to experience the frightening events that are taking place in Japan today.