Radical Idea: Don't be stupid about nuclear power

Given the reality of climate change (for which the science is as clear as say, vaccines), the possibility of a return to nuclear power is pretty strong. It's not a terrible idea -- I grew up near the Cook County nuclear power plant, and still have a coffee mug from their gift shop. The fact that both my parents died of cancer is coincidental, I'm sure. I hope.

So a recent study of mutations around nuclear power plants was a bit sobering:
Conventional wisdom holds that nuclear power stations don't leak enough radiation to create malformed organisms. But in some locations, Hesse-Honegger discovered mutations — curtailed feelers, misshapen legs, asymmetrical wings — in as many as 30 percent of the bugs she gathered. That's 10 times the overall rate of about 3 percent for insects found in the wild.
As pressure mounts to build new nuclear power plants, perhaps we can all agree not to be stupid (or incredibly stupid) about how we build them. Apparently what we're doing now simply isn't good enough.

It wasn't long ago that we detonated nuclear explosions in the upper atmosphere -- just to see what happens. Giant (and thankfully temporary) belts of radioactive energy encircling the entire planet...

The kind of responsibility that nuclear power demands is massive. Finland has a 100,000-year plan for storing nuclear waste. It's going to take 20 years and several billion dollars to build. A country that can't get it's act together on the most basic legislation seems unlikely to be able to come up with a realistic plan for building nuclear plants and storing waste. We seem more interested in pork, regardless of, well, basic geology.

Hesse-Honegger is also a incredibly talented botanical illustrator, by the way; that's her painting at the top of this morning's post.


  1. Oh! Oh! Oh! Choices! Thank you, Devin, for helping to keep this conversation alive, up front! In our busy days, it is so easy not to care or think about some supposed far-away future!

  2. This Wired cite didn't mention any study, but rather a collection of bug art. I question the scientific validity of such a collection; the artist's eye might just be drawn to unusual shapes, and so we wouldn't have a random draw of bugs necessary for meaningful statistical conclusions.

    OTOH, a real scientific study on this would be straightforward to do. Radiation is easy-peasy to measure, so we ought to be able to characterize the emissions from nuke plants. Interestingly enough, older coal plants release more radiation than nukes, so we should see this effect downwind of coal plants that don't trap fly-ash. At the least, going all nuke would reduce radiation levels in the environment (and we could dump the waste in a subduction zone deep in the ocean, but I'll bet that one day humanity will want those waste products).

    If the underlying cause is modern nuke plants releasing some hitherto unexpectedly dangerous radiation, France should have 15-foot tall, dayglo orange berserker beetles roaming the countryside. High radiation areas in India (the natural background levels are more than 100X normal) might be a good place to look as well.

  3. It might sound crude, but don't live nearby a nuclear reactor, and perhaps it would be best if the companies hire older people who are done having Children. As to a few misshapen bugs better that than an oil slick that will one day be bigger than the state of Texas.


  4. Tsk! Devin:
    At the risk of being considered argumentative, the evidence for man-made climate change is not nearly as convincing as you make out. (You might want to look at the temperature change in Missouri over the past 110 years as an example as to why not).

    Nuclear power plants receive considerable scrutiny around the world and nature successfully buried high-level radioactive materials for millennia. The realities of many of these decisions are driven by political considerations rather than science in many cases, unfortunately. And as long as folk demand fuel in winter and temperature control in summer, not to mention heat for cooking etc we will need the provision of such.

    BTW for your amusement, in the past the Russians have used nuclear weapons to try and stop runaway oil/gas wells - with varying success.

  5. I'll stick to my comparison between vaccines and man-made climate change, but mostly I was engaging in shameless baiting in the hopes to lure Dan back :) I doubt we'll agree, just as I also know smart, responsible pediatricians that are nonetheless willing to not vaccinate or to delay vaccination.

    The much better analogy is the link between diet and cholesterol. If my doctor said that I would have to change my diet or I'd be at a very high risk of a heart attack -- well, a change in diet would mean a radical shift in lifestyle and I'd probably grumble about it; continuing to eat deep-fried twinkies might lead to a heart attack but of course it might not -- there are certainly people who eat junk food and live to a ripe old age. Yet your rational observer would say that switching to salads and a low-sodium diet is still the wiser choice. Similarly, while the mechanism between atmospheric chemistry and global average temperatures is fairly straight-forward, it is a large system and we might dodge the climate-change bullet while continuing to pump CO2 into the atmosphere. But IMHO the rational observer would say that a diversified energy system that is less dependent on fossil fuels is an easy and wise choice, if not as fun as deep-fried twinkies until we keel over... :)

    The Finnish disposal of nuclear waste looks pretty convincingly thoughtful...I just haven't seen the political will in the US to do something on the same scale that isn't either pork or poorly planned (Yucca Mountain possibly falling into both categories).