(G)rumbles from Tokyo

Another week, another dozen aftershocks.  Nothing super-serious, but the earth shaking around can put a spin on your daily routine.

Otherwise things are fine, though surreal at times.  I was commuting from one job to another on a packed train (and “packed train” in Tokyo has an altogether different meaning than in most other countries) when everyone with an iPhone’s pocket broadcast the now familiar “bweep bweep!!” alarm signifying an earthquake in the magnitude 6 or more region.  iPhone’s are very popular here, so the sound was everywhere at once and impossible to ignore.  Like a few thousand bouncing balls being dropped inside the train all at once.

Being on the train, I couldn’t feel that one.  Not to be disappointed, I felt the magnitude 6.1 an hour later, and had already felt the 6.3 at 8:15 that morning, so I got my fill of entertainment.

More pressing is the continuing nuclear mess out east.  Media reports are all over the map, and just as I think I’ve got a handle on the seriousness of the situation another expert comes along to shake my confidence.  I won’t try to summarize the reports as I’m not a scientist and as I haven’t been following them as religiously as before, I’d likely confuse my facts.

Suffice it to say that I’m not much of a uranium-nuclear power supporter anymore.  I never was one, but I can no longer maintain the argument that it’s a necessary evil, as I’ve now read of enough alternatives that can, and could have prevented the need for a uranium/plutonium nuclear reactor in the first place.

Maybe the most surprising of these alternatives is the molten salt reactor (MSR): a nuclear reactor incapable of producing cataclysmic explosions, venting gas, runaway chain-reactions or any of the other nastiness involved with the traditional nuclear reactor.  To summarize the article in the previous link:

  • this technology has been around since the 60’s, and is able to run on thorium which is 400 times more abundant than the uranium required to run current reactors.
  • The reason it never caught on was because it didn’t suit the need of the U.S. military-industrial-complex for fuel that could be turned into bombs, and they would have had to do a lot of re-tooling to change.
  • As a result, MSR became the victim of lock-in, much like the QWERTY keyboard, while less efficient, was locked-in to our computer design.
  • China has recently expressed interest in using MSRs and thorium to power them (different article), and at least some people think that they might be able to break free of the lock-in.

At this point however, I’m starting to wonder what the governments of the world have been thinking.  They had two choices: one safe, cheap(er) and using relatively abundant fuel, the other psychotically dangerous, expensive, and using very rare fuel, and consistently they chose to use enormous amounts of taxpayer money to insure the uninsurable uranium plants and build them near large population centers and directly over fault-lines… because they needed to be able to blow stuff up real good.

Okay, maybe it made sense 50 years ago, but it’s long past the time when we should be addicted to uranium reactors.  If your QWERTY keyboard gave you an electric shock, melted your fingers and hemorrhaged your eyeballs every time you moved your laptop, I’m sure we’d be well on our way to a more efficient design, even if it could be folded up into a compact AK-47.

Just imagine no Three-mile Island, no Chernobyl, no Fukushima.  Why don’t they give MSRs to Iran!?  And no freaking out every time there’s another aftershock.

That’s peace of mind I think we should pay for.  Good luck to China, I say.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Peter Jensen on April 15, 2011 at 7:44 am

    I like this post a lot – nice writing – I also hope that China has success with resurrecting MSR. Thought it was curious that you decided to insert “military-industrial complex” where the original article simply stated “US Government” – wonder if this was conscious or unconscious?


    • Hey Peter,
      Thanks for the compliment, and good to know you’re watching out for my creeping extreme left-wing bias.
      The original article doesn’t mention a “need”, as I wrote, for nuclear weapons at all, but rather a “desire” by the government for a dual use energy/weapons program. The term “military-industrial complex” (MiC) wasn’t even popularized in the U.S. until Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech. So at first glance, you are correct; the U.S. MiC could not have “needed” nuclear weapons.
      However, because of previous historical references to MiCs in Britain, France, and Germany, and the use of the term to describe the rise of a MiC because of a country’s growing need to defend itself, I think my conscious choice of “military-industrial complex” was merited. Just because the word wasn’t used at that time doesn’t mean the MiC didn’t exist.
      Moreover, the term doesn’t necessarily imply the paranoid vision that has been ascribed to the left, but could just refer to the policy and financial inter-dependencies between government, military, and industry, something which most certainly existed in the U.S. at that time.
      To be fair, maybe I should have written: “The reason it never caught on was because the 1940’s military-industrial complex was a) focused on producing plutonium, something MSRs are incapable of producing, and b) MSR technology was not yet available.
      A few details: The first nuclear reactor in the U.S., the Hanford Works B Reactor, was built by DuPont (which has its 1802 beginnings in gunpowder and was instrumental in supplying the military with munitions, Napalm and, incidentally, also invented CFCs, cellophane, Nylon, Teflon, and Kevlar, to name a few), specifically to produce plutonium-239 for the Manhattan Project, which as you know culminated in the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
      DuPont is now doing its best to compete with Monsanto in the GM foods business.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: