Nuclear: Did We Make a (Huge) Mistake?
It takes me a while to realize I'm all alone. It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon at the beach, bright blue sky, puffy white clouds. I'm barefoot on wet sand, flip-flops in hand, sunshine on my face.
I figured they wouldn't let people get anywhere near a nuclear power plant, decommissioned or not, so I brought my long lens, planning to use it to juxtapose some frolicking beachgoers up against the plant's reactor towers—smash the perspective, nab the cliché, make it look like they were right next to each other when in fact they were miles apart.
Instead I find no barriers whatsoever between me and San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
There are plenty of signs as I approach the plant, but their faces, mysteriously, are blank, so I and my useless 300mm Nikkor wander past the mute signs, drawn irresistibly forward. Closer still, I see there is a path creating a narrow strip of walkway between the cool blue of the Pacific Ocean and the battleship-grey of San Onofre's massive concrete retaining wall.
Thanks no doubt to some long-ago negotiation between Southern California Edison and California's implacable Coastal Commission, I walk now upon that concrete path, still barefoot, still drawn onward until I am (as best I can later estimate) within 400 linear feet of the center of San Onofre's shuttered reactor cores, within 120 linear feet of San Onofre's very much still-active 1600 tons of dry-casked nuclear waste.
I traverse the entire length of San Onofre, north to south, the soft rush of wind and waves not quite obscuring a faint but ominous hum, a low alien rumble, emanating from somewhere deep within that grim mass of barbed wire, security cameras, steel, and concrete.
Back again on sand past the south edge of the plant I stop and spin about and survey the landscape. Here—here!—the signs have faces, warning me that I'm in an Exclusion Area, that passage in this zone is limited only to use of the path for north-south access.
And here is where I all-at-once notice I'm all alone.
I asked my kids if they wanted to come with me. I'm going to go look at the nuclear power plant at San Onofre, I told them. Do you want to go with me?
You're going to go look at a nuclear power plant? my son asked. Why?
I'm writing an article about nuclear power.
Why are you writing an article about nuclear power? my son asked.
For my website.
Isn't your site a skiing blog? my son asked.
Yes, I said. But it's a complicated skiing blog.
I'm suddenly very glad my kids didn't want to come with me.
I stare at the hulking mass of the plant, the concrete, the retaining wall, the guard towers. The signs. I stare at my bare feet, covered in sand. I stare at the vast emptiness around me.
What's the radiation level like around here, I wonder?
Maybe I should have looked that up before I got here.
1. THE FACTS
The facts seemed clear enough as I drove south on the 405 freeway. We killed Nuclear. San Onofre (known, evocatively, as SONGS for short) is in the process of being decommissioned.
Most of the world's existing nuclear power plants are either being decommissioned, or are nearing the end of their service lives with no planned replacement. Virtually no new plants are under construction worldwide—indeed, in many places, it's effectively impossible to build one.
SONGS itself went offline in January 2012, following two small radiation leaks which led to the discovery of extensive damage inside the reactors' newly-rebuilt steam generator systems.
The plant never came back online. It's a microcosm of a now-familiar story: Nuclear's enduring functional woes, the public's growing outrage, the inexorable groundswell to denuclearize.
I was a kid living in the mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona when soviet engineers triggered a reactor core meltdown at Chernobyl while trying to execute a safety test. As the disaster's radiation plume began to circle the Earth, we got snow.
That snow carried detectible amounts of Chernobyl's radiation down to ground level. Not enough to worry, the experts said. Though if we'd had a thunderstorm instead of snow, it could have reached higher into the plume and rained more dangerous contamination upon us.
It was an illuminating example of Nuclear's long reach.
My First Radioactive Snowstorm had a big impact on my views on nuclear power. Ironically at that time I was unaware that Flagstaff and indeed much of Northern Arizona already had higher-than-average background radiation levels.
First, because the Earth's crust in the vicinity of the Colorado Plateau is rich in Uranium (much of it on Navajo lands, which were mined heavily during the Cold War). And second, because Northern Arizona is downwind of Nevada, and fallout from above-ground atomic bomb tests drifted over the area for years.
In fact, the U.S. government created the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to make payments to victims of certain cancers who lived in Arizona at the time of the testing. My wife's grandmother, who lived in Globe, Arizona, was a 'downwinder.' She died of lung cancer.
It was just one of many horrors of the Atomic age. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. They weren't just accidents; they were war cries. What was nuclear power, if not humanity's ultimate faustian bargain? It was an abomination that threatened all life on Earth.
And so we killed it.
Though it is sunny here today in Southern California, there's a big storm coming. In the next 24 hours parts of Northern California will get over 15 inches of rain—an October record.
At the center of the storm, the Pacific off the coast of Washington will see the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded for that part of the ocean. Despite the storm's intensity we're lucky to have it: for much of the state, the coming torrential rain will decisively end what has been among the worst fire seasons in California history.
Sacramento will break its all-time record for 24-hour rainfall—ending an all-time record number of days of drought.
This is what Victory looks like in 2021: the ubiquitous degradation of the Earth's environment, from our cities to our forests to our planet's remotest corners. The ubiquitous presence—in our bodies, our children, in mothers' milk—of so-called 'environmental' chemicals. And, of course, an irreversibly hotter planet.
We saved the world from radioactivity. And we instead poisoned it with hydrocarbons.
3. E = MC²
For the purposes of producing electricity, nuclear energy is powered by the process of nuclear fission: the splitting of atoms. One radioactive (and thus unstable) atom is coaxed into becoming two new atoms.
There's an incomprehensibly tiny difference in mass between the original atom and the two new atoms, and to equalize Einstein's famous equation (energy = mass times the speed of light squared) the process of fission emits that difference as energy.
The weight differential is tiny indeed, but when you multiply a tiny number by a gigantic number (the speed of light squared), you get...a fairly large number. Hence, nuclear fission produces a lot of energy. One pound of uranium has about as much energy as three million pounds of coal.
Most existing nuclear power plants use that energy, somewhat ignobly, to boil water.
Water is passed close enough to the reactor core to get heated into steam; that expanding steam pushes against a turbine connected to a generator, and you've got electricity. It's not a particularly efficient process, but fission creates such massive amounts of energy that even capturing just a bit of it produces a lot of electricity.
Over their lifetimes, nuclear power plants create enormous amounts of electricity from relatively small amounts of fuel, but as SONGS illustrates, they tend to have short lifespans.
Early-generation designs rely on the use of water not just to push turbines but also for shielding and cooling, necessitating the creation of systems to carry steam (or superheated liquid water) under enormous pressure. That creates a lot of opportunities for trouble, in the form of design challenges and materials stress, plus a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious explosion hazards.
There is also the matter of the reactor core's radiation. When you boil water in your microwave oven, you start with water, and you end up with...water.
When you boil water in a nuclear reactor, something very different happens.
Your microwave oven is safe because it uses what's called non-ionizing radiation. Found at the lower end of the electromagnetic spectrum, non-ionizing forms of radiation like microwaves or radio waves or visible light are capable of pushing atoms around a bit, but not much more.
When you expose unsuspecting water molecules in your cup of tea to microwaves for a minute or two, you end up with some pissed-off atoms, but they're otherwise the same as what you started with.
Ionizing radiation, in contrast, has a lot more energy—enough to actually change an atom's atomic structure.
In a nuclear reactor core, ionizing radiation is so intense it transforms everything it touches—progressively turning the stable atoms in the core's interior parts and containing structures into radioactive isotopes via a process known as neutron embrittlement.
Even the hydrogen atoms in coolant water get altered, becoming radioactive tritium. This explains a reactor's voracious appetite for fresh water: the normal operation of a light-water reactor requires a constant supply of ordinary ("light") water, but the reactor itself continuously contaminates its own coolant.
This also explains why reactors have a built-in service life: over time, too many of the original structure's atoms get transmuted into weaker radioactive isotopes. The whole damn thing eventually becomes a useless hunk of lead.
5. THE INVERSE-SQUARE LAW
What would happen if I, for some reason, put you in a small room with an unshielded plutonium core? Good question! And the answer may not be exactly what you expect.
In 1945, American Manhattan Project physicist Harry Daghlian was killed when he accidentally triggered a brief super-critical reaction in a 6.2 kilogram bomb core. Estimated to have received a dose around 500 rem (about the equivalent of 500 full-body CT scans), Daghlian died 25 days later.
A security guard, Robert Hemmerly, sitting a mere 10-12 feet away, died 33 years later.
Hemmerly died of leukemia, which we might reasonably suspect was caused by his 1945 exposure. But still: why did it take so long? The answer is because of the inverse-square law. As you move away from a radiation source, the intensity of the radiation decreases by the square of the distance.
More simply, as you move linearly away from a radioactive emitter, the radiation level decreases exponentially.
Hemmerly's dose was estimated to be in the range of eight rem—not good!
But a lot better than the 500 rem that killed Daghlian, who was only a few feet closer to the core. And even Daghlian himself benefited, albeit imperfectly, from the inverse-square law: the radiation level was much more intense in the vicinity of his hands, which were right next to the core, and which were consequently severely burned.
(sidebar: the inverse-square law describes a geometric phenomenon. As distance increases, the same quantity of energy gets distributed over a larger spherical area. Any given energy wave or particle maintains its initial energy level as it travels from its source—it's just increasingly less likely to hit you.)
The inverse-square law gives us our first big insight into the dangers of ionizing radiation: distance matters. The farther you are from a radiation source, the safer you are.
Indeed, thanks to the inverse-square law, unless you're dealing with an energy source with a large diameter (ie, the Sun), you don't have to get very far away at all to be perfectly safe—which is why, though I stood about a hundred feet away from San Onofre's dry storage casks, I was never in any danger from the radioactive waste within.
If that's true, you may be wondering, how did Chernobyl poison such a vast expanse of Ukrainian farmland, and spread measurable radioactivity even as far away as my hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona?
We already know the answer: via fallout.
6. ASHES TO ASHES...
To understand the second big insight of the inverse-square law, we have to move in the opposite direction: closer. As you move linearly closer to a radioactive emitter, radiation intensity increases exponentially. And how might one get as close as possible to a radiation source?
By inhaling or otherwise ingesting it into your body, of course.
The inverse-square law tells us we don't much have to worry about radiation sources provided they are far enough away. But we should probably be a lot more careful when it comes to allowing radioactive particles to get inside our bodies.
Duration matters a lot also. Our bodies are capable of healing much of the damage from even an intense radiation exposure if it's brief enough, just as our skin heals after a sunburn. But you can't run away from a radiation source if it's coming from inside your body.
As Chernobyl's core got hotter and hotter, it superheated the reactor's cooling water, triggering a destructive steam explosion that ripped apart the reactor's containment building. Over the next week, despite extraordinary efforts to extinguish it, the critical core burned continuously, slowly vaporizing directly into the Earth's atmosphere.
The immediate surrounding area was by far most heavily impacted, but Chernobyl's radioactive dust—fallout—eventually circled the planet, carried aloft by winds, scattering radioactive isotypes everywhere.
That fallout terrorized a lot of humans.
It created countless versions of My First Radioactive Snowstorm, poisoning food stocks, tainting bodies of water, triggering geiger counters held in the hands of breathless news reporters. It also created an alliance between environmentalists and anti-nuclear forces that would go on to successfully quash nuclear power worldwide.
Which raises an inconvenient question: how deadly was Chernobyl?
7. A LITTLE BACKGROUND
The Earth is, naturally, a little radioactive. That's because radioactive elements like uranium or radium occur naturally in our Universe, produced, if you're wondering, in the hearts of dying stars.
As the Earth and everything in it is in effect made of stardust, that means radioactive elements and the isotypes they decay into can be found throughout our environment, in our air, our water, our soil, and, of course, our bodies.
We also get a little ionizing radiation courtesy of the Sun and other radiation sources floating out and about in the Universe, though the Earth's magnetic field, and to a lesser extent our atmosphere, do a pretty good job of shielding us from it.
And finally we have to account for radiation added by human activity: primarily those above-ground nuclear weapons tests conducted during the Cold War.
Together, all of those radiation sources are known as background radiation. It varies from place to place, and it gets stronger the higher you go, as the protective effects of the Earth's atmosphere diminish (this is why, for example, a transcontinental flight exposes you to about the equivalent of one chest x-ray; you also are exposed to more radiation if you live at higher elevations compared to sea level—sorry skiers!).
Exactly how dangerous background radiation is to humans is a hotly contested topic.
I'm not going to wade too far into that debate, but I will make two observations: we probably don't want to do anything that would significantly increase the Earth's current average background radiation level (there is a reason, after all, we stopped detonating nukes above ground).
And it probably doesn't make too much sense to worry about radiation exposures (eating a banana, say, or getting a set of dental x-rays) which don't significantly change our annual, cumulative background dosage.
In contrast, a worst-case core meltdown like Chernobyl, which vented massive quantities of intensely radioactive material directly into the Earth's atmosphere, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of nearby civilians, and disrupted food chains across Europe, seems like exactly the sort of thing we ought to worry about.
And, since it happened 35 years ago, we should have excellent data on just exactly how great the carnage was. So how many people did Chernobyl kill?
The official consensus is that approximately 30 people were killed by blast effects and/or acute radiation poisoning in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Another 30 people—60 in total—have died of radiation exposure attributable to the disaster in the decades since.
Note that word 'attributable.'
There is considerable disagreement about how to distinguish between deaths due to Chernobyl versus other causes in affected populations, as well as disagreement about the veracity of data coming from the former Soviet Union. Some estimates of the true death toll range from a few thousand to as many as 60,000.
On the side of those higher estimates, I will here note that Chernobyl created, especially among Ukraine's youth, a generation of people who believed they were doomed. That belief alone likely altered the trajectories of many, many human lives. If, strictly speaking, the 60-something count is remotely accurate, the idea of Chernobyl was almost certainly more deadly than the radiation itself.
In that sense, Chernobyl's true cost may never be known.
On the other hand, we have no such difficulty calculating deaths due to nuclear power's primary alternative: the burning of fossil fuels. Tens of thousands of Americans die each year as a direct result of air pollution produced by oil and coal-fired power plants.
Worldwide, an estimated 8.9 million people die annually of those same causes.
As light-water reactors inexorably destroy themselves, so too do they destroy the public's trust. Over its lifetime SONGS vented and/or piped a considerable amount of low-level radioactive water and steam into the ocean and atmosphere because that's what light-water nuclear reactors do.
A significant goal of next-generation nuclear designs is to create safer reactors. This includes not merely moving away from the use of water (and associated "routine" radiation releases), but also creating reactors that generate power via alternate modes, ie electrolysis, and have—theoretically, at least—little to no risk of melting down.
Next-generation reactors can also include the capability to reprocess spent fuel (ie: "closing the fuel cycle"), reducing the overall volume of radioactive waste produced—a well-established but also controversial technology.
The ultimate next-gen reactor would be fusion-based, but fusion reactors, while heavily researched, remain today beyond the limits of existing technology (one might argue the world turned against fission reactors, at least in part, because we've been waiting for fusion to become viable).
An alternative path entirely from nuclear would be to attempt to replace our dependence on fossil fuel energy with things like solar. 'Things like solar,' however, all tend to involve producing a very small amount of electricity from a very large amount of infrastructure, raising questions about their true net generating value.
If we absolutely had to do so, we could probably switch entirely from fossil fuels to existing nuclear technologies in as little as five to ten years.
The same cannot be said of solar, or any other currently-available alternative. It seems likely solar, or fusion, or some other as-yet unknown technology will one day power the world cleanly and safely, but that option is not available to us, now, at scale, when we most need it.
8. KICK THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD — OR NOT
Highly radioactive waste such as freshly-spent fuel rods initially produce a lot of heat. Such waste is placed in kegs which are then submerged in spent fuel pools. Ideally, the kegs don't leak, and for the next few years, the water safely absorbs radiation and dissipates heat.
After a couple years have passed, the waste produces much less heat (fresh fuel rods contain a lot of radioactive isotopes with short half-lives, which decay quickly), so the kegs are removed from the spent fuel pools and put into dry storage.
Originally the plan was to transport the waste to a central location, deep underground in Nevada, where it could be safely stored for the many millennia necessary for all those radioactive isotopes to decay into radiologically-inert matter.
That plan went awry for reasons too numerous to discuss here. Instead, for now, American nuclear waste from generating plants is stored onsite, in steel and concrete containers known as dry casks. 1609 tons of such waste is currently onsite at San Onofre, right on the edge of the Pacific.
Worst case—say tsunami or earthquake or whatever—what would happen if San Onofre's waste got released into the ocean?
On a global scale, not much. The ocean's a big place. On a local scale: an epic freakout. There are, after all, about 25 million Southern Californians living within a 50-mile radius around San Onofre.
I have an answer as to what we should probably do about that, and you're not going to like it: I say we should let our kids worry about it.
This may seem like an extraordinarily trite and selfish answer, but hear me out: there are some problems which are bigger than we are. In the case of radioactive wastes which will be dangerous for thousands of years or longer, the best course of action may well be to pour more concrete as needed, and otherwise leave the problem for wiser, more capable future generations.
A more interesting question might be to consider what our future progeny might prefer to deal with, if the choice were theirs instead of ours.
The humans of a hundred years from now are likely to have some pretty amazing technologies. Given what we know already, if we could ask them which problem they'd rather face—managing radioactive waste, or trying to decarbonize the Earth's atmosphere—I wonder what they would tell us?
10. THE WISDOM OF CROWDS
The presence or lack thereof of other humans and human activity tends to be a reliable indicator of relative safety. When you are standing all alone beside an abandoned nuclear power plant, as I am now, collective judgment is sending you a powerful message:
Stay the Hell away.
If you're going to ask people to reconsider their attitudes toward nuclear power, you've got to contend with the raw animal terror a place like this evokes. You've got to contend with nearly a century's worth of existential traumas inflicted on humanity by the Atomic age.
I have my own moment of freakout.
Should I take a shower as soon as I get home? Should I throw out my clothes? My shoes? Will soldiers dressed in white hazmat suits pop out of some hidden door in the concrete, geiger counters clicking furiously, screaming and pointing their rifles and shouting incomprehensible directives?
The wind blows. The sun shines. Endless waves march across the Pacific.
No soldiers appear.
Skiers tend to practice a sort of mercenary environmentalism, and in that sense, we're well-suited for weighing complex questions of costs versus benefits. In 2011 it was possible for me to cheer the closing of San Onofre while blissfully ignoring the tradeoffs we were making.
In 2021, no longer.
The choice before us was never between poisoning the Earth or not. It was about deciding what kind of pollution we would produce—and how best to manage it.
Did we make a huge mistake in judging fossil fuels to be the lesser evil? Despite all the obvious consequences and calamities of the Anthropocene era, I can't answer that. There is no way to know what might have been.
But maybe that's the wrong question.
In many ways, Chernobyl made the choice for us, all those years ago. Maybe it's time to take back that power. Maybe it's time to ask whether the collective decision we made in the past is still the best choice for today. We've learned a lot since Chernobyl, not just in terms of promising next-gen reactor designs, but also about the true cost of maintaining the status quo.
What matters, as always, is what we decide to do next.
- My First Radioactive Snowstorm
- The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
- Environmental Chemicals
- The elecromagnetic spectrum
- Ionizing radiation
- Neutron Embrittlement
- Harry Daghlian
- Radiation doses in our daily lives
- The inverse-square law
- Deaths attributable to Chernobyl
- Normal tritium releases
- Generation IV reactor designs
- The nuclear fuel cycle
- Breeder reactors
- Fusion power
- Solar power
- Spent fuel pools
- Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository
— November 17, 2021
Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents
gregg November 18, 2021 at 8:16 pm
I feel like we will think about closing nuclear reactors the same way we think about public transportation lines that were dismantled in the 1940-80s--just a tremendously shortsighted approach to minor issues with upkeep, beautification, etc. It is so expensive and difficult to build non-carbon emitting power at scale, and nuclear plants, especially existing ones, are such an easy option.
I agree that the issue of waste is best left to the future. It's not easy, but it's easier than our present decarbonizing problems.
Matt D November 20, 2021 at 7:23 pm
Great article. I was 5 when Chernobyl happened - just old enough to be scared by it. As you say, I think Chernobyl made that choice for a generation in the West. And Fukushima has apparently made the choice for a generation in Japan.
As a teenager and in my twenties, I too would cheer the closing of nuclear plants. The scale and permanence of disasters like Chernobyl seemed to make the risks, however small, unacceptable. But what is the scale and permanence of the unfolding disaster from burning fossil fuels? It's so much more insidious... happening bit by infinitesimal bit, at a billion places all over the world. It takes decades to get permission to build a nuclear reactor but no permission at all is needed to create another fossil fuel burning engine.
Half of all carbon emissions have occurred since Chernobyl. It's hard for me to think about that and avoid the conclusion we made the wrong choice.
Dan Conger November 27, 2021 at 6:43 pm
I think what bothers me most about this topic (and many like it) is the assumption that the solution is simple. Both sides do this in their own way. The solution to our energy woes on the far right is simple … modern next gen nuclear. The solution on the left is also too simplistic … eliminate all nuclear and fossil fuels and do … what exactly?
I support implementing smart next gen nuclear, but only sparingly and while exploring refinements to the technology. We need electricity. Hydro disrupts river systems. Wind kills birds, especially migrations. Solar takes up too much land … wait, does it?
Pull up Google Earth and look at the LA Basin. It is grey. Why? Do we even have to ask the question why the LA Basin is grey? Imagine all of those structures … literally every single one … covered with advanced solar panels. Now, imagine that all of those structures also have advanced battery back up. Suddenly, one of the largest power consumers on planet Earth becomes one of the largest electricity producers.
Is the cost of this idea enormous? Yes. Is the cost to our planet from filling the air with carbon, blocking rivers, etc worse. Yes, I think it is. Imagine every single human structure on Earth (except in latitudes where it just doesn’t make sense) covered with advanced solar panels and battery backups. The sun pours massive amounts of free energy onto the planet every day. Is it so stupid an idea to harness that?
Carbon or nuclear … I think carbon is worse. However, nuclear isn’t the only option and the sun is a huge power generator.
Andy February 27, 2022 at 9:33 am
I wrote this primarily from a perspective of health and environmental effects, but as recent events make clear, the geopolitical consequences of our collective decision to abandon nuclear power are perhaps equally horrific.