It has threatened to start wars and it has (arguably) finished them; its effects and influences can be found throughout our world today; it has nearly limitless power for creation and destruction; and according to some people it may be our only hope. This week (and the last one too) we are digging deep into the controversial world of nuclear power generation. Over the course of two episodes we'll explore the basics of this technology (which is coincidentally where most other podcasts and videos seem to stop) and go from there to really truly explore the pros and the cons - including plenty that you've probably never considered. Is this technology our best hope for a carbon free future? Or is it another example of too many promises and technological optimism clouding out the realities of our situation?
All this and more in a special two part series on everything nuclear power.
(This is an automated transcript and we'll clean it up manually soon!)
Thank you Alexey for this incredible transcript!
[0:00] Daniel, here we are on week 2 of these nuclear series and I'm excited for the second part of this.
[0:08] Me as well David, we really rambled on in that part 1 about all things nuclear-related but the fun doesn't stop there: we've got a part 2 coming right at you.
[0:18] Yeah and even better: this is on July 4th, the American holiday, celebrating the endless years of imperialism.
[0:26] Yeah, I realized our timing on this wasn't that great, no real connection between July 4th, American Independence celebration and nuclear power but here we are!
[0:35] I think a lot of Americans like to think that there is something related to like: American might and splitting the atom and the nuclear capabilities that we have, maybe not domestically in terms of energy generation, but potentially in terms of the threat that we hold over the rest of the world. I mean the reality of it, and we sort of establish this in part 1 but we go into part 2 as well, is that in terms of energy dominance in the nuclear field America is really not the driving force, and in fact, much of the research is currently ongoing is being conducted by China instead of the United States, and in fact, much of the United States own nuclear program is dependent upon foreign sources of uranium. And this is true for not just the United States but a number of countries. And this is something that I want, sort of wanted to address and we're going to take the chance here at the beginning of this episode. If listeners remember we mentioned at the end of last week that we'd actually recorded the first part and the second part both as like one single entire episode. But we've extended it actually to break it up into two weeks and now we're recording a separate introduction for the second because we want to address a couple of issues that listeners have brought up, thoughts, points of clarification that have been mentioned to us via our Reddit comments and our Discord chat and via email.
[1:54] To be honest with a topic as nuanced and complicated as nuclear power generation I was surprised at how few comments we got because I was actually expecting a lot more.
[2:04] Me too. The major thing was: it turns out we've been pronouncing noo-klee-er wrong the whole time. It's actually a noo-kyuh-ler, nuclear power. it's pronounced noo-kyuh-ler.
[2:11] Or is it noo-klee-r? Noo-klear?
[2:20] We're just trying to demuddle the waters here. I just alluded to one right now. And these one of two things I want to bring up: the first point was brought to us by a user named espresso_patronum, and espresso_patronum brought up a couple of really great research papers that came from Oak Ridge National Laboratory here in the United States down in Tennessee about some of the alloy investigations that were done when this laboratory was operating molten salt reactors or liquid fuel thorium reactors, either MSR or LFTR reactors that we talked about in part 1, looking for types of alloys that would be able to be used and not embrittle or be degraded by the corrosive nature of these fuels. And they brought to our attention in research papers, that we’ll add to the website source page which you can check out, suggesting that Oak Ridge had come across or had devised with their metallurgical sciences the ability to create some this allows that saw very little degradation in the order of less than one mil (SI: 0.0254mm) per year and some of these have been commercialized: there's a product called Hastelloy that you can actually buy. Hastelloy is highly resistant both in terms of corrosion and in nuclear embrittlement alloy that's available, that seems promising for the construction of some of these types of reactors. And we had mentioned the big problem with LFTR reactors, with molten salt reactors was that material sciences haven't quite caught up yet. Turns out that we didn't dig quite deep enough and so I appreciate espresso__patronum for bringing this to our attention. They also mentioned that China's LFTR program has come across their own metallurgical breakthroughs: in particular, things that they are utilizing a nickel-molybdenum silicon carbide alloys that seem to be similar league both in corrosion resistance as well as a resistance to the embrittlement process that we mentioned. So we might actually honestly see some of these reactors come forward not just from the experimental stage but start to try and be commercialized in the next few years and decades because of these material science breakthroughs, some of which happened decades ago: the Oakridge breakthroughs happened in the 70s, in 77-78. So thanks for bringing these to our attention, we’ll add these papers to the website where you can check them out if you are interested in this type of topics. And if we say anything that disregards this information ignore it because this is the correct latest up-to-date info.
[4:30] Alright, glad you got one of the easy ones out of the way, let me tackle one of your hard comments we got. This came from our friend StopFossilFuels who wrote to us to say, ‘At 49:15 you say that nuclear provides 10% of global energy, but I believe it's actually only 10% of electricity, a critical distinction’. Yes, that is true. We say that a lot in part one and we'll say it again and part 2 that nuclear power generation provides 10% of the world's power.[5:00] You're right, it's actually electrical power generation, the distinction, of course, being, think of liquid fuel like the gasoline you put into your car, technically, that is power generation but it doesn't go into the grid. So most of the figures we're using are talking about baseload power generation for our power grid which ultimately is in the form of electricity. Also as an aside, David, you kept mentioning Oakridge, a little family history: my grandfather was actually a captain in the US Army during World War II, he was stationed in quite a few different places in the United States, but one of his details was as a security officer within the Manhattan Project and there are some interesting stories from that time. But one of them is that he was in charge of a convoy that delivered, in his words, the atomic bomb from Oak Ridge to Los Alamos. I don't think he was actually delivering the atomic bomb but probably some radioactive material, maybe some bomb components that eventually went into one of those, and his instructions were: ‘here the convoy, here's a bunch of machine guns, you better drive straight from Oak Ridge to Los Alamos and if anything gets in your way, you make it not so.’
[6:11] Heavy orders. But let me bring up another point, completely unrelated to your very interesting family history they have right there. Another user on Reddit that brought to our attention, this is Australian user, and they wanted to point out, and I never mention this throughout the two episodes, I wanted to but it felt nitpicky, but I'm going to bring it up briefly right now anyway. There are various ways of refining radioactive material to bring it to a process that prepares it for this enrichment or as part of the enrichment process, there's one called PUREX which is the original system from taking uranium ore to something that can be utilized for preparing nuclear fuel and it's a very polluting energy-intensive process. But there has been a lot of research put into this, there is a new process called SILEX which is very exciting, it uses laser isotopes to separate all the stuff, and it's going to very much radicalize the energy needs for the entire nuclear process from beginning to end, it's already used in some places but it needs to be greatly expanded. Which brings me to the second point that this poster brought up which is the fact that nuclear material, we sort of alluded to this, is not evenly distributed around the world, some places have more access to uranium than others this allows uranium wealthy countries, places like Russia, to exploit the fact that they have material that other countries need, so like India, as we mentioned, has very little in terms of uranium reserves but they have large thorium reserves: that makes them dependent upon countries that are uranium-rich. So countries like Russia can hold this over them, can use it as a political bargaining tool, can use it for sanctions or whatever the threats that might be up there and guarantee the stream of revenue if countries like India countries like the United States, who actually gather a large amount of armed radioactive material from Russia even beyond the Megatons to Megawatts program, which we’ll talk about, and gives them a political hold over these nations in something as fundamental as their energy generation. [8:05] Or electrical energy generation I guess I should say, Daniel. And I think that's the last note that I have here, Daniel, it adds a lot to play in in terms of international sanctions, it's a big major geopolitical pawn that's used for a lot of this conversation. I'm really not going to go into it in this episode because it is a long complicated thing, it's involved in the Iran stuff that you're seeing right now, it's involved in North Korea – there's a lot of conversation that is going to, that is well beyond the scope of this simple thing saying, you know, ‘is nuclear energy viable or is it not?’ I’ve also, full confession, Daniel, started recording this after several shots of tequila and a few beers. So the fact that I made it through these couple of points, I think pretty well is impressive, so.
[8:50] It was okay, it was all right, but I was going to say once again you've chosen the easy and simple comment to address leaving me with the very difficult ones. So final comment that we need to address comes from our friend Dr.Tim, biology professor extraordinaire. And he writes to us, ‘one thing I wish you had touched on is the difference between radiation itself, something that is irradiated and something that is contaminated. In short, while radiation is dangerous to us, things that have been irradiated are not dangerous at all, rocks do not care about radiation because their structure is too simple to be meaningfully affected, but biological systems are super complex and the damage can cause us problems. However, we irradiate our food and it doesn't affect us, the radiation passes through, does its damage and moves on. Contamination is the most dangerous because it's a continuous source of radiation, and because of the long half-lives of many radioisotopes even a tiny amount of contamination is incredibly dangerous.' And so what Dr.Tim is talking about, of course, is that we talked about radioactive material and that's an isotope that is emitting some kind of particle, a beta particle or something that is harmful to us as humans because when it comes in contact with our cells that disrupts our DNA, our nucleus, the cell function or whatever and that's harmful to us. [10:15] But once that radiation hits us and we have been irradiated so to speak if we leave that area, we're fine. And so what he's talking about, you mentioned in part 1, David, going to the shoe doctor and being hit by an x-ray, when your foot is hit by that x-ray, it is being irradiated, it is being blasted with radiation, some isotopes are emitting some kind of harmful radiation. But once you leave that x-ray or you shut it off, the harm stops, it has already interacted with your cells in some way, maybe it's damaged the DNA, broken down some cell function and that will continue to harm you but, in terms of the radiation, it's no longer going on. But what contamination is, when those isotopes that are themselves radiating something harmful, a beta particle or something, when those get intermixed with the environment they are themselves that source of radiation and we can no longer escape it once it's in our environment or in our body or something like that. So an important concept there, if you want to learn more just google it.
[11:11] Google: radiation – this entire show is built off, we’re just googled nuclear power and just summarized the first thing that we found. No, I think that's covers everything we wanted to talk about here, Daniel, in terms of corrections minus the fact that neither of us can pronounce anything correctly or spell.
[11:31] So with that let's get part 2 churning and burning, let's go nuclear.
[11:35] So pop your iodine pills and let's get into this. [INTRO MUSIC]
[11:47] I'm David Torcivia.
[11:49] I'm Daniel Forkner.
[11:50] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment and if we're unlucky the end of the world.
[12:02] But if we learn from all of this maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken but it doesn't have to be. [12:17] You mentioned the cost of this technology and it being one of the most expensive forms of energy generation. And we could talk about the cost of constructing one of these power plants which of course is enormous, we're talking about 20-30 billion dollars per plant, which is just astronomical and, of course, they're never meant to be that expensive, but because of the time it takes to construct them, the inevitable setbacks that occur, these construction costs can really get out of control. But I think there are some costs though that do not get discussed and entered into this equation which is: number one, the cost of mistakes or accidents. So the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown that occurred in 2011, which cost a Japanese government some estimated 180 billion dollars by their count, independent consultants suggest that cost is actually three times higher. And as we’ll talk about, there's been a lot of coverup in terms of the fallout of this terrible disaster which, you know, you could argue is saving the government cost in terms of taking care of the victims of this. So, you know, there's no telling how astronomical that figure actually is. But then a more indirect cost of that is that, just like the Three Mile Island accident in New York in 1979 caused many countries around the world to halt or to question their own nuclear industries and in some cases resulted in the cancellation of several nuclear power plants, the Fukushima accident had the same effect. [13:47] The very next month Germany made the announcement that it was going to completely decommission every single one of its nuclear power plants and this was a time when Germany was generating what, some 20% of its entire electricity from nuclear power plants – that is a cost. When public opposition to this technology become so overwhelming, the countries have to scrap their nuclear programs or decommission plants, that is a cost. And these mistakes, these accidents inevitably will happen, and I think this is a cost that should be included in this, the waste of time and energy we spent planning, designing and constructing these plants only to halt all of that when something goes wrong. But there's another aspect of this which I think just kind of gets at the heart, the fundamental problem with our economies, so we mentioned decommissioning and that's something that every one of these plants must undergo, you construct it but eventually, you're going to have to take it down. And dismantling a nuclear power plant is extremely complicated and it takes a very long time. In fact, to take some 20 to 60 years, the nuclear reactors themselves have to be cooled over a couple of decades, all the parts have to be separated and repurposed, it must be overseen so that no radioactive material seeps into the environment. [15:09] And where does that money come from? Who's going to pay for that? Because you're talking about a plant that is no longer producing energy, it is not making any money. In the United States we have regulation that requires nuclear power plant owners and operators to set aside money into a trust fund, and generally, they set aside money as this plant operates as its selling energy, they redirect a portion of that revenue into these trust funds that will then be used once the plant needs to be decommissioned, and some 70% of our nuclear power plants in the United States do not have fully funded trust funds for this.
[15:48] This is sounding like that pension crisis, Daniel.
[15:50] Yes, exactly. I mean going back to episode, you know, one of the very first ones we did, “End of the Road” on infrastructure. We have this dependence on growth in our economies that doesn't really make any rational sense, which is: we like to invest in things, we like to build things that generate money for us today and in terms of maintaining these things, in terms of the cost that we will eventually incur to either replace it or expand on it, we just assume that the growth of our economy will take care of that. And that's exactly what a trust fund is for decommissioning a plant that's going to cost in the range of 250 to 650 million dollars.
[16:33] Per reactor, I feel like that's worth saying, most plants have multiple reactors, not just a single one. So if you're saying 650 million dollars total for the plant, ‘oh, what a bargain’, no but most plants have two to four. For example, here Indian Point who is is planning to be decommissioned has a 1.7 billion dollar decommissioning trust fund at this point and that is just to cover two reactors.
[16:58] And so we're banking on the fact that whatever these decommission funds are put into, you know, stock funds or whatever assets, we're assuming that that's going to generate enough return to handle the cost of this decommissioning, right? I mean, there’s going to be inflation, we're assuming that the value of this money will not depreciate, and we're putting all of this into the hands of the private companies that oversee these power plants. And there's an interesting tidbit of history that I want to insert into this, which is: one of the cons of nuclear power generation that we didn't go to in-depth is the nuclear proliferation, that's the fear that all this technology and the accumulation of enriched uranium will enable countries to develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
[17:45] That's because it's a pro, Daniel. I have a plan for us to all get nuclear material and to start up like a nuclear weapons co-op that creates community-owned nukes. And then we loan them to countries in need to defend themselves from the global economy and the United States machinations so right now I'd be like, ‘yo, Iran, you need some, you need a nuke to protect yourself so you can be like North Korea,’ and then we would loan them one of our community nukes until they were better. And now we’d go around loaning nukes to people: Palestine, Venezuela, you know, I'm definitely going to get shipped off in the van for saying this.
[18:20] So nuclear proliferation is not a threat in your opinion, David, because we're going to somehow...
[18:26] Everyone should have a nuke. I wish we had pocket nukes, like, I should be able to be on the street and some guy pisses me off and I'll be like, ‘don't make me fucking nuke you, I'll nuke this whole street,’ and the guy is, like, pulls out his nuke and he is like, ‘oh, yeah? Not If I nuke you first!’ And that’s just how confrontation goes. Are you going to fight with somebody if you know they can nuke you, Daniel? Mutually assured destruction accepted everywhere, every person has their own nuke.
[18:52] So, to stop a bad guy with a nuke, we just need a bunch of good guys with nukes.
[18:57] Yeah, and don't stop with people, like, give the nukes to the animals. The honeybees? They definitely need nukes, they should be nuking Monsanto like right now, they should be, oh I guess it’s not Monsanto, they should be nuking Bayer now. Give the tools to Earth to defend itself, it already has nuclear powers, it’s not nuclear proliferation, they had already figured this out. Return the nukes back to Mother Earth so they can nuke us. [19:21] Speechless.
[19:24] You went from like a professor nuclear textbook over there to pirates zeppelin crew in the sky, that was an impressive shift, David.
[19:33] It's fair and balanced, Daniel.
[19:35] But we're pretty neutral over here on Ashes Ashes. So with that aside, send resumes to contact at ashesashes.org if you like to be a part of the organizing efforts, so with that aside. Nuclear proliferation is a risk in the eyes of our various world governments because they don't want nuclear weapons in the hands of the wrong people. Now how does this relate to this discussion of decommissioning and the economics of all this? After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s they had a large cache of nuclear weapon stockpiles or more specifically enriched uranium fuel that could be used for the construction of nuclear weapons. And at the time you know Russia was extremely cash-strapped, they didn't have a lot of money to maintain this large arsenal and, of course, it was then vulnerable for rogue sales, to be siphoned off. Independent government officials, of course, might have been incentivized to do some under-the-table arms trading, right? This type of risk was there because the economics broke down. [20:49] There was no really robust economy anymore to support what had been a rapid buildup of nuclear weapons. Now it just so happens that there was a solution in the form of a program called Megatons to Megawatts, this was heavily pushed by an MIT engineer who really badgered the US government and some Russian officials to do a trade, he actually traveled to Russia, walked into the office of a Russian official who oversaw the stockpiling of all this nuclear material and said, 'Look, sell the United States this highly-enriched uranium, the United States can then de-enrich it back down to 3 to 5% concentrated uranium-235 for the use of nuclear power generation.' And long story short: that's exactly what we did, we paid Russia some 17 or 19 billion dollars to take their highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons off their hands after they de-enriched it for us. And we used it to power our economy, our energy, it made up 10% of our total energy production for 20 years just from this stockpile that Russia had accumulated. And it's estimated that this trade alone resulted in some 10 to 20 thousand potential nuclear weapons not being produced, which is massive disarmament of nuclear weapons. So a big win for nuclear proliferation. But I think this story is the exception because the United States was able to take advantage of a limited window in which the Russian Federation was economically weak and could not afford to maintain all this cache of nuclear material. [22:35] What would happen if our economy were to break down? We have all these nuclear power plants and if we do need to decommission them, who's going to pay for that? You know this is a larger discussion about the economics of securing safety of this technology: if we have to spend X number of billions of dollars to store this material safely once it's become radioactive in the form of waste if we have to spend billions of dollars to decommission these plants safely, but if we're looking at a future where, let's say, our economy is in decline and we're trying to balance the cost of our rising pensions, we're trying to balance the cost of infrastructure that we can't maintain, we're trying to balance the cost of these huge social problems that we're wrestling with this, for instance, like the refugees at our border – is it possible, is it foreseeable that whatever companies are in charge of this or even our government itself would decide that the short-term allocation of resources is worth giving up the long-term benefit of safety for some future generation if it means that it can divert these funds to some immediate crisis? And as we've seen our government, especially United States government, loves to manufacture crises, especially in these times, so that it can get around such things as pesky regulation. [23:58] And so I'm trying to say that I question our responsibility. And this is something I want to expand more on, but to employ this technology in mass and that scale we're placing our trust in our governments and in our companies that oversee this, that they are responsible to us, to our safety and to the environment. And I want to read an excerpt from an article written by the former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the United States Gregory Jaczko who oversaw nuclear policy here in the US. But based on what he saw in terms of the industry influence on our policy he actually decided that you know what, nuclear technology is not the way to go. And here's what he wrote: "As the certainty of climate change grew clearer, nuclear power presented a dilemma for environmentalists: Was the risk of accidents or further spread of nuclear weapons greater than the hazard of climate change? In the late 2000s, the arguments in support of nuclear power were gaining traction with Congress, academia and even some environmentalists, as the Chernobyl accident faded into the past and the effects of climate change became harder to ignore. No new plants had been proposed in decades, because of the industry’s dismal record of construction oversight and cost controls, but now utilities were beginning to pitch new reactors — as many as 30 around the country. But the Fukushima Daiichi crisis reversed that momentum. A massive release of radiation from that plant, as its four reactors failed, lasted for months. The world watched as hydrogen explosions sent huge chunks of concrete into the air — a reminder that radiation was streaming, unseen, from the reactor core. More than 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes and their communities. Agency staffers soon produced a reasonable set of plant improvements that would reduce the chance of a similar accident here, in the United States. Yet after the disaster, my fellow commissioners, as well as many in Congress and the nuclear industry, fretted that the proposed new U.S. reactors might never be built, because Fukushima would focus too much attention on the potential downsides. Westinghouse and the new plant owners worried that acknowledging the need for reforms would raise even more concern about the safety of reactors. The industry wanted the NRC to say that everything was fine and nothing needed to change. So my colleagues on the commission and supporters of the industry pushed to license the first of these projects without delay and stonewalled implementation of the safety reforms. My colleagues objected to making the staff report public. I ultimately prevailed, but then the lobbying intensified: The industry almost immediately started pushing back on the staff report. They lobbied the commission and enlisted allies in Congress to disapprove, water down or defer many of the recommendations. Within a year of the accident at Fukushima — and over my objections — the NRC implemented just a few of the modest safety reforms that the agency’s employees had proposed, and then approved the first four new reactor licenses in decades, in Georgia and in South Carolina. And here in the United States, those four new reactors — the vanguard of the "nuclear renaissance" — still haven't opened. The South Carolina companies building two of the reactors cancelled the project in 2017, after spending $9 billion of their customers' money without producing a single electron of power. The construction company behind the utilities, Westinghouse, went bankrupt, almost destroying its parent company, the global conglomerate Toshiba. The other two reactors licensed while I chaired the NRC are still under construction in Georgia and years behind schedule. Their cost has ballooned from $14 billion to $28 billion and continues to grow. History shows that the expense involved in nuclear power will never change. Past construction in the United States exhibited similar cost increases throughout the design, engineering and construction process. The technology and safety needs are just too complex and demanding to translate into a facility that is simple to design and build. No matter your views on nuclear power in principle, no one can afford to pay this much for two electricity plants. New nuclear is simply off the table in the United States. For years, my concerns about nuclear energy’s cost and safety were always tempered by a growing fear of climate catastrophe. But Fukushima provided a good test of just how important nuclear power was to slowing climate change: In the months after the accident, all nuclear reactors in Japan were shuttered indefinitely, eliminating production of almost all of the country’s carbon-free electricity and about 30 percent of its total electricity production. Naturally, carbon emissions rose, and future emissions-reduction targets were slashed. Would shutting down plants all over the world lead to similar results? Eight years after Fukushima, that question has been answered. Fewer than 10 of Japan’s 50 reactors have resumed operations, yet the country’s carbon emissions have dropped below their levels before the accident. How? Japan has made significant gains in energy efficiency and solar power. It turns out that relying on nuclear energy is actually a bad strategy for combating climate change: One accident wiped out Japan’s carbon gains. Only a turn to renewables and conservation brought the country back on target.”
[30:02] There's a point there at the end, Daniel, about the conservation and what really it means to be fighting for the climate in this case that I want to expand upon, there's one or two things I want to mention before I get to this cause it feels like I'm closing out sort of thought. And there's a little bit I want to talk about here, still with waste and with the plant construction and sum of what really are their costs. To cycle back, and I really hate leaving this because I think that piece is really interesting, especially coming from somebody who was such a big nuclear advocate, who was fighting for this and now is totally reversed on this process. I think he hits on the point that I finally took away after doing all this research and even, I mean even over the course of recording this show, that my ideas, my stances have evolved. [30:46] But to jump back very quickly to some cost-related stuff: there are new plants that were being built in the United States, they had new regulatory approvals, they had new designs approved. And two actually went to the construction: one of which was in South Carolina and one of which is in Georgia. And, unfortunately, these projects have been disasters, the South Carolina plant was canceled in 2017 which was a huge blow for the US nuclear industry. And in large part this was because the plant has just gotten so far over budget, the entire thing was supposed to cost just 11.5 billion dollars to construct, and I say just, but 11.5 billion dollars to construct! And at the time of cancellation, it was already at 9 billion dollars in construction costs set aside for this, and they were like 40% of the way done constructing this plant, they thought it is going to cost at least 25 billion, if not more. And so the utility just gave up at this point, they said we can't afford to keep building this, it doesn't make any sense and so that's 14 billion dollars just thrown away to build the shell of a couple of reactors, the cooling towers – and this plant is just nothing, there's nothing there, they gave up, natural gas prices fell so they started constructing those new plants, which are almost as carbon-efficient as nuclear plants, as well as a large amount of renewables which just really devastated the price argument for nuclear. Meanwhile, this plant which we were constructing in Georgia, that production is still going forward, but everything is up in sort of limbo at the moment. Westinghouse, the manufacturer of the reactor they were using, this advanced reactor called the AP1000, filed for bankruptcy and that put everything at risk, they are still continuing it, they are working something out so that it will be going forward. But this is also billions and billions of dollars over budget, it's at 14 billion dollars, it is expected to cost more than 25 billion dollars on something that initially they estimated at 11 or 12. These projects are hugely expensive, they're not worth it in terms of market costs and that's not even looking at all the other concerns that we’ve talked about here. The unfortunate reality is just that building reactors, at least in the modern day in the United States, is a disaster and these processes take 20+ years from when they first get approval to win the construction to when it eventually will start its first fission. [33:02] This stuff is a mess and there's no wonder that we’ve abandoned this so much that we have so much negative press around it. Because at this point it's no longer even making cost sense, much less anything else. And of course, the argument against that is, well, when we talk about environmental concerns, what's in the terms of a couple of billion dollars here there if we're trying to save the world from climate change? And that is the kind of question that we need to be asking. But as we've shown throughout this episode that doesn't necessarily make sense. As Daniel mentioned, when Japan was forced to power down a large portion of their reactors because of safety concerns, initially there was an increase in fossil fuel-burning in order to make up for the difference, but that quickly went back down and renewables have taken over. And they are now using both less energy overall as well as more efficient energy than they were before because they're no longer running the nuke plants. This ties into that Jevons paradox thing that we talked about several times in the show at this point, when just because you can make things more efficient doesn't mean you're going to decrease the use of that thing. Maybe we shouldn't be talking about how can we create more energy generation, but maybe replacing the energy generation we have and slowly starting to totally reduce the amount of energy that we are creating in the first place forcing ourselves to sort of wean off this electrical power that we're gotten so used to. [34:21] Which is, before we jump into that thought, Daniel, I know you're champing at the bit for it, we do need to talk about nuclear waste. That's the other big equation here and probably the biggest mess of this conversation, at least here in the United States, but also worldwide. When you're running conventional nuclear reactors like we have, these light water reactors, you generate a lot of waste. And it's a variety of different types of waste from the fuel rods themselves, when dealing with decommissioning, to things like water that is radioactive from the waste pools where you put these rods in to cool, the regulatory rods – all this stuff that eventually becomes radioactive in this process, what do you do with that? [34:59] You know, these things can have radioactivity at the scale of thousands of years, tens of thousands if not more in some cases, that is potent enough to impact human life and other biological life. How do you responsibly get rid of this without causing just massive environmental destruction? And we don't have a lot of great answers for that and, in fact, in a lot of cases it seems to pretend that it's not a problem, and when these things do leak or crack and do cause a local environment destruction, cover it up and ignore it and pretend it never happened. Which has been sort of the de facto standard response for a while which goes back to that point, Daniel, that how can we trust these companies, these governmental bodies in order to keep us safe when their record is so abysmal? Not every single nuclear disaster is something like Fukushima, is like Chernobyl. And I'm really proud of us for hardly using the C-word throughout this episode. But there are lots of little things that not even necessarily are meltdowns, but there are leaks, there are contaminations, and they occur at a variety of places along the nuclear supply chain: from mining to eventual decommissioning and the disposal of this waste. The one that never gets talked about, that is considered one of the largest radioactive disasters in the United States you've probably never heard of, cause most Americans have only heard of Three Mile Island, is something called a Church Rock uranium mill spill.
[36:25] Yeah, the Church Rock uranium mill spill was to me: this is a great example of our irresponsibility because this was and remains to this day the greatest contamination of our environment in terms of radioactive material that has ever occurred in the United States, yet how many people have heard of this? We've all heard of The Three Mile Island accident, we've all heard of Fukushima and Chernobyl, but in fact, this occurred just four months after that Three Mile Island accident in New York and this occurred in New Mexico, near Arizona. And essentially what it was is they were mining uranium at this site, there was some leftover radioactive material, the tailings of this mining that when a local dam burst got picked up, tons of uranium float into a river that went straight through a Navajo Nation town and eventually contaminated the groundwater sources there. And to this day, this groundwater is contaminated and the people living in this town, the closest place for them to get drinking water is a hundred miles away. And everyone in this town is used to going to water sources to bottle their water, bring it back to their town – this was the biggest radioactive contamination in the history of the United States which is still impacting the lives of these Navajo people: and has anybody ever heard of this? How can we call ourselves responsible to this technology, to secure the health and the well-being of future generations when those that we have actively harmed today and continue to harm are swept under the rug and we do nothing for these victims. How can we trust ourselves when we’re still not even helping these people?
[38:11] I mean every single nuclear accident that occurs, and there are a lot, most are meltdowns, but even in the big meltdowns what is the one single unifying theme that happens in every single one? It's the denial by the government that it's a problem, denial that the fallout from it is a problem, denial all along the way that these things are problematic or bad, people are exaggerating how terrible it is. And in the end, of course, like decades and years later, it comes out that like, 'oh yeah, you know, almost everybody died', or like, 'all these people are poisoned and we just lied about it for years.' And eventually, we turn it into a mini-series on HBO, and people like, 'oh my God, I'm so glad that didn't happen here!' And then it's happening here, it really is: Three Mile Island, Church Rock, Fukushima – all these things will at someday be the same kind of stories of this drama, these lies, these coverups. And it's just the single unifying thing of the stuff. And nuclear actors will tell you that the plants are designed for things like a 10,000-year error so that only, you know, one in 10,000-year thing is expected to damage a plant. But actual studies found that it's much much much much more likely. In fact, there's a great paper that came out recently that found that it is probably likely that a major meltdown happens every 10 to 20 years. [39:22] Which is 200 times more frequently than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is estimating and that's based on the calculations of how many hours a plant operation there are. So as we expand the number of plants that are operating, and especially some of these old Gen II plants, these Gen III plants that aren't as safe, start getting into the tail ends of their years, we start seeing cracks in the reactor core, which is a very common thing that we see all over the place when they refuse to do the upgrades to their plants in order to make them safer because that wasn't calculated into the larger cost of the lifetime costs of the plant. Then these things will get more often, Indian Point, this reactor that they're shutting down here, turns out they accidentally built it on a major fault line, and that fault line is likely to generate magnitude 6 to 7 earthquake. And when I say built on a fault line, I mean literally like within a hundred feet of the fault line, and nobody realized it for years. This plant isn't built for that kind of earthquake and we just been lucky that it didn't happen. [40:21] There was an earthquake recently, a magnitude 2, and it damaged some of the reactor walls. And that was just a fraction of the magnitude 6 or 7 quake that the many geologists think not only is possible but is likely and should have happened over the course of a lifetime of this plant. When you start looking into individual plants and hear about the stories of all them you see over and over again these repeated examples of ‘oh, you know the Wastewater Plant has been leaking or ‘oh, the fuel cells are problematic’ or ‘there are cracks’: they all have tons of problems. And little tiny notes and footnotes in these massive NRC papers that come out every now and then letting people know if they wanted to dig into it but people aren't interested in reporting on it. And most of these don't end up in any sort of loss of life but they are contaminating the environment, and there are dangers if things can spiral out of control. And then we have to wonder if, you know, how much damage is just down the road that we don't see because a lot of nuclear damage can take decades before cancer or something starts showing up in these areas. [41:17] Which brings me to my point that I originally was trying to make and that's: we don't have waste disposal plans, the United States has been trying to figure out a plan for how to dispose of the nuclear waste generated from these many plants for 37 years now, since 1982. And we've never come up with a plan. You probably heard of Yucca Mountain which was supposed to be the nuclear disposal site. [41:41] But through a variety of back and forths it's been built, lots of research has been put into it, but they won't move stuff into it, it's not totally finished. It was totally canceled, the stopped funding it a couple of years ago, now it's back, they try to introduce bills again, Trump has expressed interest in reopening it. Nobody obviously wants to have the nuke storage place in their backyard which is why this conflict is still going on 30 years later. [42:05] So what are we doing with these nuclear materials in the meantime, you might ask? Like where are they going? Well, there is one storage facility that the US is using, it's called Waste Isolation Pilot Plant but that facility suffered an explosion of one of these casks that were stored in there, it impacted 10 to 20 employees, who got some of this nuclear material inside of them and they're facing health effects from that and made the plant as a whole seem like it's not going to be something that works for United States. Part the reason why we're looking back at Yucca Mountain is because of this. And in the meantime plants are just taking all their waste material, putting them in these giant steel and lead and concrete cylinders that we call casks, that are designed to be extremely strong, to withstand a missile, assault, just like if, you know, very defendable too basically. And they're just stacking them. They are just literally stacked on property if you've looked at pictures of nuclear plants you probably could see these, just these concrete cylinders and they are filled with nuclear material and that's currently our disposal plan: we'll just put it in a tube and stack it up and hope it's not an issue. That's the plan. And worldwide really that seems to be the same plan except being buried underground somewhere.
[43:15] Yeah, waste disposal is itself a highly controversial debate. I mean it seems like one of the best solutions would be some kind of international centralized geological repository where we can identify, you know, much like the natural nuclear reactor we talked about the beginning of this episode in Gabon, how the waste from is still in the ground 2 billion years later. If we could identify a site like where we as the international community could come together and say, 'we're all going to store our nuclear waste in this very secure facility underground,' that could potentially be a good way around just like leaving everyone up just to figure it out for themselves. Of course, the problem with that is that there's no international agreement, you know, a lot of people are afraid of if we start pulling all this waste together, that leaves us open for the risk of nuclear proliferation if someone gets into this stockpile, steals the plutonium or whatever it is that makes nuclear bombs. Another interesting controversy about this is the economics where, you know, the safest thing would probably be again a geological repository that would then be permanently sealed in some way. But a lot of governments actually do not want to permit or license the underground storage of nuclear waste if it's not reversible, meaning if we cannot ultimately retrieve it, because a lot of governments see this as an economic fuel source for future technologies. So they do not want to give up the possibility that they could make money off this nuclear waste by sealing it forever.
[44:45] And the reason that the case is because there's actually a fairly limited amount of uranium that is readily available, and then again of that uranium, there is only a small percentage that can be used for this fission product. So we don't have a ton of reserves, they think worldwide reserves, and I've done the math on this myself, if we converted all energy production to nuclear power and we snapped their fingers and do that, we'd have about a 100 years to 150 years of power generation available to us before they'll be no more uranium anymore. Which is why they really want to preserve the uranium we have, of course, the way around that is switching the type of technology that we're using to generate either to something thorium-based or one of these fast reactor breeder types that can generate fuel for other reactors and extend that period of the amount of uranium available for us in fissionable material to something like 5 billion years I think is a number I've heard thrown out. So in that case, if we were able to do something like that, we would maybe see this as renewable energy but these other problems persist. And of course, there's always, and I feel like I'm just tucking this in here cause I do want to say it, seawater has a huge amount of uranium in it. So you can extract uranium from seawater, it's just not cost-effective to do so at current uranium prices because it's easy to mine out of the ground. But if we were ever at a point where we were, we're just really hurting for nuclear material, then we could mine the sea for it basically. And when I'm saying mine the sea I mean literally suck it out of the water, it just would be even less economically viable than it already is to do that. [46:15] But to touch on one maybe just fun point with this waste disposal stuff as we get to the tail end of this episode: I want to talk about this like a larger philosophical question of how do you warn people that you're burying a bunch of nuclear material that's dangerous for thousands of years, potentially 10000+ years, when human civilization has really only been around for, you know, honestly not that much longer than that, and modern knowledge of nuclear power has only been around few decades, and it's something that could easily be lost, that may very well be lost if human civilization collapses and we go back to the Dark Age, or maybe we get extinct and some other intelligent lifeform evolves, and I saw capuchin monkeys are using stone tools, so maybe they’re going to be our legacy.
[47:02] Oh, that's a good question. I mean we see those signs, you know, big yellow signs with the three arrows indicating radioactivity but how would someone 500, 300 years in the future even know what that means?
[47:15] Yeah, exactly. And so you have this question of how can you persist this knowledge of danger, of the fact that nuclear energy is dangerous and that these locations where it is stored are dangerous without first being able to assume that somebody can read your writing, assume that somebody even understands what you're talking about. And so they put together when they were designing Yucca Mountain a team of all sorts of different people, philosophers, science fiction writers, linguists, architects, engineers, a wide variety of some of the best and brightest of humanity to say: ‘what would you do in this situation?’ And they came up with all sorts of crazy ideas. Let me pull somebody's up cause they're just, this is so interesting. And I know we've been rambling for forever, but I just got to share this. So this group of people, one of their collections was called the Human Interference Task Force, they created this field of research called nuclear semiotics. And they were trying to figure out these ways of how do we continue communicating this information into the future without any knowledge of what civilization or culture may be even just a 100-200 years down the line. And potentially they wanted to keep it legible for 10000 years. So they sit down that 3 points that's really needed to be done: and one is that this is actually a message, what you're saying, and that's maybe something that we would assume would be obvious but maybe isn't to people in the future that dangerous material is stored in this location and that there is some information about what is specifically dangerous about these materials. So you ready for this, Daniel? Here are some of the ideas that they came up with. [48:52] One of these linguists proposed creating a, I don't know, a cult, I guess would be a way to put it, called the Atomic Priesthood.
[49:01] Brilliant, David.
[49:02] And his theory was, well you know, religion is really good at keeping stories going and keeping them fairly unchanged as time goes on because there's like a divine word to it, so it's blasphemous to try and change it. And so if you could carry that same idea to a conversation about the dangers of atomic energy and the locations where these dangers were stored then you could allow us to persist for thousands of years just like say Christianity has done. So he's like: so we should start a cult called the Atomic Priesthood, and they would have the knowledge of these radioactive sites and they would persist it with like rituals and myths and sacred texts, and part of their religion would be built around these off-limit areas and the consequences and what would happen if you broke into them.
[49:45] So basically what you're saying, David, is we're going to create a cult, hopefully, that will evolve into a religion, maybe we'll call it instead of Atoms for Peace, we'll call it Atoms for Death and you'll be atomic priest №2, I'll be atomic priest №1, we'll create all these traditions and stories and parables about how, you know, if you go into this particular region or if you see this particular sign, don't go in there, because the atomic spirit that inhabits the universe will smite thee and send you to a very dark place. And hopefully, this cult that we create will persist for several generations and out-compete other forms of religion and traditions such that these traditions and stories persist through all cultures and for all time.
[50:37] Yeah, I mean that was the idea. Of course, there were problems with it, people suggested that, well, if you have this religion formed then you going to have the same problems religion has, you going to make a privileged class, you're going to have hierarchies form, this information could be used for evil, it could be used for political purposes and so they like: you know, this is not the best idea we've ever come up. So they came up with some other ones: there is a science fiction writer called Stanisław Lem who proposed adding these artificial satellites, basically, moons but human ones, you know, what we will call satellites, and put them in orbit in fixed places and they would just broadcast for thousands of years information about these locations, the dangers of them, sort of as a permanent sign that couldn't be affected by geological processes or withering or stuff like that.
[51:23] Yeah, because you know all the post-civilization hunter-gatherer societies that will form will, you know, make sure they maintain their radio receivers and, of course, if our species is superseded by another primate, they’ll probably just independently generate additional radio receiver technologies and...
[51:42] Well, you're figuring out the problem in his stuff. He had other ideas like writing into the DNA of plants you plant around this warnings and stuff but then somebody pointed out like, well, you know, if a species has the technology to gather information from radiowaves or to read the DNA of genetically-engineered creatures around here, well then, you know, maybe they would know what nuclear energy or radiation was as well.
[52:08] Well, you know, David, when I was in college in biology 101 we worked with some E. coli samples I did a little bit of DNA engineering myself. I don't want to brag but I did splice a jellyfish gene that encodes for glow in the darkness and I put that into an E. coli bacterium.
[52:29] I think it's called the bioluminescence, glow in the darkness.
[52:35] I don't know where you learned biology, David, but this glow-in-the-dark E. coli that I engineered had the trait of this jellyfish, and I wonder if we could do the same thing with plants, you know when they come in contact with radioactive material, BOOM: glow in the darkness.
[52:52] Now you're thinking like the best and brightest because that is more or less one of the ideas that was suggested here, both in plants themselves that will grow special colors when they got close to this radiation but also more notably with cats.
[53:06] Cats, David? We're going to have glow-in-the-dark cats?
[53:11] Well, they realize that mankind loves cats, I mean I love cats, I have a cat. And we have a long history of cats living with us for thousands of years at this point. And they thought what if we could bioengineer cats that when they got close to radiation they would change color. And then what if we encoded into culture myths and fairy tales about the dangers that you're about to encounter when you see a cat change color. So this sounds a little crazy.
[53:45] Right off the bat. But we do have a lot of myths and fairytales involving cats already, we're sort of spooked out by black cats, there's a lot of superstition and culture around that. And it's not infusible to say that we couldn't create a new myth about these ray cats, as they called them, who when they would approach a nuclear material, and I wouldn't want being in this story, they change color. And so, the cultural story would be: if you see a cat change color, they're trying to save your life, get out of there before something bad happens to you – you know and then you grab your cat and you run.
[54:18] But I still feel like it's too vague because we're assuming that humans are just like walking around and just avoiding areas as opposed to like settling down. And I feel like a lot of these ideas would backfire. I've seen other ideas if, you know, architectural spikes that come out of the ground to give people a kind of spooky eerie feeling, but humans are exploratory in nature, we’re risk-takers, we're not just going to ignore something like a color-changing cat in the environment, we're going to explore that, we're going to want to know what's going on, we're going to dig deeper, figuratively and literally.
[54:54] Well, I mean, that was what is the studies eventually found out: that they felt humans were too curious for their own good and so they just decided to rely on an idea that I guess you could almost call it Rosetta Stone.
[55:06] Also curiosity killed the cat, so I feel like this is a double backfire.
[55:11] Yeah, I guess that's true. So, the eventual thought was, they were going to build all sorts of signs all over the place, bury them in the ground, stick them out of the ground, construct them in ways that the signs were designed to last 10000 years, and they're going to encode it in lots of different languages, and the final text they decided on isn't super exciting, it says, you know: this is a radioactive place, don't build here, don't come here. If you see the sign, it supposed to last 10000 years. If it's fading, fix it, translate it into your modern language, blah blah blah blah. But one of the earlier ideas for this text is much cooler and I'll let you read this, Daniel.
[55:48] “This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here. What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger. The danger is in a particular location… it increases toward a center… the center of danger is here… of a particular size and shape, and below us. The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours. The danger is to the body, and it can kill. The form of danger is an emanation of energy. The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.”
[56:48] Heavy words. I really loved this because I think it sums up some of the interesting hypocritical cognitive dissonance nature of nuclear energy, where we have this just amazing boundless potential of nuclear power in and how it can generate energy in a way that is relatively responsible in terms of emissions but also has the potential for so much destruction. And the people who writing this thing, writing ‘the danger is still present’, that it is ‘dangerous and repulsive to us’ and on and on, were the same people pushing this nuclear technology: fully aware of the risks that it may have if it is misused and of the products that it creates ultimately and deciding to seal it off for the future and trying to warn people up. But still willy-nilly going forward to produce it because what choice do we have? I think this is what the nuclear conversation always comes down to, it's like: yes, nuclear power is problematic. It's not as problematic as you think because, you know, like you're stuck on Chernobyl but that's not reality. [57:50] But what choice do we have if we want to beat climate change, if we want to go forward generating power in a way that is not polluting this earth, we have to be building out nuclear power. And this assumption that we just have to continue doing this thing, that we have to further the status quo, that we can't change our behavior – I think it is just this maddening hubris related to the spread of this stuff where, why do we have to keep building out our industrial capacity like this? We saw Japan shut down 20% of their electrical generation and it turned out fine, Germany shut down their nuclear plants and of course, I guess, they're burning coal, so maybe they're not a great example. France after the Fukushima stuff which was 80% powered by nuclear energy at that point is reducing down to 50% nuclear generation by shutting down plants because they don't feel like they can be made adequately safe anymore. [58:46] But they're replacing this with more responsible technologies or just not adding the increase back to the larger grid as a whole. Here in New York when we shut down Indian Point, we're going to build a dam to take up half of the generation and the rest is going to be just trying to be energy-savings. And we'll be fine, this is what we need to be doing, not figuring out how can we increase capacity, how can we build more plants, but how can we just start shutting stuff down permanently, how can we degrow our electrical use and generation and the consumption and overconsumption that goes along with that and not try and push things forward to always consume more and to do so in maybe a more efficient way but always burning more, creating more but how can we do so with less? And maybe that is going to require dramatic shifting of the way that we approach our economy, of the way that we approach everything in our lives but that is ultimately what we have to do if you actually want to make a difference in the climate, if you want to be good stewards of the Earth. Because all of these technologies have trade-offs, every single one, even things that are relatively green like wind power like solar power – these still have problems, they're still environmentally bad. And building them is better than the alternative, in this case, coal or natural gas, but it's never going to be better than building nothing. And if we can reduce our use then we can reduce our needs for generation and then the world would be much, much, much better off than we will in building any sort of new additional capacity.
[1:00:13] This is really the heart of the issue for me. The pro-nuclear argument is always that we need nuclear energy if we're going to combat climate change. And that's pretty compelling because for whatever risk nuclear energy presents us, climate change is existential. As terrible as the meltdown of a nuclear power plant is, it kind of pales in comparison to biodiversity loss, mass extinction, ocean acidification, rising heat, the total annihilation of life as we know it from climate change. [1:00:48] These are two vastly different problems. But to say that nuclear power is going to solve that existential threat makes the assumption that our current economic demands are necessary in the first place, it makes the mistake of putting too much emphasis on greenhouse gas emissions from energy that we produce as opposed to the greenhouse gas effect of our underlying societal structure. To put it in perspective, the World Nuclear Association projects that we will see a 25% increase in nuclear capacity between 2016 and 2040. And if 10% of global energy production is nuclear today we would probably expect that this new share of energy from nuclear power would be a much greater share of global energy production in 2040, right? But in fact, they predict that by 2040 nuclear will still supply just 10% of global energy despite the increased capacity, which means that we haven't solved anything: all we've done is increase our supply of energy, all we've done is expand the impact of our economy without really changing anything fundamental about that economy. Replacing one energy source for another does not help us if we do not change the fundamental reason that we're using energy in the first place. [1:02:06] We talked in episode 79 - Death Dealers and episode 43 - FUBAR about the impact of military operations and arms deals around the world. How are we solving climate change if we replace coal plants with nuclear power plants but still use that energy to fuel an international arms marketplace for arms the drives persistent violence and conflict? Or for using that energy to bomb every island in the Pacific Ocean into obliteration? How are we solving the climate crisis and the massive loss of life if all we do is replacing greenhouse gas emitting chainsaws with nuclear-powered tractor size chain saws that can clear a swath of rainforest in half the time? [1:02:50] The entire risk of nuclear technology is that we might inadvertently harm the environment for future generations or directly cause harm to human life. But as we’ve discussed, we do not currently respect the health and well-being of humans in the present. We’ve talked about the Navajo from that Church Rock radioactive spill, that we continue to neglect those victims. And since Fukushima gets all the attention these days, I want to read from an essay titled ‘Rages of Fukushima and Grief in a No-Future Present’ by Marie Matsumoto. She writes, ‘During the past three months we have come to realize that we can no longer rely on our government, which has totally neglected to take adequate safety measures for the people. And we can no longer trust the safety myths spread by the nuclear industry. In April a grassroots organization took samples of breastmilk from nursing mothers in Tokyo and radioactive particles were detected in some of their milk, even from mothers in Tokyo. Basically, the nuclear industry and state of Japan even after the Fukushima disaster have not given up their intention to stay with nuclear energy and continue exporting the nuclear reactors overseas. For this purpose, they are desperately seeking to deny the fact that the lives of people in Tohoku and Kanto areas are in danger. Accordingly, they have not had children and mothers evacuated but instead raised the maximum allowance of radioactive intake up to 20 times higher than the international standard. They also continue to spread propaganda like “there are no immediate health effects” and “worrying about radiation is worse for your health.” This is the situation where the patriarchal state far from protecting children and mothers has in actuality abandoned them.’ [1:04:57] In the later part of this essay she writes about just how many people have had to evacuate their homes, you know, a hundred thousand people officially but in fact, that is much higher. And these are basically internal refugees, these are people without a home within their own country. [1:05:14] Marie writes, ‘in the first place, the government refuses to count the number of, if I may use this term, the refugees. It has to do with its intention not to define who are the refugees. The problem is that the category of those who are desperately migrating in fact and the legal category of refugees are not in synchronicity. This is because the Japanese government, if it grasped the actual number, would not be able to deal with the enormity unless it gave up business as usual. Therefore, you would rather underestimate the number by refusing to accept the reality. By paying attention only to the forced evacuees it chooses to ignore the voluntary evacuees from Fukushima, not to mention those from Tokyo, and even treats them like illegal immigrants.’ Are we going to continue to refuse to accept the reality? That is the victims of our industrial economy. You know, we are like a child who asks their parent for a new puppy, and their mother says, 'well, I don't know if you're responsible enough for a new puppy, are you going to be able to refill its food every day, take it for a walk, scoop its poop every day?' [1:06:32] And the child is like 'yes, I promise, I will.' But meanwhile, the child refuses to do their homework or clean their room or wash the dishes. We are like that child: if we can't be trusted with the basics in the here and now, if we can't even admit the reality of the victims of our industry, if we can't even go on record and say yes, we harmed the Navajo at Church Rock, yes we've created internal refugees in Fukushima and Tokyo – then how can we be trusted with a much more complex process in the far away future? How can we be trusted with the safeguarding of generations thousands of years to come? Our problem is not energy generation, our problem is that we are not responsible to each other, we are not responsible to this Earth. Another way to look at it is: we went into detail in episode 63 - Busy Work about how half the economy is likely made up of useless and pointless jobs that should not even exist. And that's before we even examined the need for a consumer-based economy in the first place. Much of the work we do is meaningless. Yet every one of these jobs still requires energy, every person who works at a pointless job has to turn on a lightbulb. [1:07:52] If we were truly committing to a more sustainable and climate-friendly world, why not start with eliminating all the waste in our economies? Why not commit to scaling back our energy demand, not search for ways to meet frivolous demand. Maybe if we came together and said that we were going to commit to a scaling back of our energy consumption, our energy demand, if we were willing to scale back our consumption, to scale back our supply chains, rely more on domestic sources of renewable energy and agriculture, if we came together and committed to an economy that was not based on the impossible standard of infinite profit accumulation but one that was fundamentally committed to providing people with the basic necessities through which to live on this Earth and in the boundaries of natural systems – then maybe we would be ready to balance our energy generation with long-term sources like nuclear power, but until that day I have to believe that we are not ready.
[1:08:57] I want to speak for a second about the future and looking forward with this. Coming into the show I didn't know my own perspectives on nuclear power, I'm excited about the technology, I'm interested in the science of it, but in terms of the actual methodology in the ways that it is put into practice and the just rot that I see in the world around me I've always been suspicious, and for a lot of the reasons you mention, Daniel, throughout this show. If we could trust ourselves to do the right thing, then yes, nuclear power would be a great and incredible tool, but with such a terrible track record, do we really think that we'll get any better? Maybe the technology improves, maybe we'll have more resistant reactors to the catastrophes that we seem to create time and time again. But I don't know if I want to trust us to do that. And even if we did, I mean, we're still have learned nothing from the lessons of the past: we poisoned the Navajo land but still to this day we're violating native land in Yucca Mountain, they write about this as a secret space in their culture and here we are still mining it, still building it out, still planning to fill this place with nuclear unwanted material that has just nowhere else to go – we’ve learned nothing in this process. [1:10:10] There are promising technologies in the future, there's lots of research being done into nuclear fusion which has few of the downsides of nuclear energy does today. But it is still decades, maybe half a century off until we see any sort of practical commercialization of that process and then at what cost? Nuclear fusion has always been advertised as limitless free energy without any downsides, what will we do with that excess capacity? What violences will it enable us to wreak unto the Earth at that point when we don't have to worry about these side effects or the costs of saying, ‘well, should we add more capacity? Should we use this or is this going to further damage things?’ If we don't have to ask ourselves that question, add that to the equation then who knows what we're going to do with all this extra capability of violence that new energy generation gives us. And I'm not saying we should stop research on these Generation III+, on these Generation IV reactors, I'm not saying we shouldn't build them anymore but we should be conscious that they are not the answer. That while we are constructing them out, while they are better than building new coal plants maybe, this is not going to end necessarily the way that we want to imagine that they will. And if we were to put everything into nuclear power right now, It's still too little too late. By 2050 we’re supposed to be net-zero in terms of carbon emissions. It takes 20 to 30 years to design, build out and eventually turn on a plant. That means the plants that we have going up today are the ones that will take us to this net-zero place and it's not nearly enough. So, if we're already going to miss these targets, if we're already building technology that is arguably not as clean as these other ones: as solar, as wind, as geothermal – then what are we doing, we're not taking any of this seriously. And if we're not taking this very existential threat seriously I absolutely can't in my heart believe that the companies, the private industries and the governments responsible for our safety through the regulation and the proper maintenance and operation of these plants are going to do just that. Because they showed me time and time again that that is not the case. Even places where people look to as like ‘oh, Japan, they will manage, they are an honest non-corrupt place.’ Look at the disaster that's been there, corruption in both the government as well as these private industries, in TEPCO – that is something that plays out time and time again around the world. Every nuclear disaster seems to have the same suspect things, somebody cut corners, nobody got in trouble and we all have to deal with the consequences. And I don't think it's worth that price when the alternative can just be living with less.
[1:12:50] Living with less, David, that's the lot to think about.
[1:12:54] And I think at this point people will have developed their own ideas about whether nuclear power is good or bad, something that we could feasibly introduce or something that's too late too little. And that we'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Did we get something wrong? Do we leave stuff out, you know, message us, send as messages on our Reddit, go post on the show notes there, find us on our Discord which you can find a link on our website. If you click at the community section, there is a linked invite that will take you right there. We have a great community and we love to hear you say, ‘Hey you idiots, you got all this stuff wrong, nuclear power is great!’ Or ‘hey, dumbasses, nuclear power is going to destroy the world and here's why.’
[1:13:33] Although please don't use those words, I'm sensitive.
[1:13:35] Just for me, say ‘hey, David, the dumbass.’ And if you want to affirm any of the things that we talked about on here, we have an enormous list of sources for this episode and the one previous on our website, you can find all that in a beautiful BibTeX format as well as a full transcript of this episode so you can double-check what we say at our website ashesashes.org.
[1:13:57] As always, a lot of time and research goes into making these episodes possible and we will never use ads to support the show. So, if you like it and would like us to keep going you our listener can support us by giving us a review, recommending us to a friend, checking us out on patreon.com/ashesashescast and sending us some financial support there. We really do appreciate it, it helps us in so many ways. And, of course, we'd like to thank our associate producer John Fitzgerald and Chad Peterson. Also, we have an email address it's contact at ashesashes.org. And we encourage you to send us your thoughts, let us know what we got wrong, we read it and we appreciate it.
[1:14:39] And sometimes you don't even reply when we’re being good. And if you don't want to write emails because, let's be honest, Daniel, writing emails fucking sucks then you can actually…
[1:14:52] Who got time to click-clack on the computer, you know? You're out and about, you’re commuting, you're on the subway, you don't have a computer.
[1:14:59] You know, what you do have right there, like, you can’t plug the desktop computer, which is the only way to write an email on to the subway, but you can bring your phone.
[1:15:06] Even if you will bring your cell phone, but your cell phone doesn't come with a keyboard, does it?
[1:15:11] No, but it does have a numpad and if you just have a phone with a numpad or like one of those old-timey phones that you dial with the like the circle thing, then you can actually call us now! This is an awesome new feature, we have a phone number that you can also use to leave us messages. And we’re going to turn all these messages into an awesome calling show whenever we get enough of them. So please call in, guys, we want to talk to you.
[1:15:34] Well maybe, David, you would like to let them know what that number is?
[1:15:38] That's a good point. If you want to be a part of this project you can do so at this number: it's 31399-ashes or 313-992-7437. Call that number, you'll hear an awesome little computer-generated voice talking to you and then leave a message, make it as long as you want, we will get it, we have a recording of it and we can add it to the show and answer all your questions. Maybe complete some of your dreams.
[1:16:05] And I would like to point out we have received several of these voicemails, we have listened to all of them and we just haven't… and we're saving them for the right time.
[1:16:16] Don't worry, we hear you up there: you're definitely being listened to, you are being loved and we will build a show out of the time that you’ve given us. So, thank you for that. And if none of this floats your boat, you want to be a passive consumer of the amazing Ashes Ashes content, you can do so in our many social media accounts. But first and foremost I recommend you check out our Instagram but our Twitter and Facebook always as great, you can find them all at ashesashescast.
[1:16:41] Join the Discord Community, we have a vibrant diversity of people discussing these ideas, talking about their lives. We have a gardening and farming channel where people share photos. By the way, David, I have an update for you.
[1:16:55] Tucking an update at the very end of the show, that's sneaky. Only what is it, 60% of our listeners ever going to hear this, but share with those who have hung in this long.
[1:17:04] Well I'm trying to give people more of a reason to stick to, anyway, this show has gone on long enough. Looks like I will be moving to Massachusetts, somewhere in the Central Mass region, if you will. I'll be working with an organization doing a little bit of community gardening, developing food distribution models, working with communities to build food security. I'm excited about it, little bit nervous, it's a new direction for me, but as you know, a direction I've been trying to go into for a long time after starting the showing and yeah.
[1:17:38] Congratulations, Daniel, everybody you should call in, write us an email, send us tweets, direct messages in Instagram to celebrate the fact that Daniel has a new job. And also, I hate to break it to all of y'all out there, but Daniel is going to make basically no money so please support us on Patreon so that we can pass all that money to Daniel so he has enough food to eat.
[1:17:58] My salary David is the wealth of knowledge and joy and experience I will get working with farmers and community health networks which is priceless.
[1:18:07] That is the highest payment that you could possibly receive and something that is so generous.
[1:18:12] Although I wish the price was a little higher.
[1:18:13] For all of us. Well, hopefully, you’ll get some sweet fresh produce out of it and until you do, we will be here recording another episode every week and we hope you all will tune into that. Because we have another great episode coming next week and something that you definitely won't want to miss.
[1:18:30] Speaking of priceless.
[1:18:31] That's a little sneak peek, you can tune in next week to figure out exactly what Daniel was alluding to, but until then…
[1:18:39] Tell you what, why don't we gamify Ashes Ashes, David? Anybody who can guess based on my foreshadowing what the topic of next week's show is going to be, we’ll send you a sticker. That's right, if you guess the topic and you're correct, send me your address I'll send you an Ashes Ashes sticker.
[1:18:56] Daniel is trying to harvest your emails and addresses for his direct marketing product. I don't even have stickers, Daniel doesn’t even send me any of the stickers. So, this is a sweet deal y’all so definitely write him if you want this stuff. But until then…
[1:19:10] This is a bold new direction.
[1:19:11] Let me finish! This is Ashes Ashes, we hope to hear from you soon.