Sunday, April 18, 2010
CMR-R in One Thousand Years?
From Wikipedia: "Ziggurats (Akkadian (transliterated): ziqqurat, D-stem of zaqāru "to build on a raised area") were massive monuments built in the ancient Mesopotamian valley and western Iranian plateau, having the form of a terraced step pyramid of successively receding stories or levels..." Photo of the reconstructed facade of the 4100 year old Great Ziggurat of Ur, near Nasiriyah, Iraq
If you read this morning's Monitor, you will notice Greg Mello and Paul Gessing questioning the price tag and usefulness of the CMRR Nuclear facility, which in light of new seismic requirements, has skyrocketed to 4.2 billion dollars and what Greg and Paul tell us is an earthquake-proof (perhaps asteroid-impact proof as well), 225,000 cu. yard concrete foundation.
I am not a civil engineer, but I can't help wonder whether we as a nation really need such a massive structure to safely handle plutonium. What are the relative risks imposed by spending so much on this one project vs. spending on other things we really need to do with what is left of our national treasure?
The pubic's overhype with the risks of all things nuclear, including CMR-R, and Government's potential willingness to spend any amount of Joe Sixpack's money on disaster-proof construction, may be leading us to ignore nuclear's real usefulness: not as bombs, but as a carbon-lite power source. That application is increasingly unlikely to be cost effective since we have convinced ourselves we need to budget so much money to over-engineer nuclear safety requirements. Save us, dear regulator, from an unlikely accidental nuclear release so we can have a far more likely head-on collision with our driving while distracted neighbor on unregulated roads, where we kill over 30,000 Americans per year. Indeed, we suffer more than a worst-case Chernobyl a year due to crashes on our roads, most of which are preventable. But instead lets worry about Plutonium.
Indeed, at least some out there think nuclear power is a cost-effective idea. A NY Times article makes the claim that Middle Eastern nations and the IAEA think it is cost-effective for the Middle East to sell oil abroad and run their own nations using nuclear power: "...When prices are high, gulf countries would prefer to sell their oil at great profit rather than burn it for power. A study done by the International Atomic Energy Agency and a group of gulf states concluded that nuclear power made sense for the region when the price of oil exceeded $50 a barrel. Today it is above $80, and with the world economy gradually recovering, many expect it to go higher. .." So why there but not here?
We need to consider alternative energy sources in order to lessen our carbon footprint and reduce our vulnerabilities to the near-future economic impacts of peak oil and anthropogenic climate forcing due to CO2; nuclear power is one such alternative. Interestingly, I tried the Nature Conservancy's Carbon Footprint Calculator. It ranked our household "above average" for the US with 71 tons of CO2 per year, most of that home energy use. Simply by "moving" my household to New York State, all other things being equal, that number dropped to 45 tons. I suspect it is all our coal-fired power! NYS uses hydro and nuclear as well as fossil power.
Nuclear power, albeit one alternative to fossil fuel burning, is not a solution by itself to our energy gluttony; uncritical addition of yet one more power source to the mix simply adds fuel to the fire in which we will one day cook ourselves. We have to throttle back on our high energy lifestyles by employing extensive efforts in energy conservation and take advantage of a range of options including wind and especially solar in places like the Sun Belt. Indeed, for many of us in the Sun Belt, a quite valuable expenditure of a few billion dollars would be to create a home-grown industry in conservation and green energy so we can better insulate our homes and outfit the equivalent of a moderate size city with solar power, including photovoltaic roof panels. Industrial production may need stationary sources, as may cities in parts of the Gloom Belt such as Western New York where I grew up. In-situ residential power production, where feasible, can reduce the number of these stationary sources and their not-so-hidden social costs.
CMRR-NF at over four billion bucks is only of long term economic value if it saves more than four billion down the road, i.e., if we put in place solid international protocols towards disarmament and non-proliferation and use CMRR to help ramp down the bomb race, solve some of the problems posed by the disposal or re-use of nuclear waste, and to secure and recycle the world's legacy of weapons into reactor fuel. Not to mention, that idea will only work if we develop real international programs that eliminate the reasons nations and other actors seek to develop WMD to begin with--megalomaniac leadership (read Iran) and political and economic unfairness across borders that drive folks to war as a solution. Of course, one may be begging the question to assume we need such a large, overbuilt facility at all if we stop building bombs. Or frankly, even if we do continue to build them, the Defense Board and over-worried citizen opinions notwithstanding.
As far as weapons, I increasingly think that nuclear weapons are the 21st Century's analog to the Maginot Line or Battleship Row: very imposing and powerful in their own right, but likely to be increasingly irrelevant in defense of our nation as technology evolves, and eventually only of high value to terrorists and rogue nations. Of course, even battleships were in use for decades after Pearl Harbor, but in a limited role. Will be the same for nukes--as a deterrent to a fool. Hopefully, never as a warfighting weapon. We need to move on. I think cyberwarfare is the weapon of future choice. Google cyberwarfare and you will see evidence for its coming ascendency. Its fast, cheap (i.e., you don't need a six billion dollar building to fiddle with it), effective, and has less long term collateral damage than radioactive fallout. Here is Richard Clarke's spin on the future international conflict: cyberwar.
In the final analysis, if we humans don't start cooperating rather than figuring out more innovative ways of fighting, and if we don't get out in front of the curve of the crossing patterns of energy (and food, and water) supply vs. demand, we are cooked. A Jared Diamond style collapse is not entirely out of the question, either for the U.S. or more likely, for our tightly interconnected world. Perhaps in a thousand years or so, the only human artifact left in New Mexico from the U.S. era will be the ruins of CMRR-NF looking like the Ziggurats that came before it, stared at by primitive, post-industrial wanderers. I hope not, but we don't have much time to think about it.
(with acknowledgments to Greg Mello for the Ziggurat analogy and for a lively discussion of this subject)