Today’s Modest Proposal

In 1729, Jonathan Swift published “A Modest Proposal.” The full title is, “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.” In it, he proposed that impoverished Irish families could solve their financial problems by selling their children as food for rich people.

In 1729, everyone who read the article readily understood that (a) selling your children is a horrible idea and (b) the article is satire.

Almost three centuries later, with our culture saturated by advertising and political propaganda (which is essentially just a specialized form of advertising), it is not so readily understood that discussing nuclear reactors as a solution for global warming (a) is a horrible idea and (b) should be understood as a cynical attempt to extend the current business system operating by deflecting attention from actions that would actually do something to minimize global warming. 

In other words, the argument that nuclear power is a solution for anything should be understood as satire, but it often is not so understood. For those who might not quite remember why selling your children is a horrible idea, we might review all the basic reasons that nuclear power is a horrible idea.

When operating normally, nuclear reactors periodically leak radioactive materials into the local environment. When the material is radioactive water, local drinking water, whether it comes from ground or surface sources, is contaminated. Mining for the uranium fuel exposes the miners to radioactivity and creates radioactive mine tailings dumped nearby and exposed to weather. Processing the ore into into fuel rods creates more possibilities for contamination. Workers at reactors, plants and mines have the opportunity to breathe radioacive materials and to carry it back to the larger community on their work clothes.

And then there is extraordinary danger. There have been less than 500 big commercial power reactors ever built and operated in the world. Of these, one at Chernobyl, one at Three Mile Island and three at Fukushima have suffered catastrophic meltdowns, with catastrophic contamination of thousands of square miles of downwind territory in four of the five instances. The lethal radioactivity released will not be cleaned up by any natural process for hundreds or thousands of human generations. For all practical purposes, the contamination is permanent from our pr=erspective.

In every instance, the accidents have destroyed equipment that would today cost tens of billions of dollars to replace. Other smaller reactors, including Fermi 1 in Monroe, Michigan, have experienced somewhat less catastrophic accidents which have destroyed the equipment. Just building a nuclear reactor today costs – well, more than the initial budget, that’s for sure. According to a December 16, 2015 news article, construction at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle is already 5 billion dollars over the origingal 14 billion dollar budget, and is expected to go even more over budget berore it is finished. (http://flagpole.com/news/capitol-impact/2015/12/16/georgia-power-s-plant-vogtle-overruns-will-cost-you-big-time).

In short, nuclear reactors are dirty in “normal” operation and dangerous when things go wrong. In addition, they may be the most expensive way to generate electricity. They would never have been built without massive government subsidy. Nuclear power is now and has always been an uneconomic political decision.

Finally, there is the unsolved and possibly unsolvable problem of how to dispose of the spent nuclear fuel safely. There are over 6oo tons of the stuff already piled up at Fermi 2 in Monroe, Michigan, next to the wreckage of the Fermi 1 reactor. The U. S. nuclear Regulatory commission says, “According to the Congressional Research Service (using NEI data), there were 62,683 metric tons of commercial spent fuel accumulated in the United States as of the end of 2009.” Of course, there’s more, now, and still more for every year nuclear reactors continue to operate.

Spent fuel adds immensely to every horrible aspect of nuclear power. It’s also dirty, dangerous, and expensive. We just can’t say how expensive, because we don’t know how the future generations who will have to attemp to solve the very hard problem of safe disposal will do it, or what it will cost, or what it will cost them if they fail.

The problem with global warming is that, in the long run, it promises to make large parts of the earth uninhabitable. The problem with nuclear power is that it also promises to make large parts of the earth uninhabitable. Nuclear power is no more a solution for global warming than global warming is a solution for nuclear power, no matter how much political advertising tries to sell us the idea.

Building hundreds of nuclear reactors, it turns out, is literally giving future generations a whole range of problems they may not be able to solve. It is pretty much equivalent to selling our children. We just don’t know exactly which children will be sold and which, if any, will survive.

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One thought on “Today’s Modest Proposal

  1. or indeed, whether we ourselves will. Survive, that is.

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