June 11, 2014
Energy policy is a hot-button topic amongst engineering school students, and I’d like to think just about everyone. Certainly it spawns frequent intense debates between people with generally very similar goals—saving the environment, providing for future generations, &c.—but very different plans to achieve them.
One of the greatest focuses of debate is nuclear power. Once, in what we now remember fondly as the Atomic Age, there was a popular notion that nuclear power could be the solution to most, if not all, of mankind’s greatest challenges. We envisioned a future full of clean, safe, and practically free electricity. Nuclear reactors would power cities, ships, airplanes, and, if one might dare to dream, cars with no need for roads.
We dreamed of splitting the atom, not of splitting society across a political exclusion zone.
Today, we know that nuclear power is far less than perfect. I am not unfamiliar with its hazards; I work right now for a national laboratory that will likely remain forever in the shadow of its own history. The entirety of the former Manhattan Project is now a disaster zone, requiring billions of dollars of intensive cleanup that will continue for the rest of my life.
Here in New Mexico the risks of nuclear power are especially on the public mind. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, is the United States’ first long-term nuclear waste repository. WIPP is intended only to store mid-grade waste from nuclear weapons projects, not as a solution for waste from nuclear power plants. Right now, WIPP is accepting nothing.
Following an incident involving a small uncontrolled release of radiation to the environment in February, WIPP has been completely shut down. The radiation release was small and program proponents downplay its significance in the scale of WIPP’s fifteen year history of good operations, but it highlights the risks inherent in handling nuclear waste. The radiation release was caused by some type of energetic reaction in a nuclear waste container, and the nature of that reaction remains unknown. There are so many ways that nuclear waste storage can go wrong, and so little room to experiment.
Waste produced by nuclear power plants will remain radioactive and dangerous for as much as ten thousand years. To humans, this is nearly unfathomable—it is not just beyond our life span, it is beyond our life span by two orders of magnitude. The problems with this type of waste storage are both technical and social. While certain types of geology offer an opportunity to seal away our most hated detritus for at least centuries, the more philosophical worry about how the danger of nuclear waste might be communicated to humans after a cultural catastrophe.
The Egyptians entombed their leaders, and we excavated them with great vigor just a few thousand years later. How do we entomb something that must remain untouched for more than twice that time?
The point of this is that nuclear power is not free, from a financial or environmental perspective. It is not even close; waste is an unsolved question and there is a low but extant risk of catastrophic failure. Nuclear plants are large and expensive to construct, and industry has repeatedly shown a tendency to skimp on safety and reliability in order to pad a profit line.
In light of all of these downsides, why would anyone intelligent advocate for nuclear power?
There exists a certain class of problems to which there are no easy solutions. Most famous are life, death, and taxes, but these problems are far more prevalent than we would like to believe. Consider one that has plagued the world even longer than electrical production: drug abuse.
According to one source, about 4,200 people die each year due to Heroin use and its complications. This is but one of many drugs that kill, and illegal drug abuse costs the American people a cumulative $193 billion per year. It is a problem, a problem of an enormous scale.
Historically, efforts to curtail the drug problem have focused on prevention and elimination. The so-called “war on drugs” has endeavored to free us of the grips of addiction by criminalizing production, sale, and even possession and use of hazardous substances. The ultimate goal is to use policy and law to shape society into its ideal form: we outlaw drugs to produce a country free of their influence.
This approach is popular because it is simple. We can all understand an effort to save our youth by banning the dangers they face, and we can all get behind a law enforcement push to bust meth houses. It takes a stance, an idealistic stance that aims right for the future we hope for.
It doesn’t work.
You won’t find a lot of people below the age of thirty these days who see the War on Drugs as anything but a failure. Much like the War on Terrorism or the War on Christmas, it has produced many casualties but they’re all collateral. We have earned for ourselves a prison population of absolutely terrifying size, tremendous public debt related to the maintenance of the previous, and more importantly we have eroded the very society we hoped to save by systematically incarcerating its most vulnerable.
The lesson learned, if we ever reach a point where we can refer to this episode in the past tense, may be that the wages of sin are death and that the gift of idealism and dogmatism is still death; this time delivered by our own hands, shaking from the withdrawal.
The future is not entirely bleak. Somewhere from the darker parts of society has come a radically different strategy to address the drug crisis. This strategy is called harm reduction, and its underlying thesis is that the social disease of drug addiction is not practical to solve in the short term. Much like a vital injury (a somehow still more optimistic analogy than the more common cancer), the correct response to drug abuse is to stop the bleeding wherever we can in order to buy the time that is absolutely necessary to cure the underlying problem.
The weapons of harm reduction are a lot less pretty than the weapons of the War. Instead of the long arm of the law we deploy the sterile hand of needle exchanges, which provide clean needles to reduce the risk of dangerous infectious disease. Instead of in-school awareness programs, we field a corps of educators teaching the proper preparation of doses and insertion of needles, to reduce the number of deaths caused by inadvertent overdose and critically damaged veins. Instead of handcuffs, we use Naloxone, a pharmaceutical that can stop a Heroin overdose once it has already begun.
Critics (of which there are many) argue that harm reduction programs enable and even implicitly endorse drug abuse, allowing it to continue its harmful impacts. They would prefer that we go cold-turkey, legislating drugs away until everyone just kicks the habit.
On the other hand, a surprising number of those involved in harm reduction are the best qualified around to speak on the subject: they are former addicts who really have kicked the habit. They report that drug addiction on a personal level is a microcosm of addiction on a societal level: you cannot just quit, because every force in the world is working against you. Instead, you do what you can, until eventually you can overcome what will likely be one of the greatest obstacles of your life.
Harm reduction works. Harm reduction works because it is practical. Harm reduction works because it is based on taking the steps that actually move us in the right direction and abandoning the steps that have just allowed us to slip back. Harm reduction works because it is unencumbered by our ideals.
Society, as a whole, is addicted. We are addicted to many things, but one of the most terrifying is non-renewable energy. The risks are an inevitable horrible catastrophe and the slow decline of society. The withdrawal is terrible. First the headaches, then the economic collapse.
In government, in industry, and throughout society there is a yet another war going on, a war on dirty energy. Well, one famous person told us that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, and another famous person on rather the other side of the aisle told us that war is hell. Connecting these sentiments is left as an exercise for the reader.
The War on Dirty Energy is failing, and it is failing for the exact same reasons that so many Wars on Things have failed before it. The victory condition is so clear in our minds yet it is so very far away, and reaching it requires an intentionally induced tragedy of enormous scale as energy costs skyrocket and the poor become poorer.
While the War on Drugs exports the grit of drug production to South America, the War on Energy exports the smog of every kind of production to Asia. As costs rise here, energy intensive tasks move abroad, to countries that are distant yet directly connected to us via our own atmosphere.
Yes, many types of energy consumption are not readily moved. Our cars are right here and must be powered right here. So, as the costs of operating them steadily increase, steadily fewer can afford to. We will not expand walkable cities. We will simply damn those who cannot afford to live in them.
This is the cost of energy idealism. This is the terrible vision that ensures that it will not gain traction on a meaningful scale. The fed rejects all drug use as a cancer to be destroyed by force of law, and the yuppie rejects all non-renewable energy as a cancer to be destroyed by force of opinion. Neither makes much progress.
I am not saying that renewable energy will never save us. There is a broad frontier in renewable energy production, especially in the areas of solar and even fusion, but the fact that unifies world-saving energy technologies is that they do not exist.
Hydroelectric is highly geography dependent and it kills fish. Geothermal is highly geography dependent and we can’t afford it. Wind is unreliable and it kills birds. Solar demands rare “conflict minerals” and we can’t afford it. This is just a sampling of the problems preventing widespread adoption of these clean energy sources.
Every once in a while, an over-the-horizon technology will strike our culture by storm and renew our hope in energy idealism. Most recently, solar roads swept across the internet with virtually no realization of the enormous cost of such an effort in terms of money and exploited African countries.
Moreover, the technologies that enable these visions of the future currently exist only in cheerful internet renderings. Ten to twenty years is the mantra of advanced energy sources. We do not have ten to twenty years. We do not have even one. We are killing ourselves right here and now.
The casualties of the War on Energy are not imprisoned youth or rising taxes. No, they are much more subtle and thus much more dangerous. The victims that lay dead or dying are our last chances of making any meaningful change. While we sit and wait for solar streets, the planet slowly warms and our chances of recovery edge towards zero.
The time has come to end the war, and embrace energy harm reduction. We cannot solve the underlying cause of the problem, we have tried and we have failed, many times over. The hope that our fortunes will improve will get us nothing but more of the same, and we can’t nearly afford what it costs to really decisively fix the problem.
The time has come to do what works.
Nuclear energy is not perfect, not even remotely, but it is so much better than every other option that we really have, and as in so many other parts of life, beggars cannot be choosers. We do not have to commit to nuclear energy forever, but we have to commit to something in the short term, because right now we have committed to nothing.
Like the former addicts of drug harm reduction, us former addicts of fossil fuel must accept that the best thing to do is not beautiful, unoffensive, or even completely in line with our principals. Sometimes solutions are found in dark back alleys, where a person only recently up on their luck takes the only chance they have to save their companions and hands out clean needles. Sometimes solutions are found when we accept a bad idea because it is the only thing we can really do that isn’t worse.
The conservatives of renewable energy will hate it, but we just might save someone.