Dangers & energy choices: nuclear, coal, & all the rest

Do most people fear the risk of death more than death itself?

Whose story do we trust?

When I was growing up in England, we lived in the outskirts of London. Everyone on the street burned coal in an open fireplace to heat their homes. Some houses had a fireplace in each room and on the street you could see the smoke curling up from the chimney. There was a pleasant sulphury smell around the neighborhood. When I was about ten years old, for some reason, that at the time was a mystery to me, my father got all excited and decided to replace the coal fireplace with a new heating device called the "Glow worm boiler," a double-jacketed heater and water boiler that loaded from the top and used something different from the big shiny lumps of coal we were used to using, called...."smokeless fuel," but in retrospect I think it was just coke.

Look on Wikipedia and you can read about the fact that in the mid 1950s there was a hue and cry over the alarming number of deaths associated with a series of dense fogs known as London "pea soupers." Apparently in February 1952 there were 4000 deaths in one 5-day period. The fog was caused by large carbon particles in the atmosphere, primarily as a result of domestic coal burning fires. Of course this situation had been going on for a century or more. I remember reading that Sherlock Holmes had to strike a match to read a sign on the street in the middle of the afternoon. But apparently by the 1950s, enough was enough! Laws were passed banning the burning of anthracite coal within the London area and inspectors were sent out to knock on doors whenever the telltale smoke could be seen. My brother and I both remember the government inspectors who would come by if they saw smoke coming out of your house. Of course incentives must have been provided  because I feel sure my father, a notorious cheapskate, would never have willingly spent money to buy this new heating system without a generous donation from the government.

When I studied mechanical engineering in Newcastle (1961-1964) we had a roaring coal fire all winter "in lodgings." The coal company provided free fuel for employees. The owner of our rooming house In Newcastle had damaged his lungs in the mines and could no longer work below, so they had found work for him driving a truck. There were a couple of guys from Castleton, a town near Sheffield who were in my engineering classes who were almost proud that their town was known for its high smog rating because the logic was, "Where there is muck there is money." Now across China and India aerial photography has shown us a phenomenon known as the "brown cloud," which is essentially a suspended cloud of particulate matter, primarily carbon particles, and obviously sounds like an eerie historical repeat to me. The city of Beijing has recently been in the news as citizens have been protesting the need to wear face masks in order to go about their daily lives.

When the issue of air pollution and global warming gained increased public attention some years ago I followed the stories and as an engineer I became fascinated with the debate over what could be done about it.  If you believe that the process is real then this is truly a looming threat to humans. This atmospheric pollution began in earnest with the onset of the industrial revolution starting mostly in England and then spread around the world as the joy and excitement of money-making took front position in the minds of our brightest and most energetic people. This meant that to make lots of stuff faster and faster you needed lots of energy. The source of energy has predominantly been the earth as it is dug up or pumped out of the ground. First came coal, then oil, and now we use coal, oil and gas. These are the fossil fuels that we have all loved for more than two hundred years. They power our car, warm and light our house, and help industry make more stuff faster. In earlier days, when there weren't that many people in the world, the smoke and dirt disseminated far more easily into the atmosphere. When I was born the global population was under 3 billion, but now we number more than 7 billion, and each of us keeps adding to the "pea soupers" and "brown clouds." What can be done?

I am an advocate of the nuclear solution and I want to discuss why. Of course nuclear power is dangerous. Dangerous technologies demand transparent supervision and accountable management is frequently missing. But few people seem to realize just how dangerous are the technologies that we already use by comparison to nuclear power. How many people have died as a result of coal, oil, and gas? Yet we still use them. We have BP arguing in court that they have done enough about their Gulf oil spill, which is true only from the historically acceptable perspective of managing profits. Something along these lines led to the meltdown of the Fukushima reactors, where the problems with the cooling system had been flagged and ignored. The 20,0000 deaths of Fukushima were the result of the tsunami, not the nuclear meltdown.

I blog to bring the option of nuclear power back into some discussion without reflex panic. The option of doing without so much power is one with which I am personally comfortable, but I don't see it's widespread adoption as very likely.


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