Thursday, October 30, 2014

Chicago, IL: Zero Carbon AND Zero Nuclear!

Just about every day when I open the newspaper, I see a full page ad from an interest group called "Nuclear Matters" suggesting that -- Good News! -- we have the solution to global warming and it's good, old nuclear energy!

Nuclear Matters lobbying campaign

It's very important -- for people in general, and for people who live in the Chicago area in particular -- to understand how vital it is at this moment to stand up against the possible resurgence of the nuclear energy industry.

"Nucleonics": Science is our friend

I was a high school student in the '70s, and was very proud to be able to not only study physics as a junior in high school, but to take an special advanced course called "Nucleonics" -- focusing on nuclear physics -- when I was a senior.  The course had been designed by a wonderful teacher in our school, Gertrude M. Clarke.

"Nucleonics" required us to do something very challenging: use the tools of science, including math and statistics, to understand phenomena that we couldn't see. This included labs involving the measurement of low-level alpha and beta emissions, as well as thorough study of the issues involved in epidemiology of radiation-induced sickness and disease.  My final project in the "Nucleonics" course involved measuring resistance to gamma radiation over the course of several generations of fruit flies.

Henry Moore, Nuclear Energy
This bronze sculpture on the campus of the University
of Chicago stands on the spot above Chicago Pile 1,
where Enrico Fermi and colleagues carried out the world's
first successful atomic chain reaction in December, 1942.
(Image from Philosophy of Science Portal)

Today I live in Chicago and from time to time traverse the spot where the very first atomic chain reaction was carried out by Enrico Fermi and his colleagues --  an event that was of tremendous interest to any student of "Nucleonics." When I look at the Henry Moore sculpture on that spot, I wonder if we as a society have really come very far in our understanding of the issues since that time.

Reflecting back over the years, what seems to me to be most significant about what I learned in "Nucleonics" is that there may be abundant scientific information on radiation and its effects, but of equal or greater importance is the difficulty that the vast majority of people have in visualizing what this information really means in their lives.

Illinois' special status: Nuclear Energy U.S.A.

Didn't know you were surrounded, did ya?
Chicago area nuclear plants (NEIS)
A case in point: according to the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, "Illinois is by far the most nuclear state in the United States . . . . Illinois was also home to the first commercial power reactor . . . one of the first commercial power reactors to close prematurely . . . . ComEd’s two large PWR reactors in Zion, IL also had to close prematurely . . . . We also have the first and only commercial storage facility for high level waste . . . Besides the 3 plants which closed prematurely, Illinois currently has eleven operating nukes – far more than any other state . . . etc. etc."

Does the average person living in Chicago have any idea about the degree to which they are surrounded by nuclear plants here?

In recent days there was a release at a nuclear facility in southern Illinois. (See "Metropolis Radiation Site Emergency — Leak of Toxic Uranium Hexafluoride")

Chicago people need to know what we're up against. The company that calls the shots on energy in our neck of the woods, Exelon, has been trumpeting its role as a nuclear energy operator. (See "Exelon, politics and Illinois' low-carbon future" by Julie Wernau in the Chicago Tribune, August 15, 2014: "'What Exelon is suggesting here is, put all your eggs in the nuclear basket and just trust Exelon,' [said] Lee Davis, executive vice president and regional president for NRG Energy's east region" ) Put that together with the "Nuclear Matters" lobbying effort, and its clear that people in Illinois are going to continue to be exposed to more, not less, nuclear plant risk. Unless we do something about it.

"Our Whole World": The Magnitude of the Risk

I was a college student in 1979 when the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant occurred.

I'm embarrassed to say that my clearest memory of that time was a comedy skit on Saturday Night Live. ("President Jimmy Carter (on call-in show): Hmm. Sounds to me a lot like a Pepsi Syndrome. Were there any soft drinks in the control room?") I'm coming to realize that often comedy is used to cover our distress about the direst emergencies in our society.

Map of radiation levels in 1996 around Chernobyl
(map scale is about 300 miles across)
I was a young father attending to a new baby boy when the Chernobyl meltdown occurred.  I think the vast majority of people in the U.S. failed to grasp the magnitude of that disaster, though it wasn't lost on people in Europe (especially Germany).

I recently watched a short film called The Door that made me realize, "My city could become off-limits -- a ghost town -- if there was a nuclear accident here!" (I strongly recommend this film for anyone who is having trouble imagining the potential impact of radiation on their own life.)

Today, right now, people in Japan continue to cope with the radiation release that occurred when the Fukushima nuclear plant melted down. It is startling that people in the U.S. can disregard this experience!

In 2011 and 2012 there were a pair of excellent conferences held at the University of Chicago -- The Atomic Age -- that illuminated the connections between all these issues.  The Atomic Age's website has an ongoing archive of related information.

Despite all the available information, people have a very difficult time properly assessing the risk to which they, themselves, are exposed!

People who are part of the movement to create a "Zero Carbon Chicago" also need to be part of the movement to safely put Illinois' nuclear era behind us.

Related posts

It's not immediately obvious how Chicago and Illinois can move quickly to get electricity in a zero-carbon (and zero nuclear) manner.  But here are a few initial thoughts . . .

(See What If Chicago Started to "Think Different" About Electricity? on the Zero Carbon Chicago website)

There is a great deal of expertise in our society in assessing -- and insuring against -- risk. (At least of a certain kind.) At the same time, we all have personal experience of the prevalence of "risky behavior." I wonder if we need to do more to try to imagine the true consequences of our most risky behavior  . . . .

(See Stop engaging in risky behavior on the Scarry Thoughts blog)

Soon, Kazashi was able to visit the U.S. again, and we had the opportunity to renew our friendship. He told me about his work: "When I obtained a position at a university, it turned out to be in Hiroshima," I remember Kazashi telling me. "So it was very natural that I became connected with the peace movement. I became a peace worker." His work has included going to  Iraq to investigate depleted uranium contamination

(See Obama in Japan: How About a Pivot Toward Peacemaking? on the Scarry Thoughts blog)

Other related links

October 29, 2014 - "Exelon behind pro-nuclear website in Illinois" by Julie Wernau in the Chicago Tribune: "Exelon Corp. has stepped up lobbying in its effort to have state legislators reward the company's six nuclear plants in Illinois for producing electric power without emitting greenhouse gases. Three of the plants could be closed because of competition from cheaper forms of generating power."