Crumb Trail
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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Many of today's problems are a consequence of politicized confusion in the past few decades. Politics is far more short sighted than even private business interests widely criticized for "living by quarters", as well as far dumber since it is driven by the requirements of the next election. Only immediate issues are of interest and policies must appeal to majorities.

Energy and climate problems - same thing really - are in part a result of a confusion of nuclear bombs with nuclear energy. While the air grew increasingly foul and a world starved for energy sputtered and wheezed, nuclear confusion prevented progress . . . except in China.

While experts in the United States and Europe talk about reviving plans for nuclear power, China, as in so many other fields, is racing ahead. The so-called pebblebed technology behind the Beijing test plant originated in Germany more than three decades ago, and the U.S. nuclear-power industry also pursued it. But when public opposition to nuclear energy forced those countries to curtail nuclear research in the 1980s, Beijing took over. . .

All reactors, including the pebblebed, use uranium fuel to produce heat that is used to turn electrical turbines. In conventional so-called light-water reactors, the heat is generated by thousands of fixed metallic rods, which require elaborate cooling systems to keep them from overheating and backup cooling systems in case the primary ones fail. Furthermore, a conventional reactor must be housed in a concrete containment vessel to mitigate damage in case it overheats. In the pebblebed reactor,thousands of tennis-ball-size spheres coated in layers of silicon carbide, ceramic material and graphite each contain thousands of granules of the fuel, uranium dioxide. Because the pebbles dissipate heat so efficiently, say the designers, the fuel inside them couldn't possibly get hot enough to penetrate the graphite casing. The pebble-bed reactor, in fact, doesn't even have a containment vessel. Another advantage of pebblebeds is that it's easier to make small plants and put them up quickly, which lends itself to China's plan of spreading plants around the hinterlands. Extracting fuel from pebblebed reactors to use for weapons would be difficult and expensive. . .

. . . a growing domestic environmental movement could slow its nuclear-energy strategy. Twenty years after the disaster at Chernobyl and nearly 30 years since the Three Mile Island incident, leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and U.S. President George W. Bush have only recently begun to suggest the possibility of re-examining nuclear energy.

It is a mistake to equate any environmental movement with environmentalism, or assume that those in an environmental movement are environmentalists. It is usually not so, they are merely a political group with very little real environmental knowledge or concern. They exploit the natural environmental consciousness of society to gain power, and have been on balance one of the greatest environmental threats. It isn't useful to cite a regulation or two in defense of these environmental vandals, it is necessary to consider the whole spectrum of environmental concerns in socio-economic context. They are the problem, not the solution.


Mistaken solidarity

The question is whether . . . the environmental movement as a whole will be willing to abandon knee-jerk opposition to nuclear plants. Though there are good reasons to support them, rather than oppose them, on environmental grounds, I fear that too many environmentalists who, like Zachary, cut their teeth on antinuclear activism will be less willing to respond to changed circumstances with changed attitudes. Social movements are often more about beliefs than about reality, and ever since Tom Hayden et al. organized the antinuclear movement as a way of preserving some of the anti-Vietnam-war movement's infrastructure, it's been as much a political movement as an environmental one.

Will we be able to turn our back on outdated beliefs . . .?

Politics has been the bane of the environment for decades. It isn't just nukes and energy policy that have been ruined by politicized pseudo-environmentalists. Those who actually care about the environment would do well to investigate that sordid history and make an intellectually honest attempt to sort the political dogma from useful environmental concern.

posted by back40 | 2/05/2006 11:57:00 AM


I, too, thought it was an interesting article, but my brain nearly imploded when I came up against

Also, the main coolant for the system is inert helium, not water, as is used in other types of reactors (water, of course, contains oxygen, which is combustible).

What else in the article is bogus?

By Anonymous Mike Anderson, at 12:58 PM  

Hi Mike,

This old Wired article might give you a second perspective. It's still just breezy news stuff rather than a technical analysis, and it seems perhaps a bit too enthusiastic.

By Blogger back40, at 2:37 PM  

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