Tag Archives: Oil

Fallout Fears (Part 2)

A pair of reactors in Belgium, near Gent. (Photo credit: Koert Michiels)

This post is the second installment in a two-part post on nuclear worries. If you’re a little lost, read part 1 here! Thanks.

First, radiation has a long history of very negative popular perception (only natural, considering the 20th-century’s long romance with nuclear weapons). Particularly to those who grew up during Cold War times, radiation is a symbol of fear and uncertainty, and it carried with it the threat of foreign aggression. Even now, when nuclear proliferation isn’t quite as much of an issue (though don’t get me wrong, it’s still a concern), at least to the younger generation, nuclear danger is still portrayed as a supreme threat in all kinds of media, even video games. Simply put, radiation is still seen as a grave danger to society by people of nearly all ages and cultures.

Second, radiation is invisible. This may sound like an incredibly stupid point to make, but bear with me here! The fact that radiation can’t be seen, especially at dangerous levels, makes it seem like a dangerous and unpredictable killer, and one which we simply cannot do much to stop. Now, while this is true to a certain extent, the fact is that the amounts of radiation typically produced by nuclear power plants are nowhere near enough to be harmful to our health. In fact, it’s been found that coal ash is frequently more radioactive than NPP emissions.

Third, radiation spreads, and fast. To add to that, there’s almost nothing we can do to stop that spread, or keep it from affecting people, apart from relocating entire populations, which almost anyone would be understandably hesitant to do. Unlike landslides, forest fires, or even tsunamis, there’s almost nothing we can do to halt the advance of radiation’s spreading. We may be able to predict it, but like a hurricane or tornado, there’s nothing we can do to control or avert it. Fires can be dowsed or at least contained, and floods can be dammed, but radiation spreads no matter what.

Finally, radiation has an unpleasant habit of overstaying its welcome, often for a very, very long time. Like a dictator who won’t give up power or a lingering and unwanted dinner guest, radiation is an insidious presence that refuses to be rooted out, at least not without a fight. The greatest damage that radiation inflicts is done over the long term, as it causes long-term cancers and seeps into soil and water supplies. This damage is hard to keep track of or measure, so it has an aspect of nameless dread to it.

So it’s easy to see why people fear radiation so much. It’s invisible, it’s silent, it’s trackless, and there’s almost nothing we can really do to stand in its way once it becomes a problem. But if you really look at the numbers, you’ll find that, danger-wise, nuclear has nothing on coal.

It’s not an easy thing to say that we need nuclear in the midst of the crisis in Japan, and it’s certainly not the most popular stance in the world for me to take. But unfortunately, our energy needs (and our need for cleaner energy) are simply too great to give up on nuclear power. What really must be done is a tightening of safety regulations on nuclear power plants, and further expansion on research into what must be done to keep plants safe. We can’t prepare for all contingencies, but the events at Fukushima Daiichi have showed the world that we must have well-thought-out plans for emergencies.

But the harsh reality is that almost no form of energy is truly 100% safe, no matter what precautions we take. And to move toward a more sustainable energy future, as well as a safer one, we must continue to stand by nuclear energy.

Author’s Note: This post was slightly modified on April 2nd, after its initial publication on March 29th.

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Fallout Fears (Part 1)

A nuclear power plant (NPP), an example of a key source of energy for much of the world. (Source: picture-newsletter.com, photographer unknown)

As I write this post, Japan is still reeling and recovering from a devastating trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear threat. The country has suffered a terrible three-headed beast of a disaster, and it’s taking a toll, not only on the country, people, and economy of Japan, but on the world’s mindset on nuclear energy.

For years and years, nuclear power has been viewed as a viable and clean source of alternative energy in much of the developed and developing world. But after the shocking triple tragedy in Japan, there has been growing fear and apprehension towards nuclear power plants and  nuclear energy, as the safety of this source is being called into question.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Germany, where seven reactor facilities are being temporarily shut down for safety testing, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has, for what many think is a mix of political and safety reasons, called into question the entire country’s nuclear power supply.

This kind of thinking has taken root all across the European Union and in many other parts of the world, including the United States. But is this anything more than hasty reactionary thought sparked by the ongoing crisis in Japan? There was little outcry or objection to nuclear energy sources before the disaster, but since the radiation dangers in Japan have caught international attention, leaders and thinkers have begun to reconsider whether nuclear energy is a safe option.

Now, it’s of course natural to look into one’s own energy systems’ safety precautions, especially right after a disaster such as the one in Japan. But the kind of panicked shut-downs and alarm seen in places like Germany in response to the crisis are, in my opinion, blown far out of proportion, and have potential to greatly damage popular perception of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy has given us the opportunity to create quite substantial amounts of energy at little cost to the environment, especially when compared to other sources such as “clean” coal. A 2008 study that examined the relative emissions of a nuclear power plant and a fossil fuel plant found that the fossil fuel plant had emitted around 11 million tons of waste in a year, while the NPP emitted a mere 26 tons. There’s really no arguing that this is one of the cleanest energy sources available to us.

Besides that, the dangers of NPPs really do not exceed those of other energy sources, especially coal. It’s estimated that two to three thousand workers die in coal mining accidents every year in China, and explosions and collapses still kill dozens of workers every year in the United States. So why is it that people are so afraid of nukes?

Because this post is becoming rather lengthy, I’ve decided to split it into two parts. Check back soon for part two!

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Black Blood: Oil and the Value of Human Life

Our leeching dependence on oil has sapped away our value for human life.

At some point in the 19th century, a wondrous thing was created: The internal combustion engine. Though there is still dispute over who it was created by and the exact year it was finalized, this is a fair timeline for it I think. The engine never had much popularity when it was first created, as it depended on petroleum-based fuel to function. But around the middle of the century oil fields began to be discovered and depleted. And so our oil addiction began.

Since around the turn of the century (the 20th one, that is), oil has been a precious resource. Though it started its history in fairly limited use, its’ importance has grown extremely rapidly over the last century, as the vehicles, industries, and other aspects of life it has fueled grow larger and larger. Nearly every part of life, especially here in America, has become in some way dependent on our oil supply. With the incredible developments in transportation technology, oil’s importance has grown larger and larger, as our cars, airplanes, cargo ships, semi-trucks, trains, cruise vessels, helicopters, military vehicles, and a plethora of other technologies have become almost completely dependent on this fuel. Even if you leave transportation out of the picture, many other products we use in our daily life are dependent on oil as well. In the words of the US Department of Energy: “Oil is the lifeblood of America’s economy.  Currently, it supplies more than 40% of our total energy demands and more than 99% of the fuel we use in our cars and trucks.” (found on this page)

And beyond the repercussions we’ll face when these reserves we’re so dependent on start running out, our dependence on and high esteem for oil have elevated it to the status of a societal god. One of the most important goals of US foreign policy has become finding and securing our oil supplies, and this “black gold” has become of paramount importance in our relationships with other countries that supply our all-important oil. America is the world’s most voracious consumer of petroleum, and only about half of the oil we use comes from our own soil. The other half comes primarily from Canada, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Nigeria (see the link above for details), which enthralls us to these countries for our most important resource.

I would say, with little hesitation, that our national (and in some ways, global) obsession with oil has reduced the value we place on human life. Entire countries such as Saudi Arabia have become little more than oil fields in public thought, and US leaders are as much concerned about the oil supplies being cut off in LIbya as they are about the people being massacred there. Oil giants like BP build offshore oil rigs that they know have a high chance of failing, at the expense not just of the nature around them, but on the people in their environments too. Some would say that a primary reason George W. Bush pushed for an invasion of Iraq was to secure its lucrative oil fields, and indeed, Iraq is among the top ten oil importers to the United States. I don’t know if I would say this was Bush’s sole reason, but it certainly didn’t hold him back.

There’s a brokenness to this high value we give to oil. Behind it lies the assumption that this natural resource is somehow of higher value than the people also involved in the situation. I understand that our country has a high dependency on oil for our day to day lives, but why is this? We’ve raised our standards of living exponentially in the last century, and it’s gotten to the point where most Americans feel they are somehow entitled to a fair share (or, in many cases, far more than a fair share) of oil for their personal needs. Almost unconsciously, Americans consume vast amounts of natural resources daily, in most cases without knowing the costs to the environment and the people in that environment.

But this goes beyond oil. The American people have been living beyond their means in many ways for years now. While all of our technological super-advances of the last century (and even the last decade) have made our lives more connected, more convenient, and even more fun, this comes at a cost that few people are willing to recognize. The more resources and luxuries we come to depend on for our daily lives, the more we suffer when they’re taken away or are harder to come by, as we saw in the peak of oil prices a few years ago in the US. So maybe it’s time to cut back. Maybe it’s time to realize that our choices and luxuries have a real cost to real people. Maybe it’s time to free ourselves from this cycle.

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