Sunday, September 16, 2007

Long Now: Drop the Banana!

The Nuclear Age has come and gone and, apparently, come again! Last Friday, I checked out the Long Now Foundation's Seminar on Long Term Thinking. I follow the series almost as religiously as my mother follows Prairie Home Companion, so imagine my titillation to be able to attend one of the SALT lectures at the beautiful Herbst Theater in San Francisco.

Despite nearly soiling my britches at the sight of Kevin Kelley (who recently blew my mind with the theory of a Seventh Kingdom for technology) and Stewart Brand, the actual talk was really boring. The two speakers were Gwyneth Cravens and Richard "Rip" Anderson, speaking about the book Cravens had written under the consultation of Anderson. The dryness of the talk was especially surprising given the superlatives Stewart Brand gave the book ("just so damn good") and Cravens' resume: editor at New Yorker and Harper's, contributor to The New York Times and The Nation and author of five novels.

The presentation took the form of my sixth grade class's adaptation of A Christmas Carol: All participants reading deadpan from a script, painfully histrionic transitions ("What do you think, Rip?") and a projector attendant that failed to keep up with the comatose-like state of events. In my sixth grade life, it didn't matter that much whether or not the projector was turned on to create the Ghost of Christmas Past. For the SALT lecture, however, it really did make a difference because the most powerful arguments for nuclear power is found in the facts.

1. Soviet-era nuclear warheads are being turned into energy.

Something I hadn't heard before: A relationship between Russia and the United States called "Megatons into Megawatts" where the enriched uranium from former Soviet warheads is being diluted (from 90% to 4% enriched uranium) to be used in fuel rods in American reactors. So this means nuclear disarmament is leading to more sustainable power. Sounds pretty good to me. They even quote a great Bible passage: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares" (Isiah 11:4).

2. Big nuclear reactors have small carbon footprints.

Above is a chart from a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the people who've been kicking down government doors in Iraq and now Iran. This chart was shown at the event to demonstrate how coal (our major source of base load energy) emits an egregious amount of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere while nuclear power emits only a fraction.

3. Spoonful weighs a ton.
The small pellet to the left will last 18 months. It would take 1700 pounds of coal and 140 gallons of oil to produce the same amount of energy. Boo ya!

4. Nuclear Power doesn't aid so-called terrorists.

As mentioned above, uranium for nuclear power needs to be enriched only to 4%. When a nuclear engineer enriches uranium, she packs it with neutrons to make a very unstable isotope. Taking on neutrons doesn't change the chemical make-up of the element, but as one imagines, it makes it top-heavy. This enrichment is done to lots of uranium and creates uranium "cake", like the kind Iraq WASN'T getting from Niger.
A nuclear reaction happens when the isotope is bombarded with free neutrons that cause the atom to split, releasing more neutrons which carry on the cycle. The nuclear reaction stops when either there are no more uranium (or whatever the radioactive element) atoms left or the neutrons stop hitting the atoms.
Engineers enrich nuclear bomb uranium cake to 90% and nuclear power uranium cake to 4%. We need not fear nuclear reactors being attacked. We do need to be concerned with uranium enrichment (as is the case with Iran) to make sure uranium is not being enriched beyond energy resources.

5. Bananas Cause Cancer!

When discussing the myth of exposure harm from nuclear energy, Gwenyth Cravens revealed the bombshell of the night. From natural sources, such as Radon in the soil or "cosmic radioactive energy" (a phrase from Cravens delivered with a knowing smile to the San Francisco crowd), every individual in the U.S. receives 300 millirem. Living close to a nuclear plant, EPA reports radiation exposure of .009 millirem a year. Eating a banana? 0.007 millirem a year! At this point, Craven brandished a banana (or shall we say, Cancer Gun?) she had brought from home and waved it around maniacally. I should say relatively maniacally, which for this event meant calmly raising the banana in the air.


Rich JC said...

ya man. cancer sticks (cigarettes) are out. people are actually mashing up and snorting banana back here. what's her name, cravens, was here a few weeks ago. she blew our minds with that banana (i heard it was a plastic replica though, because she avoids nuclear fallout).

trozz said...

Awesome blog!!

I particularly like the use of the inclusive pronoun when referring to the nuclear engineer!