There’s an elephant in the room. SHH! don’t look at him. (His name is Nigel.)
I just made that up, but hey: let’s at least give him a name. Let’s personalise the scariest elephant-in-the-room you’re ever going to meet. But y’know, folks, it may be alright. Nigel might never go rogue. He might never kill millions of people (and maybe some of your children or their children). Nigel might just lie down eventually, in about 30 or 40 thousand years, and harm no-one at all.
Let me explain: Here we are in 2017 and it really is a thing, people. Global Warming / Climate Change / The Greenhouse Effect, call it what you will, but it is a THING. Lots of dire predictions, a thousand scenarios could play out, but the one we’re definitely not going to get is: everything is gonna be just fine and life goes on and the TV will keep playing and the fashion magazines will still fill our minds with the important news.
Even a fairly mild dose of global warming is going to be bumpy. Extended droughts, constant mega-hurricanes every autumn, and about thirty flooded mega-cities. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on humanity. Starvation, panic, mass migrations, homelessness & unemployment, loss of important species and ecological balance. This could actually go very crisis-y. Some idiot is sure to start a war, too.
So we’re all out fighting the bushfires, trying to eat, abandoning our houses to the waves, running out of gas, freaking-the-fuck-out … etc. Millions of recently affluent people will be wandering someone’s neighbourhood with a thousandth of their previous possessions and 2.3 hungry children to feed and shelter. There will be ‘attrition’. Storm, war, disease, idiots-with-guns … People will die in messy/sad/bad ways. Maybe me, maybe you.
But let’s be optimistic: a good measure of humanity will survive, and survive well. In Iceland. I’ve got a lot of optimism banked in Iceland. (Not so much for the USA.)
But here’s the thing: Nuclear Power Plants. You can’t just just turn them off. Even if you reach the point where it’s like: “Alright, we’ll decommission it. Don’t need it any more. Yeah it’ll cost millions. The processes, machines, experts… Pull out the contaminated stuff and bury it correctly – then keep it cool for a few hundred years … um, shit.”
The things are hot. Literally. That stuff continues to react for decades. Drop all the control rods, moderate it right down, but you still have to run the pumps for .. um, actually I don’t know. For a .. very .. long .. time.
So this is Nigel. No-one’s talking about him.
Right now there are 30 countries worldwide operating 449 nuclear reactors [link]. Rapid disintegration of civic order in any of those places could easily mean governments or other relevant authorities fail to maintain one of their plants. There’s no money, or no incentive, or no-one left who knows how to do it, or no-one to give a damn.
Walk away from any of these 449 power plants and within a few days it will be on fire, melting down, or out-and out exploding. (Not a ‘nuclear explosion’. Just way too much heat in the wrong places, steam pressure, weird chemistry, trouble with a capital T!)
The Fukushima Daiichi power plant is still a mess. The complexities of restoring it to safely are mind-buggering. It is still leaking. How did that happen? The pumps stopped – simple as that. The pumps need electricity (NOT from the plant itself if it’s shut down), but the tsunami swamped every single back-up generator. Utterly Dumb Design.
So start to imagine what we will need in 449 locations world-wide to keep these things safe until they are completely out of ‘juice’. Plutonium-239 has a half–life of 24,000 years. (Half of it is gone after 24,000 years). Uranium-234 has a half-life of 245 thousand years. How long will we have to run the pumps?
Another thing: build a high-pressure containment vessel out of inch-thick high-grade steel, fill it with radioactive crap and let it all stew for 30 or 40 years, and it literally turns into a different element that is nowhere near as strong as the original steel. This happens to almost everything inside a nuke. Whatever it’s made of, whatever it was supposed to be doing thanks to its physical/chemical properties – it slowly ceases to work.
Even if we cannot pull them apart and bury all the nasty crap, even if we run the pumps for a .. very .. long .. time, there’ll be trouble in the sheds sooner or later.
So: 28 years from now, with cities going under and millions on the move, entire nations on their knees, anarchy in some corners, totalitarian states in others, wars and invasions and occupying forces and not enough food and yet ALL of these power plants will still be in safe hands? Well-funded? Staffed by dedicated technicians and scientists? ALL of them will remain sound, or be correctly decommissioned? EEP!
I’m trying to imagine a future in, say: 200 years time. Everything has settled down. We’re wiser, we’re fewer, we’re low-impact, we’re organic and caring and sharing and accept gay marriages and play chess in the evenings … and thousands of us, entire villages, have to spend an entire lifetime getting trained to go in and out of these ancient piles of deadly crap, renovating pumps, painting and waterproofing, pouring in more and more concrete, and marking off the years on a calendar that is literally thousand of years long.
We really need to make plans for Nigel.