Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Nuclear Not-So-Boogeyman

I make it a joke to mention the radioactive stink bugs.

Yes, radioactive stink bugs. And rabbits. And probably marmots, too. Anything that digs around out where I work is probably going to trigger a sensitive Geiger counter.

But I don’t worry about it. If I see a live stink bug crawling along the carpeted cubicle aisles at work, I’m not going to step on it. Not because of the beyond slight chance I’ll spread its radioactivity by squashing its guts, but because of the sure chance it’ll stink for a while because the stink juice came out when I stepped on it.

The biggest threat to the Snake River Plain Aquifer, which underlies the Idaho National Laboratory where I work, is nothing radioactive – it’s the carbon tetrachloride and other organic chemicals and solvents brought to Idaho from Colorado in the form of sludge that were dumped out here. And thanks to a system of giant vacuum cleaners that are literally sucking the carbon tet out of the soil and burning it, along with other cleanup efforts that are going quite well despite all the whining you hear in Boise, little to none of it has reached the water.

We were looking at a nuclear renaissance here in Idaho, with Areva planning a $1 billion uranium enrichment plant in Bonneville County.

Then came Fukushima.

Areva effectively scuttled its plans for Idaho, as demand for nuclear power plunged worldwide after the Fukushima accident. A lot of people wagged their fingers and said a lot of I-told-you-sos.

But guess what, folks – the nuclear boogeyman isn’t as scary as everyone makes it out to be. Check it out from the frothing pro-nuclearforces at Wired:

“Fukushima has not made a big impact on overall radioactivity, believe it or not,” he says.

The problem is, a lot of people still don’t believe it. “People are really afraid that the Pacific is so contaminated that you can’t eat any fish anymore,” [Colorado State University chemist Georg] Steinhauser says. “It’s not true, and I find it very difficult. This is one of the biggest challenges in my work.”

The biggest problem with nuclear power – aside from the fact modern thinking has isolated the industry with 1970s technology – is public relations. It doesn’t matter how little radiation gets released, or how much is already in the environment. People – in this case, mostly liberals – ignore the science and stick their heads in the barely radioactive sand.

You stand to get a lot more radiation from a dental x-ray or flying in a commercial airplane than you do from Fukushima. But it’s Fukushima that gets all the scary headlines.

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