January 22nd, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Who Killed Those Miners? We All Did.

With two lethal mining disasters in the same region of the same state in the same month, mine safety is back in the news again, and lots of people have opinions on the subject. Given that I've expressed seething rage about how many employers in America get away with killing their employees through negligence and suffer only a slap on the wrist (and that's best case, because they often wriggle out from under the slap on the wrist), you might expect that I'm one of them. You'd mostly be wrong. As a nation, we made up our minds to kill those guys over 30 years ago, so there's no point in hand-wringing about it now.

The fact of the matter is this: there really are only two economically viable ways of generating large amounts of electricity in the US: nuclear energy and coal. Yes, we've expanded renewable energy ... all the way up to the single digit percentages of our electricity consumption, so don't waste my time talking about them. Yes, there's diesel fuel, but it's got its own complicated economics and politics which is why it hardly makes up a large percentage of our electrical generation. For the last decade, utilities have been building natural gas powered turbines to generate electricity, because that's practically all that zoning boards and regulatory agencies would let them build ... which is high on the list of reasons why we're in the middle of a world-wide natural gas shortage this winter. No, when we're talking about inexpensive production of mass quantities of electricity, we're talking about coal power and nuclear power.

Back in the early 1970s, anti-nuclear hysteria peaked with the feverish fear that if a nuclear power plant suffered a coolant failure, the reactor fuel would melt, puddle at the bottom of the reactor, reach critical mass, and if we were so lucky that it didn't explode like a nuclear bomb, it would get so hot that it would melt its way through the reactor floor, through the bedrock, and all the way down to the water table. They called this nightmare scenario "the China Syndrome," and Jane Fonda made a movie about it. Then, just as the movie was coming out, we actually had a catastrophic loss of coolant at an American nuclear power reactor, the Three Mile Island power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The whole country panicked, but they managed to restore coolant flow before any measurable level of radiation leaked outside the reactor core. People breathed a sigh of relief, and everybody solemnly assured each other that it had been a close call -- much longer and the reactor core would have melted down. But there's a funny, under-reported thing about that. It took so long to decontaminate the reactor and decommission it that it was no longer on the front pages by then, so hardly anybody noticed what they found when they actually got to the reactor core: it had melted down. And nothing happened. The idea that liquified reactor fuel could reach critical or near-critical mass was based on a faulty understanding of how molten uranium (plus various contiminants) behaves. There is no chance of a nuclear explosion, and there is no chance of a China Syndrome. We spent all those years worrying over nothing.

But, scream the environmentalists, what about all that nuclear waste that'll be dangerous for tens of thousands of years? What are we going to do with it!?!? Well, since they won't let us put it back in the ground where we got it from, and since they've tied the government and the industry up in lawsuits and protests for nigh-on 50 years, what we're doing about it now is something that the industry never wanted to do, which is store the stuff on-site at every nuclear reactor in the country. This is a solution that the industry rejected as far too dangerous. It wasn't safe storage, and it was way too vulnerable to coordinated terrorist attack aimed at obtaining radiological materials for "dirty bombs" or gods forbid even reactor fuel rods that can be reprocessed to extract plutonium to make atomic bombs. We've been doing this for 50 years now. How many people have been killed by this way-too-risky policy? Zero. So far as I know, nobody's even been seriously hurt by it. And the terrorist attacks never happened, even when we had our guard down.

Ah, but what about Chernobyl? What about it? Never mind that Russian reactors were built to a design that has never been built anywhere else in the world because it's way, way too dangerous, let's go ahead and count that in as part of reactor safety. It's unfair, but I'll give it to you just because I'm generous that way. The consensus estimate is that 30 people died in the disaster itself, and around 2,500 people died earlier than they otherwise would have because of exposure to radiation. Those 2,500 deaths are the only known deaths due to civilian nuclear power generation. And the reason that I'm willing to be generous and give you those numbers is that coal mining kills that many people every two years, just in the USA, just from black lung disease. Plus the hundreds killed every year in cave-ins, explosions, and other mining disasters. Plus untold thousands per year overseas. The fact of the matter is that coal mining isn't safe, we know it isn't safe, and while we could make it a little safer, there will never be a day when it's actually safe.

So we as a country and, largely, as a species made a conscious decision, more than 30 years ago, to kill thousands of coal miners per year every year from now on rather than build more nuclear power plants which might some day kill people, but never have yet except in the former Soviet Union, and even then not even matching that year's Soviet Union-only coal mining deaths. So if you're an anti-nuclear activist, the extent of my opinion on the recent coal miners' deaths is that I wish you would go and personally explain to the widows why you killed their husbands. Okay?