A “Nucular” Turnaround

When I look back upon my first impressions of America, what leaps out at the edges of my mind are a collage of sketches and snapshots; the words Pink Floyd painted in graffiti on the wall of a Berkeley building; an American blue mailbox with a door instead of a slot; Joan Baez singing of peace in the Greek Theater at Cal; and student demonstrations against nuclear power.

Some of these phenomena were easily fathomable; others not. I pondered over Pink Floyd for months for example, wondering if it was some sort of a code or cipher, until someone told me it was a rock band.

Peace and blue mailboxes were quaint but what was up with nuclear power? I had grown up in India in an era when nuclear technology was supposed to solve all of mankind’s problems. Prime Minister Nehru himself had personally entrusted Homi Bhabha with the creation of a nuclear industry, starting with the establishment of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and ending with the foundation of the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay, which would one day build nuclear reactors with sexy names like Apsara. After I had won the Atomic Energy Commission Fellowship for studying physics, my personal ambition of working at TIFR or Trombay had intensified.

Until I arrived in Berkeley, to join the graduate program in Energy and Resources, and got the memo that nuclear technology was bad.

It was John Holdren, the founding father of the program, who first informed me of nuclear accidents, nuclear wastes, nuclear risks, and nuclear costs. It was Holdren  who spoke of the environmental damage caused by nuclear technology vis a vis solar, wind, geothermal, and biofuels. It was Holdren who spoke of E F Schumacher who had written an amazing book titled Small is Beautiful. It was Holdren who eventually accepted a Nobel Prize on behalf of the Pugwash Conference for battling the threat of nuclear proliferation.

And it was Holdren who chastised anyone who said “nucular” instead of nuclear, a sin George W. Bush committed deliberately and often, as if to emphasize his cowboy Texan machismo.

I do not know if Holdren ever had a chance to correct W.

Holdren’s opposition to nuclear power back then was not based on the absence of forecasts of climate change. In fact, he was the first person to teach me of climate modeling, of acid rain, of CO2, and green house gases. But even in the face of the climate change caused by fossil fuels, Holdren did not believe that nuclear power was the answer.

I was not surprised therefore when Obama named Holdren as his top Science Advisor. Even if Holdren had done little else than launch former students like myself out into the world with the mission to change it, he would have deserved a Nobel Prize. I was also relieved that someone like Holdren was there to counter all the heavy duty lobbying that Obama was apt to receive from fossil fuel industries.

I was shocked, therefore, to hear Obama talk of safe and clean nuclear technology in his State of the Union Address.
Had he marginalized Holdren, I wondered.

But, no, it turns out Holdren has changed his opinion on nuclear power. Being a scientist, Holdren knows how to calculate the risks and rewards of a technology based on recent information. So it is possible that given the global threat of climate change, he has altered his perspective on nuclear power. He has now concluded that small scale nuclear plants might be one of the solutions to combat global warming.

But I am not convinced. Because the problem of nuclear waste has not gone away; nor has the link between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, or the risk of nuclear proliferation. The Obama Administration has promised to address these issues through the establishment of various task forces. But can we really talk our way out of the nuclear waste dilemma when no state or community in the country actually wants the toxic, lethal stuff in its backyard? And can we realistically control the risk of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear material?

I am not sure.

In the meantime, spent fuel sits in ponds attached to nuclear plants across the country, waiting to be disposed, perhaps seeping into the terrain and leaching radioactivity for eternity, or close to it; after all, the half life of high level nuclear waste such as spent fuel is about 100,000 years; that means it takes 100,000 years to reduce the radioactive waste to half its potency.

Years ago, the U.S. Government selected Yucca Mountain, located a 100 miles out of Las Vegas, as a repository for waste. But now, it has canceled that plan perhaps because, over the years, many flaws have been discovered with the site, including the possibility of seismic activity, volcanic eruptions, water seepage etc.

So we are back to square one. Since the 1940s, when atomic energy was first invented, all sorts of ideas, mostly crazy, have been suggested for waste disposal, from orbiting it in space to burying it under Antarctic ice sheets. The latter idea has dissipated, mainly because the sheets themselves are dissipating, thanks to global warming. I guess we have something to be thankful for in all this climate change gloom and doom.

The other thing I am not totally convinced of is this; can we really build cheap nuclear plants?

The fact that Holdren is behind Obama’s decision to revamp nuclear technology allays some of my concerns, but questions remain.

Ultimately, I think, we do need to talk of the C-word, i.e., Conservation, which people are afraid to utter for fear of being accused of “Un-American Activities.”

I think we need to reduce energy use instead of simply looking to technological solutions to reduce the impact of energy use. Will Holdren ever have the courage to say so? I doubt it, because he has already been maligned for proposing population control years ago.

But that is a topic for another day.

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