For a few dollars more

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Japan’s recent crisis reopens nuclear safety debate

By John Pawlak

Although seriously wounded, the bad guy was still dangerous.
With radioactive blood oozing, he reached for the feedwater coolant release valve. But then, hearing the muffled laugh of regulatory oversight, he looked up and found himself staring into the barrel of a 357 fuel rod.  
The inspector smiled and said, “I know what you’re thinking.  Did he hit me with an 8.6 earthquake, or was it point 5?
Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I kind of lost track myself.
But this being a BN-1200 Magnum, the most powerful nuclear reactor in the world, you’ve got to ask yourself one question:  Do I feel lucky?  Do you still think it’s safe to build a nuclear power station in an earthquake zone? Well, do ya, punk?”
The recent tsunami and subsequent political fallout (so to speak) has reopened the debate on nuclear safety.  
Now, I’ve always found it amusing that those two words get used in the same ZIP code.  
Running turbines by (essentially) controlling a nuclear explosion has never been my idea of security, protection, assurance, well- being, immunity, sanctuary, or any other synonym for safety.
But I’ll freely admit that I have no problem at all using the energy that nuclear power stations produce.  
The air crackles with the static of all those lovely electrons powering my workshop, house lights, air conditioner, television set, computers, clothes washer and dryer, dishwasher and a few dozen other electrical appliances that are essential to American life.  
Oh yes, and the refrigerator of course.  No civilized person drinks warm beer.
When watching Real Housewives of the Lower Bronx, who questions (or cares) where the electricity is coming from?  As long as people get to see Rosalinda throw a temper tantrum, life is good, right?
I have more of a problem with narcissistic airheads in stilettos than I do with nuclear technology.  
We obviously need to continue to advance the use of technology.  Wood burning stoves and oil lamps just aren’t going to cut it for seven billion people.  We need more power, more cars, more lights, more dish washers, more refrigerators, and of course, more cold beer.
So why are people nervous about building a few hundred nuclear reactors, firing up those blenders, and enjoying a few piña coladas?  
Our love for electricity isn’t going to wane just because of a little radioactive sushi.  
Seriously, what really is the problem?
The problem is people.  It’s people who mess things up.  
As my father-in-law used to say, if we got rid of all the people on the planet, Earth would be a pretty nice place to live.
You just can’t levy regulatory behavior on people.  No matter what safeguards are in place, a fist full of money can push that all aside.  
Look at the Gulf oil spill.  The blowout safety value didn’t work.  One might blame human error or human stupidity.  Another possibility is human greed.  
For a few dollars more, they could have installed an acoustic switch (a “last resort” safety device required elsewhere in the world.)
But that would have cost more money.  A few dollars more.  
Yeah, OK, it’s a few thousand or hundred thousand more.  But consider the tens of billions in damage by not spending that upfront money.
So the real problem is human greed.  Do you really believe that a hundred safeguards in a nuclear reactor can’t be (or won’t be) circumvented by human greed?  
The tsunami moved the island of Japan, but human greed moves the unmovable and realizes the unthinkable.
It’s all about money.  Now, people will come at this and quote all sorts of scientific studies and point to the PhD after their name to convince you that nuclear power is safe.
And in part, they’re correct.  More people die from cigarette smoking than radiation poisoning.  
But while these same people have no problem living near a convenience store that sells cigarettes, how many of them are willing to live near a nuclear power station?
Would you live next to one?  Well, would ya, punk?
John Pawlak
Los Alamos Columnist