Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where Have All the Robots Gone? Or, Nuclear Crock Pots

Nuclear power plants were never a very good idea. Take an atomic bomb, marry it to a crock pot, and the progeny are nuclear power plants. Imagine a crock pot with over a million welds. Iit only takes one weld poorly done to recreate Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. That, of course, is just the danger of the ordinary operation of a nuclear fission reactor. Add an earthquake, a terrorist attack, or just the Homer Simpson that dwells in all human beings, and you have a little list of catastophic initiators.

Some new not very good ideas have been revealed by the incidents at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex. Like placing backup generators where they can be knocked out by flood waters. The worst, however, is storing "spent" uranium and plutonium fuel rods in big stacks next to each other in pools of water. Which reminds us that 60 years after nuclear reactors began to be built, there is no safe system in place to store the nuclear waste. But don't let that stop progress.

One problem in getting the reactors and the massed pools of used fuel rods under control is the susceptibility of humans to radiation poisoning. Which leads me to ask: where are the robots when you need them? Japan is the world leader in robotics. They have factories filled with robots and robotic pets in people's homes. So why no robots that can go and take a peak inside the storage pools and the reactor buildings? Why no robotic helicopters to help in a crisis? All that is need, really, to avert disaster is a nice clean pool filled with boron salts and water and a robot or two that can pluck out a few fuel rods and space them out at nice safe distances, preferably in such an emergency back up pool.

Strangely, atomic bombs are actually safer than nuclear power plants. They are designed so that the fissionable materials are kept far enough apart that they don't react with each other, not until the bomb is detonated.

I don't think nuclear power can be made safe. We just can't anticipate everything that can go wrong. With all due respect to nuclear engineers and scientists, your pride has gotten in the way of your analytic abilities. Sure you are clever, but you can't dodge Murphy's Law forever. The only safe uranium is unmined uranium.

On the other hand, let's hear a round of applause for the brave workers who are risking their lives trying to salvage the situation.

If you have not already done so, be sure to write President Obama and tell him to shut American reactors down. Don't use email, that won't make the point. Send a snail mail letter to:

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington D.C. 20500

If you pretend to be a "progressive Democrat," you should add the administration's continuing support for building new nuclear power plants in the U.S. to your list of reasons to stop delaying the inevitable. Change your voter registration to Green Party as soon as you can.

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