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This sorry saga of the six Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors plays out each day in the news and pushes all our worst case scenario nuclear energy buttons. The reactor explodes (multiple times). The radiation escapes. The radiation gets into the air. The radiation gets into the soil. The radiation gets into the water. We haven’t gotten to the one where the radiation poisons everything and everyone yet, but no one seems to have a grasp on what will happen, when it will stop, how to stop it, or what the long term effects will be.
It seems impossible that the heroic workers at the reactors will get out of this unscathed or even alive. What about the people who still live near the reactors? They should have been told that evacuation would be a good idea long before they were. In America, say lawsuit. How will these people be affected? Where will they go?
Once the radiation gets into the soil, water, and air it gets into the food supply. How will Japan ever recover from this? When will they recover? Will they keep the radiation from infiltrating the ocean?
I was quite certain that we did not have a clue what to do in a serious nuclear reactor failure. That I was apparently right is not giving me a great deal of personal satisfaction. We will all watch this play out with great trepidation because this chain of events could happen here. I wish we could shut down all the world’s nuclear reactors until we figure this out. It is potentially too toxic, and there are no true remedies. I also know we are unlikely to abandon nuclear power right now when we need to lessen and end our dependence on fossil fuels. So, yikes!
I experienced a deep personal satisfaction when I finally understood the law of conservation of matter and energy (also called the 1st Law of Thermodynamics). I learned this law in a rote fashion in high school physics but I did not really understand it until I was an adult. It is sort of an elegant little law which apparently engenders no end of complicated experimentation and theorizing among physicists and chemists, and others. The law simply states that matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed but are changed in state (e.g., solid, liquid, gas). It finally occurred to me that what this law says is that there is a finite amount of energy in the universe and that new energy is not being created somewhere outside the system and added into it. It also implies that there is a constant state of flux in the universe in which matter may change its state or matter can become energy and energy can become matter. This helped me understand algebraic equations (why what you have on one side of the equal sign must equal what you have on the other side of the equal sign), chemical equations (its why they are balanced ), the water cycle, photosynthesis, heating and cooling, atomic energy, E=mc2, ashes to ashes, dust to dust (with room for argument), and that very male phrase which keeps cropping up lately “zero-sum”. Eureka! Matter does not disappear; it just changes form. It suggests that there is order in the universe, a sort of cause/effect, although often on a scale so huge or so tiny that it is sometimes impossible to predict. We even have chaos theory which says that even in chaos there is order. And string theory which looks for similarities in the order of things (I think).
Even though we understand how this all works, we cannot always control it. E=mc2 says something with a tiny mass can exert an amount of energy multiplied by the speed of light squared, which is a huge number. This is the basis for nuclear energy. When we can control the reaction and turn it into electricity, nuclear energy is very useful, but we know we are putting a human leash on potentially huge forces and we know the rules for keeping these huge forces under control and we know the dangers if the rules are circumvented or cannot be followed. If it were just a matter of creating energy that would be fine, but the only substances we can use to create this energy at the present time are substances that are unstable, radioactive, and injurious to humans above certain levels. The radioactivity of these substances is also long-lasting, it can be diluted, but it doesn’t subside for a long, long time. This is sort of equivalent to the Hindenburg disaster when they used hydrogen to make a dirigible lighter than air. Hydrogen is a very active element. It forms bonds easily with other substances and differing amounts of energy can be released. In this case a spark caused a bond that produced an explosion and a spectacular and horrifying accident. Using helium solves the problem, because helium is inert and usually nonreactive. That’s what we need, a way to produce nuclear energy that does not have the side effect of producing dangerous levels of radioactive material and tons of long-lasting radioactive waste. I’m obviously no scientist. Maybe this cannot be done. Maybe it can be done and it will be the answer to the future. E=mc2 – we know there is something there.