Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 08:49:08 AM EST
My task at DKos - should you be unfamiliar with me - is to talk about nuclear energy, the truths and the myths surrounding it, and the role I think it should play in the desperate fight against climate change. I make my arguments mostly in a technical way, but I try, within the limits of my abilities, to inject enough humor, human history, personal history, and analysis to make the subject fun, even though there is nothing very funny about climate change. My goal in all of this is to give my party the best chance it can possibly have, as now we control at least part of the government, at governing wisely. To me it is an inescapable fact that climate change must be ameliorated, though I very much doubt at this point that it can be arrested. My oft stated view is that nuclear energy is simply the most powerful tool we have in this fight, the best tested and therefore the most essential.
Former nuclear opponents who have suddenly reversed themselves are now becoming legion I guess, and are often vilified in the anti-nuclear industry as "traitors" or apostates for switching sides. Of course such name calling treats the issue if the case for and against nuclear power were a matter of loyalty and faith rather than a case in which one should apply analysis and reason.
I am amused by this because it's more than 20 years since my own switch from anti-nuclear to pronuclear. I am a tacky and graceless man, and it's rather odd to think that I have been a trend setter in some way, that I was, actually, ahead of my time.
The precipitating event in my personal experience that changed my mind about nuclear power was Chernobyl. When I first learned of the burning reactor, I thought the situation was going to prove irretrievable and that it was likely to rank among the great disasters of all time, possibly on the order of the introduction of the plague bacillus into medieval Europe. Of course, Chernobyl was not the end of the world in any way, and though much remains unknown about situation there, the zone is hardly a lifeless desert.
Last night I read a flawed but certainly worthwhile book that in many places steals my thunder. It is written by Mary Mycio and it is entitled "Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl."
Ms. Mycio is a Ukrainian-American who grew up in Northern New York State, pursued a degree in biology, a subject she clearly loves, went to law school, and as a result began a legal career. She had been a lawyer for only a few weeks when the Chernobyl reactor exploded. Obsessed with information about the situation, she snuck into the libraries of our national laboratories and obsessively analyzed all she knew about the reactor accident in her parent's native country, leaving her new career behind almost before it had even begun. So powerful was the pull of the issue that over a decade ago she moved to Kiev, becoming a journalist reporting on the Ukraine for the Los Angeles Times reporting on Ukrainian issues. This book is the result of her travels in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
In her preface she remarks that her own attitudes are "ambiguously" pronuclear after starting out having traveled from the position of being an "adamant opponent of nuclear energy."
Then Ms. Mycio takes us on a personal tour of the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion zone, stopping along the way to explain interesting tidbits of Ukrainian history, culture, mythology. She briefly pauses to dismiss, with personal knowledge, the famous Internet Fraud, Elena who claimed to have ridden a motorcycle around the exclusion zone and made a presentation on a web page that was supposed to stun the world, presumably inspiring humanity to ban nuclear power. (Elena, it turns out, was part of one of the many tour groups that traverse the area, and lugged around a helmet and asked other members of the tour to photograph her holding the helmet.) Unlike Elena's, Ms. Mycio's tales - including poking her hands in the muddy radioactive loam - are too rich with detail to ring false.
Using often exhilirating prose that can be quite compelling as nature writing, Ms. Mycio then proceeds to write about a period of weeks, in which she tours the exclusion zone, examining every thing from the radiomorphological changes symmetry of duck weed colonies , to a wonderful description of the 6 meter long catfish that live in the failed reactor's cooling ponds. (No, they are not mutants.) Her description of the exclusion zone's two herds of Przewalski's horses - a nearly extinct species of horse that was once no longer found in the wild but for a while only existed in zoos - alone makes this book reading. (The horses were stocked to the exclusion zone, tellingly, because the best habitat for them proved to be one of the most radioactive places on earth.) Equally compelling is her encounter with one of Chernobyl's wolves. (When their numbers grew high enough the wolves killed off the feral dogs - abandoned pets - and wolf/dog hybrids), the majesty of the Chernobyl elk, the bison, and above all the birds, black storks and golden eagles and even the mosquitos.
Despite the vast perfusion of flora and fauna living in the zone, Ms. Mycio wants to know that all is not right. She describes the mechanism by which many birds fail to breed because of the accumulation of strontium-90 in their egg shells, even as other birds, rare and important birds, shrug the matter off. (Birders are apparently well represented among Chernobyl ecotourists these days apparently.) She can talk at length about the radiocontamination of the great rutting boars, and the rise and fall of the rodent population in balance with predators, and many other things about the exclusion zone that have surprised her, just as they surprised me, just as they surprised the world. She even does the obvious well, explaining why there are no fanciful mutants in the exclusion zone.
She speaks in personal detail of the people of Chernobyl, those who live there now - in defiance of regulation - and carefully analyzes the noise about reinhabiting the place - something on which she focuses a jaunticed eye. Her evocation of Belaruian and Ukrainian bureaucracy, legal enforcement, even the quality of the guard houses at the edges of the exclusion zone are priceless. You really get a feel, even a sense of smell, about what it is like to bounce around in the bitter cold in an old Soviet era jeep loaded with cans of gasoline.
She also gives a wonderful view of all the information here that is being lost simply through studied neglect of an enormous opportunity to test issues that can be addressed in no other place.
Now some mild criticism:
First of all this is a "nuclear exceptionalist book." The Ukraine is not so much a nuclear disaster as it is an energy disaster. To repeat my pet peeve, in no place does she refer to the tragedy of coal in the Ukraine, its enormous health and environmental cost that has been ravaging the Ukraine for the last two decades. This is not a scientific objection per se, but I think the coal matter in the Ukraine, a tragedy every bit as bad as Chernobyl, merits mention. Maybe Ms. Mycio doesn't agree. Certainly a discussion of coal vs. nuclear is a big issue, and in fact, Ukraine has come down a nation with plans for a nuclear future. But discussing coal doesn't sell books.
Scientifically, especially where biology is concerned, she is usually pretty strong, although she does make some mistakes.
I'll touch on some scientific errors that do crop up. The Oklo natural reactors did not operate 1.7 "million" years ago, but about 1.8 billion years ago. It is oxymoronic to call uranium a transuranium element. Ms Mycio claims that water in the sarcophagus raises criticality issues - and maybe it does - but by examination of Oklo - naturally occurring reactors that operated cyclically (with a period of about 6 hours) for hundreds of thousands of years, suggest that any criticality events in the future might be self-regulating. (For all we know they have been on going, though probably not, since the water isn't clearly mixing with the fuel and there's a hell of a lot of boron dumped on the reactor.) Also she asserts with no evidence that the probability of reactor failure is 1 in every 30 years because the Chernobyl reactor failed 30 years after the start of commercial nuclear power. This is nonsense. The Chernobyl reactor was a rare design being operated deliberately outside of the approved parameters for use. It is glib, in fact, wrong, to say Chernobyl was typical in any way. The incidence of failed reactors is going down and does not remain constant. This makes sense because failures are experience. No one will ever again build an RBMK reactor, but some built before the Chernobyl explosion have continued to operate without failing. (RBMK reactors are being phased out.)
She really would have been much better to have not continuously shifted units, from Beq to curies, to rem, to Gray to Sieverts and back from sentence to sentence. I understand what she is trying to say, but many readers may end up hopelessly confused. There is a real need for conversion factors and above all context. To most general readers it makes a difference if one says thirty seven thousand Becquerels or one microcurie but in any case it is best to be consistent. The names evoke different responses, of course, but she should settle on one or the other.
Some tables would have helped and above all, since she refers to "isobaric" contamination maps, cities etc: The book needs maps or at least directions to web sites that feature them. During her reporting, she also probably should have worn, at the very least, a film badge, if not something more sophisticated, so she could accurately relate her own exposure. This would have said volumes about her subject.
But these and a few other quibbles are trivial mostly.
Her evocation of why strontium may become more available than it has been, her discussion of river polders, her explanation of the expected rise over the next several decades in Americium are, if incomplete, well done. Again, the biology discussions are excellent. The description of the sarcophagus, its problems and plans to replace it are informative.
Ms. Mycio takes to task both side of the nuclear debate, anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear - I passionately, and she, reluctantly, are the latter - suggesting that neither side has a full measure of the ambiguities of the zone. She suggests that the nuclear industry, in particular, should fund needed studies there. She is furious that none of the profits on the operations of the unexploded Chernobyl reactors which operated until in 2000 until closing under international pressure, were used to fund basic research into the consequences of the accident at the failed reactor.
I would like to see Chernobyl research funded because I want clear answers to the many questions Ms. Mycio raises. The information so obtained would clearly define the limits of the external cost of nuclear energy even if Chernobyl is in fact, atypical. However the mechanism through which I would like to see all such studies funded is through an international effort to fund all facets of energy and environmental research through a tax based on external costs. I note that such a tax would be a boon to the nuclear industry and would almost immediately drive most fossil fuels out of existence. There'd almost certainly be enough money to follow every single Przewalski's horse residing in the exclusion zone.
This book needs more attention.
If you really want to understand Chernobyl, you need to read this book.
Wormwood Forest, by Mary Mycio, is published by Joseph Henry Press, copyright 2005.