By Paul F. deLespinasse
My wife and I recently watched “Chernobyl,” HBO’s five-part mini-series about the 1986 disaster at a Soviet atomic reactor. This film is reasonably accurate historically, well worth watching, and horrifying. Don’t watch it right before bedtime!
One expert in the film comments that atomic power is wonderful … when working normally. It emits no heat-trapping carbon dioxide and generates large amounts of electricity. The film, however, depicts the tremendous dangers when something goes wrong.
This disaster resulted from reactor operators’ mistakes combined with a design fault in the reactor. It rendered the city of Chernobyl and about 1,100 square miles of surrounding land uninhabitable for centuries. But it was nearly much worse, potentially depopulating all of Europe. Drastic actions organized by the Soviet government prevented total disaster, but shortened or destroyed the lives of many workers sent onto the highly radioactive reactor to minimize the damage it would cause.
Modern civilization requires lots of energy, all sources of which have costs and risks. But energy sources don’t all have the same level of risks. The Chernobyl disaster suggests that atomic power is neck and neck with hydrocarbon fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — as prime threats to the human race.
To protect ourselves from a runaway climate we must phase out hydrocarbon fuels as soon as possible. To avoid massive reliance on atomic energy, the obvious replacement is the fusion reactor only 93,000,000 miles from Earth — the sun. Unfortunately, locally available solar energy is highly variable at different times of day, season, or weather. And storing enough electricity to handle protracted bad periods is still impossibly expensive.
Some experts, therefore, think that we would need to retain atomic energy to back up this unreliable solar energy. Fortunately, neither backup of any kind nor significant storage will be needed if we think big. Solar power is only undependable at the local level. It is totally reliable in the world as a whole. The sun is always shining somewhere, and the wind is always blowing somewhere.
To avoid the need for back up or large-scale storage we just have to wire up the world into a single electrical grid moving electricity generated where solar conditions are favorable to places where the sun is not currently shining. Although electrical technology made such a grid impossible back in the 1930s when Buckminster Fuller came up with idea, a supergrid is now within reach of today’s technology, as noted by Clark Gellings, a leading electrical engineer.
It is fortunate that technical progress now makes a worldwide grid possible. Atomic reactors, the only major carbon-free alternative to solar energy, even at their best are a risk that we should not even consider accepting over the long run.
A reactor might conceivably be designed to be foolproof: no design faults, no way for reactor operators to make a catastrophic mistake, no possibility an earthquake or tidal wave could destroy it.
But would it be possible to design a reactor that is knaveproof — immune from sabotage by suicidal operators and invulnerable to terrorists?
Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader during the Chernobyl disaster, knew what he was talking about. He warned that even a major war in which no atomic weapons were used would destroy Europe, which now has dozens of atomic reactors. If even a few reactors were bombed (intentionally or inadvertently), radioactive debris would force all Europeans remaining alive to leave.
That could be more than the population of the U.S. Talk about a refugee crisis!
Like Rome, the supergrid won’t be built in one day. While it is being built, atomic energy may be needed as a carbon-free “bridge” to the future. But reactors should be decommissioned as soon as possible.
In the meantime, urgent planning for the worldwide grid should begin immediately.
— Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School.