Beyond the Backyard

Mon, 02/20/2012

The NIMBY.  Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free (KYNF) is no stranger to this pejorative label.  To be fair, KYNF does reference our backyard, so I suppose we had it coming.  A humorously close relative of the NIMBY is the BANANA, or “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone”.  One can either scowl or chuckle at these catchy acronyms as they are hurled from one trench to the other.  The reality though, is that science, technology, and the information age have long since impacted the landscape and meaning of your backyard.  Defaulting to the aforementioned trenches based on an incomplete understanding of the many factors at work is short-sighted.  In a world of sound bites, gross exaggeration, and the shameless Chernobyl Falloutwarping of fact aimed at political and economic expediency, there is a crucial need for a collaborative approach based on the facts.

Our backyards have felt the impact of technology and industry from thousands of miles away.  Whether you are concerned with waterways, climate, pollution, or any of the other myriad causes of local woes, the reach of your neighbor has extended from the opposite end of the earth.  The plume from Chernobyl extended over most of the former Soviet Union and Europe, and the more conservative estimates put the consequent excess cancer cases at 50,000.  Nearly one year ago, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster occurred in Japan, leaving epidemiologists embroiled in debate as to the resulting impact.  While it is easy to drift into the frightened territory of the NIMBY when looking at such data, we are better served looking at the broader spectrum of broken models.  Not just the models within industry and technology, but also those political and social.  Even as it applies to advocacy groups like KYNF.

It is with great ease that we await technological solutions to our societal problems.  While many of us are getting better at driving to the recycling center with our tin cans, very few take the time to think about the broken iPhone they are tossing in the trash.  That iPhone, while small, is filled with rare earth elements.  Rare earths that the U.S. is currently scrambling to find a source for since our foreign policy pushed China into cleaner energy practices.  These practices unfortunately necessitate rare earths for production, and as such we eliminated our own supplier, China.  The U.S. solution is as delicate as ever: start digging elsewhere.  Some countries such as Japan have begun constructing recycling centers for rare earths used in electronics or fluorescent lights.  The U.S. mentality, however, is that it is more economically feasible at this time to dig on our own soil then to begin a more diverse federally driven recycling program.  And thus the landfills amass with more materials that will someday be depleted.  What will happen when the mines run dry?  History shows that we won’t adapt to recycle, we will adapt to burn through another resource.  During Apartheid the United States lost the precious metal supply needed for the catalytic converters in vehicles.  Economic solution prevailed, technology adapted and we began digging for the next best thing to platinum elsewhere.  In all of this, the long term model is broken.  The ingenuity of scientists is continually confined to the fast track of industrial power, not the long road of sustainability.  We will eventually run out of the new and have to recycle the old, and be assured it will be more expensive and less efficient to mine out of the landfills.

Two new nuclear reactors were approved for construction this year in Georgia.  These are the first plant construction approvals since 1978 in the United States.  While these are safer Gen III reactor designs that are more resistant to the risks that events like Fukushima, TMI II, and Chernobyl exposed, they exist in the same open fuel cycle model that plagues our environment.  This open cycle has been a source of national concern since the nuclear program began in the 50’s.  From the birth of nuclear energy, the cycle was intended to be closed as the waste liability was so high. 

The latest iteration of this concern has manifested itself in President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC).  With an open cycle, the U.S. continues to mine and import a plentiful supply of reliably priced uranium.  The fuel cycle involves a ‘once-through’ process, where we accumulate waste with no intention to recycle or reuse any of it.  This open cycle also implies no desire to utilize existing technologies to lessen the radioactivity of this waste.  Meanwhile, research has been ongoing for some time in Gen IV reactors that implement a closed fuel cycle that carries little to no proliferation risk.  Why is the U.S. channeling these Gen IV reactors toward research only?  Dr. McFarlane, former president of the American Nuclear Society, and a director at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) explained the reasoning to KYNF in our last meeting as, “economic feasibility for industry”.  Uranium is plentiful, and nobody in the energy industry sees any profit in pursuing the new technologies until that changes.  As such, we have amassed 67,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, and continue to amass 2,000 tons every year.  This is waste that will in many cases retain an environmentally dangerous radioactivity for hundreds of thousands of years.  This waste continues to accumulate, awaiting disposal at a national repository the U.S. has been incapable of even committing to constructing.  A repository that requires a politically stable institution to safely maintain for the environment.   Few empires in human history have lasted over a thousand years.  Let’s hope we do better.

This topic of our civilization’s forward reach is not foreign to the DOE.  In the 1990’s DOE assets began researching methods to deter future human contact at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).  WIPP serves as a repository for transuranic waste from DOD nuclear programs.  The current research is based on the future assumption that our nation, or civilization, may no longer be capable of managing it.  Utilizing anthropologists and linguists alike, a warning system has been theorized to present for construction approval later this century.  This warning system entertains granite totems surrounding the facility with etched warnings in a multitude of languages.  Pictograms and perhaps even Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ have been suggested.  With the concession on the table that we are potentially incapable of managing such a repository for its intended lifespan, the open fuel cycle seems inherently faulty.

While it is easy to point the finger at industry and government institution alike, the theme of broken models reaches deep into the fray of activism.  Watchdogs and environmentalists have inadvertently conditioned our politicians to a system of appeasement that often fails in aiding the planet.  The loudest and most aggressive voice has come to reign in the arena of political impact, and it is not always the wisest.  While the best of intentions lead some to march before DOE facilities, shouting in protest with signs raised high, we have not looked deeply enough into their political effect.  As we have seen time and again, many politicians look to these aggressive voices and see a potential constituency.  Looking for the favor of the masses and term extensions, the lash is brought down on whatever will have the greatest and most easily digested social effect.  Promises are made.  Projects, programs, and budgets are cut.  Meanwhile, the common animosity toward the targeted institution leads the public to a complete disconnect whereby they will rarely be educated on what comes of these cuts.  As a general budget reaches a national laboratory like INL, how do you think it is dispersed?  It concentrates on key mission goals and profit centers.  Programs are forced to bid for program or contract extensions.  In this, the punitive measures of political knee jerks only bring more harm to the environmentalist’s goals.  Programs like cleanup, alternative energies, and environmental research are stretched thin.  Safety improvements are put on hold.  The institution itself can merely put its head down and continue with its federally mandated mission.

It is abundantly clear that the methodology is lacking by which many environmentalists communicate with both politicians and the institutions that hold their concern.  Simply saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’ to everything doesn’t work within the complex landscape of not only energy or environmental needs, but political as well.  KYNF has visited INL several times in the past few months.  The focus of discussion shifts, but in our last visit we spoke with several divisions of INL that deal with ‘greener’ science.  In most all of these, the evidence was clear that funding barely sustained the program.  Programs like the Mountain West Water Institute (MWWI), which despite a slim budget has managed to begin bringing the horribly fragmented and territorial water interests together.  Projects that incorporate biomass with high temperature electrolysis whereby it ultimately converts all carbon emissions from coal energy into usable fuels.  Feedstock programs that have the potential to make bioenergy economically feasible.  Batteries that you can dispose of in your garden.  Programs such as these are paving the path to an economically viable future of industry pairing with environmentalism.  It is on us to retrain our politicians.  Declaring something like a national laboratory as our primary social concern is a mistake.  It is too broad, and politicians will seek generic punitive measure.  The public needs to pinpoint concerns so that the political arena can neither confuse nor corrupt it. 

Our backyard extends around the globe and back to our front door.  The world is not growing smaller, but our technological reach is lengthening disproportionately to our social maturity.  All around us we see broken models still reigning amongst industrial, political, and social concerns.  Within the scope of environmental advocacy, the days of worrying about what lies in our line of sight are long gone.  The scope of the NIMBY has been antiquated for some time now. 

If we care about what lies down the path for our civilization, we need show the industrial complex that we will weather the difficult transitions.  Your own path of least resistance, be it price point or convenience, is directly tied to industry’s path.  Your actions are its excuse for focusing on economic feasibility.  And do not be deceived, if every environmental advocacy group instantly got everything they were asking for, the standard of life within the United States would face a period of massive depreciation.  These are not simple transitions and they will take time.  Nevertheless, we need to show industry that the consumer is ready to weather the changes.  To the political complex, we need to declare that the system of appeasement the public foolishly allowed to develop is unacceptable.  It’s going to take more effort and more self-education, but we need to transition away from the environmental grenade tactics of old.  Instead of pursuing punitive measures, support specific program development.  Demand DOE funding specific to forward thinking programs.  If you are against nuclear energy for reasons of public safety and environmental risk, then by all means protest a new power plant.  But don’t wrap federal funding for DOE R&D into that concern.  That research might just have the most environmentally safe solution waiting around the corner.  Above all, write your state and federal representatives.  Show them the voters are educated and pinpoint your concerns.  Take time to research your perspective, and retrain the politicians.