Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Toxins, My Friend, Are Blowin' In the Wind...

As a special treat for my readers today, I’ve cooked up a shred of polemical science fiction on the subject of electricity generation. I think you’ll see what I’m getting at.

Secretly recorded conversation in an upstairs office at the Summer Daisy (Coal-Fired) Power Plant:

“So, what was so important that you had to come down here personally?”

“My team has discovered a way to sequester all of the byproducts of fossil fuel use for power consumption. We wouldn’t have to send it all up the smokestacks anymore. We could start with this plant.”

“That’s amazing! What’s the catch?”

“The catch is that we’ll be sequestering all of the byproducts, instead of sending them up into the air.”

“Hmm. So we’d be moving into the waste storage business. How hard will this stuff be for us to keep?”

“All things considered, it won’t be hard at all. We send millions of tons of toxic waste up the smokestacks every year. My team has figured out how concentrate that into a single cylinder that would fit on a railroad car.”

“Wow. But what would we do with it?”

“That was beyond the scope of our research. But if I were in charge I would suggest we stick it under a mountain somewhere. That’s a lot of concentrated deadliness. It’s so potent we could turn most of that back into fuel if we felt like handling it a second time.”

“Well, nobody is going to want that stuff buried anywhere near them.”

“It would beat breathing it.”

“The locals won’t see it that way. We’d probably end up bogged down in court for years while the gunk piled up here at the plant.”

“Hmm. Well, we could easily store it here for decades. Like I said, it doesn’t take up that much room. It’s just really, really toxic. We’d have to keep an eye on to make sure it doesn’t leak or anything. And we wouldn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.”

“Wouldn’t the ‘wrong hands’ be crazy for wanting anything to do with it?”

“Sure. But if they were both crazy and clever, some suicidal terrorists could turn it into a terrifying weapon just by smearing it over a few city blocks. They could also sell it to Iran or someone else who could probably turn it into a full-blown WMD. That’s how bad our garbage is.”

“Damn. All the more reason to bury it under a mountain. Easier to guard that way. How long would we have to look after it?”

“A few thousand years.”

“Jesus! I knew it was too good to be true.”

“We pump some seriously deadly shit into the air! My team has done nothing short of a miracle in figuring out how to turn it into something we can bury. As it stands right now, everyone on the planet is breathing it, not just the poor saps downwind of us. Who knows how many thousands of people we sicken or kill with just this—“

“Watch it, son. If we go down like Big Tobacco, we’re taking you eggheads with us.”

“My point is, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But this comes pretty close to fat-free ice cream that actually tastes good. It’s a hell of an opportunity that I suggest we take.”

“Ok. I’ll take it up with the board of directors. But the public will be seriously wierded out by this. I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

“Oh, I already do. Every time I come down here.”

Think the comparison is unfair? Just the radioactive component of coal plant waste released into the air greatly exceeds that realeased by a nuclear plant, which is pretty close to zero. And those radioactives are nothing compared to the heavy metals, sulfur dioxides, and other carcinogens coming out of a coal plant. If we did have a way to sequester these, it would take up far more room than in the story, and be nearly as dangerous. The only real difference would be the inability to turn this variety of waste into nuclear weapons. (There are ways under development to keep nuclear waste from being useful in a weapons program, too.)

I’m not trying to be a doomsayer or a tree-hugger here. Our power has to come from somewhere. But I would like to see some rational decision making when it comes time to decide between new coal plants and new nuclear plants. The relatively clean natural gas plants we've been relying on to pick up the slack in recent years are expensive to fuel, and becoming more so as supply fails to keep up with demand, so the decision-making time is already upon us. Nuclear waste is bad stuff, but I think it’s more useful to see it as an opportunity than as a liability. Unlike smoke stack emissions, it’s manageable bad stuff.


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