Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear Accident

I've been following the story of Japan's developing nuclear disaster with mounting horror and, I have to admit it, a sick fascination as well. Then I start thinking about what it really means to have bits of plutonium floating around in the atmosphere and I start freaking out.

This may seem flip and foolish, but one thing that has been bothering me is why there aren't any robots on the scene. I just googled 'japan nuclear robot' and apparently I'm not the only one who's wondering- my guess is there are plenty of people in Japan asking the same question. Not only do we see the most advanced robot technology coming out of Japan, but they also created a whole mythology around giant robots (see this article on Wikipedia). I know it's naive and simplistic, and typical of a sci-fi fan like myself to say so, but a giant robot would be the perfect thing to dump seawater on those reactors, and it would only take one to get the job done.

Fantasies aside, there are robots searching the rubble in the aftermath of the quake - I saw a video about one that looks like a snake with cilia - and apparently robots were used after both Chernobyl and 3 Mile Island for cleanup (read this). Certainly they will be used in the aftermath of Fukushima as well. But unfortunately it looks like Japan, and the rest of the world, hasn't yet developed a robot with the skills needed to address this particular situation. But I bet you that we're going to see a whole new generation of 'disaster responder' robots in the wake of this disaster- watch for one that can carry a fire hose over all kinds of terrain, or robotic helicopters big enough to carry heavy payloads, like seawater, or cement, or boric acid.

Although I was raised to believe that nuclear power is a great evil, as an adult I've largely come to believe that it is merely in its infancy - that in most respects, it is actually a much cleaner fuel than the ones we use generally. But that's in most respects - if something goes wrong, it goes wrong in a big way. Or in a small way: the Vermont Yankee power plant that is located within a minimum evacuation radius of the city of Brattleboro, Vermont where I used to live was recently discovered to be leaking radiation.

I'm no longer sure, not that I was ever completely sure, that nuclear power is worth this risk. Especially with enough sunlight falling on this freakin' country to probably power the entire world forever. Brazil is hot, and as I learned in 7th grade science class, heat is power. Hell, all those nuke plants do in the end is boil water. Lots of good ways to do that.

One last thing on this topic, getting back to the 'nuclear infancy' idea: you've heard of plutonium, you've heard of uranium, but have you ever heard of thorium? I hadn't either until last year, but read this, which I clipped from Wikipedia (yeah, yeah, I know, it's Wikipedia...):

Key Benefits

According to Australian science writer Tim Dean, "thorium promises what uranium never delivered: abundant, safe and clean energy - and a way to burn up old radioactive waste."[16] With a thorium nuclear reactor, Dean stresses a number of added benefits: there is no possibility of a meltdown, it generates power inexpensively, it does not produce weapons-grade by-products, and will burn up existing high-level waste as well as nuclear weapon stockpiles.[16] Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, of the British Telegraph daily, suggests that "Obama could kill fossil fuels overnight with a nuclear dash for thorium," and could put "an end to our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years."[14]
Does that sound too good to be true? Yes, it does. But it does make me curious. Then again, these miracle stories about cheap, abundant energy pop up from time to time and nothing ever seems to come of them, for whatever reason. And I didn't say conspiracy, thank you.

My thoughts are with the people of Japan in the midst of these horrible events. I don't know what else to say without sounding sappy. Strength, fortitude, a speedy recovery. And I hope Fukushima is not nearly the disaster it sounds like from half way across the world.


Anonymous said...

I just googled "robots nuclear meltdown" and it brought me to your blog. Timely, huh?

markuza said...

No way! Perhaps some hits coming my way...

markuza said...


markuza said...

... and the robots were manufactured in Massachusetts- that's bizarre.