I left Idaho Falls and headed west towards the Craters of the Moon National Monument. It’s a rural landscape that gradually gives way to ancient (and not so ancient) lava flows. The black basalt contrasts with the sagebrush in a pleasing way until you try to imagine what it looked like when the volcanos were active and firey red magma spewed and destroyed everything in its path.
During WWII the area was used by the Navy as an artillery test range. After the war, it became the focal point of America’s nuclear energy program. It was a time when we were competing with the Russians in a race for nuclear power. Arco, Idaho was the first city in the “Free World” to be powered by a nuclear reactor. Russia beat us by about a year. In June 1954 the world’s first nuclear powered electricity generator began operation at the FEI in Obninsk. That’s a fact that’s missing from most of the signage at EBR-1 (Experimental Breeder Reactor – 1) which started generating electricity for Arco, ID in 1955.
EBR-1 is now on the National Register of Historic Places. I drove past but had to turn around. It’s not every day you are able to see a nuke station. My tour guide was a summer intern. Her knowledge of physics was basic, but it was her interpretation of “facts” that surprised me. She was tightly scripted and well coached on how to present nuclear power in a positive light.
The tour started with a basic overview of atomic fission. As my guide explained how heat is generated when splitting atoms, she said “Using uranium to heat water is just like using coal to heat water.”
What? That’s such an oversimplification that I had to counter that with an observation about nuclear waste. It’s been an issue since before I was born and will remain an issue after I’m dead. The recent accident that closed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) only puts us farther away from the goal of isolating the deadly waste products from our nuclear energy and weapons programs. While it’s a concern, she admitted that the waste is safely stored above ground for now. There’s little comfort in that statement when there are thousands of barrels of waste that may explode above ground, spreading contamination in populated areas.
After digesting that bit of bad news I asked her about Fukushima. What are the lessons learned from the triple meltdown? She told me that the Japanese people were somewhat anti-nuclear after the accident, but the passage of time has changed their attitudes. Today, she asserted, most Japanese are in favor of nuclear energy as they have few other options.
Really? This is at odds with the facts. While the Japanese Government is overwhelmingly pro-nuke, the citizens are not. “The most recent Japanese opinion poll on nuclear restarts is the March 18 survey by the Asahi Shimbun. It indicates that 59% of the Japanese public oppose restarts of any nuclear capacity, whereas only 28% support restarts.” The misinformation doled out by my tour guide was egregious.
As I left EBR-1 I saw the remains of an experimental nuclear plant for powering atomic aircraft. I reflected on the incredible optimism of the early atomic age. The engineers had big ideas and budgets to match. Nobody seemed to consider the unintended consequences that we live with today. Aging nuclear plants that have their licenses extended beyond the projected service life of the plant. Tons and tons of toxic waste with nowhere to go. Communities exposed to the biological effects of radiation. Dead zones that nobody can enter. All of this is obvious in retrospect. Obvious to me, but not the nuclear industry. They are fighting tooth and nail to preserve their industry. The industry’s PR flacks try to put a happy face on this questionable technology. And when that fails to work, they attack and smear those who speak against nuclear power.
In the end, nuclear power was born in a top secret environment. It remains secretive, opaque and untrustworthy. Who can we believe in this polarizing debate? I don’t know who to believe, but I do know who not to believe. The nuclear power industry cannot be trusted.