We’ve been dating seriously for more than 70 years, but mankind still hasn’t figured out its relationship with nuclear energy.
Two new PBS shows – Containment Monday at 10 p.m. ET on the Independent Lens series, followed by Command and Control Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on American Experience – remind us why. The explanation is not comforting.
Both as a weapon of mass destruction and as a source of benign power in peacetime, nuclear energy is one of the most remarkable things man has ever harnessed.
The problem, as these two very different shows point out, is that its development and use creates ancillary issues with which we are still learning to cope.
If we don’t figure them out, those ancillary issues could kill millions of people and/or poison much of the Earth.
In Command and Control, the issue is accidents, which human beings will never eliminate.
In Containment, the issue is what to do with the radioactive waste generated from anything created with nuclear energy.
Command and Control primarily documents a 1980 accident at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas.
During a routine maintenance operation, a socket fell down the silo and ricocheted into the missile, puncturing its shell and releasing a stream of rocket fuel.
Had the team not found a way to rectify this situation, and quickly, that leak could have led to the detonation of the nuclear warhead atop that missile.
With 600 times more power than the A-bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, that one warhead could have taken out much of Arkansas, and the surrounding states.
At the height of the Cold War, we had produced some 30,000 nuclear warheads. Thanks to gradual disarmament, that number has shrunk to about 7,000. That’s still a lot of lethal weapons, most of them nestled somewhere on our own soil.
It would only take one accident.
Containment details a problem less likely to produce a single catastrophic moment, but equally serious in the long term: how we dispose of plutonium waste and how we ensure that people in the future will not inadvertently stumble upon it.
The half life of plutonium is about 24,000 years. The danger isn’t considered gone until it has cycled through 10 half-lives. So the plutonium waste we produce today will remain a potential danger for about 240,000 years.
Today we essentially warehouse much of our nuclear waste. It’s encased in materials like concrete and steel so it won’t radiate danger.
But we’ve only found one place to put those enclosures that we consider permanent. It’s a site near Carlsbad, N.M., where we sink them several hundred feet underground into a unique geological deposit of salt.
That doesn’t resolve the whole problem, because nuclear waste is also being generated and stored at hundreds of other sites all across the country.
Containment notes a site on the Savannah River where we came perilously close to a major leak. It notes that there are places off-limits to people where wildlife is absorbing radioactivity and passing it up the food chain.
It’s an issue, in other words, and that’s even without considering a potential scenario like the one in Fukushima, Japan, where a tsunami knocked out the cooling system at a nuclear plant and three reactors melted down, rendering Fukushima uninhabitable.
Even if the present generation somehow avoids accidentally releasing nuclear missiles or waste, scientists worry that thousands of future generations will have to have the same good luck unless we find a better way to deal with the potential unintended consequences of nuclear energy.
On this date, the concept of “getting serious” applies at a whole different level.