Drawing of the Red Hook grain elevator ruins. Pen and marker sketch by the author.
Well. I've not posted in this blog for quite some time. It has not been intentional, but I've been aware of my absence and it's been with some valid reason. I have for one been occupied with other journalistic work but also when I began this blog, as its name suggests, its primary purpose was to educate those within the extended nuclear community about our history and also to educate those within and outside of this community about the public relations and political issues that face the industry. To explain how nuclear went from the great hope for humankind to something many misunderstand and even fear. As a journalist who has worked in our industrial community, as a programmer also who has had an interest in software design and history tracing way back to my days in middle school even, I felt I could contribute an eye for history and a voice for how public relations and popular opinion have framed much of the current discourse about nuclear power. In order to do that, to produce stories here that are accurate, well-researched, and meaningful, it takes time. Writing about obscure aspects of nuclear power's past requires digging up material and verifying that material, and I simply have not had the time it takes to do this for a number of months. I decided if I couldn't do it right, and provide what Nuclear Street and this community deserves, I would wait until I had the time to do my best on it.
I hope that time is at least somewhat now, but I'm still very busy with other projects. However, there are conversations happening currently in America—within our current presidential debates and elsewhere—that touch on nuclear in a variety of ways and need to be addressed, I feel, at once. Things are happening that anyone in nuclear could have seen a decade ago, and not because they have a crystal ball, but because the future was clear, and the chickens now are coming home to roost. Various coal mining corporations are laying off scores of workers because they are lowering production. Coal, despite their promises and claims otherwise, is a dirty fuel source and the regulatory culture finally has caught up with it and regulated it in an appropriate manner. Coal is thus no longer cheap nor easy, and Big Coal cannot use those guises to pretend it is clean. Its buyers are buying less, and fewer buyers are in the market, so coal production is slowing down. Fracking has also proven itself an environmental problem and natural gas is a resource that will not—no matter our novel technologies to unearth it—always be easy to obtain nor inexpensive. We are setting higher and higher demands for energy while at the same time admitting the true costs environmental and otherwise for our conventional fuels. Yet nuclear, still the only real hope of an energy source we can sustain and that will not wreck our environment, is being left out of the conversation too often. Talking about energy needs and excluding nuclear to me is akin to talking about the Air Force and not mentioning planes. And we must turn the conversation to include nuclear. The time is now.
The building I drew that is in the illustration above is the old grain elevator ruins at Red Hook, in New York. It's a beautiful and amazing feat of industrial engineering and architecture but it's been out of service since 1965. It was built to bring grain to the NYC area, not so much because New York was starving for grain but because it was hoped that in the early twentieth century, New York could get in on the then-profitable grain trade as other US ports had done. It was a bid to build something to bring in money, and it worked for a while but then for a variety of reasons—newer technologies, union labor that was more expensive in NYC than elsewhere—the viability of this grain elevator complex began to crumble apart. Thus, it has sat as a ruin for longer than I've even been alive.
Coal is much like that grain elevator. It has an alluring American history and it provided good jobs for a time, but the labor required for coal extraction is too costly for what it can produce. The Red Hook grain elevator was closed, thankfully, when no longer viable, and coal should meet the same fate instead of its industry being able to coddle politicians into keeping it afloat and instead of promising coal mining communities that only coal can bring them good jobs. In fact, on the latter point, shame on Big Coal for keeping these communities, yes, in good jobs for decades but on the flip side locked into coal and coal alone as their only real economic mover. Shame on them and on the leadership of these communities for not seeing the writing on the wall and being honest about what it said at least twenty years ago and helping the local schools to teach kids to seek careers other than mining. Coal is a relic, a ruin, and its myth of continued success cannot be taken as lasting truth. The lay-offs we're now seeing are proof of it. The increasingly destructive efforts at mountain-top removal mining to find ever-elusive veins of coal is also proof of it. There isn't enough coal that can easily be reached and for what there is, there are not enough people who desire to buy it.
Nuclear on the other hand is poised to grow. Look at Vogtle, look how well their expansion is going, and how the Augusta region is trusting in them to provide generations of clean power and good jobs. And this is but one example. Look at the advances in not only reactor technologies but also control system technology: every single accident in the history of American nuclear power has been due in one way or other to operator error, and most of those—Three Mile Island in example—are errors that today's technology would totally prevent. I don't think many people outside the industry know this, and it's a very important aspect of nuclear safety. The technology for control has caught up to where it needs to be to really ensure safe operations. That's a huge thing, and in a totally logical world would be enough if people understood it to herald in the age of nuclear—an atomic age not of the 1950s but of today.
So I am going to try to write more here, to get the word out here and elsewhere. To share our history and the interesting, often amazing things, that have made American nuclear what it is today, but also to implore those who are unaware to really seek out valid and accurate answers about nuclear technology and understand it is safer than ever. To pronounce that we owe it to the world to secure the cleanest and most robust and lasting power source we can, and we really have only one option.
As for coal, it can start cleaning up the mountain-top removal sites so they do not remain eternal scars on their once-pristine lands. And mining machines like the one I drew below I do hope can be applied to other jobs—and more importantly by far I hope miners can find other jobs that pay as well but are safer—yet coal as whole is seeing its role in history phasing itself out.
Mining excavator drawn on mylar in ink and markers by the author.
Thanks for continuing to contribute to Nuclear Street Mike. I always enjoy reading them!