ResiliencePublished on Resilience (http://www.resilience.org)
Extirpation Nation: How much of the US will be habitable in 50 years?Published by Resilience.org on 2012-12-11
by Dan Allen
“Human adaptation to prolonged, extreme drought is difficult or impossible. Historically, the primary adaptation to dust-bowlification has been abandonment; the very word ‘desert’ comes from the Latin desertum for ‘an abandoned place’.” –Joe Romm
“Adrift, drifting: what is left for the lone gull / adrift between earth and heaven.” – Tu Fu
“If the water were to drain entirely from a spent fuel pool, it could trigger a catastrophic radioactive fire that would spew toxins and render hundreds of thousands of square miles uninhabitable. The devastated area would be larger than the wasteland that resulted from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.” – Robert Alvarez
“In the clutter of facts, the destroyers / leave behind them one big story, / of the world and the world’s end, / that they don’t know.” – Wendell Berry (in Leavings)
SUMMARY: If the end is indeed near – say, within the next 50 years -- it will quite likely come in the form of extreme drought and/or nuclear contamination. A couple key maps help us flesh out these possibilities. …So is there something we can do about this?
- NCAR Drought report
- Robert Alvarez’ 2011 spent-fuel report: http://www.ips-dc.org/reports/spent_nuclear_fuel_pools_in_the_us_reducing_the_deadly_risks_of_storage [Note: Once at this link, click on link in upper right for the full report. There is also a link for a one-page ‘fact sheet’ summary of the report.]
- For excellent nuclear updates & reports, see the following websites: Fairewinds Associates (www.fairewinds.com/), Nuclear Information and Resource Service (www.nirs.org/), Beyond Nuclear (www.beyondnuclear.org), Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/)
- September 2012 interview of Arnie Gunderson (by Dr. Helen Caldicott, author of Nuclear Power is Not the Answer) about ongoing problems with Fukushima and spent-fuel pool dangers: http://www.fairewinds.com/content/ongoing-damage-and-danger-fukushima
- “A Mountain of Waste Seventy Years High” – Dec 2012 talk by Arnie Gunderson on the 70th anniversary of the first sustained nuclear chain reaction: http://www.fairewinds.com/content/chicago-presentation-mountain-waste-70-years-high-ending-nuclear-age
DOOMER PORN OR CONSTRUCTIVE WARNING?
I wrote this essay some months ago, but then I put it away. The obvious danger with a topic like this is in fostering the seductive, broad-brush feeling that “we’re done and there’s nothing we can do about it now -- so whatever!” And while there’s a distinctly non-zero chance that this doomerish sentiment is true, there’s also a chance that it’s not true.
So we hang all our efforts and hopes on the chance that, despite our heinous industrial depredations and a likely fierce blowback from the earth systems, we just might have a future here on this planet. And maybe what we do now can make that future a little more livable, more beautiful.
So we work to strengthen human and non-human communities and the links between them. And we work to lessen the depredations and save what we can from the insatiable maw of industrial ‘progress.’ And we steel ourselves and our communities for the spastic convulsions of the industrial machine as it disintegrates. And we try to shelve the hopelessness that lingers around the edges of our thoughts.
But now and then I think we need to take that hopelessness down from the shelf, put it in front of us, and look at it. And we need to say, “Hmmmm…this COULD actually happen.” And then we need to ask if there’s anything, anything at all, we can do to address it more directly.
And maybe we find there is nothing we can do. But maybe we find that there IS something we can do – something we HAVE to do.
And maybe we do it.
OH, THAT SICK, SICK FEELING
Central New Jersey, mid June, 6:30 am, on my farm, out by the pond: A good rain last night and the seasonally warm temperatures brought an intense green hue to the landscape. Grass, trees, vegetables – they’re all growing like crazy. Tadpoles wriggle thickly at the pond edges. The verdant plants, moist soil, and warm water are sending up a rich bouquet of earthy scents, mixing with the strong fragrance of the chestnut orchard in full bloom. The insects are everywhere. The birds are singing. The warm, wet air envelops my body. There’s so much sensory information all at once, it almost feels obscene.
Deep breath. I feel a deep, primal connection to where I am -- a sort of ancient ecstasy wells up inside me.
And then it hits me. That sick, sick feeling.
Waking nightmare #1: I look down at the cracked gray clay of the pond, shimmering in the intense heat. An unforgiving sun beats down savagely on the dusty yellow pastures and the dying trees; 500+ ppm CO2 enveloping the earth like a blanket. No real rain for going on 30 months. Mid-June temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s daily; upper 80’s at night. The birds gone. And us packing up to leave…for somewhere. Not sure where. Maybe the coast?
…Anywhere but here.
And then waking nightmare #2: Same verdant, aromatic scene as present, but now haunted by what might as well be evil spirits -- unseen, unheard, but methodically hacking away at us. A fallout plume from, well, somewhere, must’ve settled over us two weeks ago – that’s when we first tasted the metal in our mouths. Nobody knows anything about what happened or is happening. We have no idea how bad it was, is, or will get. A lot of us got sick right away; some have died already. And now…well, now we’re just fucking scared. Everything normal and beautiful is now shaded by an ominous pall – the fresh raspberry on the vine, the mockingbird singing in the walnut tree, the bowl of eggs from the henhouse, the baby’s bottle, the dust on the stairs. All of it haunted by an invisible wickedness. …Should we go? Where WOULD we go? …We’ve got to go. …Somewhere.
…Anywhere but here.
Although I’m not debilitated by it, my waking hours are haunted by the very real possibility that my extended family will not be able to live in this land fifty or so years hence.
Everything I do -- all my work with my farm, my family, and my community -- is done for the purpose of establishing a lasting presence in this place. Right here. It is what I wake up thinking about and what I dream about when I lay down at night. And my heart bleeds with the knowledge that there are gathering storms that may very well rip us from this place, and either crush us or scatter us like dry leaves.
In fact, there is a very real possibility that our culture is on course to make a majority of the nation unfit for human habitation. And I’m not talking about just a future with stressed or difficult lives for the people here (although there are plenty of candidates for that). I’m talking here about literal human extirpation – about NOBODY being able to live here; no humans at least. Extirpation nation.
And while the toxic industrial cupboard is filled with candidates for making large swaths of land inhabitable, the two gathering storms that are perhaps most likely to fill the bill for ‘extirpation nation’ are (1) the mega droughts predicted for a 500+ ppm CO2, climate-destabilized US, and (2) extensive fallout from a cascade of nuclear power plant melt-downs and spent-fuel pool fires.
In the following paragraphs and figures I just want to outline where I think we could be headed here. And again, I write this not to revel perversely in the doomishness of it all, but rather to say that, while this seems to be our course, maybe it doesn’t NEED to come to pass; maybe there is still a way out of this grim (yet increasingly probable) future.
But we’ve got to act. Purposefully and effectively.
And we better start yesterday.
DUST BOWL NATION
What do you do if it doesn’t rain substantially for a whole month at the start of the growing season? And then another month. And then another. And another. And then again for the entire next growing season. And again for the next. And the next. What do you do?
Here’s what you do: you leave. You can’t live in a place like that. And you don’t return until the rains return. And maybe the rains never return. And neither do you.
Welcome to ‘dust bowl nation’.
Is this our future, here in the continental US? The answer, unfortunately, is ‘somewhat likely.’ …And inching more toward ‘probably’ every day.
The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) recently published a report modeling drought severity at the global level over the remainder of this century. The horrifying results are shown below in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Dust Bowl Nation: NCAR modeling of Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) for the 21st century under a scenario where CO2 reaches 520 ppm by 2050 (--a plausible 21st century CO2 level with near-term economic collapse and positive climate feedbacks). A PDSI index exceeding -3 (cherry red) is ‘severe drought,’ while an index exceeding -4 (brick red) is considered ‘extreme drought’. For context on PDSI values: during the Dust Bowl decade, the US Great Plains briefly spiked to a drought severity index of -6 (purple), but rarely exceeded -3 (cherry red). Source: https://www2.ucar.edu/atmosnews/news/2904/climate-change-drought-may-threaten-much-globe-within-decades. (Click on the map within this link to get a close-up on the US)
OK, so how can we interpret this map? Well, the ‘reddening’ of the continental US shows that we’re certainly on tap for some serious drying out over the coming century, but just how bad is it projected to get? Namely, what does a PDSI index of -3 (cherry red) or worse over the majority of the nation by the 2060s signify?
CATASTROPHIC DROUGHTS WE HAVE KNOWN
To gauge the danger illustrated in the NCAR drought map, let’s look at a PDSI reconstruction of the Great Plains over the past century – which includes the Dust Bowl decade of the 1930’s. See figure below:
Figure 2. Dust Bowl Drought Index. Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) graph of Great Plains 1900-2000, including the Dust Bowl decade of the 1930s. Source: http://www.atmos.umd.edu/~alfredo/bguan_final.pdf
Note that, during the 1930’s Dust Bowl in Figure 2, the PDSI briefly spiked to -6, but otherwise rarely dipped below -3. Also note the PDSI moving average (smooth black line) does not exceed -3. Thus, the monumentally destructive Dust Bowl drought represented ‘merely’ a less-than-a-decade stretch of PDSI right around -3. And if you want a feel for what this looks like in real life, see Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl documentary: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/. Maybe also dig out that old copy of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
The take-home lesson? An decade-long PDSI of -3 will kick your ass. It will kick you off the land.
Now compare the Dust Bowl PDSI levels of around -3 to the NCAR projections for the US in the 2060s. An appropriate response to the juxtaposition of the two graphs is “What the #*&%?!” The continental US becomes agricultural train-wreck, with perhaps over 80% of the country mired in severe drought (exceeding -3) or worse, including the Midwestern agricultural heartland. Fully half of that drought-stricken 80% features unholy drought levels from -4 to -10.
These are unlivable conditions. These are conditions where agriculture just doesn’t work -- conditions where whoever is left of your family packs up whatever they can carry and hits the road…to somewhere….anywhere but here. And the dire projections only worsen into the future.
And while every model prediction should be taken with a grain of salt, this one perhaps should also include a shot of whiskey and a good hard re-assessment of your life. Why? Because with alarming surprise after alarming surprise these last few years, we’ve learned that the climate system is changing either as rapidly or more rapidly than any worst case scenarios presented in the scientific literature. (See http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/11/28/1249391/study-sea-levels-rising-60-faster-than-projected-planet-keeps-warming-as-expected/ and http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/11/29/1246891/scientific-american-ice-melting-permafrost-climate-effects-occurring-alarming-pace/)
So here we are: With every gallon of gasoline, every shovelful of coal, every cubic meter of natural gas we burn, we are literally creating an uninhabitable nation this century. …Is it worth it? Are we really having so much damn fun that we’re willing to sacrifice the future of our species, the future of all species? Good God!
In any case, if you want to follow all the action, Joe Romm’s posts at ‘Climate Progess’ (http://thinkprogress.org/climate/issue/?mobile=nc) provide excellent weekly reviews of the latest climate science. He does an absolutely fantastic job of keeping up with the scientific literature on drought, feedbacks, and all else climate-change related. And for his commentary on the NCAR study, see his recently published “Dust-bowlification” piece in the esteemed journal Nature: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/24/478771/my-nature-piece-dust-bowlification-grave-threat-it-poses-to-food-security/.
…But as bad as the climate situation is shaping up to be, that’s not all we’ve got cookin’ in the wicked industrial oven. Read on.
DIRTY BOMB NATION
What do you do when the very air you breathe, the food you eat, the dust on your furniture, the pollen in your flowers, the kiss of your child – all of it -- is killing you?
What do you do when your children wither and die from a poison that lingers unseen everywhere around you?
Here’s what you do: you leave. You leave the place where the evil lingers, and you go somewhere else. Anywhere else. If you can find somewhere else. And if you can make it in time. And you’re never sure if you did. …And you probably didn’t.
Welcome to ‘dirty bomb nation’.
So could this be our future too? A nuclear exodus rivaling or exceeding the coming dust bowl exodus? Unfortunately the answer to this question is also ‘somewhat likely.’ …And inching more toward ‘probably’ every day.
Listen to this: A 2011 report by Robert Alvarez (former Senior Policy Advisor to Clinton’s Secretary of Energy) of the Institute for Policy Studies, details the amounts of spent nuclear fuel stored at our nations nuclear power plants – as well as the likely triggers and implications for the release of the poisons therein. (http://www.ips-dc.org/reports/spent_nuclear_fuel_pools_in_the_us_reducing_the_deadly_risks_of_storage)
Alvarez’ report will make your skin crawl.
Let me just summarize: (1) Huge quantities of intensely-toxic spent nuclear fuel are being stored on-site at our nation’s 100+ nuclear reactors. (2) Most of the spent fuel is stored in large above-ground ‘swimming pools’, designed to hold about one-fifth of present amounts, packed tightly on submerged racks within buildings “no more secure than a car dealership.” (3) Because the spent-fuel still generates large amounts of heat – enough to ignite itself -- the ‘swimming pools’ require constant active-cooling by water pumps to prevent catastrophic fires that would spew the radioactive toxins over large areas downwind of the plant.
Note that this spent-fuel danger multiplies the already-present danger from melt-down of the reactors themselves – i.e. if one pops-off, the other may very well go as well. In fact, due to decades of stockpiling, the spent fuel pools contain many times the radiation levels present in the reactor cores themselves. And what would be required to initiate a catastrophic fire in either the spent fuel pools or the reactors? Actually not too much. In fact, frighteningly little – especially as we inch (or plummet) towards our grid-challenged, liquid-fuel-scarce, socio-politically-destabilized, climate-chaos future.
Here are some increasingly-likely scenarios that could send reactors and spent-fuel pools popping off like massive dirty bombs all over the country over the next several decades:
- Cooling water pumps & intakes: Cooling-water intakes clogged or pumps break, & can’t fix/replace them in time due to break in parts supply lines or lack of access to damaged plant.
- Diesel Fuel: Electric grid goes down & can’t get diesel re-fills for generators in time due to break in fuel supply lines or lack of access to damaged plant.
- Generators: Grid goes down, generators break, & can’t fix/replace them in time due to break in parts supply lines or lack of access to damaged plant.
And where are all these 100+ potential dirty bombs in the US? Well, pretty much wherever there are lots of people living right now. So there’s a good chance one of them is within 50-miles of you right now. Figure 3, below, shows a map of US nuclear reactors with 50-mile-radius buffers:
Figure 3: US Nuclear Power Plants. Active US nuclear power plants with 50-mile-radius buffers, color coded to indicate population densities within buffer. Source: http://thegazette.com/2012/05/29/nuclear-emergency-planning-overhaul-draws-fire/. See also the interactive map at http://www.psr.org/resources/evacuation-zone-nuclear-reactors.html.
NUCLEAR CATASTROPHES WE HAVE KNOWN
Figure 4. The super-cute Chernobyl Exclusion Zone logo
OK, so these dirty-bomb reactors are all over the US -- especially on the highly populated East Coast and Great Lakes region -- but would the increasingly-likely nuclear accidents be enough to render these portions of the nation uninhabitable?
To answer that, let’s look first at what HAS happened already – namely the industrial obscenities of Chernobyl and Fukushima.
And what HAS happened? Well, cutting right to the chase, large swaths of land have simply become uninhabitable – and will likely remain so for centuries. Check out the three figures below: contaminated land around Chernobyl (Fig. 5), contaminated land around Fukushima (Fig. 6), and Fukushima’s largely sea-based radiation plume (Fig. 7).
Note the color-coded keys on each figure for their interpretation – and specifically that radiation levels above 15 Ci/km2 or ~600,000 Bq/m2 make the area essentially uninhabitable.
Figure 5: Chernobyl Radiation Map. Note that both the ‘Confiscated/Closed Zone’ (cherry red) and ‘Permanent Control Zone’ (red-pink color) represent uninhabitable areas, with radiation levels of >15 Ci/km2 (or >600,000 Bq/m2). Note the irregular weather-driven shape of this uninhabitable zone, extensive within 50 miles from the nuclear plant, and extending >100 miles to the Northeast. Source: http://www.simplyinfo.org/?p=3385 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_Nuclear_Power_Plant_Exclusion_Zone. See also http://www.nirs.org/reactorwatch/accidents/chernob_report2011webippnw.pdf.
Figure 6: Fukushima Terrestrial Radiation Map: Note that the black-shaded regions (radiation levels >600,000 Bq/m2) are uninhabitable, and correspond to radiation levels of uninhabitable zones around Chernobyl in Figure 5. Note also that the irregular, weather-driven shape of this uninhabitable zone extends ~30 miles (50km) from the plant – but also that the majority of the wind patterns were out to sea during the main part of the radiation release. i.e. The REALLY scary part of the Fukushima radiation map is not on this terrestrial map, but rather on the eastern ocean plume (see Figure 7 below). Source: http://www.simplyinfo.org/?p=3385
Figure 7: Fukushima Radiation Plume: Most of Fukushima’s radiation was blown out to sea, making the terrestrial contamination much less than it would have been in most other locations. i.e. Japan (and China) got ‘lucky’ -- Fukushima’s terrestrial radiation map in Figure 6 could have been much, much worse. Source: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/radiation-reaches-russia-and-us-west-coast-20110319-1c1ck.html
…OK, so that’s what HAS happened. And should even some small fraction of US reactors blow their top and catch fire, a disturbingly large portion of the US will be rendered uninhabitable. Check out the Alvarez report for detailed accounts of how much poison is stockpiled within these over-loaded spent fuel pools and how much damage could be done by just a single spent-fuel-pool fire. The awesome scale of the danger posed by these spent-fuel pools juxtaposed with the near-complete absence of public discussion about it is simply mind-boggling.
Is anyone in the Halls of Power paying attention to this? Does anyone up there care? …Anyone?
Alvarez warns: “If the water were to drain entirely from a spent fuel pool, it could trigger a catastrophic radioactive fire that would spew toxins and render hundreds of thousands of square miles uninhabitable. The devastated area would be larger than the wasteland that resulted from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.” (http://www.ips-dc.org/reports/spent_nuclear_fuel_pools_in_the_us_reducing_the_deadly_risks_of_storage)
Nuclear engineer and whistleblower Arnie Gunderson (from the excellent www.fairewinds.com) warns: “It’s impossible to predict the worst event that Mother Nature or humans, in the form of terrorists, can do to a nuclear power plant. …Nuclear power, when things go wrong…is a technology that can destroy a nation. (“Fukushima Disaster: One Year Later”, Radio Ecoshock podcast)
But wait! -- What about the lofty claims of iron-clad safety from the nuclear industry? Well, unfortunately these claims fail even the most sideways of glances at the actual safety record of these plants. See www.fairewinds.com, www.nirs.org, www.beyondnuclear.org, and www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/ for a disturbingly long and inexcusable list of hair-raising problems accumulating at current US nuclear plants.
And prospects for adequate nuclear plant safety as we move into chaotic industrial endgame are even bleaker, as the US economy founders, material resources become scarce, repair and maintenance schedules are loosened, climate change chaos ramps up, socio-political bonds destabilize, and the aging reactors – still packed to the brim with combustible spent fuel – are operated well past their intended lifetimes.
We are primed for catastrophe across the entire East Coast of the US and either nobody knows or nobody cares. Or both. …Good God!
And perversely, the areas most potentially affected by drought (west of Great Lakes) and nuclear mayhem (east of Great Lakes) complement each other -- turning the entire country into one big dry/toxic ‘exclusion zone’!
So welcome, Americans -- welcome to Extirpation Nation! …We earned it!
SO WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
…OK, deep breath. …So that’s where we are. That’s the dust-dry, toxic, uninhabitable bed we’re making for ourselves.
And I don’t even apologize for presenting such ‘doomerish’ take on our future, because no matter how well-meaning we are at the community level, the hard truth is that even the most glorious transition town simply will not function so well under a 20-foot high drifting dune or while irradiated at over 600,000 Bq/m2. The best laid plans…
But I realize that honestly facing up to this potentially-grim (and increasingly likely) future can really just suck the air right out of you. It can leave you feeling utterly hopeless.
That’s understandable. …But is it warranted? Isn’t there maybe something – anything – we can do about it? Something that can tip the odds a little bit (or a lot) more in favor of a livable future?
Well…sort of. Maybe. Here’s a few things I can think of:
DEALING WITH DROUGHT
As for climate change and the incipient nation-wide dust-bowl, perhaps we CAN do a couple things:
A. BRING DOWN THE MACHINE. First and foremost, the global industrial economy needs to rapidly and deeply reduce the burning of fossil fuels, starting RIGHT NOW. And not just you or me or our communities or our regions, but the WHOLE DAMN GLOBAL INDUSTRIAL ECONOMY. And the incipient too-little-too-late climate awakening aside, this requires a rapid collapse of said global economy beginning NOW.
See this essay link for what is likely needed in the way of emission reductions to preserve a livable climate: Deus ex Machina: Will economic collapse save us from climate catastrophe?
And so while neither you nor I can initiate such a collapse, as the collapse gets rolling, there may be important emergent roles for some ‘lucky’ individuals in making sure the collapse proceeds rapidly enough. Namely, there may be crucial points in time and crucial human players and crucial bits of infrastructure within the maelstrom of scrambling cities, towns, citizens, politicians, economists, farmers, engineers, manufacturers, military conquistadors, etc. who can keep the collapse collapsing on pace. Maybe you or I will be one of those players.
And yes, I know this is contentious philosophical terrain here. There will be human suffering during rapid collapse – but, I argue, orders of magnitude less suffering than if we don’t collapse rapidly enough. And I do realize this is a controversial topic among even those valuing the future integrity of the ecosphere, so I’ll just direct people to Derrick Jensen’s Endgame for the philosophical underpinnings here. God speed.
B. WEAN OURSELVES FROM MIDWESTERN AGRICULTURE. Secondly, it’s imperative for the parts of the country that remain wet enough for habitation (perhaps the East Coast and Pacific Northwest?) to change the way we do agriculture. Namely, we need to wean ourselves from the agricultural products imported from the soon-to-be uninhabitable areas in the Midwest. No more shall rivers of corn, beans, and wheat floweth from the heartland. Indeed, wind-blown topsoil might be their largest export several decades hence.
And weaning ourselves from Midwestern agricultural products in the midst of a permanent global depression (i.e. collapse) will require the remaining populated regions to be agriculturally self-sufficient. And the likely dearth of fossil fuels in the coming decades necessitates methods of farming that require both a large participation by the population and a massive re-learning of agricultural skills.
This will not be optional. If we can’t do it, then the people who don’t get fed will die. And while we have already started another back-to-the-land movement, it needs to be nurtured and accelerated. Thus, anything we do now to further low-input agricultural participation and education would be crucial. So let’s do it.
C. ADAPT REMAINING AGRICULTURE TO VICIOUS DROUGHTS. And in any regions that remain habitable, we will also need to adapt our farms as cleverly as possible to the nasty droughts that will still undoubtedly haunt us. Adapting our farms to the drought-stricken reality of mid-late 21st century farming will require a significant amount of skill and fore-thought.
As droughts tend to sneak up on you, we can’t be fooled by a few good years, or even a few good decades. We have to plan for the worst we might face. And what does that mean? It means we have to be ridiculously conservative. It means each family, whether on a farm or ¼-acre lot (1) storing several years worth of food and vegetable seeds, (2) planting deep-rooted fruit and nut trees and other perennial food/fiber-producing vegetation, (3) constructing HUGE rainwater collection systems that can provide for EXTENDED multi-year droughts, and (4) learn gardening skills to maximize success in tough times (ex: See The Resilient Gardener and Gardening When it Counts).
Again, not optional. We do it or we die.
Resilience will be paramount for the difficult agricultural landscape ahead of us. I have written several essays on the coming necessity for perennial polyculture and a permaculture approach to farming, so I’ll just link them here: An agriculture that stands a chance: perennial polyculture and the hard limits of post-carbon farming and Resilience or death: Preparing our farms for the end of agriculture (…as we know it)
DEALING WITH THE DIRTY BOMBS
OK, then what can we do about all the dirty bombs primed to go off all over the country?
A. DRY CASK STORAGE OF SPENT FUEL. Of utmost importance is getting all the accumulated and still-combustible spent fuel out of these goddam swimming pools and into dry-cask storage. Basically, this involves semi-stabilizing and entombing the rods in these huge cement composite encasings. The poison is still there, but it’s in a more stable form – requiring no active cooling and much more resistant to release over the next century or so.
Note that the dry cask containers at Fukushima survived relatively unscathed, while the swimming pools were and still are a festering disaster – with the possibility of mushrooming into a global catastrophe should a second earthquake topple the already-compromised structures. See www.fairewinds.com for developments on this.
Alvarez estimates that “over the next 10 years, we could remove all spent fuel older than five years for a cost of $3billion-$7billion.” …So why don’t we do it? Well, let’s ask our local politicians? Let’s ask our state representatives? Let’s ask our president?
…And realize that we won’t just have to ask them; we’ll need to demand that they listen to us. And that means we’ll need help. And so we’ll need to tell other people about it. Lots of people. And we’ll need to be creative. And we better do it soon.
In fact, we better do it DAMN soon: As soon as the economy goes down the rabbit-hole for good, the funds and resources to deal with this shit will be gone – and all the nasties in those spent-fuel pools may be coming to an open window near you.
B. SHUT THEM DOWN NOW. And for the love of God, we simply need to stop making the shit. Why? (1) We have nowhere to put it, (2) it can make our land uninhabitable, and (3) the spent-fuel needs to “age” 5 years before it can go in dry cask storage, so we need to shut them down at least 5 years before the resources to do dry cask storage are gone. …So it’s a no-brainer. Shut them down. Germany’s doing it. Japan’s doing it. So can we. How? Make a stink. Educate. Mobilize. Be creative.
C. PRAY LIKE HELL. The radioactive legacy of the nuclear age will be around for millennia – long after our civilization is gone. A good rule of thumb is to multiply the half-lives of the various radioactive isotopes in the waste by 10 to get their ‘poisonous lifetime’. Radioactive cesium-137 will be deadly for 300 years, plutonium for 250,000 years. …And we have over 30 million spent fuel rods stockpiled in these swimming pools. We can trash the planet many times over. All we need is a streak of bad luck and we’re toast. …So here’s to good luck!
CODA: THE DESTROYERS
“In the clutter of facts, the destroyers / leave behind them one big story, / of the world and the world’s end, / that they don’t know.” – Wendell Berry (in Leavings)
Part I. The Big Story
We once lived the One Big Story of the world.
We were part of the Story.
We helped write It with our bodies,
Just as all creatures – living and non-living – helped write the Story with their bodies.
And the world was whole.
Part II. The Split
And then, with the sowing of seeds,
With the seductive promises of agriculture,
came the split –
Our split from the One Big Story,
-- But not a complete severing,
For we still lived within the Story.
But in our hubris, we began to think we could change It
– to make It about us alone,
or nearly so.
And so we began to tell ourselves a new story –
A story about us – us alone;
And though it sounded so big to us,
This new story was a small story;
In fact, it was a very small story;
That in our intoxication, just seemed so big.
But it was not a big story.
And it was certainly not the One Big Story.
And in the thrall of our new, very-own, very-small story,
We began to forget the One Big Story.
And we began to forget that we still lived within the One Big Story,
And to forget that our bodies still knew the Story;
That our bodies would always know the Story;
And that our bodies would always need the Story to live.
And so the forgetting of the One Big Story continued,
and with it, the forgetting of ourselves.
And thus were the forests flattened and the grasslands overturned,
And thus was the living skin of the land washed to the sea.
And thus were great multitudes of animals slaughtered.
And thus began the destruction of the world.
Part III. The Dismembering
And then, inevitably, in our ceaseless probing and poking,
Did we discover vast treasures of ancient sunlight;
-- Treasures slated in the Big Story to sleep
For hundreds of millions of years longer in the dark.
And we brought them hastily into the light and began to burn them.
And with this burning came another split;
A split that sought not merely to rewrite the Big Story,
But to destroy It absolutely;
Once and for all.
-- And so began the dismembering.
For we carved the One Big Story into pieces,
And we perversely named these pieces “resources.”
And we vowed to use these pieces to build our shiny new story,
-- And not just another new story,
but “the only story that was ever meant to exist”
But to dismember, to dis-re-member, the One Big Story,
Which we still knew, deep in our bodies, to be very wrong,
We had to tell ourselves lies,
-- so many lies!
Over and over again!
-- That there never really was a One Big Story;
That there never was any story but ours;
That there were only ever disembodied pieces, “resources”, for us to assemble;
For us use to build “the only story ever meant to exist.”
And so we worked madly, frantically, desperately
At our dismembering and blasting and burning,
-- Always, always, always burning --
Until what remained of the Big Story lay beneath our feet in tatters.
And upon it,
As our crowning achievement,
Sat a leering,
That we called civilization –
-- Our one very,
very small story;
-- The story of the destroyers.
And “in a clutter of facts,” the destroyers proclaimed it
“The only story that ever could be!”
And the Big Story, though still within our bodies, was thus banished from our hearts,
-- Numbed from us in a haze of equations, words, chemicals and electromagnetic waves.
And thus were the lands and oceans and airs poisoned.
And thus were the great herds and schools and flocks and stands exterminated.
And thus was achieved the destruction of the world.
Part IV. Resurrection
But, of course, the One Big Story was not gone –
Just broken, cracked, burned, and bleeding;
Twisted and tortured into improbable shapes and forms
And this state of affairs was certainly not unfamiliar to the One Big Story.
It had happened before.
Never quite like this, but it had happened before.
And The One Big Story knew what It must do.
It would always know what to do.
And so, as it had so many times before, the One Big Story began to rewrite Itself.
-- Once again, the great re-writing had begun.
Always very slowly.
For there was, of course, no rush; there were no deadlines; no plan.
It would just unfold as it would,
Like the path of a silver maple leaf drifting, spiraling slowly down, down, down into the swirling river.
...what’s that you ask?
No, nobody was really sure if this would include humans.
…Why do you ask?
…In any case,
Thus began the resurrection of the world.
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Resilience is a program of Post Carbon Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the world transition away from fossil fuels and build sustainable, resilient communities.