Our Nukey Future

Lately I am informed that nuclear energy is safe, clean, and the only sensible solution to our climate and energy woes. Opposition is ignorant and parochial, because “the technology is better now.” This is usually said by earnest and reasonable people who are at least a decade younger than me.

When I was a young’un, the idea was that we would reduce our energy consumption. “Technology” would help us do that, by becoming ever-more energy efficient. 

Hahaha. Oh, the naiveté of youth. 

Today, I live not far from a “solar farm,” acres covered with solar panels. The panels are expensive, took a lot of energy to produce, transport, and install, and will be outdated and obsolete in a decade or so.

My region builds ever-expanding “wind farms,” miles of enormous turbines. These make audible and inaudible vibrations, kill birds, disrupt local water tables and wells, and resemble science-fiction alien invaders. They are expensive, took a lot of energy to produce, transport, and install, and will be outdated and obsolete in a decade or so. Their construction converted many miles of formerly bike-friendly country roads into nightmarish hell-gravel.

Wind and solar would save us, we thought in the ’80’s. Turns out they’re costly, disruptive, rely on fossil fuels and mining to produce, and barely make a dent in supply. People recognize they’re more of a symbolic gesture than practical, and it’s time to stop playing these expensive, silly hippie games. If we’re going to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, we need nuclear. 

And so I see popular support, especially among young people and Libertarians, for building more nuclear power plants. The Fukushima disaster was barely 11 years ago, but memories are short. And optimism, so lauded as a desirable character trait, informs points like “the technology is better now.”

The technology was “better now” when Fukushima was built, too. All previous nuclear power plants were new once. They were all the latest, best technology, rigorously vetted for safety.

The Chernobyl Disaster occurred late April 1986, when I was 18. I heard about it on the radio, went back to my university dorm room, and cried. My assigned roommate, a born-again Christian, rolled her eyes and explained that she was “saved” so had no worries about things like that.

When I was 20, I moved from Urbana, IL to Santa Cruz, CA, and immediately volunteered at the anti-nukes community newspaper, The Monthly Planet. A project of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze, it also opposed nuclear power, both for its own sake and its role in supplying radioactive materials to war machines.

When I was 30, my future-ex-husband wrote and performed a one-man play called Deep U, about depleted Uranium. At the time, Depleted Uranium weapons were being dropped on Serbia by the US military. Although prized for their “tank busting” density, these weapons were also radioactive. 

Like many children of my generation, I had nightmares about nuclear apocalypse. Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island showed that active war wasn’t the only potential path to this flavor of doom. There were also real reports about real places dealing with real nuclear waste affecting real people, not to mention real other life forms.

I am no expert, but I am reluctant to discard years of concern for the dangers of radioactive waste and nuclear power plants.

“Not a problem now!” cheer younger-than-me people, as they describe spent reactor fuel sealed in concrete and stored at the very plants that produced them. All it requires is our new and improved technology, and money, and for no one to cut corners, because no one ever cuts corners and budget cuts would somehow never touch nuclear plants. We’re in control, we can always be in control, we can do it!

When nuclear goes out of control, it is very, very bad. But maybe I’ve just been “tricked by movies and television shows” to think that. Maybe the young youtubers are right, and “we solved nuclear waste decades ago.” Heck, maybe I’m the dupe. Maybe all the 1980’s anti-nukes propaganda was funded by the fossil fuels industries, who didn’t want the competition. And I fell for it!

Or, perhaps, I remain skeptical because I have seen so much go out of control in my 54 years. Pretty much every well-laid human plan goes awry. The current naive and youthful support for nuclear seems utopian to me. 

But my own generation’s youthful hopes that humans could voluntarily reduce energy consumption was even more utopian. Global population is still growing, energy demand still increasing. Today’s optimistic and naive young people need a constant, high supply of energy to mint NFTs, share Greta Thunburg memes, and organize Extinction Rebellion protests. “Green” energy has been shown to be not so green. So hell, let ‘em have nuclear. I’m nearer the end of my natural lifespan than they are; I won’t have to live with the consequences. Humanity will get the power it deserves. 

I still feel bad for the rest of life on the planet. But humans are a force of Nature, like earthquakes and asteroids. My mistake was wishing our ability to “think” and “make decisions” meant we could conscientiously change course. We’re like the ancient cyanobacteria that excreted oxygen as waste, driving extinct most anaerobic life and converting Earth’s atmosphere to the highly flammable “air” that drove multi-cellular evolution – leading to us! Perhaps what looks like intractable human stupidity, is the foundation of a whole new radioactive ecology. 

To the Future!


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

13 thoughts on “Our Nukey Future”

  1. Given that everything is “outdated” in ten years, that’s not a real problem. The space industry works on technology that has been obsolete for 20 years. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Just means it’s not bleeding cool.

    We have had solar panels on our house for ten years now. They are certainly outdated and inefficient by today’s standards. They still work. We still have to pay significantly for our electricity.

    I don’t think nuclear is the single answer. I don’t think there is a single answer. I do think we can solve the problem without giving up youtube and the internet if we have the will. The human stupidity is not having the will.

  2. I’m more and more thinking of the line in True Detective. “Time is a flat circle”
    Humans learn nothing. Ever.

  3. It may be that we’re desperately seeking immediate solutions to a very dire problem that should’ve been addressed appropriately decades ago and hoping our optimism will make up for what should have been a multitude of thoughtful solutions that would’ve panned out incrementally over time. And it may be that we’re arrogantly assuming it’ll all be different this time because our “technology” is better, but better tech doesn’t make the method better.

    Here in California, we’ve been fumbling to make ourselves the “leaders” in our country when it comes to “green fuel,” and that’s come with quite a few kerfuffles. For example, MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) was an additive was meant to reduce carbon emissions, but it became infamous for poisoning our drinking water as a carcinogen. We stopped using it in 2003 after lawsuits began to pile in.

    There are alternative fuels I barely remember making a blurb in the paper that folded faster than its release because they were “incompatible” with our engines, sometimes causing the engine itself to combust.

    We have hybrid fuels like E85 which is a blend of 85% ethanol fuel and 15% gasoline. Studies on how much more “friendly” it is to the environment are inconclusive. While it appears to reduce benzene, in some conditions, it may produce more acetaldehyde. Then, there’s the debate on “food vs. fuel” that comes with ethanol fuels — how much will there be to feed the country vs. how much we need for fuel. The big evil oil companies say that we can’t grow enough corn to meet our fuel demands, and while we may be skeptical of their motives, it does take 26.1 pounds of corn to make 1 gallon of ethanol and we burn about 400 million gallons of gasoline a day here in America. We grow a staggering sounding 346 million metric tons of corn in the U.S. Whoever has a calculator handy can work out that maybe this is one thing they’re right about.

    But we keep fumbling along trying to find the next quick fix, including reviving old solutions and thinking our new methods of maintaining them will make it “better.”

    I may be of that “younger generation” (barely,) but I know people in the generation before mine that had to maintain nuclear power plants and submarines, and I don’t believe “better tech” necessarily means it’s any safer for us or the environment, especially since our tech is outdated barely after we’ve implemented it. If it’s any consolation, only the ones from the “younger generation” who crow on about nuclear being the way and the light have the time and energy for it — the vast majority of us are simply too tired with everything else going on around us to make our “mehs!” about it very loud.

  4. Anybody who thinks the problem of nuclear waste has been ‘solved’ should study the efforts to use art and symbols to communicate thousands of years into the future, to warn against accessing waste sites. These are called Passive Institutional Controls, but amount to disturbing messages and intimidating architecture to frighten future generations away. From what I read somewhere, they could only fund putting Edvard Munch faces on a few government signs.



  5. I still remember the Post-Carbon Institute’s solemn animated documentary “There’s No Tomorrow” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOMWzjrRiBg ).

    No energy source would keep up, not even our planet, if there isn’t any actual *decrease* in the demand. I don’t see how that could happen when people (or more precisely: leaders and rich kids) are still worshiping “capitalism” and “growth”. Even a single-percent of economic growth results in exponential increase in the long run.

    In my eyes, Fukushima incident simply shown to me, that no matter how “safe” you make the nuclear power plant be, it will never be really safe. (Safegards can and will eventually fail, provided that the “unexpected” happens in enough quantity and severity; like when a grand-devastating 9-richter earthquake was followed by a tsunami of an equal proportion in that case)

    And the issue of nuclear waste… ah, what such “advocates” say were simply euphemisms of “sweep it under the rug/rock and forget about it”. Even when they talked about “recycling” these, once done with enough rounds of such process, they would end up as “spent”, and head to the same “sweep it under the rug” route eventually. I don’t get how that could really be a responsible “solution” in a long term.

    Nuclear fuel (well, fission fuel, to be accurate) is different from other kinds of fuel in the aspect that it is inherently dangerous in and upon itself. It don’t need to react to anything to be dangerous. Even when it is sealed and you don’t inhale it, eat it, or touch it directly; radiation still get through. Everything it touched left dangerous residue. No amount of protective gear can completely shield you. Anyone saying it’s “safe” are delusional; it’s all calculated risk, with big immediate consequence when the odds happen, as well as chronic consequence that takes millennia to resolve in the most optimistic case.

    People need to be reminded how large the area would be rendered inhabitable and have to be immediately evacuated if *one* of these plants got epic-fail; Chernobyl is a good example of this, as everyone already kew. And if I remembered correctly, Japanese prime minister at the time of Fukushima incident said half of their country, including the capital city Tokyo, would have to be evacuated if that one got into full-scale epic-fail; luckily it didn’t. Having such great number of displaced population and the lost of lands are combo ingredients of many, many, more problems.

    In the term of resource depletion; population, energy and climate crisis in general; I don’t really see a way out of this unless something really drastic happened like WWIII, nuclear war, major solar CME/EMP event, major meteor hit, or anything along that line; but any of them happening would be equally bad news.

    So what I do now is just living frugally, and trying to be relatively prepared in local scale, both physically and digitally, to the extent that my circumstance allows; so when the crisis/apocalypse befall, it wouldn’t be too difficult for me or my family to survive on our own, at least at the beginning.

  6. It seems we chase our tails seeking the energy elixir, the beauty of nature our sandbox laboratory of errors.
    For ourselves we’re currently attempting to re-animate an old watermill with zero kilometre local power – and hopefully keeping ALL the trout, tadpoles and larvae sacred….we’ll see!

    Adore your work – love the apocalypse series – though some friends find it challenging too ‘real world’ right now! I see it as the cost of being an adult – paying attention to what’s happening and the icebergs beneath the surface. 😉

    This chap has some interesting ideas….

  7. We’re always making improvements (albeit often not fast enough). Solar panels are way more-efficient now than they were a decade ago. I’m not convinced we’re improving green energy solutions fast enough to meet our growing demands, but we’re certainly improving. And just because a solar farm is ten years old doesn’t mean it randomly stops working one day, like an outdated mobile phone when you install the update that the manufacturer decides will hit the kill switch… it’s just: less-efficient. (Other kinds of power plants become less-efficient with age, too, of course.)

    Hydroelectric is pretty magical, but we can’t use it everywhere. Geothermal is even more magical and even less-universal, at least with current technology. Wind… wind’s pretty good. Yeah, turbines kill birds, but you know what else kills birds? Virtually every other kind of power plant. Coal smoke chokes them, nuclear cooling deoxygenates rivers and kills the fish they eat, etc. And we can make bird-safe wind power (we don’t, but we can!).

    I’m a big fan of nuclear power. I like to believe that one day all our energy needs will be met with renewable sources (for which we’re going to also need a LOT more storage capacity which we’re only just beginning to grapple, and I don’t think the answer is batteries because let’s face it: there’s probably not enough lithium in the entire crust of the Earth to make that a possibliity). But even if that’s true, I don’t think we’ll get through the current challenge of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels without nuclear. Statistically-speaking (and ignoring nuclear weapons for a moment!), nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels, as well as being less-polluting and a way smaller contributor to global warming. Waste is an unsolved problem, yes, but that’s true for fossil fuels as well: “pump it into the atmosphere” is not and never was the “solution” to the waste problem from coal and gas, just like “store it in a bunker and work it out in the future” isn’t a solution to nuclear waste, but at least we CAN go back and solve stored nuclear waste because it’s all in one place – we can’t go hunting down every carbon atom we fling into the sky!

    I believe that nuclear power is a necessary step to save the planet from and for humans. I don’t know what the NEXT step is after that, nor whether we’re collectively smart eough to achieve it. But I don’t think we can even get that far without a new generation of nuclear power, whatever risks that entails. I might live long enough to see such a new generation of reactors built, but it’ll be my grandchildren that eventually discover whether or not I was right to back nuclear rather than, I don’t know, worldwide energy rationing.

  8. Nina, I love the way you reason through things, for example they way you laid out so beautifully your reasoning behind your policy of using the pronouns that align with a person’s biological sex in the face of the current totalitarian mindset taking hold of our society. Your approach to this tricky social question leaves room for you to acquire additional information (via cordial, even affectionate, conversations with someone like Auntie Kate, for example). I would like to gently suggest to you that you might need to have some conversations with some more individuals about the weighty issue of how the human population’s need for energy can be met without increasing death and suffering on net, because while your concerns over the riskiness of relying on over-optimistic expectations for the next new-and-improved technology being the “solution” that will save us are wise, it is possible that you are not adequately informed about the risks that NOT taking such gambles might lead to (e.g. widespread scarcity and the conflicts and upheaval and destruction that results from that). In other words, nuclear technology is out there in the world; we already tasted of the fruit of knowledge. The question is not whether or not our nations will use it; the question is whether nations use it as a ploughshare that can deliver enough prosperity to enough people so that other nations are less incentivised to use it as a sword. I have been lately following your example, trying to practice the painful art of listening to people who have come to a different conclusion than I have on topics which evoke in me passionate opinions (the transgender issue, the question of FGM, etc.). And it has resulted in my gaining some knowledge and achieving some nuance to my thought on these matters, which I find intensely satisfying. I think you might agree (in light of your skepticism regarding those shiney-eyed promoters of the “better” nuclear power plant designs out there) with what Thomas Sowell, the economist, frequently points out: There are no solutions, only trade-offs. From my reading of Viktor Frankl, I have gleaned the strangely comforting attitude towards the problems one encounters in life: be grateful for your problems, and remember that the best one can do in this imperfect world is strive to do what one can to improve things, knowing that the result of one’s efforts will always be a new set of better problems. If you have the time and inclination to explore the evidence and reasoning of those who differ from you on energy policy questions, but whose motivations match yours (a desire to reduce humanity’s suffering, which includes not destroying our home, the environment), may I recommend this interview as a starting point? Marian Tupy & Gale Pooley (on The Michael Shermer show): https://www.skeptic.com/michael-shermer-show/superabundancee-population-growth-innovation-human-flourishing/

  9. Ooops. . . I left out a vital word: I meant to say: “the result of one’s SUCCESSFUL efforts will always be a new set of better problems.”

  10. Seems best to view nuclear not as permanent solution, but as a bridge to when so-called “renewable s” might be able to scale. At this time, they don’t and it isn’t well understood when they might be.
    There are no “perfect” solutions in the material world.

  11. Don’t worry nukes are fine. The ocean already has six billion tons of Uranium in it naturally, so even if we dumped all the nuclear waste in the ocean it could definitely handle it. Besides, the nuclear fuel we use was in the ground and releasing energy already, we just sped the process up and harvested some of that energy for good instead of letting it escape naturally as radiation.

    No matter what the source of energy is, people are going to die creating it, whether directly from accidents, or indirectly from having to spend parts of their lives working to maintain it. Nuclear just has so much energy that can be harnessed so efficiently that it should be obvious that embracing it is a huge win.

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