The Dividing Line
by Liam Scheff
The Choice Will Be Yours, Mine and Ours. Divided We Stand, United We Fall: Solar, Wind, Oil, Coal, Nuclear.
The arguments pile up in disorganized, swaying towers, in colonies and countries of data – kilowatt hours and gigawatt years, energy returns and investments, environmental damage done and reversed, savings procured and promised, spending subsidized and renewed, calories and kilojoules burnt, dissipated and evaporated — all in search of the glorious solution that will save us all, from a problem most of us don’t even know exists. (Or is it that we won’t consciously admit it?)
Oil, once flowing at 100,000 barrels a day from wells in Texas, the Caspian and Saudi Arabia, has now become an obstinate trickle in some locales, and almost all the old glory fields are giving less – and less and less. They are intoxicating their once “light, sweet crude” with sulfur and contaminants that are plaguing our civilization’s life blood.
We’ve built this country out of the power of oil and coal. We’ve spent 50 plus years, since the end of WW2, building an urban, metal-crowned, suburban sprawled juggernaut, a nation devoted purely toward innovation in the cosmetic and consumer realm; to comfort and notions of progress, where progress equaled “new, faster, more,” for a promise of eternity.
But, maybe it’s not so. “Oil is running out? What? – only Chicken Littles would say such a thing! We’ve got more oil, more gas, more coal than…well, anyone on Earth!” Or, so say the sellers of shale to the Wall Street Journal.
And in a sense, they’re right. We’re not running out – just running lower. What once came at bargain prices for little work from abundant wells is now giving slowly, forcing petroleum companies to look to the dregs as though it were polished and cut diamonds, ready for sale. But it’s not. It’s thick, sludgy, contaminated petroleum; bituminous tar, degraded or not wholly formed coal, and gas that is procured by destroying land and drinking water – soon for millions around the country. A permanent scar for a temporary Wall Street victory. But, ain’t that America?
But this isn’t a lecture on fracking. You can watch “Gasland 2” for that brutal lesson. And I’m not trying to turn you into Rachel Carson, though it wouldn’t be a bad idea if we all decided air and water mattered more than cable TV and iPhones.
This is the dividing line. It is where we now live, and what we will all soon be sold. Sold and fighting over.
Never Get A Tattoo In A Bad Mood
The reality of cresting and declining oil supplies has so sufficiently dawned on the money and policy makers in this world, that they’re now having to plan for the big shift. “The Big Shift” is what we may call it – the period in which the collective “We” of America realize that we do, indeed, share towns, villages, cities, waterways, farmland, roads and services – because all of them stop working as we’ve been told they’re ‘guaranteed’ to.
When the abundance of cheap, easy-to-access fuel is gone, and we’re in a half century of mining for messy tar, we’ll find the promise of a consumer society doesn’t really hold up. We will see prices continue to increase; we’ll see shipments of long-distance goods falter. We will see the cost for fuel and electricity increase – in spurts or shocks. We’ll get used to a higher price point – for everything. It won’t happen all at once – it’ll happen in upward slides, punctuated by bursts and shocks. Soon, we’ll be praying for the ‘slide,’ and against the ‘shock.’
It’s happening already – but we don’t talk about it as oil or fossil fuel. We talk about jobs, security, banking fraud, bailouts and corruption. But under the Roman veneer of Senatorial bad behavior is the creeping reality – this civilization cannot run without cheap, abundant, flowing oil. Petrol. Gas. Plastic. Goods from slave labor. That is what we are now. A-more-icans. Amoral-icans. We don’t see it so it doesn’t exist, but the world runs on cheap oil and slave labor. That’s who we are – or, what we’ve become.
I’ll Take What’s Behind Door Number Two.
With energy needs expected to be met by hard, politically explosive investments – fracking, tar sands development, Middle-Eastern occupation – those in the energy sector are looking for an out. Solar? A trickle of electricity! Only good for homeowners – one at a time, or small businesses. Wind? Who wants a windmill spinning around above your town? You can’t run an economy on those things!
Or, can you? Denmark and Germany are giving a try, pushing these renewable electrical generators to new heights. But they don’t replace petrol. They might be on par with coal or natural gas for electricity soon. They’re not free. Making the machines costs steel and rare metals. Sure, they don’t pollute after the initial investment, and there’s no fuel to feed – just sun and wind – but let’s face it. You can’t run New York or Los Angeles, or Wall Street on that sort of thing.
At least, that’s what they’ll say – so they’ll look elsewhere to find their energy winner. It was to be expected – it’s long been their go-to warhorse. Beaten, aged, in poor health – but here it comes again.
They have no choice, they’ll say. None of the pretty, green energy plans that we want to put in our lawns and on our roofs, not solar, geothermal, biodiesel or ethanol – not corn nor soy nor wind nor rain – will replace the loss we can expect to face as world economies grow and eat up more coal and oil, year by year, as the everlasting growth curve of 20th C. economics demands.
Nothing will suffice. Nothing will feed the rapacious appetite of the ferocious beast that is “the economy.” And if we do not have oil, we will have…nothing. The lights will go dark. The streets will be empty. The dogs will run in packs in suburban ghettos. Or, something like that. (They will try to scare you – and they will succeed).
We need a superman. A super-duper-man! We need…(have you got it yet? You been around long enough? Ah, there she is, glowing green in your eyes…)
Nuclear Power. (Ring the gong, shake the tambourine, cue the brass band!) Yes, nuclear power. We need it to make this little fantasyland called Western Civilization work.
This is what they’re going to sell to you, and how they’re going to do it. But now that you’re wise to it…well… what? Surely they’re ignoring something – surely they’re greedy and only want more money? Surely. But they’re also right.
This Ain’t No Party, This Ain’t No Disco
This bauble that we, the corporation of the United States of America, with its subsidiary factory nations of China, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, India, Bangladesh, Ukraine – and many, many more – this thing we have built, this cathedral of neon light, pornographic plastic and all-you-can-puke fast food – this magisterial 20 story cruise ship headed for Las Vegas with stops at Babylon and Oblivion – cannot stand. Ne functionne pas. Does not exist.
Not without such an abundance of GigaWatts of energy that keep cars rolling, trucks shipping, the 55th floor lit at midnight, Wal*Mart open at 2am. No, we don’t work without the energy of oil, coal and natural gas, circa 1989 import volume. But we’re losing it. And here’s where the massive disaster called “nuclear power” comes back in – to save us, once again, as it promised to do so many times before.
Boiling Frogs, Encore Une Fois
Nuclear power is the world’s most expensive, dangerous method of boiling water. The radioactive material is plunged into liquid, steam is produced, it turns the paddle, that makes the generator turn, and electrons course down the wire. A lot of electrons. A massive dose of electricity. It does work, when it works.
Nuclear power is generally “safe,” from an operating point of view. That is, out of the 400 plus reactors around the world, only a very small percentage have ever had significant problems. The problem is, we know all of their names. We can’t forget them.
Nuclear power uses radioactive material, breeds it, enriches it, and makes more in the process of burning it for heating H2O. It is, in sum, a constant perfect disaster, waiting to happen – and thanks to a great deal of tight-jawed, white-knuckled discipline, the problems are fewer than those that occur in the petroleum drilling and shipping arena. But a little problem in a nuke plant is a world-class catastrophe.
(Are you saying the names in your head yet? Go do a websearch for “cancer and deaths from nuclear accidents” for a start). What you’ll find might horrify you. It also might horrify you, for a different reason.
“We Don’t See Dead People”
The people who push nuclear power like to say amusing things like, “There were no deaths from the Fukushima incident,” by which they mean, “No one was crushed by a boulder during the multiple nuclear meltdown nightmare that remains quite unresolved on the coast of Japan, bleeding into the sea and blowing westward.” Which is true. No one was crushed by a truck which tipped over carrying a drilling rig, or a windmill blade.
The funny math they’ve done though, is to exclude all increases in spontaneous abortion, fatal cancer, unexplained severe illness, thyroid and blood cancers, and any other predictable effect of radiation poisoning which occur in the area. It’s always up to independent “Doctors for some sort of freaking sanity” group to do the data collecting, after which the ‘Nuclear PR Agencies’ pay some other happy PR firm (masquerading as a medical journal) to dispense with the data and throw just enough internet smog at it so that it confuses the issue. And the dead are buried, the world has another disaster – and we all ‘move on.’
And that’s nuclear. In its defense, it provides 20 percent of our U.S. electricity, and about the same in Britain. France is closer to 80%, having dared themselves to get out of coal a long time ago.
Nuclear Power Stinks, Says the Nuclear Power Industry
But we’re smarter than the French, and would never buy into an 80% nuclear-for-electricity program. I mean, we’ve got about 65 of these plants running in the country as I write, with 104 reactors in them, producing 20% of our refrigerator and Wii-energy (that’s electricity, y’all). To push that to 80%, we’ll multiply by…oh… (let’s see. Times five would be 100, so we’ll take…four! Four times 65 is…). Right. Two-sixty. Or thereabouts, to bring us to France’s level of “energy freedom.” Each plant requiring – according the the nuclear spokespeople – a “Pentagon’s” worth of concrete, an “Empire State Building’s” worth of steel, and “300 miles” of wiring. For each one.
That’s not “free” by any means, nor is it cheap. And it all costs – not dollars, but energy: oil, coal, mining, shipping, refining, foundries, assembly. In other words, we’re going to be asked to build some 200 equivalents of the largest military and commercial buildings and skyscrapers, to produce electricity, for a couple decades, maybe more, maybe less. Maybe there’ll be an accident.
Screw It! Let’s Build One!
“But that’s the old nuclear!” shouts a voice from the sidelines. Who is it? It’s Kirk Sorensen – former NASA tech, doing hard sales and rainmaking for the “new nuclear,” which uses a liquid salt in the tank, and not water. (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, or LFTR “lifter” is the model he’s pushing). Kirk is a lot of fun – in the first 20 seconds of his spiel, he’ll tell you that old nuclear stunk. Sucked. Was piss-poor. Dangerous, wasteful, useless. It used about 1% of its fuel, created radioactive waste, and — what were we thinking? Nuclear? We must have been freaking crazy!
But now there’s the “new nuclear” of thorium. Sure, it’s radioactive! But it’s LESS radioactive. Sure it’s dangerous – but it’s much less so, because it’s liquid and can’t (as far as we know – and we don’t, not really, because we’re not operating any of these things presently) melt down.
And maybe it is better, and maybe it is fluffier, cuddlier and will let us run our world, just as we are – or, without the petrol, but with plenty of cheap, “clean” electricity to make our lives glow and green.
And Now A Word From Our Sponsor
That’s where we are. We cannot pull together enough voltage from solar, wind and every other smaller-scale, locally-gridded renewable (sun-and-earth-powered). We can’t. You can write a hopeful treatise about power and energy efficiency, but somewhere, deep in your beating brain, you know it. We can’t keep this afloat with a smaller, if friendlier, cleaner, happier, stream of electrons. We’ll have to downsize.
And that’s where they’ll get us. More than half of us. We don’t want to hear this message. Or, we’ll hear it, know it’s true, and choose… the unknown, untested, investment-happy “new nuclear.”
And maybe it’ll all work out. Maybe we’ll build 1,000 of these reactors over the next 40 years. Maybe we’ll work the kinks out 20 years into the process. Maybe we’ll end up with a few surprises – a few leaks, ruined waterways, broken towns. Shoot – that’s the price of progress. Gotta break a few eggs, etc.
Turn Your Head and Cough
I’m not telling you that LFTRs won’t work. I’m sure some will, I’m sure some won’t. Shoot – I don’t even know if they’ll get off the ground. There are no large-scale working models, and perhaps no examples of what could be expected. It’s all golden promises at present. They’ll raise money, do the building and testing, and then we’ll see.
In the meantime, wind and solar are doubling and tripling their market shares, going into mass production, thus lowering the cost of builds and installation. Which is kind of cool. Exciting, I mean, because that’s what I want. I want to be off the grid, out of the machine-state, and not running around in a nuclear nation.
What do you think a nuclear nation is going to be like? It’s a high-tech security jumble-fuck. You think freedom of transport and travel is a bit touch-and-go now? Just wait till the every block thorium sensors are put in place. Yeah, go ahead, tell me I’m wrong. The “new nuke” people advertise it – “Thorium and its radioactive byproducts are easily detectable!” Yeah – with a thorium detector.
What can I tell you? Get ready to bend over and grab your ankles, brave new worlders.
What I am telling you is that this is where the dividing line will appear. The people who think that this America is what we all signed up for – that this mentally-addled, pharma-sucking, videodromed culture-less society is our highest calling – who only see the golden heights yet to be climbed by hostile takeover and daring investment…I’ve got your market ticket, and it’s “new nuclear.”
Me, I want to move to a town, far away from the new nukes crowd, and build some windmills, solar panels, and dig a few food forests out of the damaged land. I want to reclaim this place for a future that doesn’t need a promise of ‘eternal growth’ to feel okay about itself. It won’t be perfect, but at least it has a chance of existing. Does the “new nuclear” appeal to you? It might – for a few minutes. But it smells like something to me. Like a sales job for a product that’s reached the end of its line.
Liam Scheff is the author of “Official Stories,” because “official stories exist to protect officials.”