The Technological Fundamentalism Boomerang

Robert Jensen describes the dark side of the faith that technology can continue to solve all our problems. Excerpts below.

Link: Technological Fundamentalism In Media And Culture By Robert Jensen.

An honest assessment of the culture’s technological fundamentalism makes it clear why Wes Jackson’s call for an “ignorance-based worldview” is so important. Jackson, a plant geneticist who left conventional academic life to co-found The Land Institute [http://www.landinstitute.org/pages/SmithsonianMag-WJackson.pdf] to pursue projects about sustainable agriculture and sustainable culture, suggests that we would be wise to recognize what we don’t know. His point is that whatever the advanced state of our technical and scientific prowess, we are — and always will be — far more ignorant than knowledgeable, and therefore it would be sensible for us to adopt an ignorance-based worldview that could help us work effectively within our limits. Acknowledging our basic ignorance does not mean we should revel in the ways humans can act stupidly, but rather should spur us to recognize that we have an obligation to act intelligently on the basis not only of what we know but what we don’t know.

If we were to step back and confront honestly the technologies we have unleashed — out of that hubris, believing our knowledge is adequate to control the consequences of our science and technology — I doubt any of us would ever get a good night’s sleep. We humans have been overdriving our intellectual headlights for thousands of years, most dramatically in the 20th century when we ventured with reckless abandon into two places where we had no business going — the atom and the cell.

On the former: The deeper we break into the energy package, the greater the risks we take. Building fires with sticks gathered from around the camp is relatively easy to manage, but breaking into increasingly earlier material of the universe — such as fossil fuels and heavy metal uranium — is quite a different project, more complex and far beyond our capacity to control. Likewise, manipulating plants through traditional selective breeding is local and manageable, whereas breaking into the workings of the gene — the foundational material of life — takes us to places we have no way to understand.

These technological endeavours suggest that the Genesis story was prescient; our taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil appears to have been ill-advised, given where it has led us. We live now in the uncomfortable position of realizing we have moved too far and too fast, outstripping our capacity to manage safely the world we have created. The answer is not some naïve return to a romanticized past, but a recognition of what we have created and a systematic evaluation of how to step back from our most dangerous missteps.

Nuclear Power is NOT Energy Independence

Steve Christ describes why nuclear energy increases U.S. energy dependence. Do we prefer to be dependent on OPEC or Russia? He says that we currently import 92% of the uranium (43% of that is from Russia) for nuclear power.

Link: Investing in Uranium.

…one of the biggest misconceptions about nuclear power at the moment is this: It will end our energy dependence foreigners. The truth is it will not. That’s the dirty little secret most people don’t know about nuclear power in the United States these days.

You see, while everyone knows we have become virtual slaves to foreign crude, only a few know we also import 92% of the enriched uranium necessary to run our nuclear plants. That is even worse than our predicament with oil where 70% of our supply is now imported.

That’s why I call enriched uranium America’s "other" energy crisis. Because if nothing else changes we could conceivably exchange one set of shackles for another if we are aren’t careful.

And it will likely only get worse when a 20 year program with the Russians called Megatons to Megawatts runs its course in 2013 since almost 43% of what we use comes from dismantled Soviet warheads. After that supply runs dry, it is not inconceivable we could be completely on our own, unable to meet our own needs.

onThat’s a current danger that we can ill-afford and Washington knows it. Over time, those potential shortages will only be exacerbated as more and more nuclear plants here and abroad begin to come online and demand skyrockets.

According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 439 reactors operating globally, with 36 under construction. Moreover, there are also 93 new reactors on the drawing board, with another 219 proposed. 

And should all of the planned and proposed reactors be built, the world total will be more than 787, or almost a 79% increase over the current level—-the vast majority of which will be fueled with—you guessed it— enriched uranium.

So at some point in the future, enriched uranium could be no different than oil—sold off in a tight market to the highest bidder. Sound familiar?

Huge Uranium Deposit in Chatham, VA, Creates Controversy

I grew up in Martinsville, 30 miles west of Chatham. In that area, the local economy has been devastated by the loss of factory jobs to Asia. Energy independence in the U.S. is a top priority. Uranium mining is very "dirty", especially to the ground water.

This could be a heated battle involving some powerful players bringing national attention to a small town in rural Virginia. For example, in a July 26, 2008 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Max Schulz (senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute) concluded with the following:

If the U.S. is to expand nuclear power’s role in a time of energy insecurity and climate change worries, we will have to confront the hysterical antinuclear pronouncements that have been the currency of environmentalists for nearly 30 years. The Old Dominion could be a good place for a new start.

Below are some excepts from an article in the Washington Post by Anita Kumar.

Link: Uranium Lode in Va. Is Feared, Coveted – washingtonpost.com.

CHATHAM, Va. — Underneath a plot of farmland used to raise cattle, hay and timber in south central Virginia lies what is thought to be the largest deposit of uranium in the United States.

Now, three decades after the deposit was found, landowner Walter Coles has set his sights on mining the 200-acre site despite concerns of environmental groups and residents about unearthed radioactive material that could contaminate the area’s land, air and source of drinking water.

As the United States searches for alternative energy sources, Virginia has a geological discovery in its back yard that could drastically change the nation’s reliance on foreign oil. The estimated 110 million pounds of uranium in Pittsylvania County, worth almost $10 billion, could supply all of the country’s nuclear power plants for about two years.

There’s a hurdle to clear before an ounce of the element can be mined: It’s illegal to dig for the stuff in Virginia. But the General Assembly is considering changing that.

Coles, 69, who recently retired from the federal government and moved from the Washington area back to the family farm, said mining companies have been offering to buy his land. Instead of taking the money, he decided to stay. He said he wanted to make sure that the mining was done safely and that it would benefit the community through jobs, taxes and economic development.

"There’s too much uranium here. Somebody’s going to mine it," Coles said. "I felt like while I was alive, it was my duty to make sure it was done right."

This month, Coles’s company, Virginia Uranium, will try to persuade the General Assembly to take the first step — approving a $1 million study that will explore whether uranium can be safely mined in Virginia. If the study shows that it can be done, the company will ask the legislature to lift a state ban on uranium mining.

The issue is dividing lawmakers, who will begin their 60-day session Jan. 9, but company officials have reasons to be optimistic.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) supports a study, and a state energy report released this fall recommends one. Coles’s brother-in-law, Whitt Clement, who served as a legislator and as state transportation secretary, is heading what is expected to be a strong lobbying effort. Henry Hurt, an investor and a childhood friend of Coles’s, has a son Robert, a Pittsylvania delegate who won a state Senate seat in November.

Virginia banned uranium mining in 1982, but Coles’s company recently got a state permit to drill 40 holes to examine the material.

A growing coalition of environmental groups and concerned residents, some of the same residents who helped institute the ban 30 years ago, have started spreading the word about their opposition and are planning to travel to Richmond to fight Coles. 

Uranium has never been mined in Virginia or on the East Coast, confined instead in the United States to drier, less populated areas such as Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Uranium mining is more common in Canada, Australia, Eastern Europe and Africa.

Support for a Study

Two uranium deposits, which begin at the ground’s surface and run about 800 feet deep, were found in Coles Hill, near Chatham, a town of 1,300 residents where old Victorian houses line the streets. Tobacco was once a booming business on nearby farms but has given way to soybeans, hay and cattle.

Virginia Uranium wants to mine and mill uranium that would eventually be sold to companies for use at nuclear power plants.

The company was formed about a year ago by the Coles and Bowen families, which own adjoining property. Norman Reynolds, a former Marline president, was hired as chief executive.

Safety Concerns

Environmental groups, including the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center, say uranium should not be mined in Virginia’s highly populated areas and relatively rainy climate. They say they are worried that radioactive materials could contaminate natural resources, cause cancer or other illnesses and have long-term effects on plants and animals. The Coles Hill area supplies drinking water locally and to parts of Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

No matter how the uranium might be mined, it would need to be processed at a local milling facility. The result, a sandy substance called "yellow cake" uranium, would be packed into 55-gallon drums for shipping. Company officials say the processed uranium is not hazardous. It doesn’t become dangerous until it undergoes a later process that would be done elsewhere.

Coles, whose family has lived in a historic brick house on the property for two centuries, said he and his family have never had health problems, although tests show the area has higher than normal levels of radioactivity.

He said he plans to continue living at Coles Hill regardless of whether the uranium is mined.

British mining company to explore for uranium near Grand Canyon National Park

Jim Hightower describes another threat to our National Parks.

Link: Jim Hightower | FOREST SERVICE SERVES MINING COMPANY.

Grand CanyonVane Minerals Corporation will be allowed to drill seven exploratory shafts in the Kaibab National Forest, which abuts the canyon.

This whole dirty deal was a sneak attack on local residents, environmental groups, tribal officials, and park supporters – all of whom oppose the effort to dot the public lands with uranium mines. In addition to the sheer inappropriateness of this commercialization, locals recall the cancers suffered by those who worked in previous uranium mines on area reservations. They also have concerns about uranium trucks high-balling through the area, and about contamination of the region’s scarce water supplies.

The Forest Service, however, ignored these realities and gave the corporation a green light without conducting an environmental review and, worse yet, without even holding a public hearing. The agency arbitrarily ruled that Vane could be “categorically excluded” from the normal review process because its exploratory drilling would take less than a year. Never mind that mining companies can do some serious damage in a year.

Meanwhile, Congress has been dilly-dallying with an overdue reform of the 1872 mining law that let’s corporations run roughshod over our public land, putting their profiteering interests above the public interest. To learn more about this reform, and to see a report on the impacts of uranium mining in this unique region, connect with the Environmental Working Group at www.ewg.org.

Nuclear Power Is Clean Energy?

Rebecca Solnit at Orion magazine describes some problems with nuclear energy that you won’t hear on TV.

Link: Nuclear Power the Solution to Climate Change? | Rebecca Solnit | Orion magazine.

…when it comes to the mining of uranium, which mostly takes place on indigenous lands from northern Canada to central Australia, you need to picture fossil-fuel-intensive carbon-emitting vehicles, and lots of them—big disgusting diesel-belching ones. But that’s the least of it. The Navajo are fighting right now to prevent uranium mining from resuming on their land, which was severely contaminated by the postwar uranium boom of the 1940s and 1950s. The miners got lung cancer. The children in the area got birth defects and a 1,500 percent increase in ovarian and testicular cancer. And the slag heaps and contaminated pools that were left behind will be radioactive for millennia.

If these facts haven’t dissuaded this person sitting next to you, try telling him or her that most mined uranium—about 99.28 percent—is fairly low-radiation uranium-238, which is still a highly toxic heavy metal. To make nuclear fuel, the ore must be “enriched,” an energy-intensive process that increases the .72 percent of highly fissionable, highly radioactive U-235 up to 3 to 5 percent. As Chip points out, four dirty-coal-fired plants were operated in Kentucky just to operate two uranium enrichment plants. What’s left over is a huge quantity of U-238, known as depleted uranium, which the U.S. government classifies as low-level nuclear waste, except when it uses the stuff to make armoring and projectiles that are the source of so much contamination in Iraq from our first war there, and our second.

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel was supposed to be one alternative to lots and lots of mining forever and forever. The biggest experiment in reprocessing was at Sellafield in Britain. In 2005, after decades of contamination and leaks and general spewing of horrible matter into the ocean, air, and land around the reprocessing plant, Sellafield was shut down because a bigger-than-usual leak of fuel dissolved in nitric acid—some tens of thousands of gallons—was discovered. It contained enough plutonium to make about twenty nuclear bombs. Gentle reader, this has always been one of the prime problems of nuclear energy: the same general processes that produce fuel for power can produce it for bombs. In India. Or Pakistan. Or Iran. The waste from nuclear plants is now the subject of much fretting about terrorists obtaining it for dirty bombs—and with a few hundred thousand tons of high-level waste in the form of spent fuel and a whole lot more low-level waste in the U.S. alone, there’s plenty to go around.

Bottom line:

…every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is murderously filthy, imparting long-lasting contamination on an epic scale; that a certain degree of radioactive pollution is standard at each of these stages, but the accidents are now so many in number that they have to be factored in as part of the environmental cost; that the plants themselves generate lots of radioactive waste, which we still don’t know what to do with—because the stuff is deadly . . . anywhere . . . and almost forever.

via Dave Pollard