Every year, the nuclear power industry generates ten thousand cubic meters of high-level radioactive waste. That waste has to be kept cool in pools of circulating water. If cooling stops, containment fails. That’s what happened in 2011 at the Fukushima nuclear plants. Although the mainstream media have lost interest in Fukushima, it remains a catastrophe. Japan has made no progress at all in decommissioning the reactors there. Actual clean-up is impossible.
With the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, the Russian solution was to bury the radiation-spewing reactor under a mountain of concrete. The concrete sarcophagus is cracked and leaking, so the Ukrainians are re-entombing it. They expect the new containment structure to last a century. Unfortunately, the radioactive elements buried there have half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. The area will be uninhabitable for a longer period than humans have lived on earth.
The Fukushima nightmare is far, far worse. The nuclear fuel in two of the six nuclear plants there melted down, while another (#4) has been so badly damaged that it’s a time-bomb of catastrophic potential. The amount of radioactive material at risk at Fukushima, most of it in the form of “spent” fuel rods, dwarfs that of Chernobyl—twenty-four times as much. And the facility is so enormous that entombing it in concrete is impossible.
Take into account that there are 442 operating nuclear reactors in the world, a fourth of them operating in the United States. Now try to imagine 442 Fukushima disasters across the planet, each one spewing hundreds of tons of radioactive particles for thousands of years.
That’s what will happen if our civilization collapses. Then there are the stockpiled nerve gases and biological agents, and the lab cultures of lethal microbes. Who will safeguard all of those? Who will make sure the last existing vials of smallpox are incinerated before turning out the lights at the CDC and locking the doors? And what about the millions of barrels of organic and inorganic poisons in warehouses? When these begin to rust, what will stop the contents from leaching into rivers and aquifers, or spreading toxic clouds over hundreds of miles?
In such a scenario, life on earth wouldn’t suddenly stop, but the cumulative damage to DNA would weaken gene pools with mutations. After a few centuries, microbes might be the only creatures surviving. After a few million years, intelligence could re-evolve, but by then there would be no trace left of us human beings.
Because we wake up every morning and everything seems the same as yesterday, we assume that tomorrow will be mostly like today. No doubt the ancient Egyptians and the Romans and the Ottomans were seduced by the same illusion of continuity. But illusion it is, because every great civilization before us has crumbled. Do we think we are so much wiser, or protected by technology, that it won’t happen to us?
We are faced with a terrible truth. The complex civilization that we take for granted will sooner or later collapse. When it does, it may be so devastating that life as we know it vanishes from earth. I realize that everyone today thinks they know what is important, and their views differ. That’s why there are debates about guns, abortion, and e-cigarettes. That’s why some people obsess about getting rich, others about praying five times a day while facing in the correct direction, others about coordinating their fashion accessories.
But I think we have a higher obligation, and that someday soon we will pay the ultimate price for pretending not to notice it, or hoping someone else will take care of it, or telling ourselves that our luck will hold forever… because it won’t.