It’s been a good Christmas for Mother Earth this year as colorfully illustrated by last Monday’s ecological disaster in Tennessee. In case you missed the story, a retaining wall of a coal ash pond collecting waste from an electrical plant forty miles from Knoxville burst and flooded the Emory River and surrounding areas. Coal ash contains the radioactive elements uranium and thorium which become concentrated during the burning process and now there’s 5.4 million cubic yards depositing heavy metals in river water or waiting to dry out and become dust, borne by the four winds to anywhere and everywhere.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, owners of the plant in question, have run tests and found unsafe levels of lead and thallium in the Emory but express confidence that the contaminants will be eliminated from drinking water by standard filtration processes. This comforting thought from the same people who initially estimated the spill at 1.7 million cubic yards not to mention their space-aged storage methods which allowed the flooding to occur. Neither the TVA or our neutered government watchdog the EPA have felt it important to release any analysis of the ash itself, deigning it sufficient to note that by not eating any of the coal ash people can avoid any health problems. Local residents remain concerned about the effects of re-dehydrated ash getting into their homes, lungs and food and no one seems prepared to make a statement about that either.

A new year is upon us and soon a new president will sit in the White House. While the reality-adjusted economy will be a policy obsession for the next several months energy plans will also be drafted, debated and scuttled. Coal firing plants account for almost half of America’s energy production and the toll is obvious from the mine shaft to the smokestack. Despite just enjoying our coolest year in a decade and the rabid denials from disreputable talking heads the world is attempting to seriously grapple with the seemingly inevitable catastrophe of global warming, albeit by pursuing market based solutions and heel dragging which will doom a large chunk of the world’s population to dislocation, hunger and disease. Coal’s contribution to melting polar caps and climbing sea temperatures cannot be downplayed or ignored, and the future of energy production demands a steady decrease in its use.

Sounds like a good year for nuclear energy to become fuel for armchair debates broadcast to your living room. Corporations love it because they can profit risk-free while the government subsidizes and insures their plants, consumers love it because they can continue to live their overfed and selfish lives without feeling as bad about polar bears. The idea of nuclear energy as being safe and sane has been gaining steady ground, particularly in Europe which was home to the most obvious warning sign. When Chernobyl was celebrating its twentieth anniversary polls indicated that Germans and French citizens were warming up to the idea of nuclear power, tho that’s probably more a result of Russia’s stranglehold on energy production contributing to high costs than anything else.

Ignoring the nightmarish China Syndrome scenario, people seem to forget that nuclear processing, while clean in many ways, leaves the most caustic waste we’ve ever developed. What do you do with tons of spent fuel rods which corrode their surroundings and cannot be near anything that hopes to live for very long? The United States has decided to build a large national depository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, except they still have no concrete idea how it’s going to work.

This Candyland is going to take robots, titanium shields and a lot of money a hundred years in the future. What? Face it, the conditions inside a nuclear waste storage facility are not friendly to anything, so the idea is that robots will be responsible for sealing the place off. However, to maximize the capacity and efficiency the facility won’t be sealed until it’s filled. Meanwhile the canisters of death need to be protected from naturally occurring drip-water but again, these safeguards will only be installed when the facility is sealed by robots using expensive (but durable) titanium sheets. Robots which haven’t been invented yet but will have to be able to function in an estimated 120 degrees heat with radiation bouncing off the walls. The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, as administered by the Department of Energy, envisions a sprawling compound with railways connecting various waste treatment bunkers which would collect and prepare spent rods, then send them merrily on their way (mechanically) to the depths of hell where fictitious robots will line the walls with titanium before committing themselves to an eternity of radiation. There’s a couple bouncy little videos you can watch explaining the development process which are suspiciously similar updates to the school films of old where kids would drop and cower under their desks to await missiles from Cuba.

Picture of the coal ash spill appropriated from Environmental News Service who got it from TVA. Picture of the nuclear plant is from the Scientific American article cited. My opinions on nuclear power plants as private businesses was shaped by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s book Toxic Sludge is Good for You, or maybe their other book I read. As always thanks to io9 for their constant vigilance.

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