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18Mar/110

Once-in-a-lifetime

Human lifetime

Our lifetime a fleeting moment

Waiting for your computer to power up - Come on!  Come on!  Those railroad crossing gates are down and the passing train appears unending.  Come on! Come on!  The little old lady at the checkout counter  slowly pulling change from her crumpled red purse with her arthritic finger.  It is taking  forever.  Come on!  Come on!  Let’s go!  I can’t believe how long this is taking!   This is taking a lifetime.

We humans have a time disability.  We tend to expand time when impatient and expand time when a deadline looms.   We mentally overestimate the time left before our supply of natural resources fails to meet society’s demand.  Relax we have supplies to last ONE HUNDRED YEARS, A CENTURY.  Remain calm; global warming won’t result in NYC being underwater until 2150.   Stop worrying; we have plenty of fish in the sea, potable water to drink, and rare earth metals to mine.   All will last a LIFETIME.

A LIFETIME!  A LIFETIME!  Perhaps this is the human problem.  Scientists calculate our Earth is about 4,600,000,000 years old.  (if you believe the Earth was formed in 8 days about 6000 years ago, you are part of the problem  so do us both a favor and log out now).  A human lifetime is about 80 years.  A human life is but .0000026% of our planet’s existence.  By analogy, if we can imagine the Earth’s being 80 years old, then Homo-sapiens have existed only one day of that life.  A human lifetime would be about a half a second in the Earth’s 80 year life.  Regrettably, humans can’t accept that we are that insignificant.  Our infinitesimally brief individual existence makes it difficult for us to understand geological time.  Could that inability lead to our demise?

We build cities on fault lines, on coastal plains, near “dormant” volcanoes.  We fear not, because category five hurricanes, cataclysmic earthquakes, and monstrous eruptions happen maybe once in a lifetime, but whose lifetime?   A human lifetime, not a geological lifetime.  An event occurring once in 400 human years is only 2.5 seconds in our Earth’s lifetime.

We mine, pump, and extract fossil fuels that took 2 million years to form and collect.  Yet, we have the audacity to burn much of it in a couple of human lifetimes.  We destroy in a Earthsecond that which it took  Earthmonths to produce .  Imagine cutting and piling up wood for two solid months, night and day and then consuming it all in two seconds.  But don’t worry, those fuels will last us a lifetime.  Our over estimation of our length of existence allows us to unwittingly pour our sewage into our lakes, rivers and oceans because it will be a lifetime before they lose their capacity to support life.

It is that same hubris and ignorance that permits us to build nuclear reactors.  Despite their inherent risk, we convince ourselves that spent nuclear waste composed of materials containing elements with half lives ranging from 8 days to .7 billion years will, in the unknown future, be safely encapsulated.  Since we don’t have a viable solution yet, we pile up nuclear garbage in large containers covered in water.  We cast off the possibility that these pools could lose their protective 45 feet of water causing the fuel to heat, and then burn, spewing radioactive materials into the air and later permeating our soil and water.   The operators of the HMS Titanic assured their passengers that the ship was “unsinkable.”  It would take a once-in-a-lifetime event to sink that ship.  Sadly, a once –in-lifetime iceberg  became  the last-in-a-lifetime event for  1520 human beings.

Modern humans are scientific.  We believe we have the answers, but truth be told, the understanding of our planet is primitive.  It was not until the early 1900’s that the concept of continental drift was introduced.  Until then, humankind was not aware land masses shifted; that Africa was once one with South America.  It was not until the 1960’s that scientists began to substantiate the theory that the Earth’s crust is composed of moving and colliding tectonic plates.   Our knowledge is primitive.  Tectonic theory was developed a half a human lifetime ago.

I hear well meaning scientists saying that a 9.0 earthquake is a unique event.  It may well be unique in a human lifetime, but I suspect it is a pretty frequent event in geological time.  Likewise, Mount Saint Helens magnitude eruptions are once-in-a human-lifetime events occurring every few seconds in Earthtime.

In thirty years the nuclear industry has had three major accidents, one every ten years.  Their environmental and biological consequences will last for eons.  The slogan for the nuclear power industry might best be: Ions for Eons.  It‘s not rational to believe that an industry that could historically maintain safety for only decade long periods can now confidently predict that reactors will be safe FOREVER.  The talking heads keep saying that we learn from our mistakes and that this new knowledge will protect us.  It is with great trepidation that I look forward to our new learning experiences.

Nuclear reactors, albeit made of huge amounts of reinforced concrete and steel, are in many ways fragile, complicated machines.  If the flow of electrical power into the plant is interrupted, a reactor’s safety is compromised.  Colossal earthquakes, huge tsunamis, terrorist attacks, human errors, weather events, plane crashes plus a myriad of unpredictable events can cause nuclear disasters.  But what are the odds? These are unique events, once-in-a -lifetime events.  We should be assured, feel safe. Remember: ONCE -IN –A-HUMAN-LIFETIME.

The NRC reported that on July 20, 1997 the Ginna Nuclear Power Plant in Ontario, NY lost power for 12.5 hours putting the plant and the surrounding area in serious danger due to a raccoon shorting out a transmission line.  Now that was a once-in-a-lifetime unique event, a one in a million event.

Humans are reassured that our science, our knowledge, our care, our preparation can reduce our risk of nuclear disaster to a once-in-a-lifetime event, but every tick of Earth’s clock is but one human lifetime.  Our time disability may cause us annoyance when impatiently waiting for that little old lady to count her change, but failure to understand that events we view as infrequent, unique and unusual are commonplace in the history of our planet places our lives and the future of our planet at real risk.

One last thought:  Do not the likely consequences of our reliance on nuclear power and fossil fuels demand that the world economy make a huge coordinated investment in a highest priority search for safe, sustainable, clean energy sources?  Oil producing algae, solar power, wind power, tidal power, and deep geothermal wells might be good places to start.   Collaborating, cooperating, and searching for truly long term solutions would be a once in a lifetime event we could all live with.

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