Over the Hill

With the nuclear genie out of the bottle, the next disaster is only a matter of time

Nuclear energy reminds me of those stories about genies trapped in bottles.

The version of those stories that I remember best starts with a boy finding a beautifully decorated glass bottle on the beach. He hears a tiny voice and sees a tiny man inside the bottle. The tiny man says he’s a magic genie and will grant the boy three wishes if the boy will uncork the bottle and let him out. The boy agrees.

But after the boy releases the genie and gets three extravagant wishes, the genie becomes his own master and causes widespread trouble. In some versions of the story, the boy tricks the genie back into the bottle and corks it.

When I was young, I used to imagine how I would trick the genie. For my third wish I would ask for three more wishes. That way I could then keep the genie under control by always using my third wishes to wish for three more wishes.

But that was only make-believe. For me, the nuclear energy genie is just the symbol of a real-life problem that began in 1945. That was the year the United States dropped two nuclear bombs, one each on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The two atomic bombs, as we called them then, were dropped Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945. They killed more than 100,000 people and caused widespread devastation. They also caused Japan to surrender unconditionally less than a week later, thus ending World War II.

Those were the world’s second and third nuclear bomb detonations. The first nuclear detonation was a test bomb that was exploded that July 16 near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The symbolic nuclear energy genie was then fully freed from his bottle.

Since then, he has also helped our nation and other nations in several peaceful ways, such as generating electricity and treating diseases.

But the nuclear genie has also joined the armies of several other nations in addition to ours. That’s an uneasy situation, especially now that North Korea is striving to arm its military with nuclear weapons.

And now the nuclear genie is playing a dirty trick on San Luis Obispo County. PG&E plans to close its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near Avila Beach in 2025. PG&E will leave behind the plant’s “spent” nuclear fuel. It’ll be in big barrel-like containers called casks sitting on what looks like a parking lot.

“Spent” fuel means it can no longer generate electricity, but it’s still dangerously radioactive. I’ve read that some can be dangerous for 10,000 years or more. That’s longer than recorded human history.

There’s no perfectly “safe” place to put the used fuel. The least dangerous place seems to be extremely deep in the Earth in some hard formation. But federal officials have failed to decide anything.

They probably won’t decide until the nuclear genie causes a disaster that kills many Americans.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 805-238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.