atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,
atomic_fungus
atomic_fungus

#352: Let's play make-believe.

Let's pretend that we want to build a house.

There's nothing really wrong with where we live now, but it's not really very clean or efficient. We have to spend a lot of money on heating, and the stuff that comes out of our chimney is very dirty and sometimes really toxic. We want to be more eco-friendly, even.

So we find a plot of land, and say, "Here, we will build a new house! A better house than the one we used to live in. Over the course of our 30-year mortgage we will pollute less and be more cost-efficient. For us, it's win-win."

But the town we live in has some very strict rules about new houses. First we have to perform an environmental impact study to see what effect our new house will have on the local environment. If that study finds anything objectionable, we can't build on that site, and have to find another one.

But let's say our site is fine for building our new house.

Next we have to have the town council approve the design of our house. And the building code is over 60 years old; while it has been updated, none of the old rules have ever been removed or superseded. This means that one rule specifically states that our house must have plumbing made of lead...but there is another rule, further on, which specifically states that our house must have plumbing made of copper, iron, or PVC, and that no lead piping may be used.

Since both of these rules are equally valid, we must get a waiver from the town council for the earlier rule. And this is the case with every aspect of the house design, from the foundation to the tiles on the roof--there are conflicting specifications for just about everything.

Let's say we somehow manage to navigate the morasse of red tape and find ourselves actually being able to begin construction on our house. By now, we have spent as much as 10-15 years trying to get the appropriate building permits, and it's cost us a fortune in legal fees.

But the legal fees are only beginning, because several groups who are against new houses like ours are suing to stop construction. Many of these groups are opposed to new houses of any kind, but they are all agreed that houses of the type we wish to build are especially evil, and they pull out all the legal stops to prevent construction from starting.

Okay, okay; but we somehow manage to get past that hurdle. Now workers are actually building our house; but every so often the anti-new-house people chain themselves across the entrance to the construction site, preventing access, and there are people picketing it virtually every day. Some mornings the constuction team finds that someone, in the night, has vandalized and/or destroyed construction equipment and parts of our new (and still incomplete) home. We have to have armed guards patrol the site to keep the anti-new-house people from doing these things.

It's just not worth building a new house, is it?

Now, when I started thinking about this little make-believe session, originally I was thinking of it as a analog of what it's like to build a nuclear power plant. All the elements of the narrative apply mainly to that point.

But really, thinking about it just now, I realized that with a little editing it could apply to just about anything useful that our industrial complex might want to do.

Gas is hovering near $3.80 right now. You know why? Because there have been no new fuel refineries built in the last 30 years, that's why; and some have closed since then, for one reason or another. Every refinery in the USA must run 24/7/52 to keep gas cheap; and right now, as spring comes, gas prices ratchet upward again because the refineries must be retrofitted to make the 60-odd fuel blends mandated by the EPA. And we have no spare refining capacity to make up for the plants which are shut down for refitting. Supply drops, demand remains steady, prices rise.

And the bit about the building code? That is for-god-damned-real. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has never superseded any of the rules governing the construction of nuclear reactors, so anyone wishing to build a new nuclear power station must get waivers to solve rule conflicts. This keeps NRC bureaucrats busy, but it doesn't do squat for the price of electricity in the United States, nor does it help reduce our dependence on foriegn oil.

Here's a little factoid about power plants. The fastest, cheapest, and easiest power plant to construct is an oil-fired plant. (Natural gas plants are included in this type.) They are not very efficient, nor are they all that clean; but if you need a few dozen megawatts of extra generating capacity now an oil-fired plant is the way to get it.

In the US, no new nuclear power plants have been constructed for a long time--we've waited for one about as long as we've waited for a new refinery, in fact. Any wonder energy is so expensive these days?

So, the next time you seen an environmentalist, give him a big hug and thank him for making gasoline and electricity so expensive. You'll make his day.
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