There was a horrible accident in Kenya this week. More than 100 people were burned to death, and hundreds more were injured when a gasoline pipeline began leaking and then exploded. My heart goes out to the victims, and their families, and to all the people of Kenya who are dealing with the worst industrial disaster in their history. Eyewitnesses reported seeing burning people leaping into a nearby river trying to extinguish the flames that engulfed them. Rescue workers had to place a net across the river to catch the charred bodies of the dead so they would not wash down stream. The death toll continues to grow, and most of the 100+ injured including many children are not expected to survive.
The pipeline runs through Sinai, a Nairobi ghetto of corrugated tin and cardboard huts. When the pipe began leaking hundreds of people gathered around to scoop up the spilled gasoline. As the crowd grew a spark from a cigarette butt or some other heat source ignited the fuel. The blast incinerated scores of people nearby. Flames cascaded down on nearby huts then raced through the crowded slum.
Trying to image the chaotic and horrific scene, I realized there was something so far outside my own paradigm that I had to stop for moment to collect my thoughts…who runs TOWARDS a leaking gasoline pipeline? Maybe that’s a silly question; but if anyone reading this came upon a leaking gasoline pipeline they would stop, back away, and call for help. You would keep your distance while warning others not to go near for fear of igniting the leak and causing a fire or explosion. If you were forced to approach the leak you would fear for your life and rightfully so!
So what is different between you and the hundreds of people in Kenya that did the exact opposite? As word spread through Sinai about the leaking pipeline hundreds of people grabbed every container they could find and rushed towards the explosive spill! You might settle on a simple socioeconomic answer: because they are poor they’ll risk their lives for a few dollars worth of anything of value. The real answer is a lot more complicated. These people are not only poor, they are super poor, and one of the factors that separates the poor from truly impoverished is the lack of access to even basic energy sources that human beings need to survive. They are energy destitute.
Another way of saying this is availability of plentiful, accessible energy is the greatest single factor that allows people to rise out of poverty. All of the world’s developed economies got that way because they had access to plentiful supplies of energy. For the energy destitute, a few kilowatts will replace dung or scraps of wood for cooking and warmth. A few more kW and a village will have running water and refrigeration, and fewer people die of water or food born disease. A bit more and machines can aid in harvesting or processing food in larger quantities. Even more and suddenly the schools have electric lights and access to information that accelerates learning and further socioeconomic growth.
The people who ran towards that leaking gasoline pipeline did so knowing there was a risk of fire and death, but they accepted the risk and went anyway. They placed such a high value in a few gallons of gasoline that they consciously or subconsciously decided it was worth risking their lives. If they lived with even small amounts of reliable energy in their daily lives they would not have placed such great value on a few thousand BTUs of energy from a can of gasoline. They would have reacted like you and me.
The investigation will unfold, and the cause of the fire will be known; a broken valve and a cigarette butt, or a rusty pipe and a static spark. But it won’t really matter because they’ll ignore the real culprit. The real blame rests on short sighted and corrupt political leaders around the world who have perpetuated energy policies that keep the world addicted to dangerous and limited fossil fuel supplies. As a result, human beings compete for this limited energy with rationing accomplished by the economic divide. The billions of impoverished people at the bottom have not a chance of getting the energy they need. To make matters worse, as fossil fuel supplies dwindle and the earth’s population grows the problems will become acutely worse.
The only real solution to this worsening problem is to adopt global energy policies that improve access to low cost, abundant energy. That energy will have to be low carbon because to continue dumping fossil fuel waste into the environment in such increasing amounts would result in an environmental disaster! Solar and wind energy can help, but in most applications they are too expensive or too intermittent to be useful for the growing billions of energy destitute and impoverished people.
The only realistic alternative is nuclear energy. While nuclear power plants are relatively expensive to build, the per unit price drops with each successive plant of similar type built. Once built, nuclear plants are cheap to operate because the fuel costs are so low. New technologies like molten salt breeder reactors, fast breeder reactors, and “traveling wave” reactors offer additional fuel economy and safety advantages. Thorium and used fuel from existing reactors will provide an almost limitless supply of fuel as these new reactors spread across the world.
Pundits will argue the risk of meltdown is too great, but the truth is in the numbers. More than 100 people died in Kenya this week, and these types of accidents are becoming increasingly common. About 5,000 people die around the world each year in coal mining accidents. Tens of thousands more die prematurely from fossil fuel waste products dumped in the air. Yet the world takes these deaths in stride because we’ve been brainwashed to view these casualties as “worth the risk” and not reason enough to stop using fossil fuels.
By comparison, reactor accidents at Fukushima Dai-ichi, one of the “worst nuclear accidents” in history resulted in exactly zero deaths, and none are likely to occur in the future because radiation exposures to workers and the public have been low. While there is much media hype around “contaminated” soil and food, experience from places in the world with naturally high radiation levels, and from Chernobyl, where radioactive contamination of the soil was far worse than in Japan, has taught us that people have little to fear from the small increase above natural radiation they are likely to receive living near Fukushima.
The wealthy, elite anti-nuclear activists who jet around the globe to preach conservation and renewables own their share of the Sinai casualties. Their successful efforts to demonize nuclear energy and slow its expansion around the world serve to perpetuate the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. This in turn feeds the chronic energy shortage that exists for impoverished people everywhere. They promote so-called “green” renewable energy sources that, because of their intermittent nature, require almost continuous fossil fueled backup.
While renewable energy can help, realistically only nuclear energy can supply clean, carbon-free energy in sufficient quantities to feed an energy starved world.