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Energy crisis over for island residents
May 25, 2001


Since kntv inflamed the city with the news that treasure island residents' use of electricity was included in their rent, I've felt great pangs of guilt whenever I turned on a light, especially one visible from outside camera crews.

What to do in these power crisis times? Well, nevermind that kntv consumed more electricity producing and airing the story than treasure island residents have frivolously used in past weeks. And disregard that, had the camera crews simply turned west to look at the skyline, they'd have observed more than a porch light of electricity being burnt. The real issue, as clarified by washington, isn't demand, it's supply.

So rather than wasting time trying to change intrenched energy use patterns, like getting our neighbors to turn off those festive lights they put up last november, it simply is a better use of time to create more electricity. And with treasure island lacking the fossil fuels preferred by the george w administration for exploitation, the treasure island experiment turned to the obvious alternative: nuclear. Or as they patriotically say in texas: nucular.

Now, instead of getting calls from my friend tacha asking if we really do waste power and don't pay for it, like the news broadcast said, all island residents can be proud that we not only add no further drain to the state's power grid, but actually supply much more than we could ever use. At least during the day, when peak usage is most problematic and I don't have to put up with the whining noise of my backyard reactor.

There is a wealth of information on the internet on how nuclear power works, but the big problem isn't getting the information or building the reactor, it's all about the fuel. The united states has some rather totalitarian laws about buying uranium. I started in chinatown, which is the often a good place to start looking for generally illicit things to buy. Digging through the fireworks, video-cds, bootleg software, shark fins, ivory, tiger serum and pet monkeys was fun, but didn't turn up the quantity of nuclear fuel you'd imagine the neighborhood, that exports nearly every sort of thing from communist china, would have available. I thought that perhaps the russians would be a better source.

Unfortunately, while pointing can get you anything in chinatown, buying things from russians requires some knowledge of their language. And the only bit of russian I can recall sounds something like: "ya gavaru pa russki ochen plocha." While this is a fine starting point for conversation among russians, it doesn't help if that's all you really know how to say. Besides, most of san francisco's russian population are rather innocent in the ways of obtaining nuclear fuel. Strike two.

I decided to give the internet another chance. Despite the poor shape of internet commerce in general, there is one thing that is selling on the internet, besides bawdy pictures. And Pokemon. General auction stuff! I wasn't about to get involved in some scheme to deal with iranian terrorists and risk getting shot or developing parkinsons. So the obvious alternative was scouting out ebay for residual fuel from otherwise worthless stuff available for auction.

I started with a laundry list of sources of potential fuels available over-the-counter. I considered trying to extract and enrich the americium-241 from smoke detectors, but there aren't many for sale on ebay, and island warnings not to tamper with our own smoke detectors stopped that plan in its tracks. Various other things in the house could be radioactive, but not enough to reach the critical mass to enable controlled fission.

Medical equipment of various kinds was available. After a great deal of dealing, I ended up with a great deal of scrap metal and a very small amount of radioactive material. Once again, it wasn't the right material for energy production. Then it hit me: forget the internet; try fidonet and get in touch with some truly desperate people.

For those of you who weren't on the net before the web, or before the internet as we know it, fidonet is the universal modem and mail system that let kids exchange ideas with minds in the former soviet union, before it was the former soviet union. While the feds probably monitor most of the uranium talk on the internet, fidonet is still around and pretty much big brother free.

Using the babelfish-like promt, you don't even need to be able to speak russian well. As always with machine language translation, the emails got a bit garbled. But in the end I had the uranium I needed to get started. Plus, I unloaded all the phosphorus-32 and iodine-131 I had lying around to someone in need in the ukraine, along with the full library of nbc's friends on vhs.

Along with the fuel, I got addition pointers on how to build my simple reactor. I used the shell of an an old washing machine and packed the inside with quickset concrete, and then covered the interior in aluminum foil, just to be on the safe side. I'm now to the point where, at full capacity, I can create enough steam to run a series of makeshift generators really fast for about eight hours before one of them breaks down and I need to do some repairs. I circulate my hot water into the bay, which it seems has a somewhat dampening effect on the early afternoon wind.

The worst part is having to deal with the end waste. At some point, I'll have a full quart of spent stuff that I just don't know what to do with. In the meantime, however, the navy's island substation in oakland is basically idle, and the meter is actually running backward. Next time you visit the island, feel free to turn your lights on and just leave them. And tacha, tell your mom she can come over and do her ironing anytime she wants. More information on nuclear power:

buy me buy me buy me buy me buy me buy me buy me buy me

The china syndrome
Commercial nuclear power
Nuclear power: a reference handbook
Big red
The environmental case for nuclear power
Nuclear energy
Reinventing electric utilities
Historical encyclopedia of atomic energy

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