Today I learned

April 10, 2010

When I was a kid I was exposed to the saying, “you learn something every day.” This saying was usually invoked upon coming across a novel fact or idea, usually one that was counter to what was expected. What the saying really implied, I gathered, was that “although I learn things every day, the thing I just learned was especially novel or interesting.”

This brings to mind 2 questions: 1) What is the origin of this saying? Was there more to it at one point? It seems an awfully roundabout way to express the thought that, “gee, I didn’t know that before.”

2) is it really true that you learn something every day? I suppose it may be, but if one does not catalogue each new fact encountered, there is a danger that the newly learned knowledge will be forgotten.

So I was thinking back on my day and trying to come up with something, no matter how trivial, that I learned today. I recall my carpool partner telling me a story about submarines, but I can’t recall if it was today or yesterday. So that’s out. I know: I was listening to a story on NPR about nuclear energy, and they were talking about nuclear waste. Specifically, how much volume of nuclear waste is generated by nuclear power plants. The guest was advocating an aggressive expansion of nuclear power in The United States’ energy mix, and he had a couple of statistics that I found interesting:

  1. An individual’s share of nuclear waste over a lifetime would fit into a Pepsi can (presumably 12 oz., and I suppose any brand of beverage would do), as compared to the tons of carbon dioxide emitted per person with coal energy. This is very interesting, but it does bring up 2 points. First, a Pepsi┬ácan isn’t a whole lot of highly toxic material, but multiplied by 300 million Americans, that is a lot of Pepsi. And second, he didn’t say if that was the case under the current energy mix, or if nuclear energy were used to generate all of our power. In other words, what is an individual’s share of nuclear waste, exactly.
  2. All of the nuclear waste generated by all the nuclear power plants in the entire country for all time could fit into a pool of water 25 feet deep and 300 feet on a side. That is a reassuringly small space, but then again, considering that nuclear energy contributes a small portion of our electricity, if it were expanded greatly, the size of the pool required would expand as well. And it would need to be stored that way for thousands of years.

So that’s what I learned today. I had often wondered about that, but never to the extent that I bothered to look it up. I’d say this piece of information helped reinforce my perception that nuclear energy is filthy, dangerous, problematic and generally an awful option, but that compared to burning coal it is the preferable choice.


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