Energy exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

Wondering through the exhibit on Sunday, one begins to wonder if it was designed by the nuclear energy industry itself.

Part of the excellent  museum collection, home to the captured German U-505 submarine and currently hosting the  immensely popular Body Worlds 2 exhibit, the Energy room is meant to explain the concept of energy in its different manifestations and how industrial processes convert between them. Kids are obsessed with the interactive display for electricity generation: spin a wheel as hard as you can, and watch bulbs being to light up as the hand-cranked generator converts work into current.

That’s the fun part. Second half of the room is exclusively devoted to indoctrination on power generation. An entire quarter of the floor is around uranium mining, production and disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste. Geologists will check that the sealed burial mounds can contain waste and keep-out rainwater at Yucca Mountain, we are told. Otherwise the site will not be used, according to one display that contains sample of actual rock from the area. (“Trust us, we are experts and show due diligence before deciding where to dump the stuff.”)
Even more puzzling are the charts on the wall showing the break-down of power generation by source. They contradict each other: one claims nuclear energy supplying 20%+ of curren wht US capacity, the other has the more reasonable 13% figure. More amusing are the projections for the future. The graph with the more accurate data shows the catch-all category of “other” sources of energy– including renewable sources, which are key to reducing carbon emissions– make up 8% of existing demand “today” (Or at least when the exhibit was installed in 1998.) Projected share in 2010? Exactly zero percent.

Darth Vader would find their lack of faith disturbing. Other sources decline as well: in the bright future, coal loses momentum which is a good thing considering that other displays point to its highly polluting nature. So does nuclear energy. Instead the slack is taken up by natural gas which grows to provide over a quarter of capacity.

All in all, this exhibit may have been a great return on investment for companies investing in nuclear energy and natural-gas. At least in 1998.


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