Entries Tagged as 'nuclear power'

The Dirty Secret Of Energy Subsidies

June 19th, 2011 at 12:06 pm 11 Comments

See, it’s still possible for Republicans and Democrats to work together on energy legislation.

On Thursday, the ethanol tax credit repeal won the support of 73 senators, including California lefty Barbara Boxer and Oklahoma righty James Inhofe, who typically spend most of their time annoying each other at Environment and Public Works Committee hearings.  Chances are good that the repeal will blow through the House and land on President Obama’s desk before long.

What should be next? If energy subsidies are the ick flavor of the month, then put them all on the table.  So far, however, the subsidies debate has amounted to the two parties talking past each other.

When it comes to tax dodges, Republicans tend to yell loudest about freebies for wind and solar plants, while Democrats drum out press releases about loophole candy handed out to profit-engorged oil companies.  Also, Republicans have been stymied by Grover Norquist’s haranguing them that closing up tax loopholes would be the same as raising taxes.

After 70 percent of the Senate’s Republicans gave Norquist a sharp elbow in the ribs with their vote to repeal the ethanol credit, there should be less GOP inhibition about taking a hard look at “tax expenditures.”

The dirty secret of energy is that all forms of energy enjoy tax preferences and other subsidies of one form or another. Take your pick — efficiency, renewables, oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear -– not one of them stands purely on its own in the marketplace, free of subsidy taint.

The sooner both parties acknowledge that reality, the sooner they can have a rational debate about the role that subsidies should play, if any, towards meeting broader goals of ensuring America has ample supplies of energy that don’t cost an arm and a leg, don’t enrich unfriendly potentates and don’t leave future generations with an environmental mess to clean up.

Nuke Energy Support Still Strong

March 23rd, 2011 at 7:23 am 23 Comments

Opposition to expanded reliance on nuclear energy has edged upward among Americans, polling shows, since Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex started laying very large radioactive eggs following the mammoth earthquake and tsunami.

No surprise there. Dramatic, edge-of-your-seat events that command undivided public attention have a way of moving polling numbers.

What’s encouraging in a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll is that a significant majority of Americans – 57 to 42 percent – support nuclear energy. By a 2-to-1 margin, Americans support continued operation of all 104 commercial reactors in the U.S. nuclear fleet, which generates about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

The poll shows that public opposition to new nukes has moved up 6 points to 53 percent following the Japanese disaster, but CNN’s polling director indicated that Americans’ attitudes about nuclear energy are more positive than they were after the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents.

That’s encouraging because a panicky stampede away from nukes would mean greater dependence on energy sources that have their own baggage.

Such as coal. While nuclear power conjures up scary fears among some about invisible death rays, nuclear power plants don’t kill people by the thousands year in and year out. Coal plants do. Burning coal emits sulfur dioxide (SOX) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are precursors of ultrafine particles that burrow deeply into people’s lungs, where they can impair pulmonary function, inflame lung tissues, and trigger heart attacks.

Coal pollution can be cleaned up. Unfortunately, politicians who have painted the Environmental Protection Agency as an ogre stomping across the land in search of jobs to destroy have made it politically incorrect to talk about the benefits of pollution regulation – such as the estimated 14,000 to 36,000 premature deaths that would be prevented by 2014 through EPA’s proposed “transport” rule affecting coal-fired power plants in 31 states east of the Rockies.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu once said that he’d rather live next to a nuke than a coal plant because the former have strong safety records and are cleaner than the latter. Smart choice. In the years ahead, nuclear power likely will be safer still as a result of new standards designed to minimize the chances of a Fukushima in the U.S.

Keeping a place for nuclear energy on America’s energy menu is critically important for keeping the air clean and the climate stable. That the public is still on board, in spite of the wrenching images from Japan and the breathless television coverage, is a good sign.

Nuke Energy: The Next Casualty of Japan

March 17th, 2011 at 10:01 pm 12 Comments

It’s like watching a Japanese Monster B-Movie: Battered by two epically-scaled natural disasters and now a human-made emergency in the form of an ongoing nuclear crisis, the only thing missing from the unfolding Japanese scenes, it seems, is the eruption of Mount Fuji and a rubber-suited monster emerging from the summit and rampaging towards Tokyo.

The situation at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is already factoring into any number of nightmare reports and prognostications, a new and potent Japanese symbol of our collective fears about science. Fukushima is further demonizing — or monsterizing — an industry which might actually offer the only clean, sustainable energy source for a world simultaneously preoccupied with Godzilla-sized carbon footprints and climate change.

The 1979 partial reactor core meltdown at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster which set the previous benchmark for nuclear annihilation anxieties, served to curtail public and political debate on atomic energy in the United States. Not a single new nuclear power plant has been built here for decades. This unofficial moratorium came about not just because of concerns about the safety of reactor designs and the difficulties associated with disposing of waste material but also as a result of the costs. Astronomical costs.

Second-generation commercial nuclear plants like the one at Fukushima and all of the stations built in the US in the 1960s and ’70s pushed the engineering capabilities of the day further than they should have been pushed. They also shoved cost efficiency into the realms of fantasy. Generating electricity at second-generation nuclear plants costs twice what it does to produce power at oil- or coal-fired facilities. In the US as in other countries, only vast state subsidies make existing nuclear power programs possible (this is particularly true of France, dependent for almost 80 percent of its electricity on second-generation plants).

But science has changed markedly in recent years. And so has the safety and cost-effectiveness of nuclear power. In engineering terms, the fourth-generation nuclear plants now being developed are as far removed from their expensive, awkward second-generation progenitors as a B1 bomber is from the second generation of motorized box kites which sputtered over the Western Front during World War One. The technology hasn’t so much been refined as re-invented.

New designs must satisfy four essential criteria: no accident, systems failure or human error can set off a technological chain reaction culminating in the release of radioactive material; the uranium used cannot be enriched to weapon grade-level; spent fuel must be easier to dispose of than the current unwieldy and unsafe radioactive rods; and, the costs of producing electricity must be substantially cheaper than those associated with plants using fossil fuels.

There are a number of emerging reactor designs which fall under the fourth-generation umbrella. Graphite-moderated pebble bed reactors, in particular, might one day fulfill nuclear energy’s long-held promise of providing virtually unlimited, cheap and clean electrical power. Heating helium gas to temperatures of 900C to power turbines, there’s an orders of magnitude difference between the electrical generating efficiency of pebble bed reactors and second-generation water-cooled reactors.

Compact by the standards of today’s “Metropolis”-scaled nuclear plant machinery (a pebble bed reactor can fit into a shipping container), a single 200 megawatt device could power a large town. Multiple reactors run from a single site could provide a large city’s electrical supply. Enough of them could help countries in the developing world make the leap to fully developed infrastructures without becoming dependent on carbon fuels: aside from meeting their electrical needs, gas-cooled reactors would also be ideal for mass producing the type of hydrogen fuel cells which could power everything from homes to automobiles — allowing emerging economies to bypass oil and coal just as cell phones have allowed them to bypass land lines.

The technology is not entirely risk-free — no technology ever is. But as Dr. James Martin, founder of Oxford University’s interdisciplinary James Martin 21st Century School, has said, extensive use of fourth-generation nuclear power would be incomparably safer than allowing the public to drive cars.

Prototype pebble bed reactors — so-called because they use billiard ball-sized and -shaped uranium fuel elements — are being built to standards which their designers like to call “walk-away safe”. In other words, should anything go wrong, the control staff can literally walk off and a system as close to being fail-safe as it’s possible to engineer will automatically prevent a meltdown.

At a nerve-jarring 2004 demonstration for journalists, the operators of a small Chinese pebble bed reactor abruptly closed down its coolant system. And then quite literally walked away. At Three Mile Island a minor cooling system malfunction led to the near-catastrophic emergency; Fukishima is providing a real-time case study. When a cooling system failure occurs at a conventional nuclear plant, the fuel rods overheat, radiation levels spike and the nightmarish prospect of a meltdown goes from being a remote theoretical possibility to a distinct probability.

In Beijing, slack-jawed reporters watched as gauges showed the temperature in the pebble-bed reactor soaring to 1600C. Then it began to fall back to normal levels. No human intervention had taken place. None was necessary.

Each of the billiard ball “pebbles” in the reactor contained thousands of tiny, ball bearing-type uranium pellets, each sealed in silicone-carbide shells which serve as individual containment domes of sorts. The pebbles’ outer casings provide further protection. The uranium — just nine percent enriched and impossible to weaponize — is processed to slow neutron production if the reactor temperature begins to rise, automatically dampening the chain reaction. Pebble bed reactors are, in effect, meltdown-proof.

The fourth-generation technology is still a work in progress. But it’s demonstrably no longer a theory-based concept. And it’s certainly not an example of mad science as its critics — ranging from professional eco-warriors to professional lobbyists for the coal and oil industries — have claimed.

The hysterical aftershocks being produced by the Japanese earthquake are making themselves felt around the world. Nuclear energy programs are being suspended with knee-jerk swiftness and little or no forward thought. If the funding and development of fourth-generation technology is disrupted or even ended, this might prove be the second man-made nuclear disaster to result from last week’s tragedy.

Japan’s Damaged Reactors: No Chernobyl

March 16th, 2011 at 11:59 pm 34 Comments

“The first quality for a commander-in-chief is a cool head to receive a correct impression of things. He should not allow himself to be confused by either good or bad news.” - Napoleon

While it is premature to draw conclusions from the tragedy in Japan, we can certainly consider what is taking place a “worst case” disaster.  Thus far though, even the most seriously damaged of its 54 reactors has not released radiation at levels that would harm the public. That is a testament to their design and construction, and the effectiveness of their employees and their emergency preparedness planning.

Following Friday’s devastating earthquake, uranium fuel rods were exposed for at least two and a half hours. There was some burning of nuclear fuel, as evidenced by the presence of radioactive hydrogen and cesium, and partial meltdowns did occur. However, as I’ve pointed out before, the explosions witnessed were not the reactors themselves blowing up, nor were they the primary containment. The primary containment that houses and protects the reactor vessel and fuel remains intact and is safe. This structure is made of steel and steel-reinforced concrete and is extremely robust.

Life-size, cut-away replica of a nuclear power plant containment wall. The reactor is located inside of the containment building. The rebar within the concrete is about the size of a man’s forearm. Photograph courtesy Entergy.

The primary and secondary containment are designed to prevent radiation from being released into the environment in the case of an accident. However, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) intentionally vented steam from the secondary containment building in an effort to reduce pressure in that building. What we saw blow up was the secondary containment, the sheet metal building that sits on top of the cement containment. The reactor’s containment performed according to design.

It appears that as the level of coolant in the reactor vessel lowered, a portion of the top of the uranium fuel rods was exposed. This may have caused zirconium cladding of the fuel rods to react with water to create hydrogen. This hydrogen was vented, then somehow ignited, causing the explosion.

As the explosion did not occur inside the reactor core, and the primary containment was not breached, there has not been a significant public health impact from the release of radiation from the containment structure.

Reactors 2 and 3 at Fukushima Daiichi were shut down in response to the earthquake. Units 4, 5 and 6 had been shut down prior to the earthquake for inspections and scheduled outages.

In response to the emergency conditions, TEPCO has been pumping seawater, laced with boron, into the reactor.

According to information provided by TEPCO:

Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 was shut down at 2:48pm on March 11th. The reactor was shut down, reactor water level was stable, and offsite power was available.

At 8:19am, March 12th, there was an alarm indicating that one of the control rods was not properly inserted. However at 10:43am the alarm was spontaneously called off. Other control rods were confirmed fully inserted and the reactor was in a subcritical status.

o Status of main steam isolation valve: closed.

o Injection of water into the reactor by the Make-up Water Condensate System.

o There was not believed to be any leakage of reactor coolant in the containment vessel at this time.

o At 5:22am March 12th, the temperature of the suppression chamber exceeded 100 degrees. As the reactor pressure suppression function was lost, at this time it was determined that a “significant nuclear incident” had occurred.

o We decided to prepare implementing measures to reduce the pressure of the reactor containment vessel (partial discharge of air containing radioactive materials) in order to fully secure safety. This preparation work started at around 9:43am March 12th and finished at 6:30pm the same day.

o Restoration work in reactor cooling function that was conducted to achieve reactor cold shutdown was completed and cooling of the reactor commenced at 1:24 am, March 14th.

o It was confirmed afterwards that the average water temperature of suppression chamber was constantly below 100 degrees.

Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2 was shut down at 2:48pm on March 11th. The reactor was shut down and reactor water level was stable, offsite power was available, and control rods were fully inserted, rendering the reactor in a subcritical status.

o Status of the main steam isolation valve: closed.

o Water was injected into the reactor by the Make-up Water Condensate System.

o It is not believed that there was leakage of reactor coolant in the containment vessel.

o At 5:32am March 12th, the temperature of the suppression chamber exceeded 100 degrees. As the reactor pressure suppression function was lost, at 5:32am March 12th it was determined that a “significant nuclear incident” had occurred.

o We decided to prepare implementing measures to reduce the pressure of the reactor containment vessel – a partial discharge of air containing radioactive materials – in order to fully secure safety. This preparation work started at around 10:33am March 12th and was completed by 10:58pm March 12th.

o Restoration work in the reactor cooling function was in progress to achieve reactor cold shutdown.

o Restoration work in reactor cooling function conducted to achieve reactor cold shutdown was completed and cooling of the reactor commenced at 7:13 am, March 14th.

o It was confirmed afterwards that the average water temperature in the suppression chamber was constantly below 100 degrees.

A satellite photo of the Fukushima Daiichi plant showed the damage done to reactors 1 and 3, where there was an explosion on Monday.

Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 was shut down at 2:48pm on March 11th.

o The reactor was shut down, reactor water level was stable, offsite power was available, control rods were fully inserted, and the reactor was in a subcritical status.

o Status of the main steam isolation valve: closed

o There was not believed to have been leakage of reactor coolant in the containment vessel, but measures to reduce the pressure of the reactor containment vessel via partial discharge of air containing radioactive materials were implemented in order to fully secure safety. The preparation work started at around 12:00pm March 12th and finished at 12:13pm March 12th.

o Reactor cold shutdown occurred at 12:15pm March 12th

Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 shut down at 2:48pm on March 11th. The Reactor was shut down, reactor water level was stable and offsite power was available. At 0:43PM, there was a signal indicating that one of the control rods may have not properly inserted. However, another signal confirmed it completely inserted. The reason for this in under inspection.

o Status of main steam isolation valve: closed

o Injection of water into the reactor is done by Make-up Water Condensate System.

o There is not believed to be a leakage of reactor coolant in the containment vessel.

o In order to cool down the reactor, water was injected into the reactor by the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling System. However, at 6:07am March 12th, the temperature of the suppression chamber exceeded 100 degrees. As the reactor pressure suppression function was lost, at 6:07am March 12th it was determined that a “significant nuclear incident” had occurred.

o It was decided to prepare implementing measures to reduce the pressure of the reactor containment vessel – partial discharge of air containing radioactive materials – in order to fully secure safety. This work started at around 11:44am March 12th and finished at around 11:52am March 12th.

o Restoration work that was conducted to achieve reactor cold shutdown was completed and cooling of the reactor commenced at 3:42pm March 14th.

At approximately 11:01am, an explosive sound followed by white smoke occurred at the reactor building of the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3. It was believed to be a hydrogen explosion.

As of 4:00 pm, the measured value of radiation dose at the monitoring post in Fukushima Daiichi Power Station remained at ordinary levels. No radiation impact to the external environment has been confirmed.

The possibility of radioactive material being discharged from exhaust stack or discharge canal is continuing to be monitored in detail. As of 4:00 pm, the measured value of radiation dose at the monitoring post in Fukushima Daiichi Power Station remains at the ordinary level. No radiation impact to the external environment has been confirmed.

Timelines info source: TEPCO

The fact of the matter is the people of the tsunami-hit regions have a lot more to worry about than conditions at the nuclear power plants. They need food, clean water, shelter from the elements, and medical assistance. Radiation can be mitigated by time, shielding & distance.

There is one thing though of which we can be certain: a) Given the basic design features of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a Chernobyl-type disaster was never a possibility. The fact of the matter is that our modern society needs electrical power, and to get that electrical power, current must be generated by turbine generators.

It takes energy to turn those turbines, in the form of steam (or in the case of hydro-electric dams, water driven by gravity). To boil water to make steam takes a source; heat, from either nuclear fission, or coal, oil or natural gas. Wind and sunshine simply cannot generate the current, and we cannot depend upon them for energy without accepting some serious cutbacks in our lifestyle; like, say, doing without air conditioning, television, X-ray machines, and modern manufacturing processes.

Incidents like what took place over the weekend are the risks we accept, to maintain our modern quality of life. It was bad, and our hearts go out to those injured by the events at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, to the hundreds of thousands displaced by Friday’s terrible events, and to the tens of thousands dead, injured and missing.

UPDATE: Since my last posting, I spoke with a senior reactor operator licensed on a facility in the United States that is very similar to the ones that are having issues in Japan.

A point we hear no mention of in the media is that General Electric designed these plants and actually manufactured the reactors for some of them.

When an engineering firm designs a plant and presents the specifications to the potential client (in this case the Japanese) it is the responsibility of the client to inform the design team of the natural phenomena – seismic events, atmospheric events – that may occur in their region. Then the designers do a final safety analysis report to determine whether this plant can meet those specific local events, and then the regulatory agencies confirm that.

However the Japanese made a significant mistake; they failed in their assessment about the tsunami. It was the tsunami that caused the failure of the plant’s safety components: i.e., seawater mixing with the diesel fuel for the emergency back-up generators. The plant’ reactors did in fact handle an earthquake that was 9 on the Richter Scale.

This is significant because even though the Japanese miscalculated what natural phenomena they needed to prepare for, the American-designed, the American-built plant withstood a “Beyond-Design Basis Event”.

This plant is 40 years old, which means of course they miscalculated 40 years ago.  The ironic thing is this plant was intended to be taken offline in 2011, and the Japanese had recently given it a ten-year life extension. Of course, it’s offline now.

The point is that the American nuclear industry has designed our plants according to careful analysis of local events; we’re not going to have a tsunami here.

The media should be praising General Electric and their designers, but the fact of the matter is that we will never hear of this positive aspect about nuclear power in the mainstream media.

Posted on March 16, 2011 at 10:40am

UPDATE: As of 5:00 pm Tuesday: Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said that an oil leak in a cooling water pump at Unit 4 was the cause of a fire that burned for approximately 140 minutes. The fire was not in the spent fuel pool, as reported by several media outlets. Unit 4 was in a 105-day-long maintenance outage at the time of the reactor damage and there is no fuel in the reactor.

Posted on March 16, 2011 at 11:30 am

UPDATE: According to the National Energy Institute:

Fukushima Daiichi:

The reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are in stable condition and are being cooled with seawater, but workers at the plant continue efforts to add cooling water to fuel pools at reactors 3 and 4.

The status of the reactors at the site is as follows:

Reactor 1’s primary containment is believed to be intact and the reactor is in a stable condition. Seawater injection into the reactor is continuing.

Reactor 2 is in stable condition with seawater injection continuing. The reactor’s primary containment may not have been breached, Tokyo Electric Power Co. and World Association of Nuclear Operators officials said on Thursday.

Access problems at the site have delayed connection of a temporary cable to restore off-site electricity. The connection will provide power to the control rod drive pump, instrumentation, batteries and the control room. Power has not been available at the site since the earthquake on March 11.

Reactor 3 is in stable condition with seawater injection continuing. The primary containment is believed to be intact. Pressure in the containment has fluctuated due to venting of the reactor containment structure.

TEPCO officials say that although one side of the concrete wall of the fuel pool structure has collapsed, the steel liner of the pool remains intact, based on aerial photos of the reactor taken on March 17. The pool still has water providing some cooling for the fuel; however, helicopters dropped water on the reactor four times during the morning (Japan time) on March 17. Water also was sprayed at reactor 4 using high-pressure water cannons.

Reactors 5 and 6 were both shut down before the quake occurred. Primary and secondary containments are intact at both reactors. Temperature instruments in the spent fuel pools at reactors 5 and 6 are operational, and temperatures are being maintained at about 62 degrees Celsius. TEPCO is continuing efforts to restore power at reactor 5.

Fukushima Daini:

All four reactors at the Fukushima Daini plant have reached cold shutdown conditions with normal cooling being maintained using residual heat removal systems.

Posted on March 17, 2011 at 6:00pm

Originally published at STORMBRINGER.

Nuke Critic: U.S. Has 23 Fukushima-Type Reactors

March 16th, 2011 at 5:02 pm 16 Comments

Could a Japanese style nuclear disaster happen here?  There are currently 23 GE nuclear plants currently operating in the United States with a design that is identical to the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi installation which has been in the news. Even more troubling, many of the plants are operating past their intended 40-year operating life. This is only one of the many concerns of Henry Sokolski, the Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Sokolski’s advice for those concerned about Japan’s apparent nuclear failure is to slow down, expect the worst, and be willing to reconsider everything. In an interview with FrumForum, Sokolski emphasized that no one can possibly know yet the extent of the destruction that will be caused by the Fukushima crisis.

Sokolski has problems with both the optimists and the pessimists. He blamed media outlets and pro-nuclear politicians for jumping quickly to calm the public and hide the potential scope of the disaster. “Here in Washington, there’s lots of spinning going on. The New York Times was trying to downplay this before… but they’re not anymore,”

He also pointed out that it is still too early to compare it to a disaster such as Chernobyl, “Does it have to be Chernobyl to be important? We’ve had three explosions in three days.” Sokolski added, “It’s not Chernobyl, but it’s no Three Mile Island either.”

The scope of the disaster can’t be understated. Even the American military has taken action in response to the disaster. As of Tuesday morning, radiation dosage levels around the plant had been reported as high as 400 millisieverts per hour. A dose of 400 millisieverts per hour is generally adequate to induce mild (relatively speaking) radiation sickness after less than two hours of exposure. Sokolski noted to FrumForum that the US Navy’s aircraft carriers, which had been sent to help, had been repositioned to 100 miles offshore, ostensibly to avoid radiation danger to the sailors on board the (nuclear-powered) vessels.

Sokolski had the most to say about the potential policy implications of the Fukushima disaster, telling FrumForum that even pro-nuclear advocates are taking a collective breath about the future of nuclear power. “Everyone’s going to have to review stuff – even Lieberman’s taking a second look,” Sokolski said. He related the story of a Republican congressman who confided in him that “it’s not clear” that the House GOP caucus would still be supporting President Obama’s plan for the expansion of the American nuclear energy program, an outcome which was previously a foregone conclusion.

It is unclear how much the Japan disaster is attributable to “acts of God” and how much can be laid at the feet of “operator cock-up.” (Sokolski added that it’s increasingly looking like both.) However, there are still changes to its energy policy that America should take.

Sokolski is set to testify on the Hill on Thursday on nuclear export regulations. The US needs to make sure that anybody to whom it sells nuclear technology must be able to safely operate it. He warned that until the disaster, the US government was preparing to sell nuclear energy technology to the governments of both Jordan and Saudi Arabia, neither of which possesses adequate operational expertise.

Sokolski also quoted approvingly a speech given by John Rowe, the CEO of Exelon Energy (a large electrical utility provider), at the American Enterprise Institute. In the speech, Rowe said that of all the various problems facing the United States, energy is the one where the government would do good if it would just get out of the way, cease picking winners and losers with subsidies and taxes, and “stop telling us how to boil water.”

If nuclear power turns out to be what a fair, free market considers the best way to boil water and turn a turbine, then so be it, said Sokolski. But one gets the sense that, in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, Sokolski wouldn’t bet on it.

Follow Shawn on twitter: @shawnfs33

The Right Way to Defend Nuke Power

March 16th, 2011 at 2:17 pm 36 Comments

The tragedy in Japan has led to much criticism of nuclear energy (mostly by the left), patient attempts to defend it (mostly by the right), cheap and a lot of confused and worried people in the middle.  The accident in Japan — however serious — is not sufficient reason for us to completely abandon nuclear energy.  However, find many of the “industry pundits” defending nuclear power this week have failed to present arguments which will convince the American public.  Talking down to or talking past those who are worried about the incident in Japan won’t work.

Here are a few of the poorer arguments I’ve seen from nuclear power defenders since the Japan disaster, and my suggestions for more productive approaches:

Argument #1: “More People Died from the Tsunami and Earthquake than from the Nuclear Power Plants”

This is a red herring: true, but irrelevant.

One reason this is a bogus comparison is that we can’t control whether or not we have natural disasters, but we can control whether or not we build nuclear power plants.

The other is that the concern with nuclear power accidents is not immediate deaths, but the impact on long-term health, and the poisoning of the environment, which can last for centuries. Not very many people died immediately at Chernobyl, but eventual death totals could reach the thousands among those who were exposed. And the entire area was transformed into a wasteland.

There really isn’t a way to improve this argument, because it’s flatly fallacious. It would be better to focus on comparing the safety of nuclear to other options (see point #6 below).

Argument #2: “These Plants Used an Older Design; Ours are Newer and Better”

Again, this is true, but it’s not convincing to many people. The plants may have been old, but at one time they were new, and undoubtedly were portrayed as being the latest and greatest that technology had to offer. More modern plants are safer, sure, but they are also enormously expensive, and they require decades of use to recoup their costs. Materials and mechanisms degrade over time, and we discover things we didn’t know before. Again people will wonder: “Will we hear the same thing about newer plants being safer after a disaster in, say, 2041?”

A better approach here is to point out in terms that people can understand why and how newer designs are safer. How specifically would they prevent the problem that occurred here from happening again? What are the differences between types of fuel used in plants, methods of cooling, and safety measures? And this should be done without complex schematics and terminology, much of which even engineers and technology writers can’t always readily comprehend.

Argument #3: “The Plants Survived the Earthquake, Just Not the Tsunami”

Correct, but the designers knew from the start that they were putting the plants in an area that was threatened by tsunamis. Heck, there’s a reason why the English word for “destructive waves caused by an undersea earthquake” is Japanese in origin! Not only are tsunamis common in Japan, but the plants affected were built right on the ocean, in what appears on satellite imagery to be a flood plain. So why didn’t they have a plan to deal with what was, really, only a matter of time?

People don’t want to hear excuses. They want to hear how all of the reasonable potential risks are being addressed. Nobody expects every risk to be covered fully, but they want to know about how risks likely to a particular region will be addressed. A plant built in Kansas doesn’t need a tsunami contingency plan, but can it survive a direct hit from an F5 tornado?

Argument #4: “It’s Just Steam Releases, Not a Real Meltdown”

To most people, radiation is radiation is radiation. Also, being told “radiation was released but it’s not a real meltdown” strikes the average American about the same way as being told “you have cancer, but it could be worse.”

If there’s an important distinction between radiation released as steam and that coming from direct exposure of fissile material, then this needs to be explained to the public much more clearly. Far greater emphasis also should be placed on explaining the role of containment buildings—but not pretending that these are perfect or impermeable, because they aren’t. Discussing what we do when a serious event leads to a cracked containment vessel would be a good idea: what happens when the safety measures fail?

Argument #5: “The Radiation Leaked Isn’t That Bad”

Humans are terrified of things that are dangerous, things that can’t be seen, and things they don’t understand. Radiation is a direct hit on all three counts. When officials and pundits try to minimize the danger with hand-waving about how the radiation “isn’t that bad”, the natural reaction of most people is to get more scared.

The solution here is a combination of detailed information and education. Don’t tell people “radiation is at safe levels”. Nobody knows what that means, and it sounds sort of like “the amount of cyanide in your water is at safe levels”. Be specific. Use charts. Teach people more about radiation, how it works, and how it is measured. Compare the level of radiation released by these accidents to radiation we receive from other sources, such as the sun, to put it in perspective. And above all, be honest with people, because they can tell when you are trying to snow them.

Argument #6: “Everything Has Risks. Thousands Die in Car Crashes Every Year”

This is the nuclear power version of the classic argument in favor of air travel over road travel. It’s strictly speaking, correct; yet it ignores human nature. We are notoriously bad at risk assessment: just ask anyone who runs a lottery. We also tend to put far too much focus on splashy, attention-grabbing disasters, no matter how infrequent they are. So it doesn’t matter how rare these events are, or how many fewer people they kill than car accidents: they are newsworthy and they grab headlines.

The other problem here is that most of us do not have alternatives to traveling on the road; we do have alternatives to building nuclear power plants.

The proper approach here is a simple one: cost/benefit analysis. Don’t compare nuclear power to driving cars, but to other forms of energy production. How many people die each year on oil rigs or in refineries? Or mining coal? How about installing solar panels and wind turbines?

The same applies to longer-term issues such as health risks over time due to radiation exposure. How many ill health effects do Americans suffer from pollution due to burning coal and oil? This can even be more indirect: if a lack of nuclear power leads to a reduction in available electricity, or an increase in its cost, how many more people each year will become sick or die due to untreated conditions, lack of air conditioning, lack of access to other beneficial technology because of funds paid for electricity, etc.?

In the case of alternative energy, it is also important to explain how much power is generated by nuclear and how many solar panels or windmills would be needed to replace one plant. That adds important perspective. I hear many nuclear power opponents suggesting renewable energy options that, while often worth pursuing, are simply not feasible on a scale necessary to replace nuclear.

China’s New Wave Nuke Plants

David Frum March 15th, 2011 at 9:13 am 3 Comments

Evan Osnos in the New Yorker on the design of China’s new generation of nuclear plants:

[H]ow do some of these Chinese plants look up close? For that, I called Andrew Kadak, a professor of nuclear science at M.I.T., who has worked closely with Chinese nuclear officials at the Daya Bay plant in Shenzhen. “I served on a safety oversight board at the Daya Bay plant, and we had free access to the facilities, including all levels of management. These are basically French-designed plants, and they were very well maintained. And our goal was to try to create a U.S.-type operating culture, and we tried to do that, and the Chinese were very receptive to that.” He went on, “The plants that are now being built have all the current state-of-the-art designs in them. The plants that failed [in Japan] were relatively old. That’s the good part. The unknown, of course, is how do you plan for a humongous earthquake and a humongous tidal wave, especially when they are situated in a place vulnerable to this kind of upset.”

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The Fake Japanese Nuke Scare

March 12th, 2011 at 1:11 pm 163 Comments

An explosion at an earthquake damaged nuclear plant in Japan has raised fears of a nuclear incident. But how realistic are the fears?

This dramatic headline blasts out at us from the Drudge Report: “NUKE PLANT EXPLODES.”

To the general lay public, what is inferred is that a nuke plant has gone ballistic, creating some kind of thermonuclear explosion along with accompanying mushroom cloud, heat and blast, nuclear fallout, et cetera.

Even a so-called “expert” at the BBC suggests that a nuclear explosion is possible, although he stops short of claiming this is what we are seeing.

Truth be told, this is irresponsible journalism.  It is physically impossible for a light water nuclear reactor – the kind used to produce electrical power – to explode.

That being the case, what is it we are witnessing here?

Most likely what we are seeing is either a steam explosion – which is really a mechanical phenomena – or an actual chemical explosion caused by buildup of hydrogen gas or something similar.

This is not to say that a meltdown of the reactor core is not happening – this is actually quite a likely scenario, but does not necessarily equate to the kind of catastrophe witnessed at Chernobyl in 1986, where a rupture of the reactor vessel and a series of explosions exposed graphite moderator components of the reactor to the air where they ignited.  The resulting graphite fire sent a plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area, reaching as far away as Western Europe.

We have had nuclear accidents in the United States.  Most notable was Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979, but also significant was the less well-known partial meltdown in 1966 at the Enrico Fermi demonstration nuclear breeder reactor (Enrico Fermi-1 fast breeder reactor) caused by a malfunction of the sodium cooling system.  Like TMI, no contamination was recorded outside the containment vessel.

The difference between these events and the Chernobyl disaster is that our reactor vessels are located within thick concrete containment structures. At Chernobyl there was no containment – the reactor was located within a sheet metal building – and when the meltdown and resultant explosions occurred, radioactive gases and particles – i.e. fallout – were released directly into the atmosphere.

At TMI, on the other hand, a meltdown occurred, but due to containment, no radioactivity was detected in the surrounding countryside; this despite a deliberate release of radioactive gas to relieve pressure within the plant.

This is not to dismiss the events at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant out of hand.  Nuclear technology has definite hazards and requires special safety considerations. What is taking place at this plant is very critical, and a plan should probably have been in place to flood the reactor – perhaps with sea water – given a worst case scenario.

Bottom line: nuclear technology is inherently safe. As an engineer at an American atomic power plant once told me: “All we’re doing here is boiling water.” It is physically impossible for light water to cause a thermonuclear event, i.e. an atomic explosion.

It’s just against the laws of physics for a commercial-grade nuclear reactor to explode – the nuclear fuel is not refined to weapons-grade levels of concentration, like the plutonium found in nuclear weapons.

Consider for a moment all the damage to the environment and to human health caused by fossil fuels over the ages. Death and destruction due to accidents at coal- and oil-fired power plants, petroleum refineries and coal and oil mining operations are simply too high to get an accurate count on.

A boiler explodes at an oil-fired plant in Bangkok, nineteen men are killed, and it doesn’t even make the headlines. As a Special Forces Engineer, my training and experience includes a working knowledge of industrial infrastructure, with a focus on the damage that can be wrought to industrial systems via conventional war damage and good old-fashioned sabotage.

The fact of the matter is it’s far safer from a statistical point of view to live next to a nuclear power plant than it is to get into your car every morning and drive to work.

Originally published at STORMBRINGER.

Some Truths More Inconvenient than Others?

David Frum September 29th, 2009 at 11:17 am 67 Comments

Here is Paul Krugman this past weekend:

In a rational world, then, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern. But it manifestly isn’t. Why not?

Part of the answer is that it’s hard to keep peoples’ attention focused. Weather fluctuates — New Yorkers may recall the heat wave that pushed the thermometer above 90 in April — and even at a global level, this is enough to cause substantial year-to-year wobbles in average temperature. As a result, any year with record heat is normally followed by a number of cooler years: According to Britain’s Met Office, 1998 was the hottest year so far, although NASA — which arguably has better data — says it was 2005. And it’s all too easy to reach the false conclusion that the danger is past.

But the larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the industries of the future don’t.

Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.

Let’s test whose ideas are vested here. It ought to be unignorably obvious that the only near-term way to generate sufficient electricity while reducing the use of coal is nuclear power.

And yet… Krugman does ignore that particular inconvenient truth in this column and in so many others. In a 2006 exchange with readers, the Times columnist did have this to say:

William R. Mosby, Salt Lake City: Does nuclear energy have a part to play in mitigating global warming in the long term? Assuming it produces sufficient net energy and that fuel recycling/waste partitioning is used, nuclear energy could be one part of a non-CO2-emitting energy mix that would be sustainable for as long as a few thousand years, using the depleted uranium already in storage in the U.S. A great deal of research has already been done on the type of reactor and fuel recycling facility required to do this — the Integral Fast Reactor — but was canceled for political reasons in 1994.

However, those who see an urgent need to do something about global warming generally don’t talk about nuclear energy as a prominent part of the solution. Do they think that nuclear energy would be a bigger problem than global warming?

Paul Krugman: I was at a reception for Al Gore after a screening of his movie, and he was asked that very question. I thought his answer was very good. He said that yes, nuclear should be part of the mix, but it can’t be the main answer. And there are problems with nuclear we need to resolve: not just disposal of radioactive waste, but vulnerability to terrorist attack. In fact, as nuclear power becomes more common around the world, the possible misuse for weapons, terrorist or otherwise, will be a big problem. So unless there are some breakthroughs, nuclear power is only a piece, and maybe not a big one, of the solution.

But why can’t nuclear be the main answer? After all – there isn’t any other answer! Conservation can be incentivized through higher prices, yes. Solar and wind can contribute in some specialized niches. But remember, half of America’s electricity is generated by burning coal.  Only nuclear power is sufficiently cheap and scalable to replace so massive a power source. If your version of environmentalism cannot accept that truth, please kindly refrain from lecturing others about the blinding effects of ideology!

Pique Oil

September 3rd, 2009 at 1:54 pm 9 Comments

Ever since oil hit $147 a barrel last summer, analysts predicting “peak oil” – the point at which oil production begins sliding inexorably – have had a field day. Perhaps it’s true, but the earth doesn’t seem to want to cooperate, at least not yet.

BP yesterday announced the discovery of a “giant” oil field in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, 250 miles south and east of Houston. BP’s partner in the venture is PetroBras, the state-owned Brazilian oil company that itself has made such huge strikes off the shores of Brazil that that country will likely become an oil exporter in a few years. While BP is coy about the exact size of the new field, I am privately told by sources that it could rival BP’s existing Thunder Horse field in the GoM, which is the second largest in the US, after Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The technology involved in reaching this oil ought to boggle the mind: The platform sits nearly a mile above the ocean floor, while the oil and gas sit nearly seven more miles below that, under layers of rock and salt. The technology to go after these deposits, which are under enormous pressure at temperatures in the thousands of degrees, simply can’t be bought “off the shelf.” Energy companies file literally dozens, sometimes hundreds, of patents on each of these projects. The commitment of shareholder money, on something that is anything but a sure bet, is simply staggering.

I say “ought” to boggle the mind because no one seems much impressed with these amazing technological feats anymore. We used to be. The Trans-Continental Railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, the Empire State Building, the Grand Coulee Dam, etc. (Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the latter.) Like so many things, the thrill seemed to drain away in the 1970s. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, an engineering marvel, even today, was passed only when then-Vice President Spiro Agnew cast a tie-breaking vote in its favor on July 17, 1973. (The-freshman Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware led the opposition to the pipeline, BTW.) Americans seem to take such things for granted today, which is sad.

The Tiber strike, of course, only underlines what this country is likely missing in the areas offshore where drilling has not been allowed for over three decades: the eastern GoM off Florida, the coast of California and ANWR. It also underlines the cluelessness of America’s bipartisan don’t drill/no nukes/wind-and-solar-will-save-us energy “policy” that benefits no one but the sheiks who run Saudi Aramco.