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Sunday: Nukes in the News

Once again, our news media does not fail to disappoint.  It’s not enough to revel in the mass destruction caused by a supersized earthquake and mega tsunami.  No, now we must wait with breathless anticipation for the catastrophic Chernyobal style nuclear fuel meltdown that is *sure* to follow.  As plutoniumpage said cynically last night on Twitter, Mothra has been sighted off the east coast of Japan.  I blame the entertainment industry.  Hollywood has made one too many Armageddon genre movies in recent years.  We seem disappointed that the waves weren’t bigger, the cracks in the earth didn’t swallow skyscrapers whole and the nuclear meltdown isn’t turning the night sky neon green.

Actually, this is one end-of-the-world scenario that is probably *not* keeping my mother up all night.  Full disclosure: my dad was a nuclear reactor maintenance specialist.  Trained by the Navy and having spent several years at a reactor research facility in upstate New York, he was recruited by Three Mile Island after the accident to put their remaining undamaged reactor online and maintain it.

So, while I’m not an expert, I don’t have an irrational fear of nuclear energy.  I just have a healthy respect for it.  Despite that, I wouldn’t build one in the US right now but I’ll get to that in a sec.

Some of the things we should think about when reading the news accounts of the problem in Japan are common sense but we tend to forget them when there’s a good story, which is what the media is flogging right now.  Here’s some of the ones that popped into my mind:

1.) Whether or not the Japanese government is lying about the seriousness and extent of the damage to the reactor, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain a lie for very long.  International monitoring systems are going to ferret out the truth pretty shortly.   Radiation gets picked up by the atmosphere and circulates the globe in surprising ways.  If there’s an unholy amount of radiation from these plants, we’re going to know about it very soon.

2.) When the media reports that the radiation levels are measuring 1000x what is normal, ask yourself, “relative to what?”  How many zeros precede or follow the decimal point?  What are the units?  The media has been very bad a reporting this stuff.  A number is meaningless without context.  I’m not saying that the risk is small, mostly because I don’t know and no amount of radiation exposure in excess of allowable limits should be considered “safe”, especially for fetuses.  All I’m saying is that the media has failed to describe this amount of radiation in understandable human terms, like how many xrays is this equivalent to?  How much would make you sick?  How sick?  What’s the governmental limit in Japan vs the US?  Stuff like that.  If they aren’t elaborating on the numbers, then they’re just throwing big numbers around to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

3.) What’s the difference between the Japanese reactor design and the one at Chernyobal or TMI? Which parts are affected?  Which parts were involved in yesterday’s explosion? Having some basic explanation and simple diagrams of how these style reactors work would help the audience understand the parameters and the risks of each.  While our American media doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of this, there are other sources.  Also, plutoniumpage has been tweeting good resources and people knowlegeable in the field to follow.  If you want a calm, level headed resource and references to other knowledgeable nuke commenters, follow Page.

Here are some good places to get started:

Allthingsnuclear has updates on the Fukushima plants

The NRC explains how Boiling Water Reactors work in easy to digest text and diagrams

The NYTimes has an interactive feature of the Fukushima plants (well, the NYTimes isn’t getting worse).

So, here’s my perspective on these plants.  Yes, the situation is serious but a Chernyobal style meltdown is unlikely at any of them.  These plants have extensive containment systems that would prevent that.  That doesn’t mean a partial meltdown isn’t possible, and may have already happened.  But the world, and even Japan, isn’t going to come to an end.  From what I’ve read, it would be more in line with a TMI type event.  Radiation has been released and iodine has been distributed to people in the affected area.  It’s probably hard for the Japanese government to make a full assessment as to the extent of the exposure to the population in the area right now.  Until they do, the media is just speculating- wildly.

Ok, so why wouldn’t I build nuclear plants today.

First, let’s talk about the safety of these Fukushima plants.  They’ve come through a massive earthquake, giant tsunami and power failures.  The fact that there aren’t more serious problems at these plants after these events is a testament to their design and multiple redundancy backup systems.  Yep, their backup systems are experiencing problems right now but I think the Japanese have made the right call to flood one of the reactors with seawater even if it means losing it. Better to be safe than sorry.  Give them some credit.

While we do have many BWRs in the US, we haven’t built any new facilities in 30 years.  That’s because, as usual, Americans overreacted (no pun intended) to the TMI accident.  Americans seem to be predisposed to magnify problems where nuclear issues are concerned to a hyperbolic degree.  I don’t know if that’s because we who were children during the cold war are predisposed to have a Pavlovian response to the word nuclear or what exactly.  But whatever it is, we fail to discriminate and tend to treat everything with the word “nuclear” in it with extreme fear and loathing.  For example, what most average Americans call an MRI, Magnetic Resonance Imager, most chemists would call a NMRI, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imager.  But if the medical community called it *that*, no one would get in the sucker.  So they dropped the nuclear bit from the name.

The truth is, nuclear energy in the US has a pretty impressive safety record.  It doesn’t matter if you’re on the left or the right, you are obligated to look at that record if you want to make your point.  Unfortunately, very few people on the left are capable of leaving their ideology aside where nuclear issues are concerned and actually LOOK at the numbers.  That’s not very rational.  NO, I am not a Republican.  I loathe Republicans.  But as a lefty, I have the right to criticize my tribe for their faith-based behavior.  When it comes to issues such as nuclear energy, pharmaceuticals and immunizations, the left can sometimes be as anti-intellectual as the right is about evolution and climate change.  We’re just as nutty as the right is.  It’s just that our issues are different.  Let’s stop flattering ourselves.

Nevertheless, nuclear energy is not something you want just anyone monkeying around with.  It’s genuinely dangerous when not used with the utmost attention to regulation, safety and design.  Of course, a reactor built today is going to have a much different design than one built 40 years ago.  We could and should expect advancements in technology to make them safer.

But in this business environment, with arrogant, smartass, MBAs running industries they know nothing about and trying to reduce everything to the bottom line, building a new nuclear reactor in the US, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, would be a recipe for disaster.  In fact, I’d be checking up on the ones we already have.  The nuclear industry must have regulation.  That doesn’t mean we have to be stuck with the regulations we have that are 40 years old or that regulations have to be so burdensome that nuclear power is too expensive to use.  It’s that regulation is necessary in this industry because it will make everyone more accountable and safer.

More than that though is that the nuclear power industry will have to rely on human beings to build, run, monitor and maintain the new reactors.  That means hiring experienced and well trained people of the highest integrity to do it and who approach their work with rigor and discipline.  You can’t cut corners with your plant operators and maintenance specialists.  These people have to be paid well and respected.  Don’t even think about reducing them to subsistence wages.  I don’t see the MBAs really understanding that concept.  They don’t seem to teach it at business school.  A human resource at a nuclear power plant is not just a number on a spreadsheet.  That person is an investment in safety and should be an expert, paid as well or better than some cheeky Wharton asshole sitting in an office somewhere.

So, until the business community gets that, I’m not in favor of building new nukes.  Maybe someday, when the oil crisis gets really serious and we’ve had it up to here with the speculators and the biz school grads, we can revisit this issue.  Maybe hire some experienced Navy nuke experts to run things and replace the “smartest guys in the room”. I won’t hold my breath.

In the meantime, let’s maintain a healthy fear and skepticism and turn our focus to the survivors of the devastating natural events in Japan.  This is not entertainment.

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