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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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20 Responses

  1. scary stuff.just saw the northern part of NJ.that is flooded 😮

    • Wait, isn’t that where all the rich people are who don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes for state employees?
      Like, you get what you pay for?
      Just askin’.

      • Gosh, I sure hope they don’t need assistance from any state employees after the flood.

        • Yeah, I hope they don’t either.
          Oh, well, a lot of residents in north Jersey are quite well to do. I’m sure they will be resourceful.

    • I was just in the Manville- Bound Brook area yesterday where a couple rivers refuse to stay bound in their brooks. I didn’t see any flooding. Today might be different.

      • I was just in the Manville- Bound Brook area yesterday where a couple rivers refuse to stay bound in their brooks.

        LOL!
        Yeah, I was in New Brunswick-Piscataway and didn’t see anything.

  2. I live between two of them, both on earthquake faults. So, well… anyway, great points on those MBA’s, RD.

    This morning I’m following the Voice of America. And The Guardian. And, I’ll follow Uppity in here.

    http://www.voanews.com/english/news/usa/Expert-Nuclear-Radiation-Could-Spread-Far-Beyond-Japan-117899079.html

    When the VOA ran this?

    Well. At least they aren’t going to lie. I remember Three Mile Island and Cronkite. We don’t have any Cronkite’s in today’s media, unforch.

    Surfers at San Onofre showed us what happens, years ago, when exposed. And our generation carries Hiroshima. We were born afterwards. Our parents lived through the Cold War.

    These guys are in my town:

    http://www.wagingpeace.org/

    I wish there were guys like your dad running things.
    That would be great.

    I don’t know if any of you ever saw the film On the Beach, but…I pretty much felt like that all day yesterday. I really did. Japan has 55 plants. The Guardian reported there will be another quake.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/13/japan-earthquake-tsunami-nuclear-crisis

    Sends a hug. And a prayer or two. Mostly to Saint Patrick.

  3. My brothers have maintained reactors all over the world and they have learned a thing or two about the principles of scientific management and power plants. Like everything else Americans do, the process and maintenance can always be improved, reduced to fewer, more efficient processes and reproduced. NOBODY DOES THAT BETTER THAN THE JAPANESE. The “Made In Japan” tag resulted in even more competitive technology and research. Eventually owners of more than 5 acres of farmland will pass on letting Texas drillers lease the Marcellus Shale below their property and build a mini reactor, install a windmill and collect solar energy instead. Here in Butler County, PA, Westinghouse has built an engineering factory that will employ more than 3,000 to build their “New Age” reactors in China. Like you, I have lived with the glowing, singed toilet seat jokes my whole life and just see these little “accidents” as innoculation against fear. Power goes where it can be processed. Nuclear Reactionaries running around with their hair on fire serve as the direction not to go and help us find our way by eliminating themselves as an option. Insurance Companies – with their record keeping and “Aging” deliver the “Law of Large Numbers.” We just have to obey the Law and, I agree, RD, differentiate between the bottom-liners and the Ethicals. After all, who would know better than a Reactor Maintenance Crew how hot it would get if they don’t do their job properly? They actually get in there and feel that heat. But just like Iron Workers flinging hot rivets trailing a tail of flying sparks, they get into it, see the fun in mastery over Nature, and work “with it” to make a better world. Building Blocks.

    • Yeah, I’m beginning to think that some elements on the left have completely lost it.
      Isn’t it funny how the insurance industry keeps popping up? There’s AIG, the healthcare industry and anything related to kids. See freerangekids.com for the latest insurance co outrages at daycare centers and schools. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was behind the latest over the top security measures at airports.
      The insurance companies seem to fly under the radar. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be careful about risk and safety. But the insurance companies seem to be insisting on NO risk, which kinda defeats the whole purpose of insurance.

      • I give props to the nuclear engineers who approved flooding the reactors with sea water. And the architects who planned for this contigency.

        • They probably planned for just such a scenario. Funny how you can come through the worst if the worst of all possible situations, avert a catastrophe and still get treated like you’ve screwed up.
          There’s something wrong with that.

          • Funny how you can come through the worst if the worst of all possible situations, avert a catastrophe and still get treated like you’ve screwed up.

            Interesting …. it opens some weird/disturbing thoughts….

          • Don’t it just.

            I keep reading comments from californians who are spazzing out like, “don’t let that air drift over *my* house”. Yeah, like californians are special. Oh, not all of them but after all that’s happened in japan, you gotta wonder why the world owes them some extra special treatment.

            Then there are the people who are screaming, “see, I told you nuclear power plants were unsafe”. What exactly would they consider safe enough? Just how big do the earthquakes and tsunamis have to be? It’s amazing that the buildings weren’t swept away. Our American power plants should be built to these standards.

          • Years back, Frontline did an epiosde that was pro nuclear power. One of the points they made is that there are higher levels of radiation coming from the Radon in basments of homes around Three-Mile Island than from the storage casks. then there’s the radiation coming from the Carbon-14 mixed in with the Carbon-12 burned to make electricity.

            Then there’s the mixing of EMF with radioactive particles. Now, cell phone radiation may heat your organs to dangerous levels, but there are no alpha particles coming out of them.

          • Gee RD, I’m actually here in CA and I don’t know anyone who is “spazzing out”… having been through our own sizable earthquakes, there is deep concern for those in Japan…

            Are people generally expressing some concern about radiation traveling to the west coast? Sure… seems only natural, but the indictment regarding Californians as somehow feeling extra special seems rather harsh.

          • I’m with Old Coastie on this…I live in San Diego and the ‘buzz’ I get is shock and sadness to see what has and is happening in Japan. And, with the very real possibility of a large earthquake ALWAYS hanging over us and having two reactors here on our nearby coast, naturally we look at Japan and worry.

            I don’t know RD, where did your comment come from? Did you really need to write that?

          • Not making this stuff up. I was reading the comment section of another blog on the subject. Lots of californians freaking out.
            Japan is loooooooong way away. And for all we know, any radiation chucked into the atmosphere is going to take a circuitous route around the planet. Californians won’t be the only ones affected. But, yes, it was the californians who were behaving badly. When I find the link again, I’ll post.

  4. You do that.

  5. I was reassured just this morning, by Meredith Vierra, that Californians don’t have to worry about radioactivity drifting their way
    However, and I’m not making this up, the San Andreas fault is predicted to be the next “big one”. Based on ?, but that doesn’t stop the Speculatorium from going full bore, aka Today Show. 🙂
    *speculatorium is a term I saw on the Daily Show a while back, lol.

  6. […] I’d like to point to Riverdaughter’s Sunday post on the same subject. Once again, our news media does not fail to disappoint.  It’s not enough to […]

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