Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Nuclear Power: How I Learned to Love It

Yesterday on NPR: a story about the nuclear power plant in Seabrook, NH. What's it like to live in the Shadow of Death? How can people stand knowing that evacuation, potassium pills, hysteria and panic, toxic plumes, and definite personal inconvenience are only a human error away? What will we do when The End comes?

I consider myself unusually qualified to address these issues. One, I live about four miles away from this particular nuclear power plant. Two, I'm a liberal-environmentalist type, and until a few years ago, I thought my life was pretty good except for one thing: this damn nuclear power plant. It could blow at any moment, was my thought. How would we all escape? When my mother came to visit me from the Midwest, she'd squirrel away a large amount of cash, so when catastrophe struck, I wouldn't have to be stuck in a line at the ATM. I could just stuff my son and my dog in the car, hit the Mass. Pike and get out of Dodge.

Then something happened: I actually learned what nuclear power was. My liberal friends (that is, all my friends) should have welcomed this. As liberals, after all, we're part of the set that prides itself on learning and nuance. We actually like to consider all parts of a question, sometimes even more parts than are actually there. Analysis Paralysis, my consort David the Conservative calls it. Conservatives, as we know, have their minds made up and aren't interested in changing them. But liberals - we're better than that.

But my friends didn't really welcome it. They visibly reared back (yes, like spooked horses) when I talked about it. They couldn't believe what they were hearing. I might as well have said I'd begun a new career selling meth at the local elementary school playground.

Well, maybe I was so content to be ignorant when it meant I got to feel outraged, too. But now that I actually knew a few facts, I had to reassess everything.

Let me tell you what I've figured out, from firsthand observation and lots of tutorials (David's a nuclear engineer, did I mention that?): the people who run nuclear power plants are the most anal individuals on earth. Somebody drops a wrench at 3 a.m., and somebody else shows up with a clipboard interviewing witnesses, asking How It Could Have Happened. Getting anywhere close to anything sensitive in a nuclear power plant is intensely difficult - far more so than most people can imagine. Even gaining access to the non-sensitive parts is almost impossible. And everywhere there are big military-looking guys with semi-automatic weapons watching you in case you step out of line. (I know, I've taken the tour. 'Step back from the fence, and no one will get hurt': This line was actually spoken. To me.)

To the 'but radiation is toxic' argument: there's more natural radiation in our environment than we want to think about, far more than in the typical unwanted "release" from a nuclear power plant. If we get irradiated, it'll be from flying in planes and baking ourselves in the sun, or from coal plant emissions, not from nuclear power.

To have a serious nuclear accident - one that would actually pollute the environment or hurt anybody - so many things have to go wrong, in just the right sequence, over so many hours, that realistically, it's not going to happen. Realistically, I'm talking about. Theoretically, sure: that's what they train for, what all those many, many elaborate exercises are for. If everybody trained like these nuclear power people, our hospitals and schools and government offices would be much more functional than they are. In fact, they'd probably work well.

One last thing (sorry, I'm on a roll, here): when a coal mine collapses and a bunch of miners suffocate, human lives have been lost to our society's energy needs. When air pollution from coal-burning power plants causes thousands of deaths a year from pulmonary disease, human lives are again being lost to our energy needs. This is before we even start talking about the calamity of global warming. But about coal, we somehow can't feel any particular outrage.

On the other hand, no one in this country has ever died from nuclear power, yet we're keeping our eagle-eyes peeled. This is dangerous stuff, nuclear power.

The nuclear industry, to its discredit, is reluctant to tell the whole truth about coal because nuclear plant operators often own coal plants as well. So they're playing both sides. But let's be adults here. Let's look at ourselves, get the facts, and stop overreacting to the wrong stuff.

To my liberal friends: More nuclear plants will be built, and soon. As the 'nuclear renaissance' gets underway, let's all take a deep breath. It's okay. It really is.

OK, I'll be quiet now. Just wanted to get this off my chest.


Anonymous said...

You go girl! Nice post.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

I'd like to add some nuance to being "realistic." A group of nuclear-expert engineers, who developed nuclear power, 19 members of the National Academy of Engineering, addressed engineering "realism" in a Policy Forum in the journal "Science" 20Sep02 (and response-to-comments 10Jan03). See here.

The public consequences of nuclear power accidents (i.e., damage to the reactor fuel) is not just limited because any such sequence of events is improbable (although it would be more likely to happen in a few hours than over a long period of time).

Our experience with several serious reactor core accidents, supported by extensive research on fuel failure modes and mechanisms shows that most radioactivity in fuels does not come "streaming out" of the fuel the way we assume it does in our unrealistic safety analyses. And the radioactivity that is released is not in a "weaponized" condition. It is not in the small particulate sizes and chemical stability to remain airborne in dispersible/breathable form in the mixing water/vapor containment atmosphere (even if the containment were leaking). The radioactivity is chemically highly reactive, and it clumps together and gets captured in the water and plates out on surfaces, etc.

As a result, there is relatively little available to be released from a containment. (Containment moisture tends to plug crack-type leaks. Testing containment leakage effects indicated that iodines could be in water slowly flowing through such passages, flowing down the outside of the containment building.)

The 1979 TMI core melting occurred in a couple of hours, with the containment open to, and radioactivity releases into, the auxiliary building. This led to some releases through the building vents. But trivial amounts of the radioiodines could be found immediately outside the buildings. None were measured in the control room air intake monitors.

Even with one-third of the core melted, with cooling water being released into the containment, the amount of radiation in the containment atmosphere was so much less than the unrealistic safety analyses calculations, that the operators thought that they were still trying to prevent core damage, with the exception of gaseous leakage from a few fuel rods. (A brief attachment to the “White Paper” at the above link describes the relevant experience of the TMI and Chernobyl accidents .)

So the public is protected not just by the improbability of severe reactor core damage, but by the “realism” of the actual physical and chemical conditions which severely constrain radioactivity dispersion inside, and similarly outside, a nuclear power plant.

Radiation doses and dose effects are similarly unrealistic in safety analyses calculations.

Combined with the realistic protection of people by sheltering or slowly walking away from any reported releases, and avoiding potentially-contaminated foods and milk, radiation doses and dose effects can't be significant, and not beyond a short distance from the plant, generally less than about a half mile.

It’s realistic to conclude that few if any people outside a nuclear power plant could have a radiation injury, much less be killed, by radiation exposure from any “worst case” accident.

The “long-term” health effects (e.g., an “increase” in cancer risk, say, from 25% to 25.0001%) are also unrealistically calculated in safety analyses. Most doses are well within the variations of natural background radiation, which show no adverse effects to people exposed to high-background doses vs. people with low or average doses. The same is true for radiation and nuclear medicine diagnostic procedures, which have been studied for more than 50 years.

Jim Muckerheide

Anonymous said...

I agree. Nuclear power is safe and clean. And it doesn't contribute to global warming.

Kit P said...

SnowDahlia is nice to see that you are developing a questioning attitude.

I would like to push you a little further. It is not true that air pollution from coal-burning power plants causes thousands of deaths a year from pulmonary disease. At least not in the US, China may be a different story because of air pollution and 5000 miners dying each year. It is also not true that utilities have different safety standards for coal plants.

The reason that a big deal is made over dropping a 'wrench at 3 a.m.' is that you can learn as much from doing a rot cause analysis (RCA) for a insignificant 'near miss' as a fatal accident.

When someone starts fear mongering about radiation or mercury, ask why they are doing this when 'zero' is the number of people in the US that have a measurable exposure (let alone dangerous) attributable to making electricity.

The reason CEOs of utilities want to build nuke and coal plants is to ensure a realizable supply of electricity at a reasonable cost.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Wassa matter with a schoolyward career?

Seriously, for me the problems with nuclear power are
1- waste,
2-proliferation (into nuclear weapons)
3- the unviability of it on the free market. If it had to pay the same premiums as your young son [great essay on teens, BTW) for the same valid reason, the price per kilowatt would be so high that solar would quickly be competitive. And conservatives like competition, no?

It has been interesting to start doing research into the history of early electricity, and Samuel Insull, who first set up government regulation of utilities. His call for government to regulate electricity was not well recieved at the 1898 Electrical business convention. But he was sortof far seeing, and the idea diffused.

Diffused into the sort of corruption that could have been the topic of an Ayn Rand novel.

Offtopic, but I think it's fascinating that there are two bestsellers dealing with 1890's Chicago: Second City and White City.

Silvana said...

Interesting to know.

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