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The Future of Nuclear Power

This past Saturday I reprinted a political cartoon that questioned the future of nuclear energy. I got two comments on it, citing the age of the reactors in Japan and implying that nuclear can be safe. Then I received a comment from regular reader and sometimes guest poster, Elle. It was long enough and thoughtful enough to have a post of its own (with her permission of course.) Here’s Elle’s thoughts on this matter:

The basic technology of the boiling water reactors (BWRs) in Japan is from the 1970s and 1980s, with upgrades being constant. The idea for a boiling water reactor was hatched in the 1950s.

Regarding the safety of BWR plants, in my opinion and writing as a retired nuclear engineer, every nuclear engineer who swore by the BWRs’ safety must eat crow (to say the absolute very least, and with great sympathy for what is a horrible situation in Japan). Nuclear engineers are trained in risk assessment and so planning for the worst case. Manuals that stack up to many feet high address everything, step by step and with numerous permutations depending on what was available in a disaster, from flooding to earthquakes to multiple failures to a rogue airplane hitting the containment structure to more. The size of the earthquake and tsunami that afflicted Japan were not unprecedented. Designers should have considered such an earthquake and tsunami, particularly insofar as anticipating a complete loss of power to run the motors that run cooling water pumps. That the diesel generators to be used for backup power were in the basement (so I have read) boggles the mind.

“This is not Chernobyl” is a platitude that ignores the massive devastation that is reality now and will be for years in this part of Japan. I am embarrassed to have said in the past that nuclear power in the U.S. (and by implication, Japan) is safe. Those poor people in Japan, especially the on-site workers who had nothing to do with the design of their plant. Never would I have forced nuclear power on anyone. But now I would not even suggest it without a complete analysis of what went wrong in Japan and the possibility of this going wrong elsewhere in the world. Coal powered plants (the leading source for electric power) have their evils and do their own kind of
pollution. This will continue to have to be weighed against the risk of the pollution of nuclear power.

  • Augustine April 6, 2011, 11:49 am

    I keep hearing about the wonders of the thorium reactor, invented in the US in the 50’s, but discarded because it didn’t produce the desired by-product then: plutonium.

    But I’d appreciate if Elle, as a nuclear engineer, has an informed opinion about them, as in this article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/8393984/Safe-nuclear-does-exist-and-China-is-leading-the-way-with-thorium.html


  • Elle April 6, 2011, 4:58 pm

    Your opinion is probably more informed on the thorium plant than mine. I will proffer that I do not think it was merely the lack of plutonium as a byproduct that led to it not being implemented to any great extent.

    The most exposure I have had with this design or one similar to it is via the D1G plant. Decades ago I actually walked around this plant a bit and rubbed elbows regularly with some who worked at it. This of course was after it had been converted from liquid sodium etc. to a pressurized water reactor plant. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D1G_reactor. I remember at this time being told the D1G plant was originally cooled with liquid sodium but then was converted, I think for reasons given (admittedly vaguely) at the wiki site: Leaked fumes were too hazardous. See the mention of “blue haze” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Seawolf_%28SSN-575%29

    I would not bank on any new reactor design without a lot more study. New innovation is expensive and represents the unknown. And you know how people feel about the unknown.

    Much is possible, though. It took a dream to make the now popular pressurized water reactor plant a reality c. 1950s. This could happen with the thorium reactor or any other design. (I am sure you know this. Just saying that things evolve.)

    Personally, despite, as I mentioned earlier, long having argued that commercial nuclear power was generally safe, I have at the same time often expressed my dismay at the lack of planning for long term storage for spent fuel. I remember a certain commercial plant putting out a brochure for the public saying the plan was to last something like 30 years (with periods of re-fueling and removing spent fuel rods), but there was room in the spent fuel pools for something like only 20 years of spent fuel. I found this irritating. As many here have read, the stored, spent fuel in Japan is greatly aggravating the situation there.

    Random thoughts. I am no expert but I think any nuclear engineer who does not take serious pause at events in Japan is not worth his or her salt as an engineer.

  • Chinaren April 7, 2011, 12:29 am

    I’m sorry, but how many people have been hurt or injured by the nuclear plant in Japan? As far as I know: Three engineers who had the equivalent of sunburn.

    Considering how old the plant is, and that it stood up to a nine scale earthquake and then a tsunami, I’d say I feel*more* confident in it rather than less.

    Yes, there needs to be a review, but the failure here mainly in having the diesel backup pumps in a place that could be affected by the tsunami and the placing of the old rods for cooling.

    Minimal amounts of radiation have got out, and nothing like a health risk.

    Considering the dangers of coal and oil, I’ll take my chances with the nuclear option thank you.

  • Elle April 7, 2011, 10:10 am

    The tsunami and earthquake occurred at about 2:46 PM Tokyo time (1:46 AM New York time) on Friday, March 11. By late Friday evening in the United States, my sense was the media was not getting the whole story (or for a change, chose not to report the whole story) and that something of a coverup was going on. Normally I think the media overstates problems with nuclear plants. For this event, I think the media understated things, for whatever reason. (I am inclined to be a little generous, because from what was coming through, things were horrifically serious, with engineers and technicians absolutely unsure at what steps to take to cool the plant, given how many emergency systems were not working. The staff were improvising on the spot. Plant staff were so busy that a full, professional assessment was not possible. The media may have wanted to help minimize panic; it is hard to say with all the confusion.) Late Friday I thought the staff might have to resort to flooding the plants with sea water, the last resort (more below on this). Saturday this was indeed announced. The hydrogen explosion announced on Saturday was confirmation that things were, and not to be dramatic but to be coldly factual, out of control of the staff, though they did what they could. The explosion, and the several others that have happened, should never ever have occurred, were the safety systems operating as designed. In my opinion, while radiation levels were not as serious as what one saw in movies like “K-19: The Widowmaker,” the panic you saw in this film was likely identical to that at these plants. I am trying to convey the depth of the emergency, not alarm people. The situation is much worse than Three Mile Island. It is not as bad as Chernobyl nor K-19. For whatever such accounting practices are worth in disasters like this.

    Wiki has the best update on injury that I could find quickly:
    “As of 14 March, about 160 people have been exposed to dangerous radiation levels near the power stations. One plant employee was killed while operating a crane, eight others had been injured. An additional eleven employees were injured when the Reactor 3 building exploded. Several people received some radiation doses… As of 16 March 2011, five plant workers have died and 22 others have been injured. Two others are reported missing.”

    From my reading, a number of workers had radiation sickness. This means vomiting, burns, more. Exposure was significant when this happens. When any radiation sickness occurs, those trained in nuclear work know things are extremely serious. “Burning” from a radiation source has far deeper implications than a mere sunburn. There is no comparison, healthwise. The wounds do not heal quickly. Typically the burns wounds leave the victim highly vulnerable to infection. Never mind the cellular damage from radiation beyond the burn site on the body.

    When a melting of the fuel occurs, the plants may be or are completely irreparable. It seems at least two of the plants experienced meltdowns. I am thinking it is more likely at least three. This does not count what is happening in the spent fuel pools. At least as much effort is now being spent on the spent fuel pools. Both situations will be gravely dangerous for the long run (like several years).

    When the final backup cooling source (in this case, the ocean) is used, the plants have been written off, never to be used again without a complete re-fueling. Sea water is injected for the safety of people reasons, not for the safety of property. You can read the articles indicating the company who owns the plant is thought to have delayed inappropriately in injecting sea water. This will be debated for some time but if forced to bet, I lean towards the delay being inappropriate. The longer you delay, the more likely the melting and distortion of fuel will impede the passage, through the original design of channels, of whatever liquid is hoped to keep the fuel cool.

    Elle’s opinion on the risk to the general public: As noted above, nothing like Chernobyl. Worse than Three Mile Island. It is most definitely a local public health risk. Evacuations were and are appropriate. The extent is hard to assess until years go by. I would not bet one way or another at this point; I am still not sure we are getting very good information. Elle’s opinion on the risk to plant workers: Much closer to Chernobyl than Three Mile Island. Every worker taking on more radiation exposure than usual at these plants is a hero. I think that many are doing this because of the sense of honor in Japanese culture and knowing that their life expectancy is going to be shortened. I am a little surprised Navy nukes are not more involved. I suspect the reason is that the radiation levels are dangerously high, and U. S. officials think it inappropriate to do more at such high risk to navy nuke trained U.S. sailors.

  • Augustine April 7, 2011, 1:39 pm

    And American engineers who visited the sire didn’t bring good news: http://nyti.ms/hZZ78f

    From this account, only now are the facts coming out, and they are worse then initially thought. To be fair though, I think that the plant was too busy to hold press conferences.

    I think that it’ll be some 25 years before nuclear energy is even considered again without a major breakthrough away from such complex systems as current reactors are.

    Anyways, I appreciate the informed dialog.

  • Len Penzo April 9, 2011, 11:36 am

    Excellent discussion! 🙂

    As an engineer myself, let me make clear that, design decisions related to reducing risk is ultimately the call of those who handle the purse strings. In other words, those who pay the bill make the final decision regarding how much risk reduction they want to purchase.

    That being said, if we are being pragmatic, this accident should have little impact on the future of nuclear power. Engineers will learn from their mistakes and future designs will be improved upon.

    The truth is., in the grand scheme of things, coal plants currently expose more people to radiation than nuclear ones because the natural uranium and thorium in fly ash produced by those plants do not have stringent storage/control requirements.

    We need to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    All the best,

    Len Penzo dot Com

  • Ruth April 10, 2011, 9:06 pm

    Isn’t there a nuclear reactor design that doesn’t have any waste products? Experimental, if I remember right. I think Bill Gates was talking about it in an interview a while back, it’s sort of a pet project of his. From what I remember he said it could use the spent fuel from other reactors.

  • Elle April 11, 2011, 10:26 pm

    I wrote above, “This is not Chernobyl.” One month after the tsunami, and using the International Nuclear Event Scale, the rating of the situation at Japan’s tsunami-hit nuclear plants has been upgraded to the same as that of Chernobyl. See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/12/world/asia/12japan.html?partner=rss&emc=rss .

    I wonder if some of us (myself included) are guilty of ‘not believing our instrumentation.’ This concept is taught in naval nuclear propulsion training. It is a psychological defense mechanism that a person will tend to unconsciously employ when an accident is occurring. ‘This gage has never read this high… it can’t really be this bad, can it? The gage must be broken… ‘ The mind ponders and questions, despite having all the indications in front of one’s eyes that it is /this bad/. Denial. It is why for the most part operators are trained to follow the manuals, so there is no choice to make. You follow the manual.

    The New York Times elaborates with numbers to justify the Chernobyl level rating.

    Ruth, I googled and (for the quick reference of those interested) see you are referring to the “Traveling Wave Reactor.”

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