It is way past time to begin the long process of helping people understand how to rationally weigh the risks versus benefits of available power or fuel systems. For far too many years, promoters of immensely profitable products like natural gas have been loudly and frequently telling society about its benefits while glossing over the very real risks associated with extracting, transporting, and using a flammable, explosive gas.
In contrast, there really are no loud promoters of nuclear energy; at best, there are a few slightly extroverted engineering types who will tell the public that they have successfully eliminated almost all risk – and they often emphasize the word “almost”.
Aside: My good friend Margaret Harding has shared a joke several times on the Atomic Show that is worth repeating here.
“Do you know how you can tell an extroverted engineer?”
“He stares at your shoes instead of his own when he is talking to you.” End Aside.
The irrational contrast between what seems to be acceptable for natural gas and what others say is “acceptable” for nuclear has been quite clear to me for quite some time, but in the past month or so there have been several publicly discussed events that provide a teachable moment for sharing my thoughts.
During Hurricane (later called Superstorm) Sandy, there were several flooded neighborhoods that were engulfed in flames fed by natural gas from broken pipes.
Last weekend, a prosperous neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana was startled by an explosion that could be heard several miles away and that rattled windows in homes located more than a mile away from ground zero. Two homes were completely obliterated, several others have nothing left but a few external walls, and more than two dozen homes in the neighborhood are so damaged that they have been declared to be uninhabitable.
Though it has taken investigators several days to determine the cause of the explosion — and they are still not claiming to be completely certain — it is looking like the culprit was natural gas, perhaps released by a faulty appliance. Reading between the lines, it seems that the investigators are thinking that there was a leak into a home whose residents were out of town. Since there were no human detectors in the house to smell the gas, there was no prior warning. Judging from the photos, a substantial quantity of gas must have accumulated before it was ignited; there was a very powerful burst of released energy.
Aside: In one of my numerous assignments, I taught an introductory course in weapons systems engineering at the Naval Academy . As part of my preparation to become an instructor, I learned about what we called FAE – Fuel Air Explosives. They pack a powerful punch. The technology is frequently used to produce some of the largest non-nuclear bunker busting bombs.
From an engineering perspective, one of the biggest design challenges for an FAE is to properly atomize the fuel so that it mixes fully with air before ignition. That challenge disappears when the fuel is a lighter-than-air gas (CH4, aka methane, aka natural gas) fed slowly into a sealed volume of air – like a modern home.
This video may provoke some thinking about how the home explosion in Indiana might have looked if there had been any slow motion video equipment recording the event.
However, despite the destruction and human casualties, it is quite apparent that names like South Mantoloking, Breezy Point, Bay Head, Seaside Park, Long Beach Island, and Indianapolis are not going to be added to our common lexicon in a manner similar to “Fukushima”, even though each one of those places experienced destruction of private homes and public places caused by the direct impact of natural gas-fed fires or explosions.
In contrast, though the word “Fukushima” has been inserted into our worldwide vocabulary as a term that is supposed to cause instant trembling, there were no homes and no public buildings in the Japanese province destroyed by the direct impact of the melted reactor cores or the brief hydrogen explosions. If there are any buildings in the area have been physically damaged, that destruction was caused either by the earthquake, the tsunami, or by the forced abandonment of the entire area. When humans leave their infrastructure behind, it rapidly deteriorates.
The forced abandonment of the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station, like the one in the areas near Chernobyl, was driven by an unreasonable fear of the possible long term health effects of exposure to a small amount of radiation. Just a few days ago, I read another news story about a tight knit community of stubborn Ukrainian women who refused to leave their homes in Chernobyl’s “Dead Zone”. After more than 26 years of living off of the land in an area that the media insists is a “toxic wasteland”, they are still living a more healthy existence than that of the people who followed the evacuation orders.
When I discuss the contrast in “acceptable risk” between natural gas and nuclear energy with my pro nuclear advocate colleagues, they often slough it off. Some will say that the public has no real ability to make rational risk assessments. Some say that the public has a visceral and innate fear of radiation that can never be overcome. Others say that the problem is one of familiarity – many people use natural gas routinely and safely, but they accept that it can be dangerous if used improperly. Still others claim that the acceptability issue that nuclear energy has is that the public thinks that they have no control over it; they can be innocently living their lives and suddenly be displaced as a result of something happening at a nearby plant.
Aside: I wonder if the people living in Indianapolis had any control over the explosion or if the people who lived in San Bruno, California had any ability to tell the gas company to maintain the pipe that they did not even know existed under their neighborhood. End Aside.
I reject those arguments as either insufficient explanations or as beside the point. In my analysis, the real issue is that the public has been carefully taught to fear nuclear energy — often by people involved in competitive industries or who have a general dislike of any abundant energy source that provides power to the people — while they have been taught that natural gas provides so many benefits that its risks can be accepted. The nuclear industry has rarely sought to tell the public about the benefits or to compare its risks with those of its competitors.
Sometimes, people who oppose nuclear energy accuse nuclear promoters of overselling, but the examples they use demonstrate how silly that notion is. They point to a statement made during a 1954 (five years before I was born) speech about “electricity too cheap to meter” or they claim that the Japanese nuclear operators — who are rapidly approaching a bankrupt condition because they are only selling product from 2 of 50 operable units — have an excessive influence on government decision making.
Aside: I once went to sea with a political science major. As two “bull majors” in a ship full of engineers, we engaged in lengthy discussions about politics, philosophy, literature and the human condition. One of the things I learned from Mike was that our political, legal and economic system worked as well as it did because our founding fathers recognized that humans might never agree, but that an adversarial system of politics, justice and business put enough checks and balances into the mix so that our overall progress was in the positive direction. End Aside.
What we are missing in the energy discussion is a more adversarial approach by all sides where each fuel source or energy system makes its own case to the public. As any good legal advocate or advertising specialist understands, making a case involves both building up your own positives and exploiting as many of the weaknesses of the opposition as possible. It is only through an adversarial, fully competitive approach that both strengths and weaknesses get exposed, tested and perhaps even overcome.
For some reason, many engineers have been taught to go along to get along and to avoid challenging others who have slightly different areas of expertise. They seek to stay in their swim lane and to avoid throwing stones. That is especially true when those engineers work for the government or for conglomerates that are involved in many different kinds of energy systems. I personally think that approach leads to poor decision making.
People who think that nuclear energy is acceptably safe and highly beneficial to to the public need to say so frequently and publicly. We should take our cue from natural gas marketers, who frequently tell us that they have 100 years of fuel right below our feet, that America’s Natural Gas Industry provides clean, affordable energy and good jobs, and that “clean natural gas” is cheap and will be forever — unless the analysis is coming from the financial side of the natural gas company and they are talking to outside analysts during a quarterly earnings call.
Rational decision making requires a realization that perception is NOT reality, that decisions about important issues like energy supply systems are too important to be made with emotions instead of facts, and that the biggest advantage that human beings have over other mammals is our ability to reason. In order to make reasonable decisions, we need to know about and weigh both positives and negatives.
We need to keep exercising our rational, cognitive ability in order to leave our children and grandchildren a world full of resources that has not been irreversibly crapped up by continuing to dump 30 billion tons (and growing) of waste products into the atmosphere every year. I am confident that the public is up to the task, but they need to be given the required information without any reluctance to expose the negatives while acknowledging that there are plenty of people who are paid to promote the positives of petroleum – a word that technically encompasses natural gas.