There is a depressing meme circulating around the Internet and in the commercial media that attempts to use BP’s incredibly costly accident on the Deepwater Horizon as a reason why we should avoid using nuclear energy. (See, for example, BP spill an argument against nuclear power.)
The very idea of trying to use what is happening in the Gulf as a reason to halt the development of nuclear energy requires a serious suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, many people in the world have trouble telling the difference between science and science fiction. They also have trouble understanding the difference between events that may be probable, unlikely, extremely remote or even impossible.
Some of the commentators who have tried to point to the Deepwater Horizon debacle as an excuse to take even more extreme measures to slow down nuclear energy development might simply be expressing a fear born by ignorance of how technology and mechanics actually work. They might also be expressing a long held distrust or misunderstanding of the engineers, mathematicians, materials scientists and the other geeks that always took classes at the other end of the campus from the literature and arts buildings.
Others are actually expressing a fear or distrust of big business and the relentless cost cutting that has recently governed the actions of many (but not all) decision makers seeking to increase their profits. There have also been a few comments from people with a long history of twisting any news story about energy into a tirade against nuclear energy development.
Finally there are even be a few people that are linking Deepwater Horizon to concerns about nuclear energy development who actually have deep roots in the petroleum industry. They are doing all they can to deflect attention and protect their existing market share from a technology that might finally get its due recognition as the only available technology that can replace petroleum in a number of key market segments. Nuclear energy has proven over many decades that it is often more reliable, far cleaner and less costly than petroleum; it might even be able to make risky – but often very profitable – endeavors like extreme deepwater drilling unnecessary.
Part of the situation that allows a distracting linkage from Deepwater to nuclear energy to be imposed is the failure by technologists to clearly communicate and bluntly dispute science fiction wherever it occurs. There are a few of us, however, who are willing to try.
One of my heros is Ted Rockwell, a man who recently celebrated his 88th birthday. Ted has been involved in nuclear technology development since the very earliest days after self-sustaining fission chain reactions had been proven to be possible. Here is what Ted recently said about the potential consequences of what was probably the worst possible accident that can occur – even a plant where safety was not the primary design concern. The quote comes from an interview for Nuclear Townhall titled Rickover to the Renaissance:
NTH: There have been claims that hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. What’s your take on that?
Rockwell: I blame it largely on the reluctance of nuclear people to speak out bluntly to repudiate false claims. Sure, the anti-nukes spread phony stories, and the press cherry picks the dramatic ones and downplays the dull truth. That’s the world we live in. Our adversaries are playing their usual roles, but we don’t play ours. I’m told that telling our side of the story would just be written off by the public as self-serving. Of course! As Rabbi Hillel said 2000 years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
I also hear complaints that these issues are seldom settled on the basis of science, so why bother? But that’s just an excuse for scientists and engineers to shirk their duty. Our job is to state the science clearly, in advising those who set the policy. If we do our job properly, then the decision makers will have to defend any other bases for decision.
When we hear a claim that is based on poor science, or none, we generally respond with a lot of mumbling about probability and endless qualifying remarks that may be models of good public relations practice, upsetting no one, but leaving the false claim largely unchallenged. The whole business about “nothing is really 100% safe,” and “we’re looking into the matter” implies that the complaint has a firmer basis than the response. There ARE some absolutes, and we should state them. A used fuel container is not a “mobile Chernobyl.” It cannot explode like a bomb, Period. No ifs or qualifiers.
The conclusion that the reactor or the fuel of an American commercial power plant cannot realistically create a significant public health hazard has been published and documented in two peer-reviewed papers in Science, by 19 top nuclear experts, all members of the National Academy of Engineering. That conclusion reaffirms and updates previous reports by EPRI and others, as a result a multi-national, billion-dollar research program, carried out during the past four decades. That conclusion was affirmed by the then-Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If someone wants to claim that the conclusion is flawed or incomplete, he should start first by challenging that paper and its extensive supporting data.
(Aside: Ted, who recently lost his wife of more than 50 years to a long illness, confided to me that his long term plan is to live to be one hundred and then get shot by a jealous husband. Anyone who has heard him talk recently would agree that he is fully capable of making that plan happen. End Aside.)
The big difference between the way that we treat nuclear energy and the way that we treat the more familiar petroleum energy is that useful nuclear energy development started with the widespread knowledge that the materials in use were so exceedingly powerful that they required a great deal of careful engineering and thought. From the very beginning, people like Admiral Rickover demanded high standards, instilled a safety culture, and required effective quality control programs.
There was a period in the 1970s when the industry was expanding so rapidly that some of the early lessons started to fade a bit for some of the newly trained people or some of the new entrants into the field of reactor plant development. There were people like Alvin Weinberg who expressed their concerns about reactor plant safety, especially as the plant designers pressed for ever larger units to take advantage of “the economy of scale”.
As Weinberg watched his light water reactor invention get far larger than anything he had ever considered, he knew that the designers were not testing full systems. They were relying on the results of experiments done on much smaller scale components and then applying mathematics to claim safety. (This situation has been resolved over many decades through the efforts of thousands of engineers, technicians and material scientists. The fears that Weinberg expressed in the 1960s and 1970s have been resolved to the satisfaction of the people that Rockwell mentioned who have studied the issues in great detail.)
The heady days when there was perhaps a bit too much appetite for risk stopped in March of 1979 w
hen a cascading series of mistakes resulted in the destruction of a nearly new nuclear plant that had cost the owner about a billion (then year) dollars to complete. Not only did Three Mile Island Unit 2 never again produce any revenue for its owners, but it also resulted in a widespread fear of the technology that inhibited other development and it required a multi-year, billion dollar clean up effort. The combination of the accident, the negative publicity and the clean-up effort bankrupted the owner.
The post accident analysis resulted in a number of needed changes in the way that nuclear plants are designed, operated and evaluated. Indications and warning systems were simplified, high fidelity simulators were developed to enable realistic operator training, and the industry leaders formed an organization called INPO – the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations whose mission is “to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability – to promote excellence – in the operation of commercial nuclear power plants.”
A commonly repeated mantra in the nuclear industry is “an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere”. I have been around several different major industries and attended large gatherings of those industries – though other industries may have programs for sharing lessons learned and best practices, I am fairly confident that none do it with MORE dedication and focus than the nuclear industry. Leaders in that industry really do take their responsibility seriously and they work very hard to protect the value of their company’s investments – even at the expense of short term profits.
Aside from the lessons on what needed to be fixed with nuclear energy before proceeding on to future expansion, what Three Mile Island also showed was that the conservatively designed safety systems, the “defense in depth” layers of physical protection, and the precaution of building and testing a sufficient containment building BEFORE operating a high pressure, high temperature nuclear steam production system WORKED. Though radioactive steam filled the containment building, inconsequential amounts of radioactive material entered the surrounding environment. Even though 20-40% of the fuel inside the core of the Three Mile Island reactor melted and slumped down to the bottom of the pressure vessel, the maximum penetration into the 8 inches of high quality steel in the bottom of the pressure vessel was just 5/8 of an inch.
The journey to “China” – as proposed by the adherents of the theory of a “China Syndrome” where nothing could stop a melting core – was proven to be a complete fantasy. Once a fission reactor is shut down by the natural processes that halt the fission reaction, the residual heat from radioactive material decay is simply not intense enough to melt through the many layers of steel and concrete that isolate that material from the environment.
The situation in well-run nuclear energy production operations is far removed from that of an exploratory well drilled in deep water by a group of people who were driven by short term concerns about daily expenditures that totaled a few million dollars – at most. Of course, there are perpetual doubters who ask – how can we be certain that the operations will be well run, but those doubters need to understand that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a strong, independent and effective regulator that provides the suspenders that add a third layer of checking to the belt (INPO) and snug pants (careful design, effective quality control and trained operators) that the industry already provides to itself.
There is a lesson from the Deepwater Horizon that should be applied to nuclear energy; we need to continually remind ourselves of the importance of taking the long term view and refusing to go along with people who focus on short term profits produced by cutting costs without full recognition of the associated risks. Even with all of the existing processes and systems in place, eternal vigilance is needed to guard against human foibles like greed, even if those weaknesses find their way into the executive suite. No matter what Gordon Gekko said, greed is not good, it is dangerous.
I cannot imagine how stupid the folks responsible for influencing and directly making the decisions on that drilling rig must feel as they watch tens of millions of dollars per day worth of oil spew out into uncontrolled areas. Not only is that revenue producing material failing to be captured, but it is causing billions of dollars of damage that their very large, well established and formerly profitable company is responsible for fixing.
I hope they keep asking themselves – what was our hurry? Why did we push so hard to cut so many corners and ignore so many warning signs that we were approaching dangerous territory? Was saving a million or two million dollars per day worth the damage that we did to a reservoir that was pretty obviously an “elephant” and to a region that was a paradise on earth for many of its inhabitants?
(By the way – in any kind of fair world, those decision makers who encouraged the cost cutting behavior would end up penniless and wiling away the rest of their lives in jail.)