By: Cal Abel (submitted for publication on December 2, 2011, but slightly delayed by an inept editor.)
Today marks the 69th anniversary of CP-1 criticality and 54th anniversary of Shippingport criticality. Perhaps with too much time to think I wrote some thoughts and observations about my brief experience with nuclear power. It began in 1996 on UW-Madison’s little TRIGA-FLIP reactor. I want to share these thoughts with you, and hopefully encourage some critical thinking. At the least, this should throw some fuel on the fire and create some discussion.
I am adamant about re-evaluating the restrictions we place on nuclear power plants. They chiefly stem from the misunderstanding of the risks posed by exposure to radiation. This has affected our entire design and regulatory policy for how we operate and build our reactors. Some will argue that nothing is broken, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. T
here is some merit to that point, however, they failed to take into account the full context of the risks that we face. Rod, and many others, myself included, have questioned the assumptions for various reasons. Some from a pure scientific integrity standpoint, and others from the standpoint of taking the blinders off and looking around and saying, “This ain’t good.”
Remembering My Heroes
I love history as it provides great lessons, particularly the consequences of risk aversion. ALARA is risk aversion, more on this later. In WWII, our submarine force was dominated by a risk-adverse bureaucracy. It had commanding officers that failed to fully exercise the potential of the weapon platform they had. They defined too narrow of an operational envelope for their ships. They were failures, and Japan was winning. Admiral King, was not too pleased with this utter lack of results and he started firing people and replacing them with the likes of “Mush” Morton.
Mush, understood what he needed to do and what the risks that he faced, so he took chances, but they were measured chances. He took the fight to the Japanese. His boat, WAHOO, was the most successful in the war. His former XO, Dick O’Kane, was right up there, if not better, but his work on TANG was cut short. Then there was Eugene Fluckey on the BARB. These men had one common trait, they understood the full context of their environment and they exercised the sum of the information at their disposal to achieve success. In other words, they behaved rationally.
Fluckey and O’Kane both were awarded the Medal of Honor. Morton and WAHOO did not survive the war. These men and others of their mettle, represented 1% of the US Navy’s assets. They sank over 50% of the Japanese shipping.
Aside: For you carrier bubbas out there, your contribution in this was in preventing Japanese Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASuW) assets from being able to hamper the submarine operations (Like we did to the Germans). As much as I hate to admit it, we need targets like you to keep us bubble heads from becoming targets. Thank you for helping us be able to do our jobs. Even with the protection of reduced ASuW the submarine force had the highest casualty rate of any service. 1 in every 2 are still on eternal patrol. End Aside.
Taking risk means that there is a chance of failure. Conversely, not taking risk means denying the opportunity of success. Part of the reason we had commercial nuclear power 15-years after the first sustained fission reaction was because of people like Rickover who were not afraid to take risks. They understood the consequence of inaction (risk aversion) and what were the benefits to be gained.
A Non-Nuclear Case Study
There will be long time advocates and very vocal proponents of nuclear power who think I have no business in advocating reducing the safety standards of nuclear power plants. So I give them a case study in the consequence of excessive safety standards that has nothing to do with nuclear power.
On September 11, 2001, a terrorist group attacked the United States with the stated goal of bringing about our destruction. Our response to this was to implement safety standards such as: 100% baggage screening for all checked bags, federal security managers at every airport that conducted commercial operations, hardened cockpit doors, and federal air marshals on a various number of aircraft. These were all designed and implanted to make us feel safe. I think that they did overall improve our safety level. However, they did not have a completely rational basis.
There was no formal risk analysis done to evaluate the effectiveness no assessment of the impact of the shift in the general equilibrium to the economy. I know this because I read the congressional testimony and the CBO estimate of the cost of the act. DHS has some risk informed methodologies however, as identified by the National Research Council, they don’t understand the basis of the models, the restriction, nor do the managers use risk based thinking in implementing policy, or evaluate the consequences of the policy.
We see the consequence of this in the security measures becoming more effective at screening. Think of backscatter x-ray machines, frisking of old women and kids. There is no common sense. There was a cartoon of a kid holding a bag of water with a goldfish in it and the TSA guard saying, “Sorry son, you can take the goldfish onboard, but you are going to have to empty the bag.” Laughable, but try the experiment, give your kid a bag with a goldfish the next time you go flying and see what the TSA guard has you do. If there were explosives of any significant content in the bag, the fish would be dead.
Blalock in 2007 put out a paper that looked at the impact of the 100% baggage screening at airports. As the process was phased in they had controls to observe the shifts in individual preference. He found that after taking into account ticket prices and fuel costs, that the impact of the baggage screening was a 6% reduction in flights and a 16% reduction in flights of less than 500 miles. This means that people are driving more. It averages out to 3 lives lost from the increase in driving for every life saved from a terrorist attack.(Blalock 2009) Now if that is not a helluva way to cause a cost externality.
The hardened cockpit doors and the air marshals were intended to prevent the weaponization of the aircraft. They are the most cost effective ~$30 million per life saved. (Poole 2008) The DoT guidance for the cost of a life is $3 million. It varies from agency to agency but is usually less than $10 million/life. Using numbers from Blalock’s study and Poole’s analysis, and the macro economic impact of aviation from the TRB’s synthesis. The total cost of all the security measures is around $1.4 billion per life saved.
The TSA does not have a defined metric for risk. No risk is acceptable and must be minimized. This should sound familiar to everyone on this blog, it is simply ALARA. We have managed to successfully inflict ALARA on someone else. In all honesty, I could not ask for it to be inflicted even on my worst enemy. The cost of the measures has bankrupted all of the majors. Granted fuel costs skyrocketed over the same period of time, having to deal with a loss of 6% of capacity was the boulder that broke the camels back.
The Case against ALARA
So, let’s now think about the missed economic opportunity and the lives lost because we have not implemented nuclear technology to its full potential. The loss in lives due to coal pollution is somewhere around 25,000 per year from burning it to make electricity. What risk have we, as rational individuals, protected them from because we blindly accepted ALARA as our standard? Without ALARA, the marginal cost of electricity would be around $30/MWhr (nuclear), not $40-50 ish (these numbers are not referenced but are ballparkish; somebody please correct me on this). Our CO2 emissions would be 25% lower. What would be the value to the economy of the overall change?
Aside: I think coal and nuclear power go hand in hand. We should use the coal to make synthetic liquid fuels using the heat from a nuclear reactor.
Aside: I am going to be critical of the NRC from here on out. This is not a comment about the individuals that work in the NRC, whose integrity and dedication are truly exemplary. We need the NRC and the individuals who work there. They are vital to our success. My critique is on the policy of the NRC, which is developed in a vacuum. End Aside.
TMI caused us to stop building a large number of nuclear reactors because we melted some fuel and then implemented a series of costly design changes to the reactors that only marginally improved our overall safety. The NRC standard for risk is probability of fuel damage, less than 10-6/reactor-yr. Why does the NRC regulate fuel damage, not risk to the population? What risk did TMI pose to the population? By what standard was that risk evaluated? What is the technical merit of that standard? Is there evidence that suggests the standard does not have merit?
Here is the reality. It is in the interest of the utility to not melt the fuel, because they lose the capital invested in the reactor. Melting the fuel does not pose a risk to the population (other than the loss of the electricity). The NRC is responsible for the public safety, not electricity reliability. In Japan, we blew up three reactors because we did not anticipate a 40 foot wave of water. Who has died as a result of the loss of those reactors? Who has died as a result of the draconian evacuations, or the fear mongering of Chairman Jaczko? What improvement in public safety was implemented from the design changes as a result of TMI?
Aside: My wife’s grandfather was on the board of directors for Southern Company during the construction of Vogtle 1&2. I talked with him at length about the impact of the safety measures enacted as a result of TMI. From a utility board of directors point of view, the safety changes only added to the construction burden of the plants, delayed the return on investment and almost killed the projects due to limited funding, and made the board leery of any further nuclear construction. Many readers on this blog were in the business through this and I am sure have strong opinions one way or another. End Aside.
There are people who do not want to see nuclear power at all, the chairman of the NRC for example. I rely on who he has chosen to work for, and his temperament in policy to serve as evidence of his preference. They understand very well the full impact of any cost burden added through regulation and are in favor any additional regulation that serves “safety”. They underestimate how much of an economic engine nuclear reactors really are.
What is worse in all of this is that through INPO, we have inflicted on ourselves the impossibility of ALARA, which is perhaps the most damaging of all restrictions as it has no end, no common metric. It is a baseless requirement that will eventually kill nuclear power if not addressed.
Aside: INPO is an organization that I admire and deeply respect. I have many friends and former colleagues who work there. I think, unreferenced, that INPO is the reason why nuclear power’s capacity factor is 90%, which is down-right amazing. INPO is actually the organization that should be concerned about if a utility melts its fuel, as it is not necessarily a public hazard. Melting your fuel is not the hallmark of operational excellence.End Aside.
A Questioning Attitude
We need to take a step back and reflect on our history, our surroundings, and ponder some fundamental questions: Why it is that we do what we do? What are the bases for our assumptions? What are the impacts of our assumptions on the greater population? And finally, what is our responsibility to the people to whom we supply clean and safe power?
Blalock, G., V. Kadiyali, et al. (2007). “The Impact of Post-9/11 Airport Security Measures on the Demand for Air Travel.” The Journal of Law & Economics 50(4): 731-755.
Blalock, G., V. Kadiyali, et al. (2009). “Driving fatalities after 9/11: a hidden cost of terrorism.” Apploied Economics 41(14): 1717-1729.
Blunk, S. S., D. E. Clark, et al. (2006). “Evaluating the long-run impacts of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on US domestic airline travel.” Applied Economics 38(4): 363-370.
(2008). Airport Economic Impact Methods and Models. Airport Cooperative Research Program Synthesis 7. J. Wilding and J. Hamiel, Transportation Research Board.
Poole, R. W. (2008). “Toward Risk-Based Aviation Security Policy.” OECD/ITF Round Table: Security, Risk Perception and Cost-Benefit Analysis.
Note: Etymology of Critmas – a key requirement for a self-sustained fission chain reaction is having a sufficient quantity of fissile material arranged in a specific configuration so that at least one neutron produced by each fission event is retained inside the mass to cause another fission. That amount of material is called a “critical mass”.
Using a typically nuclear submariner brand of humour, Cal’s shipmates on his last submarine created the term Critmas by shortening “critical mass”. They also composed a song titled “The 12 Days of Critmas” during a period of post-refueling low power testing that happened to coincide with the holidays. Unfortunately, the words for that song are not currently retrievable.