One of my frustrations with the nuclear establishment is the fact that the standard response to criticism to to politely accept it and promise to do better. That response is offered whether or not the criticism is valid or not. It also is accepted in isolation without an understanding of scale or comparison to competitive ways of supplying the same vital product supplied from nuclear power plants. It is as if an A student in a class gets criticized for walking in one second after the bell rings and a C- student receives exactly the same level of criticism after failing to show up for a couple of weeks at a time.
The most recent example of ineffective response to criticism that is disproportionate to the potential harm is the hullabaloo and attention being paid to “tritium leaks” where measured groundwater levels have reached a maximum of 75,000 picocuries per liter. That scary sounding number, however, is in reference to a unit of measure that is 1 x 10^-12 curies.
A picocurie is to a curie as a penny is to 10 BILLION DOLLARS, and a curie is not even a very large unit of measure. A curie of tritium weighs just 0.1 milligrams. That means that anti-nuclear activists are seriously advocating shutting down a power plant with a proven history of providing a reliable, affordable, emission free source of 620 Megawatts of electricity into a New England power grid that needs the power just because some samples of water from a well that is not used for drinking water contains 0.0000000000075 grams of tritium in 1000 grams of water. The saddest part is that there are politicians who seem willing to go along and bend to the pressure.
If a person drank water contaminated to a level of 75,000 picocuries per liter for an entire year, they would receive an internal radiation dose of about 16 mrem, which is far below the natural variations in the average annual dose of 360 mrem in the US.
While I am not dismissing the fact that a sufficient amount of tritium can be hazardous to human health, I am stating that this amount of tritium is so miniscule that it is worth accepting, especially when compared to other risks that people accept in order to enjoy all of the benefits that reliable electricity provides. Nuclear industry leaders and regulators should say this clearly and repeatedly; instead, they wring their hands and contritely show that they will spare no expense in finding the leak. They also beg forgiveness and accept the accusation that they “do not have their act together” without any real response.
In a sadly dramatic way, a very recent event has shown the magnitude of risk that we inherently accept from competitive sources of electricity. On Sunday, February 7, 2010 another power plant in New England that is almost exactly the same capacity as Vermont Yankee also had a leak.
This time, instead of the leak being an almost non-existent fraction of a gram of material that is only weakly harmful to human health, the leak was a volume of methane large enough so that when it ignited, it exploded. The explosion released a force large enough to kill at least five people, seriously injure dozens of others and cause a noise that was audible as far away as 20-30 miles. It blew out most of the siding of a large industrial building, cracked foundations in homes several hundred yards away and caused a fire that took several hours to bring under control.
This type of leak is not uncommon in facilities using methane; large explosions and fires, though less common than leaks, also happen with depressing frequency. After all, the reason that methane – aka natural gas – is used in power plants is that it burns easily and contains a significant concentration of energy. The same characteristic that makes it a valuable fuel also means that it can be a dangerous explosive and fire igniter. In order to produce large quantities of power, the piping supplying power plants has to carry large volumes of gas, which increases the consequences of any leaks.
Why is it that we accept the known risks of using natural gas while at the same time we accept criticism from people implying that we cannot accept a vanishingly small risk of a radioactive material leak? Here is a quote from a New York Times article about the explosion that provides one political leader’s opinion about why we accept the risks associated with using natural gas:
Representative Matthew Lesser, a freshman Democrat who lives a mile from the plant and represents an adjacent district in the State House, said the $1 billion plant, which has faced “regulatory hurdles,” had been expected to cut the costs of power in a state that has some of the highest rates in the nation.
. . .
The tests being conducted at the plant on Sunday were in preparation for a spring opening, he said. “The hope was that by increasing generation, we could bring electric rates under control.”
I can understand that motivation; electricity costs can be a major cost item in budgets for both households and businesses. Why won’t nuclear industry leaders look their opponents in the eye and say that their plants produce large quantities of clean, reliable electricity that helps to keep rates under control? Why won’t they make it clear that part of the shared cost of that capability is that there will occasionally be “leaks” but the consequences of those leaks are far lower than the consequences of not being able to produce the needed power.
This response might not be acceptable to the die hard opponents to nuclear energy, but nothing the nuclear industry can do or say – short of ceasing to exist – will satisfy that group. By contritely accepting the criticism and responding as if there really is something to worry about, the industry simply increases the level of concern from people who understand that pipes sometimes leak. What interested customers want most of all is to be reassured that there is no danger so they can go about their daily living in a technological world that depends on a continued supply of electrical power.
Ted Rockwell – Learning about Energy It’s the Dose That Makes The Poison: The Importance of Numbers