Stephanie Cooke is a reporter, editor and author. She recently published a book titled In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary Tale of the Nuclear Age. I first became aware of her work earlier this month when I read a discouraging column that she had written for the New York Times titled After Fukushima, Does Nuclear Power Have a Future? In that column, Ms. Cooke postulates that Fukushima has dissipated whatever optimistic prospects the nuclear industry might have slowly developed in recent years and that “any further events would spell the industry’s doom.”
Dan Yurman, my friend at Idaho Samizdat, published an excellent response to that column titled All is not quiet on the nuclear front.
As a result of both her work and Dan’s effort to respond, I decided to learn a little more about Ms. Cooke, so I visited her blog – Stephanie Cooke – and read her About page. I also started reading through some of her recent posts.
One in particular caught my attention. According to Why the NRC Should Act Now On Post-Fukushima Reforms
There is a real risk that the agency will again be dragged through years and years of debate over minor details by an industry determined to avoid new regulations at any cost. It’s a tactical maneuver that puts all of us at risk, particularly all of us living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. So tweet and email about jobs, but don’t forget about nuclear safety!
The possibility of risk to people outside the current 10 mile impact zones around nuclear plants is exceedingly low. I strongly believe that the 50 mile evacuation order issued at the recommendation of the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was not only ill-informed but dangerous.
I commented on Ms. Cooke’s post to point out some of the risk that I see in moving too fast to adopt new, expensive regulations that might make politicians feel good but will not improve nuclear plant safety or security in any measurable ways. I mentioned the NRC’s overreaction after Three Mile Island and the fact that many of the expensively imposed prescriptions turned out to be not only wrong, but were actually detrimental to nuclear safety and plant reliability. Here is her response:
Stephanie Cooke on October 16th, 2011
Speaking of models – we now have had two major nuclear catastrophes of the type that were never supposed to occur and which are not included in the design basis of any reactor, built or planned, anywhere in the world. It seems to me the onus on the industry should be to start altering their risk models to incorporate these type of outliers — if anyone knows of such an effort please let me know. I am curious about your statements about the health effects at Fukushima. Have you had access to the most recent health records of the 6 or more plant workers who received well over the (extended) annual limit? Do you know how the 100,000 or so people who were evacuated will fare over the next 60-70 years? How do you know none have been made ill? Do you know what it would be like to be told you could never return to your home, or face an increased risk of cancer if you did? Do you know that your home insurance policy does not protect you from radiation damage of any kind? We have been covering the aftermath of Fukushima on a weekly basis since it happened. I would not presume to assert that I know the answers to many of these questions about health impacts because either the information is not out there, or it is not reliable, or it’s simply too soon to know. What matters is that thousands of lives were disrupted — and in many cases, that disruption will have a profound impact for decades. Let’s hope nothing like this ever happens in the US — apart from the disruption, Congress would have a hard time paying for it. As for your post-TMI analysis, the cost escalations and project cancellations started well before the accident.
Since I think that the evacuations were ill advised in the first place and that keeping people out of their homes at this stage borders on a criminal “taking” of personal property, I responded with the following:
I am not sure where you were taught that the accidents that have happened at nuclear plants were “never supposed to occur.” We design our plants to survive (remain functional) in the case of natural events up to a certain level. We do not stop there; we then add additional safety margins and layers of protection for the public – just in case our initial analysis was wrong.
Our beyond design basis accident analysis efforts start with the assumption that everything bad has already happened and then we do the calculations to verify that there is minimal impact on public health.
My statements about Fukushima’s health effects are based on a combination of research on the specific event reports along with research on the effects of such events as Chernobyl, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Atomic Insights has published at least a dozen stories about Fukushima, many with corroborating reports from experts with significant professional experience.
The maximum doses received at Fukushima were below the levels at which any significant negative health effects were measured in the many decade long follow up studies for the Life Span Survivor Studies from the atomic bombings and from the UNSCEAR led studies after Chernobyl.
I am aware that my home insurance policy does not cover radiation damage. There is no reason why it should; all nuclear plants in the US carry a $300 million blanket liability policy and participate in a $12 billion insurance pool that assesses every operating plant for about $104 million in the off chance that there is an event that exceeds the basic liability coverage. In 50 years, none of that coverage has been exceeded and not a single dime of public money has been spent.
I would not want to pay for insurance to cover an event that is already well covered; I am glad that my state does not allow anyone to write such a policy because it would just be a license for fraud.
I am sick to my stomach about the disrupted lives in the Fukushima prefecture – especially since there is no reason why the evacuation orders remain in effect. The measured radiation levels outside of the fence at the power plant are all below the naturally occurring radiation levels in places like Ramsar, Iran or Kerala, India.
There is plenty of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that has been spread about nuclear energy and radiation health effects. The carefully taught fear of radiation is responsible for much more negative health effects than any effects from the radiation itself as long as the doses are within the range of normal background doses.
If you wonder who would teach us to be irrationally afraid of radiation, just think about who makes the most money if we do not use nuclear energy? What rich and politically powerful industry loses market share with every new nuclear plant? Who sells another million dollars per day worth of fuel for each functional plant that is forced to shut down due to a silly government edit like the one imposed in Germany after Fukushima?
Publisher, Atomic Insights
(Inserted word “million” after $300 to correct original comment.)
Ms. Cooke continued the conversation with the following response:
Stephanie Cooke on October 18th, 2011
Actually I was “taught” that the Fukushima accident was beyond design basis by a former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, a former manager of a BWR nuclear plant in the US and numerous other nuclear industry experts. I am well aware of how the insurance system for nuclear energy works in this country. And the fact is there would not be enough money in the pool to cover the enormity of an accident like Fukushima. Period.
This response is currently in the moderation cue. I fully expect that you will be able to read it there soon, but just in case moderation is slow, I figured it would be worth posting here as well.
I hope that your use of the word “Period” to end your last comment does not mean that you expect I will go away because you believe you have thrown in a trump card.
Beyond design basis does not mean that if the event happens, the plant collapses to rubble and lets out all of its radioactive material. The phrase does not mean that it is completely unanticipated and will “never happen.” I suspect that your “former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner” is someone like Peter Bradford, who was a commissioner but is a lawyer, not an engineer, technician, or scientist.
Design basis is more like a 5 MPH bumper on a car. They are events that the plant is supposed to be able to withstand and then keep on performing its function.
It would be outrageously expensive to design a plant that could withstand any possible event and still keep working, especially since all of the investment in making it resilient against that one in 10,000 or one in 100,000 event would be wasted for the vast majority of its operational history.
After design basis, we go through detailed analysis of “beyond design basis” events to imagine what the layers of protection (analogous to crumple zones on a well designed automobile) will do to keep radioactive materials from having any significant impact on the public health.
Those beyond-design-basis cases start with the ASSUMPTION that there has been major core damage and then check out all of the barriers assuming that they also fail – but fail in a realist manner. We are practical engineers and simply cannot believe that thick layers of steel, water and concrete can instantaneously vaporize and disappear.
The NRC document archives are full of the details of what nuclear plant designers do to convince the regulators that we have done a good job of evaluating plant behavior in the case of a “beyond design basis event”.
You are correct that there is not enough money in the insurance pool to handle a Fukushima – IF we respond to the event in the same irrational manner as the Japanese have done.
I say again – and I can point to other knowledgable people who say the same thing – that evacuating areas where radiation doses are less than the variations in normal background exposure is a short-sighted, politically-motivated overreaction. It puts people at an elevated risk and destroys their life and livelihoods for NO GOOD REASON. It adds enormous, nearly unlimited cost without any benefit.
The current Price-Anderson pool is adequate to cover the damage that might realistically occur. The same cannot be said of the insurance pool that the airline industry, hydroelectric dam industry, the railroads, or the oil and gas industry can draw upon.
The probability of any draw on the federal purse as a result of an accident at a licensed commercial nuclear power plant in the US is so darned close to zero as to be something most people should be willing to accept or ignore – just like we accept or ignore the possibility that a fuel ladened commercial aircraft might be targeted at the Super Bowl or any of dozens of other major public events.
However, if insurance against an exceedingly low probability event is really a big issue for you, I have a modest proposal. Join me in actively promoting legislation that would allow the nuclear industry to tax itself and to build up a pool of cash to cover any postulated damage. Allow the industry to invest that cash wisely – as any insurance company is allowed to do.
For a mere 0.1 – 0.5 cents for every nuclear kilowatt hour, the pool would grow very rapidly. At those rates, without any new build, the money pool would be growing at $800 million to $4 billion per year. If that is not enough, make it a penny per kilowatt hour.
If the money is not disappearing into a government black hole – like our nuclear waste disposal fund it – but is being used as insurance premiums should be used, we can afford it. The average O&M cost of operating reactors in the US right now is almost a penny per kilowatt hour LESS than the cost of coal fired power and is more than 2 cents per kilowatt hour LESS than the cost of “cheap natural gas.”
Every year without tapping the pool would see an increased pile of working capital for good investments – like building more nuclear plants that can take market share away from coal and natural gas. Of course, my modest proposal is highly unlikely to be accepted. It would also scare the daylights out of the rich and powerful people who are the real forces behind the organized antinuclear opposition.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
PS – someone pointed out that my initial description of the liability insurance that nuclear plants must carry says $300 when it should say $300 million.
If any Atomic Insights readers are probabilistic risk assessment (PRA) or safety analysis experts and have any corrections to the way that I described the analysis done for “beyond design basis events” please chime in and correct me.
One more thing about Ms. Cooke that I find a little disconcerting – her current full time editing job is with Nuclear Intelligence Weekly. Supposedly, that is a publication aimed at nuclear industry professionals. She has also been working since 1980 at publications like Nucleonics Week, NuclearFuel and Inside N.R.C. With writers and editors like her populating our trade journals, no wonder there is so much pessimism among nuclear professionals these days. It is kind of like hiring a technophobe to be the editor of Byte or Wired.