You might be hard pressed to gather more than a handful of people who agree with me, even if you live in a place where there are a lot of nuclear professionals. I continue to be impressed by the way that Japan’s nuclear plants – like all nuclear plants designed and built to standards that have been in place almost worldwide for more than 40 years – have been able to withstand the worst that nature can throw at them without harming anyone that is not inside the fence line.
I have not checked the news for about twelve hours, and I am sure that there will be some event or another that will have been breathlessly reported during that time. I remain confident in saying that there will be no significant releases of radioactive material outside of the plant boundaries even if one or more cores melts, even if a containment building is “breached”, and even if the workers find it impossible to fill the cooling pools with additional water. That is not a statement meant to express a cavalier attitude. It is not meant to express complacency or to diminish the work that the heroes at the plant are doing.
Aside: Yes, for those who have been following me for the past few days, I am officially revising my opinion – the workers are heroes and not just admirable employees. I apologize for my earlier statement, but it was made a couple of days ago when I thought they would soon be establishing a less stressful routine condition. End Aside.
The workers at the plant are striving to prevent the worst possible event, but the worst possible event is just not all that consequential for anyone except the plant owner and the people who will have to pay higher power bills for many years due to the loss of low marginal cost generating capacity.
There are many reasons I can maintain confidence about that outcome in the face of a constant barrage of scare stories. First of all, I rarely watch television news and rarely pick up a newspaper to browse the front pages. I do not even listen to the radio very often. Many years ago, I discovered a whole world of information and news where I get to pick the stories I want to have on MY front page and where I can dig into stories that are important to people in the farthest reaches of the globe. I get to decide what information is important to me, so please do not ask me anything about goings on in Hollywood – I haven’t a clue.
Secondly, I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Ted Rockwell, one of the most experienced, knowledgeable and down to earth engineers you would ever want to meet. One of the many gifts he has shared with me is a short, two page article that he and 10 of his most esteemed colleagues published in Science Magazine in the 20 September 2002 issue.
I am confessing to a crime here – I decided on Saturday, March 13 that everyone needed access to that article, even though it does not belong to me. The article, titled Nuclear Power Plants and Their Fuel as Terrorist Targets concisely describes the results of a convincing set of experiments that answer the question “what is the worst that can happen” to a light water reactor with a containment building in a realistic and rational way. Please read their article carefully and pay attention to the bottom line of the worst that can happen.
Even if containment had been severely breached, little radioactivity would have escaped. Few, if any, persons would have been harmed.
Please stop listening to all of those professional antinuclear activists who happen to have earned a PhD in particle physicists, disgraced former Department of Energy officials (like the one who lost his job because he was growing dozens of pot plants in his Takoma Park, MD basement), disgruntled former nuclear engineers who pad their resume, and other experts that the advertiser supported media has trotted out as nuclear “experts” as they spin their tall tales of what they think might go wrong.
Aside: I tried some time ago to obtain permission from Science to reprint it and was willing to pay, but their rules were so complex and time consuming I never got around to finishing the deal. If any Science editors are reading this, please give me the opportunity to pay for the privilege of sharing an otherwise obscure piece in a less complicated way. End Aside.
I also want to direct your attention to a fantastic, heartfelt article from one of the coolest young ladies I know – other than my own daughters, of course. Suzy Hobbs is the Executive Director of PopAtomic Studios, the daughter of a nuclear engineer and a terrific writer. She published a piece yesterday in Casa Cabrones, which is a blog that aims at people like her – people in their 20s who are deeply interested in the world around them and curious about how they can make it a better place. It is a “must read.” Nuclear Energy. What We Need to Know, Now. It inspired me to respond with a more personal version of why I have taken some vacation from my day job this week to share my knowledge and confidence in the vital technology that so many have been taught only to fear.
Suzy – Your nuclear engineer father must be very proud of you. As the father of two young professional daughters, I can imagine how he must feel about your accomplishments and dedication.
I have had a similar reaction to the events in Japan for not unrelated reasons. My father was an electrical engineer who spent his career with the local power company. One of the things that is burned clearly into my memory was the fact that one day every month, Dad was still at home when we got up to eat breakfast. Instead of being in a coat and tie heading out at 6:00 am for a commute to Miami where he normally worked, he was in utility clothes and carrying his hard hat for “storm training”, which took place in a much closer to home location.
Even though he was a white collar manager type, he was part of the “all hands on deck” team effort that characterizes the way that electric power companies respond to natural disasters that knock out power lines, generating stations, and connections to individual customers. My dad worked for one of the old fashioned “obligation to serve” monopolies that are still common throughout the southeast US. We lived in an area that was prone to hurricanes; at least twice during my youth I remember watching Dad leave our shuttered house almost as soon as the wind stopped blowing so that he could put in 18 hour days to restore access to one of the most vital commodities in our modern society.
Those experiences taught me the fundamental importance of electricity. I decided about half way through high school that I wanted to learn how to make power. With the help of many sessions with my Dad and his colleagues, I determined that the best way to do that was to study nuclear energy. I have spent the past 30 years doing just that.
One of the many things I learned along the way is that there are some very greedy and nasty people in the business of selling energy who do not think of their product in the same way that I do. They simply think of it as a great way to make money. They take advantage of the fact that people need energy and power so much that they will accept prices well above production costs and they will accept terrible environmental consequences.
They hate the fact that there is a better way – an almost unlimited power source that is clean enough to operate inside a submarine.
Too long. I think it is bordering on criminal behavior to focus attention on the nuclear plants whose damage in the face of a terrible disaster is contained within the plant while ignoring the effects of oil, coal and gas facilities that spew hazardous materials out of designed leaks called smokestacks even under normal circumstances.
As you did, I will choose not to focus on what has happened to those facilities in the earthquake and tsunami, but if anyone is curious, use your favorite search engine to find out. The stories are not on the front page and not leading the television news, but the Internet allows us all to create our own front page. This is a completely different and better world that when I was in college. Thirty two years ago, we had a core meltdown in Pennsylvania that did not harm a soul. Back then, when others controlled the front pages, the folks that hate competing with nuclear energy used fear, uncertainty and doubt and some surprising alliances with “the enemies of their enemy” to almost kill off the only real competition they have. They did that so that they could continue to dominate our economy and world politics.
Suggested search term “japan earthquake refinery fire”.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Dr. Robert Zubrin in The Corner on National Review (March 15, 2011) Anti-Nuclear Press Puts Japanese Lives at Risk