Why am I so adamant about the impressive performance of Japan’s nuclear plants
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
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.
Funny that you’d approvingly quote something that calls what you are doing “criminal behavior.” Or do industry shills like yourself get a special exemption from your hero’s arrogant, self-righteous, and thoroughly obnoxious condemnation of their paying close attention to Japan’s unfolding nuclear disaster? Only the Kool-Aid Brigade can talk about it, and everyone else is a criminal.
How dare he, and you. Just who do you people think you are — God?
Please don’t stop Jack, your infantile posts are putting all antinuclear zealots in just the right light.
Yeah. Jack is quite a ghoul.
@ Jack – I believe Rod’s bio is clearly posted on his sight. Also, did you not realize that the name of this site is ATOMIC Insights?
I don’t want to waste time finding all of the links again – you can with very little effort, but:
More people die annually from Carbon Monoxide poisoning from gas heating than have died in total from nuclear power plants. It gets much worse if you factor in gas line explosions!
Wind turbines provide about the same number of annual death rates.
Similar , and worse, statistics for coal, oil, and even hydro can be found on the internet. And these are all comparing ANNUAL against the TOTAL, historical, record of nuclear power plant operation.
And these are all historical, government tabulated actual deaths – not that dooms-day prediction that Chernobyl will cause more than 4000 deaths. It has been 25 years, and so far the actual number is still at 50.
A nuclear power plant would be shutdown if it dumped the same amount of radioactive materials into the air that the average coal plant does.
Rich – It doesn’t matter that other things kill more people. The loony Left freely recognizes that greatest health risks come from fossil fuels, but — get this — that’s precisely their reason for avoiding using nuclear power. (Link)
You can’t make this stuff up. These are the people who claim that “global climate distruption” is “the most important issue facing humankind’s future,” so important that we must abandon the largest source of carbon-free energy that we have. The cognitive dissonance must be painful.
Hey I am very liberal, but please do not lump me in “loony left”, because I am pro-nuclear. Many of us are on the left are pro-nuclear and are embarrassed by those Know Nothing Alarmists on the left. It is time to win this argument, so if you a liberal and pro-nuclear it is past time to speak up and tell the truth about Nuclear Power.
Lets win this battle for our children’s sake!!!
I’m not saying that every liberal is a loon, but the Center for American Progress is definitely a left-wing advocacy organization. As for “loony,” did you read the article?! I can’t think of any other way to describe it.
First, thanks for your reply.
Second, I couldn’t read more than a few sentences before I became sick. This is one area some of my friends on the left are embarrassing themselves. So I would agree some of my liberal friends are loony on this issue, but are very good on other issues. I think most people on the left are reasonable and thoughtful people and I just wanted to make that point.
However, I do agree there are loons who want the human population to crash to bring the world back in so called balance. Greenpeace is one organization which really wants this happen, but they are not main stream left.
Are you sure about that, Stephen?
I’m no fan of Greenpeace, but I couldn’t imagine them making explicitly pro-dieoff statements (unlike ultra-extremist green groups such as Earth First!, or elitist think tanks like the Club of Rome).
Do you have a cite?
Thanks for calling me out on Green Peace. I was talking off the top of my head and should have done better. I grouped them unfair with the pro-dieoff groups.
follow – and please note that a few of the posts last night were from me. I found that replying to an email has you listed as guest. Heading for work so no time to go through and correct each one.
First of all thank you Rod for all your great work! I’ve been following your blog for the past couple of days, ever since I saw “Dr.” Lyman on Maddow Friday and realised I’d have to find my own sources of information..
Just thought I’d share another curious comparison of Fukushima to Chernobyl in the UK’s Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1366670/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-French-claim-scale-nuclear-disaster-hidden.html) where the FAQ section says this:
“How does Fukushima compare to past accidents?
In Chernobyl in 1986 a steam explosion exposed the reactor core before it was shut down and sent a plume of radioactive material 30,000 feet into the atmosphere. In Japan the reactors were shut down during the earthquake. The radiation is floating on winds relatively close to the ground.”
That’s all! That is the only difference they feel is worth mentioning!? And in a way that could even be interpreted as making Fukushima worse since radiation close to the ground must be worse than radiation high up in the atmosphere!
Anyway, thanks for providing a great service and references even (especially) for us non-techs!
Hi Rod, I just wanted to say thanks for all your posts, and the perspective you provide. I’m new to both the professional world of engineering (ME) and the nuclear field, and I’ve been amazed at how fast my attitude has shifted from excitement at getting a job in a fascinating field (nuclear was not something I had been actively pursuing, I came across it purely by chance), to unabashed nuclear advocacy in my few months at the plant.
As I first read about the events in Japan, I was overcome by the same feelings of dread and sympathy as when I saw the first images of 9/11 on TV. As the days continue and I read more about the nuclear situation and the public’s reaction, I’ve been surprised at how strong a personal reaction I’ve had to the misinformation put forth, and to the fact that public attitudes and misconceptions have the potential to set back the industry’s political progress by decades.
I hope that you are right regarding things being different now about the way information is made available to the public. One drawback of the widespread availability of information on the internet, however, is that the relative anonymity of the medium seems to incite a fervor where misinformation and sensationalism is spread with little regard for critical thinking or consequence.
The glaringly obvious typographical errors in many internet posts should, by themselves, be an indication of how little consideration went into the original post, yet many get
Rod, I have been fairly anti-nuclear for the last 25 years. Seeing your first conversation at Blogging Heads, coming to your website, following up on other articles and points of view, and now your commentary on this disaster has really been educational and my position on the technology is very different now. Thanks to you.
I think you’re a great communicator when describing the technology and the measurable dangers involved. However, I’d like to encourage you to avoid referring to the employment or other behavior of nuclear opponents. The only thing that matters is that their arguments are demonstrably incorrect. It doesn’t matter if a guy is growing pot in his basement or that someone was fired from somewhere. All that matters is the argument. If it’s demonstrable that it’s wrong, you don’t need to speculate about ulterior motives or personal history.
I say this because too often have I heard anti-vaccine activists dismiss the opinions of experts because of their employment. I’ve heard opponents of genetically modified crops do the same. It’s what I’m sure some people will do to you.
Instead of saying, “These people worked here and did these other silly things, so ignore them,” I think you should say, “These people said this and predicted that and each time was completely wrong, so ignore them.”
I think this approach makes your message clearer, without distractions for the ideologically sensitive.
Again, I can’t thank you enough for your educational writings and discussions and I wish you much success in the future.
@Lester Milton – thank you for the kind words and the advice. I appreciate it, but will not be taking it.
There are simply too many people who are professionally opposed to nuclear energy who have what sound like impressive credentials but lack personal integrity. I have a number of friends who are professional journalists, they have helped me to understand how important those credentials are in getting onto various TV and radio shows. For a journalist, a PhD sounds really impressive, especially if it is in Physics. They have no way of understanding that particle physics has nothing to do with designing, building, operating or maintaining a nuclear power plant.
I served in a profession that starts with an honor code – midshipmen do not lie, cheat, or steal. My fellow service members in the US Army add an important clause that I have always thought made theirs just a bit better – Cadets do not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.
The battle against the use of nuclear energy is not an academic debate. It is a really important effort that has an enormous impact on the lives of many very real people. I cannot allow people who have demonstrated a lack of personal integrity to have an influence on that debate, ESPECIALLY when they know little to nothing about the topic.
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