Nuclear Accident And The Elimination Of Risk
by Ian R Thorpe.
CREATIVE COMMONS: Attribute, non commercial, no derivs.
KEYWORDS: nuclear, power, electricity, generating, reactor, accident, love, green, energy, environment, fossil, fuel, power, electric, electricity, renewable, wind, solar, fukushima, japan, water, eathquake, tsunami
There are a group of people in every English speaking society who call themselves 'greens' 'progressives', 'liberals' and humanists who are determined it seems to shut down western civilization. What should we call them? They are neither liberal (definitely NOT liberal, in fact they are the most illiberal social or political group since the Holy Inquisition was dissolved,) nor progressive. Green they may be but only in the sense of being naive, unworldly and gullible. They are certainly not progressive as they obsess only about civil rights and equality but believe equality must be imposed by government rather than being achieved by individuals collaborating, and as for their being humanists, since when did humanism have dogmas, orthodoxies and items of faith we associate with religious extremism.
A good appellation for these people would be Pusillanimous Poltroons (yes I know it's a syllogism and I just thought I'd point that out before some 'progressive liberal' tries to tell me it's an oxymoron, not that there is anything wrong with oxymorons.) A pusillanimous person is timid, cowardly, vacillating or faint hearted. A poltroon is a coward, an untrustworthy or disloyal person. So we have a cowardly coward. What better way to describe people who run around like headless chickens spreading fear and panic at the least provocation.
For several years now these people have been in a funk about increasing levels of carbon dioxide in air killing us all. Then they were quaking and crying Lord Government, save us when a panic about a very minor illness grew legs. Now they are all afraid that everybody will die of radiation poisoning because of an accident at a nuclear power station in Japan.
Let me tell you something about the accident at the Fukushima plant. It does not prove that nuclear power is too dangerous to be used, it shows how safe nuclear power is. Today, almost two weeks after the accident in which a multi reactor power station was damaged by a major earthquake, one of the biggest since records began, some workers (all volunteers) working to make the damaged reactors safe have been exposed to significant doses of radiation and a warning has been issued to people in Tokyo that tap water should not be given to babies.
It should be pointed out here that the nuclear complex was built almost on top of a very unstable geological fault. Can you imagine the consequences if an oil refinery or a chemical factory had been similarly damaged?
Almost forty years ago a senior nuclear safety official in the United States published a memorandum to colleagues. It warned that a key bulwark against a catastrophic accident in the kind of reactors now in meltdown at Fukushima was so flawed it should be banned.
He got a reaction within a week. The idea of a ban was “attractive”, wrote a more senior official, but implementing it “could well be the end of nuclear power”.
This exchange is just one of a series of warnings over the years about the safety of the General Electric “Mark I” Boiling Water Reactors, which comprise five of the six installed at the Fukushima complex..
As workers battle to contain the monster (Godzilla?) unleashed at the complex by last week's earthquake and tsunami, it is still too early to ascertain what precisely has caused the partial meltdowns at three of the reactors, and the exposure of highly radioactive spent fuel in a storage pool at a fourth. But the story of the warnings sheds some light on attitudes in the young nuclear industry which may, only now be coming to light.
The author of that memo September 20, 1972 was Dr Stephen Hanauer, then working at the US Atomic Energy Commission. He was concerned that weaknesses in the design of the container vessel around the reactor core – the main shield against the escape of radioactivity – could cause it to fail in an accident, leading to dangerous releases.
He pointed out that the vessel was smaller than was "conventional" and lent itself to the build-up of hydrogen – which seems to have played a part in the events at Fukushima – becoming "a more serious problem". He recommended that the commission "adopt a policy of discouraging further use" of that kind of containment and "that such designs not be accepted for construction permits filed after a date to be decided (say two years after the policy is adopted)".
On September 25, Dr Joseph Hendrie, the deputy director for technical review at the commission's directorate of licensing, weighed in with his reaction. The idea of such a ban, he wrote in a memo of his own, "is an attractive one in some ways", adding that alternative containments had "the notable advantage of brute simplicity".
Despite the doubts the Mark I is still going strong. Twenty three are still in operation in the US alone (though there are none in Britain) and one, which has been operating in Vermont since 1973, was granted another 20 years of life the day before the earthquake struck off Japan.
Since then reactors have been designed to be much safer, with the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) – planned to be built here in Britain over the next few years – especially so. But official documents show that the EPR will produce several times more of the radioactive iodine and caesium that would be rapidly released in an accident than do present-day reactors.
The trouble is that human beings have a way of overriding safety systems. The 1957 Windscale fire occurred when a physicist threw a switch too soon when carrying out a routine operation. The Three Mile Island accident was caused by a whole series of human errors. At Chernobyl, operators under pressure to complete a test deliberately disabled every one of its safety systems until, in the words of the chief investigator into the catastrophe, the reactor "was free to do as it wished".
Try as we might, as long as we need electricity there will be accidents. Yet, despite the reactions of some the pusillanimous poltroons and some attention seeking politicians to the Japanese situation, abandoning nuclear power is not an option, especially in a world some say must urgently combat climate change while others, the more worldly, recognise that as oil stocks are diminishing demand is growing. From a safety point of view while nuclear generators can never be 100% safe we are better off with new reactors rather than old ones.
Long ago we sold our souls for electricity. Now we must learn to live with the consequences of that Faustian bargain. If we can accept that then it is possible to look at the Fukushima incident and see that far from revealing the risks of nuclear energy it proves how very safe nuclear power plants are.
The first thing to understand is that radiation has been demonised by the green movement and the congenitally fearful. It is not as dangerous as you have been led to think. Many people will be eager to challenge me on this so I will warn, do not go running off to Wikipedia to bring back the first thing you can find that contradicts me. I am always amused by the naivete of webheads and wikiheads who believe all the information in the world is available on the web. Some information has value and only an idiot would destroy the value of an asset by putting it on the web and thus in the public domain. Anything you find on the web is either so well known it is no longer of value or it is wrong.
First, what is radiation?
Since the formation of matter either by a cosmic event or through a divine act (we're not having THAT argument here) atoms, from which all the diverse forms of matter are made, have been shooting off sub - particles and emitting or radiating energy waves. Until the 19th century nobody understood this, then a number of projects to investigate the nature of matter revealed not only that the atom was the most basic building block of matter but a number of amazing things related to the behaviour of atoms. One of the things researchers learned was that nothing could be done to change the atomic emissions. Applying heat, pressure, electricity, or any other force made no difference whatsoever. Emission appeared to be an unchangeable property of the substances. There are three type of radiation, electro - magnetic, mecanical and particle. When talking about nuclear accident it is particle radiation, the intensified rays emitted by unstable atoms, that concern us.
First however consider the beneficial side of radiation. It is radiation that made possible X rays, MRI scanners used in medicine and also radio therapy is used to treat certain cancers.
We'll skip over loads of really really interesting stuff about atoms and nuclear forces here (it is interesting actually but is not necessary for this article)
In a nuclear reactor atoms are smashed to release energy in the form of heat. This results in some atoms losing electrons and so, because the number of protons locked in the nucleus is not equal to the number of electrons orbiting the nucleus the atom is unstable. The same thing happens in an explosion caused by a nuclear weapon but the radiation radiation is released into the environment rather than being contained. In a nuclear attack or an accident apart from the initial radiation of the blast, there is residual radiation that results when stable matter, especially blast debris, captures excess neutrons from the explosion and becomes radioactive.Radiation occurs naturally at levels which are harmless but exposure to excess radiation is harmful to most living organisms, and prolonged exposure to very high levels of radiation is usually fatal. Sunlight is a kind of radiation however and people can die from too much sun.
The reason nuclear radiation harms us is that the radioactivity emitting unstable atoms try to repair themselves by by grabbing an electron from an atom they encounter that is prepared to yield one of its electrons. Such nanosluts are most likely to be heavy metals such as uranium but these are present in the environment though not in great quantities in soil, the food we eat, and from industrial processes.
The free radicals you are advised by doctors and dieticians to purge from your body by eating anti oxidants are atoms or molecules containing an atom that has at least one unpaired electron. The anti oxidant attaches itself to the unstable atom and neutralises it.
So radiation is not an Enochian demon then but something quite natural and like many things in nature safe, even beneficial in controlled doses but dangerous if you get too close or are exposed to too much.
Now, here's why you must learn to stop worrying and love nuclear power.
As observed above Fukushima is a crappy old plant with built to a design that has always had safety issues. It was hit by a massive earthquake, one of the biggest ever recorded, and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply to the plant failed, knocking out the cooling system. We now know that the backup power supply did not take over because the diesel generators were flooded. Eventually reactors began to explode and threaten melt down. The disaster exposed a saga of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
The unholy alliance of the politicised green lobby, the perpetually fearful and those who stand to gain $$$billions from technologies like carbon capture, wind and solar power and cap-and-trade have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer picture the graphic HERE published by xkcd.com shows that the average total dose from the Three Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted by international treaty for US, British and European nuclear power workers. In Britain we have had no similar accidents although various leaks of low and mid level radio - active material have occurred. The maximum permitted yearly exposure is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. We must stop being swayed by the fear and panic mongers who are only trying to drive an agenda forward an let ourselves be guided by common sense.
If other forms of energy production caused no damage and were risk free the acknowledged risks of nuclear power would make a strong case against its use. But energy is like medicine: if there are no side-effects, the chances are that it doesn't work .
Greens and climate science cult followers will be wailing and gnashing teeth now, they have invested a lot of emotional energy on campaigning for a major expansion of wind and solar generating. Their opponents have won the argument however. Onshore windfarms have huge environmental impact, also the new grid connections (pylons and power lines) are not desirable for health as well as aesthetic reasons (radiation again, children living close to overhead cables are known to be significantly more prone to some cancers). As the proportion of unreliable, inconsistent renewable electricity on the grid rises, more pumped storage will be needed to keep the lights on. That means reservoirs on mountains: they aren't popular, either with environmentalists, country lovers or landowners.
The impacts and costs of renewables rise with the proportion of power they supply, as the need for storage and backup increases. It may well be the case that up to a certain grid penetration renewables have smaller carbon impacts than nuclear, while beyond that point, nuclear has smaller impacts than renewables. Nobody seems in a hurry to carry out a study of at what point the balance tips. They'll probably try fobbing us off with "the science is settled" again.
Although I have ben branded by the more immature and hysteria prone as a 'climate denier' and a 'child killer' I have always called for renewable power (not wind and solar but wave, tide, marine current and run of river schemes, 100% reliable, to be used both to replace the electricity produced by fossil fuel because the earth is not making oil and coal anywhere near as quickly as we are using it but to expand the total supply, because as the economies of the population giants China and India develop demand will increase exponentially. That is a tall order for the renewables technology we have. Are we also going to demand that wind and solar replaces current nuclear capacity? The more work we expect renewables to do, the greater the impact on the landscape and the environment will be.
But expanding the grid to connect people and industry to distant sources of natural energy, the Sahara and the Arabian deserts, the Central Asian Steppes, the Great Plains of North America is also rejected by most of the greens. What they want, they tell me, is something quite different: we should power down and produce our energy locally. Some have even called for the abandonment of the grid. Such a vision of rustic self sufficient sounds idyllic, until you realise how medieval a society we would have to become.
At high latitudes like ours in Britain, most small-scale power production is a non starter. Generating solar power in the UK involves a spectacular waste of effort and resources. It's hopelessly inefficient and works best when we need least energy. Wind power in populated areas is largely worthless. This is partly because we have built our settlements in sheltered places; partly because turbulence caused by the buildings interferes with the airflow and chews up the mechanism. Micro-hydropower might work for an isolated farmhouse in the hills, but it's not much use in a large conurbation.
Also given that we could not return to what Gandhi's critics called the 'cow dung economy' how would we run our factories,textile mills, food processing plants, brick kilns, blast furnaces and railways; how would we provide the power for pharmaceutical manufacturing processes or keep hospitals and schools running? Rooftop solar panels? Wind turbines on top of our houses. One careless teenager could probable account for the entire ambient output of a whole street. The instant you consider the dependency of a modern economy on electric power is the moment at which you understand what utter rot the Warmageddonists, the fear and panic merchants and the carbon trading trade marketeers are talking and the scales fall from your eyes about "climate science". it's not very scientific.
Some greens go even further however: why waste renewable resources by turning them into electricity? Why not waterwheels and windmills to provide energy directly? To answer this question, look at Britain or the American colonies before the industrial revolution.
The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural resources and which fed much of Britain – wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad, as well as most sea trout and salmon which swim inland to spawn in rivers.
Carbon free transport may not have caused any CO2 emissions but was closely associated with starvation. The land that was set aside for feeding draft animals was not available for feeding humans. It was the 17th-century equivalent of today's biofuels crisis - there is nothing new under the sun. The same applied to heating fuel. As EA Wrigley points out in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, the 11m tonnes of coal mined in England in 1800 produced as much energy as 11m acres of woodland (one third of the land surface) would have generated. Even with a much lower population than today's, quality of life in the land-based economy, books, the kind of furniture we take for granted, fashionable clothes and travel were the preserve of the wealthy elite. Deep green living – decentralised, based on the products of the land – would be far more damaging to modern society than nuclear meltdown.
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