Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare A Neutron?

MeanMesa was "caught off guard" a little when the President announced his support for a renewal of the nuclear reactor idea.  We'll be the first to admit that, upon hearing his plan, we were entirely ready to immediately throw such a proposal under the bus.  In fact, immediately dismissing the idea was not only effortless, but actually so well lubricated with decades of "liberal" talking points that, at least at first, such a dismissal seemed eminently rational and reasonable.

After all, MeanMesa is, uh, famous for being constantly rational and reasonable

Although it might run far too close to exposing ourselves to the reactionary terror of actually thinking something through, we decided to, well, think it through.  If, as one of MeanMesa's highly respected and appreciated readers, you steadfastly remain totally committed to consuming only "talking points" as your Third Being Food, perhaps you should stop here and wait for a less thought provoking post.

In fact, this MeanMesa position might very well represent a stomach-churning snack indeed!  The self-calming convenience of mindlessly dealing exclusively with pre-packaged "talking points" might, in fact, leave your digestion quite unsettled.

To assist the administration -- by its own admission, already "public opinion challenged" -- in an effort to add perspective to the plan, MeanMesa has prepared a brief over view of the nuclear reactor business.  Let's address some of the salient questions.

1.  Nuclear reactors are too dangerous

The premier examples of precisely why nuclear reactors are too dangerous derive mostly from two incidents.  For the history challenged -- that is, for visitors who are simply too young to remember -- there have been two widely publicised nuclear accidents in recent history which seem to continue to dominate public opinion on the matter.

By far the worst nuclear reactor accident ever occurred at Chernobyl a small city in the Ukraine, with a Soviet reactor.  The facility was designed with roughly the same meat-handed, cast iron technology that the old Soviet Union employed with most projects.  Since, conveniently, there were no elections where public outrage could voice any objection to such reckless engineering, the Soviets built all sorts of things from their "18 wheeler," orbital delivery Vostoc Energia rockets to shaky hydroelectric dams which, on a good day, could power a 9 watt light bulb to a dim, depressing glow in the local party headquarters.

(MeanMesa has selected Wiki data for this abbreviated recap.)

The Chernobyl Reactor Accident

The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (then part of the Soviet Union), now in Ukraine.

It is considered to be the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history and the only level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale. It resulted in a severe release of radioactivity following a massive power excursion that destroyed the reactor. Most fatalities from the accident were caused by radiation poisoning.
On April 26, 1986 at 01:23 a.m. (UTC+3) reactor number four at the Chernobyl plant, near Pripyat in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, exploded. Further explosions and the resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area, including the nearby town of Pripyat. Four hundred times more fallout was released than had been by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.[2]

The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and Northern Europe, with some nuclear rain falling as far away as Ireland. Large areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were badly contaminated, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of over 336,000 people. According to official post-Soviet data,[3] about 60% of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus.

The accident raised concerns about the safety of the Soviet nuclear power industry as well as nuclear power in general, slowing its expansion for a number of years while forcing the Soviet government to become less secretive.[4]

The nuclear reactor after the disaster. Reactor 4 (center). Turbine building (lower left). Reactor 3 (center right).

Chernobyl Disaster.jpg 

The "hole" which is visible in the Wiki photograph was the product of multiple systems failures.  The nuclear core, no longer able to cool itself correctly, melted.  Matters continued to "go downhill" from there.  For weeks following the accident, the news carried reports of the radioactive cloud slowly making its way around the planet.

Within the US, another reactor accident was widely publicised.  MeanMesa will include slightly more material here, because the Three Mile Island reactor accident became even more of a public perception problem due to its domestic location.  Again, from Wiki:

The Three Mile Island Reactor Accident

The Three Mile Island accident was a partial core meltdown in Unit 2 (a pressurized water reactor manufactured by Babcock & Wilcox) of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania near Harrisburg. It was the most significant accident in the history of the American commercial nuclear power generating industry, resulting in the release of up to 481 PBq (13 million curies) of radioactive gases, but less than 740 GBq (20 curies) of the particularly dangerous iodine-131.[1]
The accident began at 4:00 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve (PORV) in the primary system, which allowed large amounts of reactor coolant to escape. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss of coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors industrial design errors relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant's user interface. The scope and complexity of the accident became clear over the course of five days, as employees of Metropolitan Edison (Met Ed, the utility operating the plant), Pennsylvania state officials, and members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) tried to understand the problem, communicate the situation to the press and local community, decide whether the accident required an emergency evacuation, and ultimately end the crisis.

In the end, the reactor was brought under control, although full details of the accident were not discovered until much later, following extensive investigations by both a presidential commission and the NRC. The Kemeny Commission Report concluded that "there will either be no case of cancer or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. The same conclusion applies to the other possible health effects."[2] Several epidemiological studies in the years since the accident have supported the conclusion that radiation releases from the accident had no perceptible effect on cancer incidence in residents near the plant, though these findings have been contested by one team of researchers.[3]

Public reaction to the event was probably influenced by the release (12 days before the accident) of a movie called The China Syndrome, depicting an accident at a nuclear reactor.[4] Communications from officials during the initial phases of the accident were felt to be confusing.[5] The accident was followed by a cessation of new nuclear plant construction in the US.

Although the Three Mile Island accident did not result in another one of those distinctive -- and troubling -- "holes," public opinion, especially for the local inhabitants of the area, predictably, "headed South."   In fact, please note the final sentence in the quoted excerpt. Although there was never a specific law passed prohibiting the construction of more reactors, the public was sufficiently inflamed about the incident that no new reactors have been built since Three Mile Island.

However, that is not to say that the US doesn't rely on a significant amount of electricity generation from such plants. Again, from Wiki:

NRC regions and locations of nuclear reactors, 2008

In fact, there are 104 nuclear generation plants operating in the United States at the time of this post.  They produce roughly 20% of domestic electrical power.  Most of them were already running when the Three Mile Island incident occurred, some were under construction but came on line shortly afterwards.  A nuclear plant represents a huge investment of money and a long construction lead time as engineering projects go.

The map (above) shows where these nuclear plants are located around the country.  For more information about nuclear power in the US, follow this link:

The Wiki article on this subject is also very clear about the number of less dramatic nuclear plant accidents which have been reported and processed through the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency through the years.  Happily, most of the heavy lifting associated with reading through this post is complete -- all without a single tidbit of troubling physics or math stuff, to boot!   
MeanMesa's point, however, is now ready.  Did we think that absolutely no improvements to reactor plant design have occurred since Three Mile Island's "bad day" in 1979?  Further, in the same period the world has watched China, India, France and others build and use nuclear plants for their own electricity generation, while we, in the US, have "enjoyed" a Senate which has consistently been in the pocket of domestic coal mining and coal fired power plant corporations.

China presently has 21 nuclear power plants either planned, in operation or under construction.
It is, clearly, the Senate's plan that the United States should proceed into the 21st Century with either a mule drawn buggy or a steam locomotive.  The President's words on the subject were clear enough.  We are exporting nuclear technology to China while we have no new nuclear plants here.  In the energy driven future economy of the world, we will be -- if we continue in the paralyzing lockstep of the Senate --  importing all the stuff we need for green energy from abroad.

Nuclear plant designs have developed a great deal since Three Mile Island.  What hasn't progressed much is the thinking of the American people.  Thanks to the media's infatuated greed to sustain the "horse and buggy" days until all the coal mine owners are rich enough, a new aristocracy of elitist oligarchs, it is clearly time for us to "kiss the girlfriend."

2. Nuclear Electricity Is Too Expensive

Perhaps the first stop in this discussion will be establishing whether or not the blood of your neighbor's son who was killed in the W's Oil War can be added to the balance sheet when we make such a comparison.  The next point will be whether or not we expect energy costs to, somehow, magically remain where they are now.  MeanMesa can easily recall gasoline at 16 cents per gallon.

Federal subsidies for what is deemed "alternate energy" or "renewable energy" are huge compared to the federal subsidies for nuclear power.  The President's $8 billion addition to industry loan guarantees -- announced in his speech last week -- doesn't really seem too outrageous when compared to the $60 billion direct subsidy already applied to renewables.  (The nuclear industry $8 billion is a loan guarantee.  The $60 billion renewable energy subsidy is "cash out of pocket" which doesn't even need to be paid back.)

Of course, it would be wonderful if we could construct three or four million windmills in the next few years.  We might add an aggressive tidal generation plan and boost our already less than glamorous alternative fuel. program  In the mean time, while we are building all this stuff, we could just continue to burn more and more mountains of coal, perhaps persuading the rest of the world that they "owe us a little indulgence,"  that is, they should just continue to breathe in more of our pollution until we get our act together.

By the way, it would be nice to still be able to turn on the lights while we are redesigning our energy infrastructure.  The task faces the obvious technical and engineering problems, always aggravated by cost and financing.  However, any effort to move forward will also be met by a few dozen "wholly owned Senators" and their "coal fired" masters.  That problem could delay the solution to our energy needs for decades.

It has already.

3.  Nuclear Power Cannot be Financed or Insured

This argument might make sense if the current proposal were to simply build more 1970's style reactors.  In fact, the inability to finance and insure nuclear plant operation really needs to be divided into two, distinct categories.

On one hand, the financing and insuring companies' underwriters have to look at the viability and safety of the technical aspects of new nuclear plants.  This is not only consistent with American free market principles, it is simply good business practice.  Who, in their right mind, would want to spend a decade of construction along with billions of investor dollars to build something so dangerous that it was little more than a leaky, radioactive "child killing"  liability suit waiting to happen?
However, on the other hand we have something similar to the killing of the cats in Lisbon in preparation for the Black Plague in 1230 AD.  "No need to think about anything!  Just kill the cats!  They are all Satanic familiars to witches and demons!"

Perhaps we have to consider whether the root of the financing and insuring difficulties the nuclear power industry is facing arise from actual liability or carefully crafted public opinion.  You know, more 21st Century mistaken certainties similar to the "cat killing" idea.  For medieval Europe, the unanticipated consequence was too many plague infected rats.  For the 21st Century a rather more predictable consequence will be to remain under the thumb of the coal industry until every Arab with an oil well owns our sidewalks!

Actually, of course, that Arab crack was unfair.  It is the coal industry which is fighting against rational progress for the nation's energy policy.

MeanMesa thinks that a reasonably well informed American would need some serious anti-depressants to classify such an outcome as an "unanticipated consequence."  An insistence on continuing with uninformed stupidity is simply not going to solve this problem, no matter how unfair the hill billies and bigots might consider such a predicament.  "Yew know, book learnin' 'n stuff..."

Sorry.  We will have to get educated and start thinking if we intend to chart our course through the energy challenges which face us.

4.  The Nuclear Waste Problem Can Never Be Solved

Now, doesn't such a proposition seem suspiciously convenient when it can be translated into justifying an on-going economic "gang rape" for the coal industry?  After all, even since prehistoric times we humans have never been able to solve problems.  According to the coal folks, that's the problem!  'Nuff said.

The waste management quandary shares many of the same problems as the, well, cat killing problem.  Of course there are liabilities and risks associated with any solution to the waste handling challenge, but those can be divided in a way similar to the "too dangerous to insure or finance" idea.

There are material liabilities which must be addressed in designing a solution to the waste problem.  But the engineering problems are only the beginning.  Thanks to the complicity of a suspiciously willing media with the coal industry's magnates, every potential engineering solution is side tracked by carefully groomed public resistance.

The "resistance" does not originate from engineers and physicists.  It is the mindless echo of regular citizens who have been groomed to a position of automatic fear and loathing by a carefully orchestrated scheme of "hopelessness" and fear.  And not an innocent scheme, either.  The media manipulation of any possible waste handling process has been so thorough that Americans now trust no one who might have a good idea.

How about an alternate assumption?

Why not assume that, like other difficult or seemingly intractable problems, we will solve the waste obstacle?  The likelihood of that solution will be enhanced if the industry is faced with such a necessity.  That same likelihood will be diminished if no one ever becomes interested in solving the problem, that is, if the entire industry is condemned so vehemently that there is no possible design development incentive around.

Back to Obama

Our insightful President sees some very troubling "writing on the wall." As a nation, we are not likely to be able to jump start our renewable program with sufficient scope and commitment to rely on it for a solution to our energy appetite any time soon. With a few dozen "bought and paid for" Senators, powered by the incredible resources of the coal industry standing in the way -- not just in the way of nuclear generation, but also in the way of wind mills, alternate fuel and responsible oil drilling -- good solutions will face enough of a serious public relations problem to overshadow even the engineering challenge of the waste fuel.

In a way generally consistent with his campaign, President Obama has made another tough decision.  He simply doesn't intend to be the President who allowed the lights to dim while the coal moguls consolidated their wealth at the expense of the country's future.

MeanMesa's compliments to the President.

No comments:

Post a Comment