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.
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, 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.
The nuclear reactor after the disaster. Reactor 4 (center). Turbine building (lower left). Reactor 3 (center right).
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.
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." 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.
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. Communications from officials during the initial phases of the accident were felt to be confusing. The accident was followed by a cessation of new nuclear plant construction in the US.
Outside View of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant
Photo Courtesy Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Photo Courtesy Nuclear Regulatory Commission
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:
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.