Nuclear In Context?

Yet a nuclear disaster is adisaster like no other.  Neither Chernobyl nor Three mile Islandhave as yet been properly dismantled and the site restored to conventionalusage.

The tsunami is something we canhandle.  We grieve and we clean up themess as in Katrina and a decade later we have reports on lessons learned andthe world turns.  Nuclear isdifferent.  The contained metal itself isitself a storage problem because it is all irradiated and strange isotopes areproduced that are risky.  And no, I donot wish to put my body onto the work site to clean up anything.

I would like to see just onedisaster site properly torn down.  In theevent we are presently back to the conditions at TMI in which months of carefulwork was required to remove all the uranium from the site before it was simplysealed up and abandoned.  The good newsis that it can be done.

The Japannuclear emergency in context 

The Fukushimanuclear power plants survived the onslaught well, and we learned a great deal.The lessons learned will be shared with the rest of the world to the bettermentof all. Current designs could withstand even this worst-case scenario. Nuclearpower remains, safe, viable and vital.

March 24, 2011

The earthquake and tsunami in Japandelivered a devastating one-two punch to that island nation and to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclearplant. So what does much of the world do? You guessed it. They blamed thedesigners, builders and operators of the nuclear plant for not doing a goodenough job. They call for all reactors in the world to be closed down.

Electricity has been restored to all the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Thatmeans that the control panels have lit up and banished the inky darkness.Electricity is available to the electrical cooling pumps.

The overall situation is looking much better. They are not out of the woodsyet, but day by day the residual nuclear decay heat, in the reactor fuelelements, is dropping and the prospect for any major release of nuclearmaterial is diminishing.

It seems likely that the main toll from the nuclear emergency will be to asmall number of heroic plant workers and emergency responders who continue tobrave exposure to radiation to restore cooling to the reactors.

The focus for Japanand the world should remain on recovery from this crisis and we should be waryof any seeking to exploit, rather than solve the situation.

Serious risks remain, however, it is appropriate to place the harm and riskfrom Japan'snuclear emergency in context of the full scope of the tragedy. The death tollfrom the earthquake and tsunami stands at 9,300 with 13,800 missing. Thesenumbers continue to rise. Any death or injury is tragic, but inside the nuclearplant only one person, a crane driver died from injury sustained, and somenuclear workers may have been exposed to high levels of radiation. Outside thenuclear plant no people have been injured in any way from any radiation. Weshould also compare the harm done from this and other nuclear power emergencieswith past power plant disasters. Look at the following list (from “What is the worst kind of power plant disaster? Hint: It's notnuclear” by Annalee Newitz):

1975: Shimantan/Banqiao Dam Failure
Type of power: Hydroelectric
Human lives lost: 171,000
Cost: $8,700,000,000

What happened: Shimantan Dam in China'sHenanprovince fails and releases 15.738 billion tons of water, causing widespreadflooding that destroys 18 villages and 1500 homes and induces disease epidemicsand famine.

1979: Morvi Dam Failure
Type of power: Hydroelectric
Human lives lost: 1500 (estimated)
Cost: $1,024,000,000

What happened: Torrential rain and unprecidented flooding caused theMachchu-2 dam, situated on the Machhu river, to burst. This sent a wall ofwater through the town of Morvi in the Indian Stateof Gujarat.

1998: Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Jess Oil Pipeline Explosion
Type of power: Oil
Human lives lost: 1,078
Cost: $54,000,000

What happened:Petroleum pipeline ruptures and explodes, destroying two villagesand hundreds of villagers scavenging gasoline.

1944: East Ohio Gas Company
Type of power: Liquified natural gas (LNG)
Human lives lost: 130
Cost: $890,000,000

What happened: Explosion at LNG facility destroys one square mile of Cleveland, OH.

1907: Monongah Coal Mine
Type of power: Coal
Human lives lost: 362
Cost: $162,000,000

What happened: Underground explosion traps workers and destroys railroadbridges leading into the mine.
Compare these to:

1986: ChernobylNuclear Power Plant
Type of power: Nuclear
Human lives lost: 4,056 (Source for this number: UnitedNations Scientific Subcommittee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation)
Cost: $6,700,000,000

What happened: Mishandled reactor safety test at Chernobylnuclear reactor causes steam explosion and meltdown, necessitating theevacuation of 300,000 people from Kiev, Ukraine and dispersing radioactive materialsacross Europe.

NOTE: Monetary damage is measured in 1996 US dollars, except in accidents sincethat time measured in the dollar values of that year.

Consider had a passenger jet landed as the devastation struck. Thepilot loses power and makes an emergency landing. The aircraft touches down,runs 300 metres beautifully, then runs into the debris. The wheels dig in andpromptly sheer off. The aircraft spins, a wing breaks off, fuel spills acrossthe sand and catches fire. The automatic escape slides deploy and most peopleget out safely and run from the wreckage.

The international news media hear of the story and splash it across the world.There is immediate concern for the passengers, but the crew does a good jobcalming them all down.

Then TV commentators say that the wheels should never have come off theaircraft. They add that the aircraft was poorly designed and built because awing came off too. Others add that the fuel tanks should never have ruptured.Other commentators want to ban all 747’s from flying, yet others want to banall aircraft from flying until the deficient designs have been corrected. TheGermans ground all their aircraft, even though their pilots say that there isnothing wrong with their fleet.

This whole scenario sounds a bit silly. Nobody would react that way. They wouldall say; “Who on earth would have expected the 747 to have landed safely underthose totally unforeseen circumstances.” They would have said that no aircraftwould ever have been designed to have survived such an attempted landing. Thepilots would have been praised for their skill and dedication.

But that is not what happened at the FukushimaDaiichi nuclear power plant. The world jumped on the plant owners, operators,designers and builders. The media wanted answers concerning the “catastrophe.”

Think about the similarity to the Boeing scenario. The largest Japaneseearthquake on record Miyagi-ken Oki strikes the nuclear power plant, closelyfollowed by the largest ever tsunami.

The plant shuts down, as designed. The cooling pumps operate, as designed, butthe earthquake disrupts the electric grid from which the pumps usually drawtheir power in an emergency. So the diesel backup pumps switch on, as designed,but only run for a short time before the tsunami sweeps their fuel supply tanksaway. The plant then goes over to battery power, as designed, but the batteriesonly last eight hours.

The roads have been washed away, the fire brigade and emergency units are notcoming, they cannot get through the obstructions.

The Fukushimaplant was forty years old, near retirement. Its staff did a fantastic job underthe circumstances. There was no disaster. No people outside the plant gotinjured, no property outside the plant was damaged by nuclear material. Givethe reactor crew a round of applause. Nuclear power just got a whole lot betterand safer. Nuclear power survived the onslaught well, and we learned a greatdeal. The lessons learned will be shared with the rest of the world to thebetterment of all. Current designs could withstand even this worst-casescenario. Nuclear power remains, safe, viable and vital.

Dr. Kelvin Kemm is a CFACT scientific advisor. He holds a PhD innuclear physics, is currently CEO of Stratek and lives in Pretoria, South Africa.

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