Nuclear Energy reality check, Part II

You will note that I’ve ignored the issue of nuclear safety, the one issue regarding nuclear energy that gets everyone’s attention and gets the media in a frenzy every time a nuclear reactor technician so much as sneezes on the job.

Well until Saturday, I was under the impression that this was the one aspect of nuclear power that the industry had actually sorted out. I had a whole conversation with work colleagues about how surely a nuclear industry as well organised, financed and safety conscious as the Japanese would have no problem coping with an Earthquake and Tsunami. These things happen all the time in Japan, indeed one reactor was close to the epicentre of the Kobe Earthquake and survived. The word Tsunami is a Japanese word as these things hit Japan so regularly. Surely of any nation on Earth the Japanese nuclear engineers would know how to cope with a Tsunami. At the time I was slightly more concerned about any US reactors on the other side of the pond whose operators would likely be busy looking up the word Tsunami in the dictionary (fortunately the size of the wave that struck the America’s West coast was minor and not nearly large enough to merit any concern……this time!).

One of these Japanese nuclear reactors having problems, okay rare event, it’s an old bit of kit, we’ll let you off with that one….but TWO out of THREE operational reactors at the site going into meltdown, WTF88|! Before dissecting the aftermath of the Fukushima incident, we’ll take a step back for the benefit of those reading this who are unfamiliar with nuclear safety.

Many people mistakenly assume that there have been only 3 serious nuclear accidents in the past (Windscale, Three mile Island and Chernobyl). The reality is there have been many numerous nuclear accidents, as these lists below indicate.

I would note the lists above are not in anyway comprehensive, but it should give you an idea of the scale of the problems. The lists, for example, fail to include a number of minor but potentially serious incidents; such as the 2006 SCRAM of a Swedish nuclear power station, the “loss” of several hundred kilos of plutonium by the West Valley Kerr-McGee Nuclear Fuels Facility (where the infamous Karen Silkwood worked) and the irradiation of many workers at this and many other facilities, and the many incidents at the Mayak plant in Siberia (only the largest 1957 disaster is included, the 1968 “Darwin Award” incident is not on the list).

While many events on these lists were relatively minor, some were altogether more serious (and in some cases only shear blind luck prevented a calamity). The Kyshtym disaster, for example which is not widely known about, was 2nd only to Chernobyl in its scale, indeed there are many who argue it was worse than Chernobyl, but that’s another discussion.

One comforting fact you will note is that the more seriously rated incidents tended to occur prior to the 1970’s. I would argue this was because back in these bad old days the nuclear industry were playing fast and loose with the issue of safety. To make matters worse they also adopted a very condescending attitude to the public, along the lines of roughly:
“don’t you worry you’re pretty little working class heads about all this nuke stuff, we’re gentlemen who’ve been to Oxford, with big brains and very white lab coats…and we smoke pipes…we know what we’re doing!”
Under pressure to compete against cold war enemies and meet ambitious targets that the themselves had set, led to the cutting of corners and a serious compromising of the issue of safety.

A good example as to numerous incidents of incompetence of this age, in 1968, a US nuclear power plant technician crawled into a cable duct to perform some routine repairs. Unable to see properly he got out his cigarette lighter, accidentally burning through a series of critical cables, leading to a SCRAM of the reactor. This was but one of many thousands of incidents that have occurred in the US nuclear industry over the years. In a one year reporting period (running from July 1973) alone the AEC recorded 3,333 incidents in America alone, 98 of these were rated as “serious”, but only 8 actually led to a fine or any form of punishment.
This sort of carry on eventually led to the AEC being split in two (its regulatory functions being taken over by the NRC) and the commissioning of the 1975 Rasmussen Report on Nuclear Safety (also known as the WASH-1400 Report).

This report estimated the actually probability of a catastrophic core meltdown as being in the order of 1:20,000 per core year, at a time when the nuclear industry claimed it was more like 1:10 Billion. Using an engineering technique called “Failure mode and Effects Analysis” the Rasmussen experts identified at least 78 or so ways that relatively minor operator errors could lead to a core meltdown scenario. One of these very meltdown scenarios was eerily similar to the sequence of events that led to the Three Mile Island accident 4 years later.

The TMI incident, the fact that it was becoming obvious to many members of the public that the nuclear industry routinely lied to them about safety (e.g. the description by Edison Electric officials of the TMI reactor being “Stable” mid way through the accident…in that it was stable in much the same way as an out of control train is stable because it hasn’t fallen off the tracks yet!) the Chernobyl disaster and concerns about Nuclear weapons, all led to a perfect storm of mass public opposition to nuclear power in the 1980’s.
It is worth noting that the US, didn’t stop building nuclear power stations in 1979 because of any new law passed by Congress. No, it was because mass opposition at the state and county level led to local officials vetoing new nuclear power plants, or even withdrawing permission for plants part way through construction (tighter regulation and an inability to get proper finance also played a role). The led to several rather expensive holes being left in the ground or indeed partially finished nuclear plants that never got switched on.


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