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American Nuclear Power

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The 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that devastates Japan last week will have a variety of repercussions back in the United States. One of the most immediate will be an economic impact as trade balances shift, supply and demand curves move about and the Wall Street traders speculate. But a more interesting impact will come in the future of nuclear power for America. In the face of weaning America off fossil fuels last year, the Obama Administration had brought back the interest in nuclear energy especially with newer technologies as a clean, long-term solution. The suggestion seemed even more apropos with pushes towards an electric vehicle infrastructure and fluctuating oil prices thanks to waves of protest and unrest in the Mediterranean and Middle East. However, with the earthquake, Japan is facing potential nuclear meltdown and other problems with various reactors.1 And this of course leads to renewed fears from Americans about the nuclear technology at home.

Are the fears warranted? Or is the risk worth the benefit?


1 I work with a former Navy nuclear engineer and he gave me a pretty good “armchair” description of the situation. For what it’s worth, the situation in Japan is partially a function of their own deviation from designs used in America that would have prevented some of the overheating in the absence of the diesel generators. Even with physical damage from the earthquake, he says current American designs would have maintained core integrity, temperature and containment despite the magnitude. The Japanese design decision likely came from a nuclear stigma held from prior experiences with Hiroshima and Nagasaki …

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Be fair... by scottb

For what it’s worth, the situation in Japan is partially a function of their own deviation from designs used in America that would have prevented some of the overheating in the absence of the diesel generators. Even with physical damage from the earthquake, he says current American designs would have maintained core integrity, temperature and containment despite the magnitude.

It’s a little unfair to blame the Japanese sites for not being designed to current specs — they weren’t built yesterday, after all. At least one of them is a half century old. As I understand it, the design criteria for that particular reactor specified that it survive a magnitude 7 quake — this one was 100 times more powerful than that.

There’s a branch of statistics called extreme value theory that models disaster scenarios like this — if you’re building a reactor, what should the design goal be? Extreme value theory gives answers. But extreme value theory is relatively new — the most important parts of it being published in the late 50s, and probably not even available to the planners of this plant.

I think it’s easy to look at a situation like this and see only the failures. Here’s an interesting blog entry from an engineer living in Japan, which gives some much needed perspective on just how much didn’t fail — how, overwhelmingly, stuff worked as designed. It’s an important counterpoint to bear in mind.

Also, if you’ve got one of those friends who’s muttering about how this disaster is some kind of karmic payback for Pearl Harbor, or whatever, punch them in the head and remind them how the Japanese responded to Katrina.

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Those Circumstances by gnifyus

I was always on the fence with nuclear energy when it came to balancing safety with benefit, but now I’m starting to wonder if we can ever be very safe if we are to call it our main source of power for the future. In my memory we have Three Mile Island – one type of reactor with a set of circumstances which led to a serious emergency, Chernobyl, which was a complete disaster, another reactor design and another set of circumstances leading to its demise, and now the Japan Fukushima situation which is another design with another set of circumstances no one dreamed of. We are always being surprised (or overcome) by chains of events not planned for. Sprinkled amongst all these are the multitudes of minor events, which have the potential to multiply if we have a greater number of these reactors online. Even events (like leaking tritium into the ground water) which lack drama for the world at large, but are still very serious, are things we have to consider. Reactors like Yankee Rowe that are decommissioned and deemed by the NRC to be completely safe, still have 533 spent fuel rods on-site waiting (and waiting) to be taken to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. (I wonder what unforeseen event might happen there if they use it, by the way?)

The thing is, I like the idea of nuclear power, its compact and produces a lot of energy from our own resources. But the non-localized consequences of messing up as we seem to be apt to do once in a while seem greater than it might be worth at times like these. Can every design, no matter how robust on paper, account for every shade of human error and complacency?

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