Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Continuing the nuclear debate.

with one comment

Many of you will be familiar with, or will have followed, this recent post on The Oil Drum, discussing nuclear energy. There’s a very lively and certainly very heated discussion thread there.

Now, comment submission is now closed for that post – but I can’t help but be a little stubborn and have the last post, responding to a couple of anti-nuclear-energy posts that I cannot help myself but take the oppurtunity to rebut.

“a direct, high-speed hit by a large commercial passenger jet would ‘have a high likelihood of penetrating a containment building’ that houses a power reactor. According to the NCI, such an incident could cause a significant release of radiation into the environment and result in tens of thousands of cancer deaths.”

Well, here’s the EPRI study concerning aircraft crash attacks against a nuclear power plant:

“In both cases, the analysis conservatively assumed that the engine and the fuselage strike perpendicular to the centerline of the structure. This results in the maximum force upon impact to the structure for each case.
The analyses indicated that no parts of the engine, the fuselage or the wings—nor the jet fuel—entered the containment buildings. The robust containment structure was not breached, although there was some crushing and spalling (chipping of material at the impact point) of the concrete.”

That doesn’t exactly agree, does it?

“Not to mention the case of an actual war or sabotage.”

In terms of deliberate sabotage, say by terrorists, what kind of attack would actually be needed, in real-world terms, to actually destroy a nuclear reactor and breach its containment vessel, causing a radiological impact on the environment? Could it happen in practice, at all?

“The evacuation plan for the plant covers a 10-mile radius from the plant, but the federal government also has emergency readiness plans for a 50-mile “ingestion plume pathway” that includes New York City.”

“My little ‘thought experiment’ is what a government emergency readiness plan says.”

So what? None of those evacuation plans or emergency planning zones have ever, ever needed to be put into practice in the United States to protect the public from a commercial nuclear power accident.

The notion that there’s a 50-mile radius or whatever that corresponds to some emergency readiness planning, and therefore it’s entirely plausible that a commercial power reactor could injure or kill everyone within a 50-mile radius is complete nonsense.

Tell ya what – I’ll bother tracking that down and posting once you go ahead and show that fission power is so safe that it no longer needs the special Price-Anderson law that makes the industry a possibility.

Showing how Price-Anderson is unnecessary is an open challenge – feel free to take it up.

But hey, instead of creating fake stuff, and calling it true (a habit of the pro-fission people in this topic it seems) why not just head on address Price-Anderson – show how fission is so safe it doesn’t need the protection.

In the entire history of commercial nuclear power in the United States – over 100 reactors operating, and 50 years of reactor operation – commercial nuclear energy in the United States has never hurt or killed anybody, and not one single cent of government money has ever been paid out under Price-Anderson.

I don’t believe Price-Anderson is necessary – the experience over the last 50 years shows that.

“I see. So your position is US centric. That’s fine, but there are other nations. Many have signed up to the peaceful atom program. So magically THEY are going to be as responsible as in the US?”

Is this basically implying that you think nations such as, say,  South Korea, Japan, France, China, India or South Africa are intrinsically incapable of safe nuclear engineering, but the US is? Are you implying that these nations are going to build Soviet-style RBMK reactors with positive void coefficients and no containment vessel and operate them in the way that the Soviets did, with absolutely no safety culture?

If I was a representative of those nations, their leaders, and their engineers, I’d almost take offence at that.

Written by Luke Weston

April 13, 2008 at 5:30 am

One Response

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  1. The Price-Andersen act exists for numerous reasons and amongst them is to insure that there is absolutely no chance that we would not be able to respond to even the worst – impossibly bad – nuclear accident.

    Here’s the issue: People demand that if there were a nuclear accident it would be responded to and insured. Hence, the US requires all operators to have the highest avaliable private insurance on reactors. But that’s not all, they also require the industry pay into an enormous fund that assures that there will be money that is above and beyond that of insurance to pay for any disaster. They really make the industry pay about as much as you could reasonably expect any private industry to pony up for such protection.

    The reason Uncle Sam underwrites it and pays the bill if there is a disaster so enormous that it will wipe out all the money in the fund and go far beyond the capital which could be provided by insurance companies and the energy companies. If you had a one hundred billion dollar accident there is simply no way you could ever expect private funds to cover that. Even if they did, it would cause an economic collapse as every insurance company and investment bank would be filling for chapter 11.

    The US Government is the one entity which can insure 100% that it will be covered. The Government is guaranteed by definition not to fall. Of course, if the US Government did fall or just completely implode or something, then you would have much bigger worries than a nuclear plant accident. In that case, you’re talking about a continuity of government event and we have plans for that too – which we also have never implemented and think we probably will not.

    Here’s a parallel: The FDIC. It was created by the Roosevelt administration as a federally underwritten and guaranteed insurance program for banking. The point being that your deposit is insured even if the bank collapses. Even if all the bank’s insurers and the investors can’t back it. Come hell or high water, your money will be secure. As long as the government is around you will be taken care of.

    That is the point of Price-Andersen, in the end. It makes certain that there will never be a circumstance where there’s nobody to clean up and cover things even if they are worse than is really possible. It is the highest possible standard of insurance.

    There are other things which we probably don’t really “need” in the United States. Do we need to have hundreds of certified succession of presidency offices, so that if the president, vice president, speaker of the house, president pro tempor of the senate and all the secertaries of departments are killed there will still be someone lined up to take the reins? Do we need at least three bunkers capable of a near direct hit by a 20 megaton h-bomb (Cheyenne Mountain, Mount Weather, Raven Rock)? Do we need emergency communications systems like groundwave radio systems which will function even if all satellites are destroyed and there is a severe geomagnetic storm making HF radio unreliable?

    No. We don’t really need any of these. We don’t really need the FDIC either. They are failsafes which will almost certainly never be used. They address the “what if the worst happens” question. This is the same with Price-Andersen.


    April 13, 2008 at 4:35 pm

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