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NBC's West Wing: "Duck and Cover" Indeed...

Oh, Lisa, I agree with almost everything you just said, but I'll come back to that later... As Lisa did a good job blogging here, NBC aired their Duck and Cover episode of West Wing tonight.

I saw no basis in reality for any of the show. Isn't it great how even the characters on the show point fingers at the regulators for failures instead of the companies who own them and have a vested interest in running them well? Only in Hollywood does the agency blamed for the failure also get to the hero and kill one of their own putting a stop to the emergency... oh, I'm am so getting ahead of myself...

OK, first of all no stuck valve is going to require rigging a temporary cooling pipe. Current nuclear designs are not so fragile that simply any one or two valves failing could put the public in jeopardy. That's all phrased in the negative. Put another way, the reactor has one source of cooling while operating, a different sources of cooling (often 2 or 3) while shutdown, and yet two or three more sources of cooling in the event that something abnormal happens. So we're already closer to the truth of 12 different things (or 50) that have to go wrong to produce a meltdown.

[What? Are nuclear types allowed to say, "meltdown"?]

It's so difficult to address the mischaracterizations in the show. I can't even call them 'issues' because they're not.

I could tell you how ludicrous it is to suggest that a temporary cooling pipe would crack as soon as it's put into use, but it galls to even talk about it. I know there would be no need to install a temporary pipe in the first place, let alone to install one not designed for it's inteneded use. (The cracking issue sounds good on tv, complete with the ice/hot water/glass analogy. But try this on for size: take a glass out of the cabinet and put ice cubes and water in it. Does it break? No, it's the ice in the hot water that breaks glass. Care to tell me how these fictional engineers in this fictional power station installed this fictional temporary pipe while it was still holding hot water? Of course not! The pipe installed would have been high quality, safety pipe off the shelf, reviewed and approved for the intended design use.)

Let's see, what else? The very idea that anybody would want an economic major of a president calling the shots instead of the people who know the physics of nuclear energy, materials and radiation is horrifying. What happened to all the experts who spent their entire careers working and studying every nth detail of anything that could go wrong and then some? They all sit on their hands and let the president tell them what to do? Shouldn't there be a procedure for how to deal with what goes wrong when everything goes wrong?

Argh! Yes! Even in the absurd examples shown on this show, there are procedures for how to respond to Hollywood-style unreality events. Why write procedures you never plan on using? Not because the danger is so great, but simply so that when something happens that you don't expect, decisions are made by a rational analysis of the problem years in advance. The people in the crisis aren't faced with winging it. All these safety procedures that people like to pretend are proof that nuclear is dangerous are a programmatic means of dealing with an emergency long before any emergency happens. Decisions are made logically while not in an adrenalin rush, and then written down and filed away for when they're needed. How many other ways to get cooling, where to get emergency equipement from, how many people to evacuate, who to shelter and when... It's not a crystal ball and it's not magic.

Don't even get me started on pressurizing an auxiliary building to 50 pounds and worrying about a bad weld somewhere. Come on, get a grip, for pity's sake! Buildings are designed for equipment and workers. While it is possible to pressurize the containment (they're made airtight for a reason) the containment and the other buildings have scrubbers, filters, sampling, monitors and gas treatment for even their ventilation. Any single stuck open valve that could release something not designed to be released also has a backup system to protect the public - another valve in line with it that can be closed, for example. And this isn't necromancy or trial and error; if safety procedures call for something as absurd as a pump to add cooling to the core, then the procedures will also require it be kept on site, how big it is, what capacity it has to have, and calculations will show that it will work - not merely reduce the temperature by 12 degrees instead of hundreds.

Did you ever consider where all that steam being "pumped" to the auxiliary building was coming from? [Why am I suddenly reminded of the kid trying to collect fog in a bucket? "Pump steam to the auxiliary building?"] Simple physics will tell you that the steam is generated by taking heat away from the core. So, you can't have a lack of cooling and too much steam generated at the same time. Pick one problem or the other...

Enough. You get the idea. I'll probably get spun up over it again and post more later. But I should also tell Lisa where I disagree with her. Vinnick's words (Alan Alda's character) were right much of the time (though not always), but that wasn't the point, nor was the idea to throw a bone to the pro-nuclear audience. Vinnick was designed to be a pro-nuclear albatross around our necks. The show writers set him up to present pro-nuclear arguments, so that anybody who tried to take his side in day-to-day conversations would be seen as he is in the show - the bad guy. "Oh, you think nuclear is a non-polluting technology? Even if it requires evacuating half California?" It's a straw-man argument to set up all pro-nukes to be the same pariah that Vinnick is. They did no favors to the country, or to energy policy, or to cheap, clean electricity production.

Is there a musical episode of West Wing in the offing? I'm not surprised they're losing their audience and cancelling the show. As much as I've liked the show, I'm not even too disappointed, either.

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Robert Merkel said…
While I understand your sensitivity here, aren't you being a tad precious? TV always makes stuff up if the facts get in the way of a good story. Or do you think real forensics is done like in "CSI", or that real lawyers behave like in "Law and Order"?
Rod Adams said…

I tend to agree with Robert - when anyone asks me about postuatled events from a fictional television show, book or movie, I generally try to nicely say - "That's entertainment." My English teachers us taught to suspend our disbelief when reading a novel; my creative writing teachers told me to keep the story moving, using invented situations and devices if necessary.

BTW - Happy New Year!

Kelly L. Taylor said…
Your points are well taken, both of you. I have to admit that back-when, MacGyver didn't do any better with the science in their nuclear episode. The truth just doesn't make a good story, of course.

And Rod, thanks for the New Year's wishes!

distantbody said…
I also understand where everyone is coming from, but I totally empathize with this article and its poster. The true agony is knowing that so many thousands of viewers will take this to be a realistic scenario.

No-one likes to see their hard work, work(i.e. pro-nuclear campaigning), work that they are truly pasionate about, ground away by someones leisurely idea of "entertainment"

-I'm glad i got that out of me ;)
Anonymous said…
Rod Adams,

My English teacher (tried) to teach us that also :) . The thing is that many people don't know when to practice a healthy disbelief!
Matthew66 said…
Many TV shows, whilst being purely fictional, attempt to provide factual information as well. For example, many drama series that are set in hospitals or law firms, employ doctors, nurses and lawyers to check the scripts for technical accuracy. This also enables the shows to promote particular social agendas, such as cancer screening. Over many years, TV networks have obtained the trust of their viewers, by being responsible in this regard.

It is a pity then, that management at NBC chose to screen a program that was so technically inaccurate, that all it can only be considered propaganda for a particular political viewpoint. There are any number of nuclear physicists or retired nuclear engineers who could have been consulted at little cost to provide a technically accurate disaster scenario for NBC. Unfortunately, it would be a rather dull show. "Mr. President, the N nuclear reactor has a burst steam pipe. The reactor automatically scrammed, the NRC on site inspector, the utility and the county officials have the matter in hand." End of story.
Rod Adams said…
A postscript to this story can be found at

Apparently NBC has decided to cancel the West Wing due to falling ratings. Its audience numbers have fallen from a high of more than 17 million viewers to a current 7.5 million viewers.

In other words, I guess we do not have to worry so much about the impression that the show might give, since there were not all that many people watching.

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