Sunday, January 22, 2006

The West Wing's Nuclear Farce

When I first decided to pursue a degree in nuclear engineering, my mom said to me, “Lisa, you realize this means we will never have a meaningful conversation about your work, right? I get a math rash balancing my checkbook.” But over the years, she's picked up quite a bit of information from my frequent chattering about nuclear issues. While she and I have quite a few political differences, I have to smile when she calls me to rail against the propaganda she sees from local antinuclear activists.

So I decided to give her a heads up that one of her favorite shows, The West Wing, would be airing tonight an absurd episode involving a nuclear power plant accident. She said, “You know I wouldn’t believe what they say without talking to you.” I’ve trained her well! Too bad the writers at NBC don’t have the same inclination to speak to someone with some educational, technical, and working background in the nuclear industry before writing fairy tales. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a few of the errors in the West Wing episode based on a preliminary script. At that time, I said that I would take the post down if NBC decided to alter the script to reflect reality. Unfortunately, the episode played closely to that script and I think it is important that I re-post a few of the falsehoods. I hope more of my colleagues chime in.

First, the spoiler says, "the feedwater pump failed. Kate inserts that the feedwater pump carries radioactive, hot water to the steam generator..." Raise your hand if your PWR has a feedwater pump between the reactor vessel and the steam generators. No one?

But that is almost a forgivable error compared to the failure to mention that there are backup pumps, backup systems, and backup water sources to ensure that core cooling is maintained. The script says that personnel at the plant were able to install a "temporary cooling line...to the core." I defy the writers to describe exactly how things like safety injection systems and gravity-fed emergency cooling can be categorized as "temporary."

While they do mention that many, many things must go wrong for anyone to be harmed by a nuclear power plant incident, they conveniently eliminate all of the actual safety systems that make it a true statement. Like the fact that even though designs ensure that there is plenty of backup cooling, PWR containment buildings can withstand steam buildup from a loss of coolant accident. Venting in the auxiliary buildings? Only if I'm there expressing my frustration with antinuclear propaganda.
After watching the episode tonight, I was astounded that, in addition to the technical errors, they couldn’t even get logistical and administrative details correct. Plants are required by federal law to have highly-developed and detailed evacuation plans. In the extremely unlikely event that an evacuation would be necessary, officials would not be playing it by ear. There is also a finely tuned communications plan, onsite NRC inspectors would know the details of the situation as they happened, and NRC headquarters would be directly linked to an emergency command center. The mass confusion among the heads of the affected government agencies would just not occur. Furthermore, the EPA doesn’t set radiation dose limits, and the president would never have the authorization to make operational decisions.

In short, the writers didn’t just make a small, obscure highly technical error here and there. They wrote a complete farce and made no attempt to make it plausible.

I did like that Alan Alda’s character pointed out the contribution nuclear makes in combating climate change, but that still doesn’t excuse NBC for perpetuating nuclear myths that make a fair pubic debate impossible.

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I got sick to my stomach watching this show. It's an insult to the hundreds of thousands of workers in the nuclear industry worldwide who do a great job at producing clean and reliable electricity ... to power our televisions!!!

Anonymous said...

Whilst I understand your frustration at technical details being inaccurate I watch TWW and the technical specifics are by the by. All the fundementals of the story are being mirrored in Japan at this very moment, so not quite the farce of an episode you'd like it to be.

Anonymous said...

Revised thoughts following the incident in Japan?