Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Blogging and Twittering and Writing Columns

Reilly Apparently pleased with the result of his Facebook page, Energy Secretary has now moved on to blogging and twittering. At the new blog, called Energy Blog, Chu greets his new readers and promises, well, let him tell you:

Our goal is to use the Energy Blog and our other social media outlets to show you who we are, what we do, and why it matters to you, while allowing you to connect with us in new and creative ways.

And the department is hitting the ground running:

Later this morning, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs David Sandalow will field your questions from Facebook and Twitter about the Clean Energy Ministerial. This meeting is the first time in history that ministers of the world’s largest economies have gathered to focus exclusively on clean energy. We will be making important announcements today about the real results this meeting has produced, and I hope you will check back later today to learn more.

I know I will.

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Long time New York Times columnist Bob Herbert weighs in on nuclear energy today. It’s essentially a hatchet job, with every possible fear mechanism against nuclear energy grafted onto the piece.

People of a certain age will remember the frightening accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, a partial meltdown that came dangerously close to a worst-case scenario.

It came nowhere close to “worst-case scenario,” which in this kind of thinking never has to be defined. It’s just worst case.

Americans are not particularly good at learning even the most painful lessons. Denial is our default mode. But at the very least this tragedy in the gulf should push us to look much harder at the systems we need to prevent a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant, and for responding to such an event if it occurred.

It’s as though Herbert just decided to write without any intention to challenge his own very outdated assumptions, borne by an outmoded view of the Three Mile Island accident and never updated.

It’s perfectly reasonable to take this premise - “to look much harder at the systems we need to prevent a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant” – and then, you know, look much harder at it. Herbert would learn a few things – and, I think, end up with a very different column.

But he didn’t do the work – or the research – or develop a fact set that supports or refutes his premise. He just asserts, with a little help from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a string of false and dubious facts. His readers have a right to expect better (and, to be honest, usually get it.) Dreadful.

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Speaking of where Herbert’s research might have taken him, consider this interesting piece by John Ringle at Oregon Live:

In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, the oil industry as a whole could do a far better job of managing the challenges of energy production -- and reducing the risk of accidents -- by adopting some of the successful practices of the nuclear power industry.

For example, contrast this, from Ringle:

Largely as a result of INPO's [Institute for Nuclear Power Operations’s] attention to detail, there hasn't been a serious accident at a U.S. nuclear plant in more than 30 years. And everyone of the safety indices that INPO tracks -- from worker radiation exposure to unplanned automatic reactor shutdowns -- has shown dramatic improvement over the years.

With this, from Herbert’s column:

We have to be concerned about the very real possibility of a worst-case scenario erupting at one of the many aging nuclear plants already operating (in some cases with safety records that would make your hair stand on end), and at any of the new ones that so many people are calling for.

Clearly, the industry is not interested in safety – oh, except that it is and been pretty good at it – enough so that several people, including William Reilly, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and now co-chair of the commission to investigate the BP oil spill, have suggested the nuclear industry as a model of safety for the petroleum business.

Ringle did his homework and is much closer to the mark. It really doesn’t take that much effort to learn the facts here.

William Reilly.

3 comments:

Joffan said...

Personally I would say the Three Mile Island was not merely close to the worst-case scenario - it WAS the worst case scenario for a LWR of that era. And it wasn't really that bad, in terms of the off-site effect (except for those who want to believe it was terrible anyway, in defiance of the evidence).

It would be interesting to try to undertake what-if speculation (that is physically and operationally realistic) on how the TMI incident could have been worse. I suspect it has been done by professional groups far better than I could. But I find it quite hard, in the knowledge of the (minimal) actual presssure-vessel damage, to think of a way to change things significantly for the worse.

Anonymous said...

I find it quite hard, in the knowledge of the (minimal) actual presssure-vessel damage, to think of a way to change things significantly for the worse.

How about if the PORV had remained open longer? It was only closed after nearly 2.5 hours, when its status (inaccurately conveyed by the I&C) was double-checked out of desperation because they didn't know what else to do to stop the accident.

What's the scenario for the core cooling down before a total meltdown if the PORV remained open?

Joffan said...

Anon, thanks for the response.

Leaving the PORV valve open longer might have led to more (or even complete) fuel melt, I'll agree. But actually would that have made any difference to real off-site consequences? The fuel that melted and reached the reactor vessel dissipated its heat in the wall of the vessel without melting even 10% of the thickness. I don't see any reason to suppose that more core melt would have gotten say to more than 50%, and there was no mechanism to increase the amount of heat being generated - in fact of course the decay heat production was reducing steadily and inevitably. So although that might have made the interior of the pressure vessel a great deal messier, I don't see it increasing the off-site effect.

Or, in other words, "total [fuel] meltdown" isn't actually noticeably worse that what happened anyway.

As I say I may well have missed something obvious and if so I'd love to know about it.