Monday, May 16, 2011

Through Natural Disasters

bferry6 While we expect to see some articles gleefully bid adieu to nuclear energy in favor of its renewable cousins – or natural gas, which for all its positive qualities, still generates greenhouse gasses – what tends to happen is that writers nudge the facts to fit the desired conclusion. For example, this story from NPR is fairly unremarkable in tracing nuclear’s long goodbye, but I was struck by its conclusion:

Fukushima shows that there will always be some risk from nuclear reactors. For Philip Sharp at Resources for the Future, that presents the public with a big question: "To what degree [are] we as a people ... to accept that some of these things are high risk, and how far are we willing to go to tolerate those high risks?"

I would not care to downplay the seriousness of the accident, but I would stress that the above paragraph is written in the context of an earthquake and tsunami now believed to have killed 27,000 people, a fair number of them in the vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi. Meanwhile, the accident at the nuclear plant killed no one (two plant workers were killed by the tsunami), though it has displaced a lot of people.

So the risk of being hurt or killed by a natural disaster versus by a nuclear plant accident caught in that natural disaster has been demonstrated – tragically but vividly.

“How far are people willing to go to tolerate those high risks?” I genuinely do not think that the speaker – in this case, Ed Lyman at the Union of Concerned Scientists – has really thought through what he’s saying.

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In fact, the United States, while experiencing nothing like the earthquake in Japan, has recently suffered a natural disaster that disconnected at least a couple of nuclear energy plants from off-site power – just as happened at Fukushima.

An unconfirmed tornado landed outside the Surry Nuclear Plant in Virginia on Saturday and automatically shutdown the site’s two reactors, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The apparent tornado affected an electrical switchyard next to the plant, cutting off the electrical feed to the station, in Surry County, about 17 miles northwest of Newport News.

That’s one.

The second-biggest nuclear power plant in the United States may be down for weeks after killer thunderstorms and tornadoes in Alabama knocked out power and automatically shut down the plant, avoiding a nuclear disaster, officials said on Thursday.

The backup power systems at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama shut as designed on Wednesday, preventing a partial meltdown like the disaster last month in Japan that was also caused by a natural disaster.

And two. Love that second paragraph, but it’s only fair, I suppose. Glad it avoided a partial meltdown.

In both cases, diesel engines kicked in and allowed the plants to shut down normally. In Japan, the tsunami swept away the engines. Neither Browns Ferry nor Surry are vulnerable to tsunami, but they are expected to stand up to massive rain and flooding and tornadoes – which they did.

So? At Surry:

Surry Unit 1 was returned to service this past weekend and Surry Unit 2 has begun its scheduled refueling.

That would be April 24. It lost power on April 17, so that was a week.

And Browns Ferry:

All three nuclear units at Browns Ferry automatically tripped on April 27 when severe storms damaged transmission lines, causing the plant to lose offsite power.

Browns Ferry exited its unusual event status Monday night with the restoration of two independent sources of offsite power.

This is on May 3, so again, about a week. It’s going to take awhile longer to get back online, but that’s mostly because transmission lines got pummeled and need to be set back up.

I’m not sure there’s a full accounting of the deaths caused by the rains and tornadoes, but the last number I saw was 85.

Browns Ferry.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

"To what degree [are] we as a people ... to accept that some of these things are high risk, and how far are we willing to go to tolerate those high risks?"

High risks, is it? Well, let's see, what do we as a people tolerate already? Automobile fatalities in the range of 30,000 a year. Aviation accidents sometimes in the hundreds per year. Accidents in the home to the tune of sveral thousand deaths per year. Since nuclear historically has resulted in zero fatalities per year, that shouldn't be too difficult to tolerate, in view of the risks we already tacitly accept.

donb said...

That "high risk" needs to be compared to the alternatives.

At the time the Fukushima power plants were built, the only real alternative was coal. What would have happened if coal plants had been built? Probably well over 10,000 people would have died over the years due to asthma attacks from fine particulates, coal mining accidents, etc.

There is risk in any human activity, and also in not doing important human activities like providing energy. The goal is to provide energy with a minimum of risk, which nuclear does well, despite the sensational headlines.

Anonymous said...

"nuclear historically has resulted in zero fatalities per year"

Chernobyl doesn't even warrant an asterisk anymore? It's OK to shorten this claim to no deaths from nuclear?

some qualifiers missing in the above:

1) in the US
2) attributable to commercial nuclear power
3) since 1961

This is the kind of sloppy claim that contributes to the credibility gap.

SteveK9 said...

There is nothing inaccurate about the statement that "nuclear historically has resulted in zero fatalities per year", including Chernobyl. The fatalities from nuclear are so low it's hard to talk about a 'rate', like one does with auto accident fatalities or even coal mining fatalities, which are sporadic but more frequent. If in 50 years Chernobyl were the only nuclear accident and let's say killed 50 people, then would we say that nuclear accidents kill one person per year?

Of course there is the fear that there could be some massive death count related to nuclear, but is that even remotely realistic anymore? A 50-year old design and 40-year old reactor gets hit by a magnitude 9 earthquake and a 45-foot high tsunami. Can it get any worse?? Number of deaths --- zero.

Marcel F. Williams said...

The fear of nuclear power and radiation in general is largely based on superstition and scientific ignorance. Nuclear power is easily the safest mode of commercial electricity production ever invented with the smallest environmental impact.

Despite the relatively remarkable safety record of the nuclear power industry, the next generation of small underground nuclear reactors should be substantially safer since they don't require any external power needs to remain cool.

The nuclear power industry needs to confront the Fukushima , Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island situations head on in the media and compare them to coal, natural gas, oil, hydroelectric, solar, and wind. It needs to compare the tiny amount of waste production from nuclear power with the immense amounts of greenhouse and toxic waste produced from fossil fuels and the land and environment impacts from renewable energy systems.

It needs to talk up the recycling of spent fuel in current and future generations of nuclear power. It needs the talk about using nuclear power plants for ammonia and carbon neutral synfuel production.

The US nuclear power industry even needs to show how nuclear reactors power our submarines and aircraft carriers, protecting our freedom.

And, finally, it needs to fully embrace the concept of small underground nuclear power plants as an even safer and more economical future for the nuclear industry.

The future of nuclear power in the US and the rest of the world is bright-- if the nuclear industry has the courage and the common sense to aggressively and continuously make its case to the public!

Anonymous said...

"some qualifiers missing in the above:

1) in the US
2) attributable to commercial nuclear power
3) since 1961"

Sloppy qualifiers. If you're going to pick on Chornobil, your qualifier should be "everywhere except the former USSR". There are other countries besides the US that have used nuclear without any fatalities.