Tuesday, November 15, 2011

“Enormous Challenges and Ludicrous Efforts”


If you happen to be in Washington DC tonight, check out a new film called Under Control at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. If you’re not familiar with the Hirshhorn, it’s the modern art museum where your cranky aunt will point out that children could make art as good as that on display. And Under Control sounds as though it adopts an aesthetic rather than documentary approach.

Hirshhorn associate curator Kelly Gordon first saw the piece at the Berlin Film Festival this past February and came away impressed. “It is a mind-blowing study of the haunting elegance of the hardware of the industry,” she says. “The film meditates on the poetry of technology but also the echo of mass destruction.”

I imagine for some, including your cranky aunt, that says, “Poison. Stay away.” After all, it’s not just a film, it’s a “piece.” And it “meditates.”

And it does seem to want to at least imply a connection between constructive and destructive uses of energy.

Hollow, echoing sounds reflect the underlying menace that’s present. Yet there’s an appeal to the clean lines of the sterile, industrial design and a retro Eastern European feel to the furniture and instrument panels that ironically control some of the most powerful forces on the planet.

I’m not sure that even makes sense unless you’re already of a mind to imagine a “hollow, echoing sound” in a nuclear energy facility equals some “underlying menace.”

At its worst, talking and writing about modern art hits a kind of squishy liberalism where words mean what you want them to mean rather than what they clearly do mean. It’s a place where a grinding bore becomes a meditation.

Even though director Volker Satter has an agenda - here’s a quote: “Looking at the long term, you can sense the enormous challenges and ludicrous efforts that this form of energy generation demands of human beings” – he wants to make his case visually rather than verbally.

It’s always amusing to hear filmmakers, who after all practice the most technological and communal of arts, talk like this about any other human endeavor. “You can sense” they lack a certain self-knowledge.

But that’s not to say the film’s bad – after all, I’m describing a description not the film - or lacks points of interest. It’s on at 7:00. Director Satter will be there to explain it all for you.


Sometimes, flipping a switch can be enough:

The North Anna nuclear plant is likely to begin generating electricity tomorrow for the first time since both reactors at the Louisa County power station were shut down by a magnitude 5.8 earthquake on Aug. 23.

With everything that’s happened this year, one can’t blame Dominion and the NRC for being extremely careful about North Anna. The earthquake, while light (and short) compared to the one that struck Japan in March, still exceeded North Anna’s seismic design basis – a bit – for a few seconds.

This is how the NRC put it:

“The earthquake shook the reactors more strongly than the plant’s design anticipated, so Dominion had to prove to us that the quake caused no functional damage to the reactors’ safety systems,” said Eric Leeds, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. “We’ve asked Dominion dozens of detailed questions, and our experts have examined Dominion’s answers as well as information from our own inspections. We’re satisfied the plant meets our requirements to restart safely, and we’ll monitor Dominion’s ongoing tests and inspections during startup of both reactors.”

That’s fine. But the key is here:

Both Dominion and NRC’s results showed only minor damage that did not affect North Anna’s safety systems.

Here is what the NRC still wants Dominion to do:

Updating North Anna’s Final Safety Analysis Report to incorporate information from the quake and subsequent analysis;

Additional characterization of the fault responsible for the Aug. 23 quake, as well as any special ground motion effects at North Anna;

Re-evaluating plant equipment (including an assessment of potential improvements) identified in earlier seismic reviews;

Developing any needed inspections or evaluations for components within the North Anna reactor vessels; and

Permanently updating seismic monitoring equipment for the North Anna reactors and dry-cask spent fuel storage facility.

Seems reasonable enough.

As you may expect, Dominion also put out a press release. This bit struck me as especially interesting:

[Following the earthquake] The company immediately began a program of inspections, testing and analysis to make sure the station was undamaged and capable of being safely restarted. The program involved more than 100,000 man-hours of work and cost more than $21 million, plus the use of numerous outside seismic and engineering experts.

Which may seem excessive, but the earthquake was so rare – and North Anna so near the epicenter (about 12 miles away) – that one doesn’t hesitate to suggest the money and time were well spent. Dominion doesn’t say how much of this was spent at their own behest and how much due to NRC questions, but presumably, there is some division.

Again, here’s the key:

“The station suffered no functional damage from the quake and is ready to resume generating clean, low-cost energy safely for our customers."

That’s David Heacock, Dominion’s president and chief nuclear officer. (NEI’s Nuclear Energy Insight newsletter recently published an interview with Heacock - mostly about Dominion’s post- Fukushima actions - which is online here.)

So, good news – especially for Virginians - on a number of fronts.

From Under Control. Looks darkly lustrous.


Brian Mays said...

"It's a place where a grinding bore becomes a meditation."

I think that folks like Satter refer to this as a "mantra."

"Even though director Volker Satter has an agenda - here’s a quote: 'Looking at the long term, you can sense the enormous challenges and ludicrous efforts that this form of energy generation demands of human beings' ..."

Oh yes, it demands some human beings to go to engineering school, instead of art school or film school.

Oh, the horror!!!

It appears that he wants to make his case by any means other than logically.

Anonymous said...

I always find it interesting that flaky artist types like to produce "works" ("pieces") that somehow imply malevolent intent or consequences of technological society, yet have no qualms about living within the comforts said technology allows them (and all of us) to enjoy. One wonders how they would like going back to forming petroglyphs on cave walls without evil technology around to concern them. I have a feeling they would not paint very pretty pictures.