You’re motoring down a lonely country road. Ahead of you, there is a person walking in the middle of the road. You honk your horn. Nothing. So you go around the person, take a quick look to make sure there’s nothing wrong, and continue on your way.
But you might have had a collision and killed the person. That was close, a near-miss. You saw risk (person in road who might be killed by your driving), tried to reduce the risk (honked at person), avoided the risk (drove around the person). But the risk was always there and could have ended in disaster.
So, logically, driving when other people are around, even only one other person, always presents a risk. Shouldn’t driving therefore be banned to eliminate the risk? We’d be safer, right? Even if the initial risk is small and you mitigate it and avoid it, risk is risk.
So when I hear the Union of Concerned Scientists offer its comments about nuclear energy, I sometimes wonder, Why not driving? Why nuclear energy? Isn't driving riskier?
UCS sees some of the benefits of nuclear energy.
While there are currently some global warming emissions associated with the nuclear fuel cycle and plant construction, when nuclear plants operate they do not produce carbon dioxide. This fact is used to support proposals for a large-scale expansion of nuclear power both in the United States and around the world.
Let’s leave aside the fact that building and transporting wind turbines cause carbon emissions – that’s the world we live in- and say: they do get some of the benefits, somewhat. But still:
It must be borne in mind that a large-scale expansion of nuclear power in the United States or worldwide under existing conditions would be accompanied by an increased risk of catastrophic events—a risk not associated with any of the non-nuclear means for reducing global warming.
These catastrophic events include a massive release of radiation due to a power plant meltdown or terrorist attack, or the death of tens of thousands due to the detonation of a nuclear weapon made with materials obtained from a civilian—most likely non-U.S.—nuclear power system.
I suppose UCS sees the person in the road of nuclear energy and frets. In the UCS view, that person will be run over sooner or later – either in a way that has never happened (terrorist attack) or is strongly guarded against (proliferation) or is dynamically prevented (safety issues – by dynamic, I mean the safety culture is always evolving.)
But while UCS waits for the inevitable disaster, all it can do in the meantime is cut away at nuclear energy, a little at a time, one little thing after another after another until the portrait of nuclear energy looks like that of Dorian Gray in the attic, warped and corrupt. Call it the death of a million little cuts, no one of them fatal, but damaging in their accumulation.
Lately, UCS tried for 14 cuts, releasing a report that says that 14 "near-misses" at nuclear plants in 2011-12 indicate that the United States "has been lucky" to avoid a serious nuclear accident. Lucky?
Let’s take a look at one of the more alarming sounding near-misses.
After an age-related problem caused one of four reactor coolant pumps to fail, the Unit 1 reactor and turbine automatically shut down as designed. Due to a design error in a recent modification, the decreasing voltage output by the main generator caused electrical breakers to open that disconnected Units 1 and 2 from the offsite power grid. One of the emergency diesel generators started but failed to supply electricity to safety equipment due to another design error when it was installed in 1984.
And this is how the NRC describes the same event (I’ve bolded some bits to cut through the thicket):
On 04/04/12 at 2003 hours, Unit 1 tripped from 100% power following a trip of reactor coolant pump 1D. Shortly after the Unit 1 generator power circuit breakers opened, the Zone G protective relaying system unexpectedly actuated on an instantaneous under frequency condition as a result of an error in the relay logic. This opened the switchyard breakers thereby isolating Unit 1 from the grid and resulting in a Loss of Offsite Power (LOOP). At the time of the trip, Unit 2 was in Mode 5 during its End-of-Cycle 18 Refueling Outage with both of its essential busses aligned to Unit 1 offsite power. Therefore, Unit 2's essential busses lost power as a result of the LOOP. Both emergency diesel generators (EDGs) on each unit automatically started and powered their respective essential busses as designed. A Notification of Unusual Event (NOUE) was declared as a result of the LOOP and the Catawba Emergency Response Organization was activated. Approximately five and one-half hours later, after confirming that the sources of the fault were cleared, offsite power was restored to one essential bus on each unit and the NOUE was terminated. The root causes of this event and the planned corrective actions in response to this event are described in detail in the respective sections of this LER. All plant safety related systems required to litigate the event were operable and capable of performing their required safety related functions. These systems functioned as designed in response to this event. Therefore, the health and safety of the public were not adversely affected by this event.
No need to get into busses and LOOPS unless you want to. A near-miss in UCS terms means something out of the ordinary occurred at a plant and the personnel did exactly as it should to solve the problem. But that’s not good enough. If I were inclined to be unfair, I’d say UCS’s solution here would be to close the plant, tear it to the ground, and salt the earth on which it stood.
But fairness dictates that UCS says no such thing. It is saying that this is one episode among many episodes. For UCS, it is one of a million little cuts that shows you their “truth” about nuclear energy.
Now, to square this up really fairly, the NRC has a category that tracks closely enough to UCS’s “near-miss” for our purpose which it calls an abnormal occurrence. This is defined as an unscheduled incident or event that the NRC determines to be significant from the standpoint of public health or safety. Federal law requires that the NRC report these to Congress annually.
During the past 11 years of reporting (2001-2011), the agency found only two abnormal occurrences at U.S. nuclear power plants (Davis Besse in 2002 and Browns Ferry 1 in 2011). That’s two too many, but that’s all – not 14, not a million, not even actual near-misses as most people would define the term.
After more than 50 years of commercial nuclear energy production in the United States—including more than 3,500 reactor-years of operation—there have been no radiation-related health effects linked to the operation of nuclear facilities – and that’s not overlooking the Three Mile Island accident, which frightened people but did not do harm.
But there is one person standing in the road waiting for the car that is just around the bend. That person has to be rescued, even if by a million little cuts.