Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Chernobyl Could Happen Here ... Not!

Chernobyl Could Happen Here by Harvey Wasserman via

In general, I'm on the same side as Mr. Wasserman. And, I try not to follow the leftist tradition of shooting at your allies. But, as someone with a nuclear engineering degree, I have to admit that when I read pieces like this, although I agree with the general purpose, I find myself thinking "Bullshit" as I read it.

There are enough good arguments against nuclear power, without creating misleading BS like this article.

Mr. Wasserman manages to write this article without talking about, or demonstrating any knowledge of the different types of nuclear reactor design. Chernobyl was a design known as 'graphite-moderated'. In a reactor, you need something to slow down the neutrons that are released from fission. In most, but not all, American designs, water is used for this purpose, as well as for cooling. In the Chernobyl design, graphite blocks were use, while water was still used for cooling. This is not that uncommon in some early American reactors. The first reactor under Chicago Stadium used graphite blocks, as did the early DOE, plutonium making reactors at places like Savannah River. But, almost all American commercial reactors used water as the moderator.

Why is that important? Because, as a reactor starts to overheat, the water turns to steam. If that water had been playing an important role in slowing down the neutrons to keep a chain reaction going, then having that water disappear helps keep the reactor under control. In the Chernobyl design, it was graphite blocks that moderated the speed of the neutrons, and thus the reactor could go massively out of control, and do so very quickly. At Chernobyl, the sequence from "uh-oh" to "Oh Shit!" to "Boom!" took only seconds.

If you look closely, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were different. At Chernobyl, the reactor literally blew up in a nuclear explosion. A massive, many-ton, metal lid on the reactor chamber was blown up into the air, the roof of the reactor building was destroyed. Nuclear materials from the core were blown up into the air and landed all around the reactor site. This required brave fire fighters to run out with shovels to keep these highly radioactive bits from burning down the control building before the other reactor could be shut down. They died horrible deaths over the next few weeks from high does of radiation, but they kept Chernobyl from maybe being twice as bad with two exploding reactors. From the one explosion, a plume of hot radioactivity blew tens of thousands of feet up into the air and traveled the world. It was first detected by the rest of the world (after the usual government denials) when workers coming into work at a Swedish nuclear power plant set off the radiation alarms. Crops across Europe were destroyed because of the radiation that rained down.

At TMI, it was much worse than the people were told. The core did melt. And I have some sympathy when reading Mr. Wasserman's claims that more radiation was released than announced. If you read this blog, you'll know I'm not a big believer in government and corporate pronouncements. But there was not this nuclear explosion that blew nuclear materials around the site and send huge radioactive plumes up into the air. These two events are quite different.

Mr. Wasserman has a way of taking a few facts, that are probably correct, then spinning them into pieces that read as total BS to someone like me who knows a bit about nuclear engineering. In this piece, he makes an incredible stretch to problems back in the 1960's with a radically different, experimental reactor design that used liquid sodium. This was tried once and abandoned, and has nothing to do with commercial power reactors in the US today. He also fits in the claim, quite possibly true, that more radiation was emitted at TMI than was announced. Mr. Wasserman uses some facts that are probably correct, but the overall argument of the piece is still total bullshit.

There are plenty of good reasons for not building more nuclear power plants. They are horribly expensive, and not commercially viable without government subsidies in the billions. We don't know a thing about what to do with all this nuclear waste we are building up. And they are not as entirely safe as the nuclear industry would have us believe. Anything humans are involved in will have mistakes. Most good engineers are strong believers in Murphy's Law. And Murphy's law around a nuclear power plant is a scary proposition.

But, it doesn't help the cause to spread nonsense BS around like Mr. Wasserman does. Writing pieces that anyone with any knowledge reads and immediately cries "BullShit!" does not help advance a cause.

To be clear, I'm not saying another nuclear accident can't happen again in the US. In fact, if we keep building more reactors and operating the aging reactors we have, its rather likely that someday we'll have another accident. That whole bit with Murphy's Law is bound to bite us again someday. But, it won't be Chernobyl. It won't be a graphite cored reactor doing its own little impersonation of a nuclear bomb.

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