Monday, May 2, 2011

Safest place ... until it isn't

Will the Nuclear Power Industry Melt Down?

"There's never been a death because of radiation ... in a civilian nuclear power plant. ... In Texas, if there's any kind of a serious earthquake or natural disaster, I want to be in the control room at Comanche Peak [Nuclear Power Plant] because that is the absolute safest place to be."

—Texas Congressman Joe Barton, April 6, 2011

The thing is, the congressman is correct. Well, the part about no deaths by radiation is pure sophistry. Radiation deaths are defended as being impossible to prove, but every reactor has certainly caused extra "bad effects" like cancers and leukemias. There's just not a smoking-gun type line of evidence that even the nuclear lawyers can't deny connecting that particular cancer to the radiation from that particular power plant. So, they then twist this unprovable statistic to the extreme and almost certainly, but not rock-solid-provably, false statement that no one has died.

But, about the control room at Comanche Peak, that's the part he's got right. Most of the time. The control room at Comanche Peak is a very safe place. Build very solidly I'm sure, with stuff like backup generators. Probably does feel like a safe place where one could ride out a hurricane. Right up until the moment when it isn't.

That's nuclear power. Everything seems safe and wonderful. Right up until the moment when it becomes not safe and not at all wonderful. The control room at Commanche Peak would be a very safe place. Up until the moment the Congressperson notices that the operators have all developed brown stains on the back of their trousers. Then, the congressperson would really be wishing he was a thousand miles away, or really, anywhere else, rather than inside the fence of nuclear plant that's now going out of control.

Nuclear power is safe and clean, on a good day, as long as we don't think too much about uranium mines and that sticky little problem of the fact that this 'clean' energy produces the most toxic and dangerous substances ever known to man as its 'waste'. But, yeah, on a good day, a nuclear plant puts out less carbon, indeed, less radioactivity, than a coal plant does. On a good day, you can take a tour of the control room and feel very safe indeed.

The problem with nuclear power is that not every day is a good day. There was a wise guy named Murphy once, who proposed as a law of the universe that 'Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And at the worst possible time.' One thing that anyone with any experience on this earth knows is that every day is not always a good day.

And the problem is, that when a nuclear plant has a bad day, it can have a really bad day. A bad day at a coal plant is a boiler explosion. That's a very bad day, as it can possibly kill some of the people who work there. But, for everyone who doesn't have family working at the coal plant, the boiler explosion might at worse mean a power shortage until the utility can get everything sorted again.

A bad day at a nuclear plant is Fukushima. A bad day at a nuclear plant is Three Mile Island. A bad day at a nuclear plant is Chernobyl.

A bad day at a nuclear plant leaves millions of people suddenly finding a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. When a nuclear plant has a bad day, a foul wind blowing in the wrong direction can be very harmful or even deadly.

Radiation is the ultimate scary movie killer. Its invisible. You don't know its there. If you don't have a machine that goes buzz when its radioactive, you can kill yourself by walking into an intense field of radioactivity without even knowing it. Or actually, its so invisible and silent that it doesn't make a very good scary movie killer. The young girl in the too-small t-shirt would be walking along. Everything would seem fine. Then she'd fall over dead. Or, actually, she'd collapse, struggle in a hospital for a few weeks dying a very slow and painful death as her body falls apart from the invisible blast of radiation that she never even knew she walked into. Doesn't sound like a very good movie after all. No action in the big scene where's she's killed by the invisible killer, then a long, slow, drawn-out ending where she dies and there's nothing anyone can do but watch and try to hold her hand.

Radiation is silent. How many Americans know that they've been exposed to Fukushima fallout over the last few weeks? If you aren't actively testing and monitoring for radiation around you, (and who does that?) then radiation is a silent attacker.

A bad day at a nuclear plant is 'exclusions zones'. Circles of the world blocked for a very long time from any human habitation. There's still one such circle around Chernobyl. Now there's another around Fukushima.

That's the contradiction of nuclear power. On one day, the control room at the nuclear plant may seem like the safest, sturdiest building from which to ride out a hurricane or an earthquake. But, on another day, that control room can be right at the center of an exclusion zone so dangerous that humans are allowed in only under controlled and monitored circumstances and for limited amounts of time. And even then, they are risking cancers or other effects of radiation during every second that they are there. Not a very safe place to be on that day. And once there's been one bad day, that's about as good as the good days get for a very long time.

That's the contradiction of nuclear power. The good days seem good. As long as you ignore the obscenely expensive costs, and that minor little problem of what to do with the toxic radioactive waste from which people will need to be protected further into our future than the Pyramids are into our past. Other than those little problems, on a good day, nuclear power seems clean and safe.

The problem is the bad days. The bad days are really bad. The bad days are bad as in destroying this circle of earth from supporting human life for at least hundreds of years into the future. The bad days are clouds of radiation spreading out over the country. A bad day is a disaster that's worst than the worst that Mother Nature can throw at us, because a bad day is an invisible pollution that silently kills being spread across our land.

Is every reactor going to blow up? Probably not. But, we are starting to develop a data line. Three Mile Island, 1978, Chernobyl, 1986, Fukushima, 2011. We really started putting nuclear plants online at roughly the early seventies, so that's three major accidents in 41 years. Or, just under one every 14 years.

The nuclear industry will stress the low odds of anything going wrong. Oh, its such an incredibly long-shot that anything will happen. You'll get run over by a truck or struck by lightening long before that happens.

But, here's the bad news. Everything with really low probabilities (meaning its very unlikely) does indeed occur if you take enough chances at it. If you go into a casino, there's usually one very low probability (meaning hard to win) slot machine that's advertised to pay out a huge jackpot if it does hit. The chance of you winning when you put your five dollars in is remote. But, if you sat there over time, playing penny slots and getting free drinks from the waitresses for days or weeks or months or even years, then guess what ... you will see that low probability slot machine pay out and some lucky soul win its jackpot. If the game is honest, someone will win that jackpot some day.

Play the slot machine often enough, and every low probability result, including winning the jackpot will eventually happen. The casino owners know this and plan accordingly how to pay the eventual and certain to occur winner of that jackpot. What the odds determine is the average time between the winnings of jackpots. If the casino makes the slot machine harder to win, then the jackpots occur at longer intervals on the average. If the casino makes the machine easier to win, then the jackpots occur at shorter intervals on the average. But, changing the odds does not prevent the jackpots from occurring. As long as the game is honest, they will occur. The only question is how frequently.

In Colorado, the odds of winning the Powerball lottery are 1 in 196,000,000. Somebody hit that winning number on April 23. And before that, on April 6. And before that, on February 26. Sell enough 1 in 200 million tickets, and you get roughly one hit on that lottery every month.

Build enough nuclear power plants, and no matter how remote the odds of a major accident, those major accidents will occur. Right now we are at one every 14 years.

With nuclear power, we keep plugging away at that slot machine. According to, there are 442 operating nuclear power reactors in the world. Actually, they should update their website to read 439, as that 442 number includes the three now-melted reactors at Fukushima.

Those 439 operating reactors are us playing the slot machine time after time, day after day. Each was almost certainly built with the promise to local residents that the odds of an accident occurring at that reactor were incredibly low. But, just like with that low odds slot machine, we keep pulling the lever time after time, on every day we operate these nuclear power plants.

And now, the US wants to increase the number of pulls we take on that lever by building new nuclear power plants. In the midst of huge budget deficits, the US government wants to offer tens of billions in loan guarantees to companies that want to build new reactors. Obama and the Democrats want more nuclear power plants in America as a part of a 'balanced' energy policy.

The more pulls we make on that lever, the more frequently we'll see more Fukushimas, more Chernobyls, more Three Mile Islands. The more pulls on the lever, the sooner those low-odds chances come up and hit again and the dials read all Cherry's, and the lights and the sirens go off and once again we have the next major nuclear tragedy to add to our sad list.

And, if they make the nuclear plants safer, well, that just makes the accidents less frequent. They can't make the plants so safe that there will be no accident. They can't say that the odds of an accident are 'impossible'. They can only make them less likely to occur, and thus less frequent. If the casino adds an extra wheel to the big jackpot slot machine, that doesn't keep someone from winning the jackpot. It only means it will happen less often. Making nuclear plants 'safer' doesn't make them completely safe. It only means that they have accidents less frequently.

We're establishing a data line. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. One major accident every 14 years or so. Now they want to build more nuclear plants. More pulls on that slot machine. And meanwhile, the original nuclear plants, orginally built for 30 years of use, are now running for 40 or 50 or 60 years instead. Does an old car break down more frequently than a new car? Especially an old car that's being pushed to double its original design life? And all the while, we take more and more and more pulls on the big slot machine that pays off its jackpots with a nuclear catastrophe somewhere in the world.

Will the nuclear plant near you be the next disaster? Probably not. We've built some 450 or more nuclear reactors, and only melted or exploded 5 or 10 of them. So, the odds are the plant near you won't be the next Fukushima. But, understand this. There will be a next Fukushima. Some time, some place, the wheels are all going to line up. Everything will go wrong, and it will do so at the worst possible time. It won't be exactly like Three Mile Island, nor exactly like Chernobyl, and neither will it repeat Fukushima. It will be its own bizzare combination of everything going wrong, in just the wrong way, at just the wrong time, in a way only old Murphy could appreciate. But, it will happen. Somewhere in the world, some day, there will be another Fukushima.

And, if we keep using nuclear power, another one after that. And another one after that. And another one after that. Right now, the average disaster rate stands at one every 14 years.

The problem is, we can't keep doing that. Chernobyl and Fukushima have both put circles on the earth of places unsuitable for human habitation. And each has spread more and more radiation across the surface of the entire world, especially in the northern hemisphere. How many Fukushimas, how many Chernobyls can we afford? How many exclusion zones can we draw upon the earth? How much radiation can we survive?

We have to stop using nuclear power.

1 comment:

Thompson Bishop said...

Well said, and very thorough. Thanks for sharing, and I will hope, too, we see the end of days for Nuclear power.