Tuesday, September 18, 2018
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What are the chances?

FukushimaI don't know about you, but I'm having a lot of trouble trusting nuclear scientists these days. They couldn't prevent Fukushima and, now that it's happened, they can't fix it. It's still spewing, and their best estimates are that it will take 30 years to "clean up" -- AS IF there was ANY place to put the mess! Tank farms of highly-irradiated water is NOT a solution!

After Chernobyl we were assured that "Western" reactors are different, and completely safe from meltdown. They are different, but they are not safe. Now, a year after Fukushima, yesterday's Japan Times contained an article by an MIT-trained nuclear engineer. The author apparently could not conceive of the idea that it is essentially impossible to make a safe nuclear power plant. By that I mean that even with infinite funds, you'd still have to contend with human error. But even so, funds are NEVER unlimited. The author listed about a dozen things that went wrong in Fukushima, claiming that if any of them hadn't gone wrong, the meltdowns could have been prevented.

Perhaps that's true, but there will be other meltdowns, and even if all the author's recommendations were taken (which has a snowball's chance in a reactor core of happening) there would still be meltdowns or worse at our reactors. He hasn't covered airplane strikes against dry storage casks, for instance.

I suppose his main suggestion should be considered wonderful in theory. "If you are operating a nuclear reactor, you must find a way to bring it down to a cold shutdown in any type of emergency."

Isn't that grand? An MIT-trained nuclear physicist, writing in the Japan Times, tells us this!  If only they had listened to him 50 years ago, when then designed those old Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactors!  But there are SO MANY "Achilles' heals" in THAT design! Nevertheless, even I can assure the MIT-trained nuclear engineer that avoiding meltdown was PARAMOUNT in the original engineers' minds, as well!  What does he THINK they were thinking about?!? They thought of everything that they could think of that could possibly go wrong, and designed a way that would unquestionably (probably, hopefully, maybe, possibly... within budget constraints) prevent that triggering event -- or series of events --  from happening. That's how nuclear power plants have ALWAYS been built!  What is he, the one that can suddenly fix everything?  Let him stop Fukushima from spewing then.

The ONLY constraint on safety has ALWAYS been money. First there's the problem of getting enough of it to build the reactor in the first place.  You can't convince Wall Street to invest in them, so it's invariably the ratepayers at the insistence of the government who pays, and they want to pay as little as possible, as would anyone else. Then cost over-runs start to set in:  Bad parts get delivered, bad welds get discovered, bad concrete pours have to be torn up and redone....  or you could look the other way, and that's what often happens.

Lack of testing equipment means you can't make sure the metals your supplier supplied you with are of the quality they say they are.  Everything costs money, and nuclear power plants are in the business of making money out of something that's here today, and... here tomorrow, as nuclear waste. The electricity that is generated is gone in an instant -- used or not.  Most is used, of course, so it can be billed, but any that's unused is lost forever, and the nuke plant itself needs dozens of megawatts just to run its own pumps.

When building or making repairs to a nuclear power plant, it's always a question of money. The MIT-trained nuclear engineer points out that San Onofre -- pardon me, thats my local nuclear power plant, which is just as bad but of a different design -- he points out that Fukushima had one functioning generator but needed two or three. The author explains that the one functioning generator was ONLY functioning because plant operators wanted to SAVE MONEY by placing it far away, which happened to be up a hill.  Saving money at nuclear power plants usually doesn't help, but in this case apparently, two of the six reactors at Fukushima were able to be cooled because of this piece of luck. The author seems to miss the obvious:  If it wasn't this mistake, it would have been something else.

San Onofre, my local nuclear reactor, is completely shut down right now (like all but one reactor in Japan) and may never reopen. Why not?  Because the steam generator tubes (made in Japan, by the way) clang into each other. Why does that happen? Apparently because the plant tried to increase the power output of the reactor by adding nearly 400 extra tubes when they ordered a "like-for-like" replacement of the original (four) steam generators, which were supposed to last the entire lives of the (two) reactors.

The original steam generators didn't last because they ran 'em too hot, I suspect. A couple of years ago they realized that as soon as the tubes wear out, they can replace them with steam generators that have more tubes inside but still fit in the same locations.  (Or thought they could.) So they upped the power output of the reactor, which caused the tubes to fail more quickly than the normal life of the reactor -- but they didn't care. They knew our California Public Utilities Commission would stick the ratepayers with the cost of the replacement steam generators when the time came -- and they did. SanO's owners wanted to avoid having the steam generator replacement happen at the same time as the much more risky license renewal because there's ALWAYS a lot of opposition to that.

San Onofre's owners got through several steps of this process. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission saw it as a "like for like" replacement even though it wasn't, the ratepayers were charged with the costs of replacement, it happened years before license renewal, and best of all (from the utility's point of view), the utility ALSO made billions of extra dollars while they ran the reactors at extra-high power, pressure, and temperature, blowing out the gaskets, seals, and tubes!

It's like how you treat a rented car.

Only the difference is, things can go wrong when steam generator tubes burst. They are very thin, fragile things, with a thousand pounds of pressure differential on one side from the other. One tube failure can lead to another, and another, and another, which can lead to an inability to cool the reactor. Fukushima USA. is what it could lead to!

But the utility company's biggest worry isn't that, because they figure one of the backup systems will work (they might be right, but they might not be). Their biggest worry is this:  Because the new replacement steam generators have ALSO failed, just like the old ones but faster, they now have to try to stick the ratepayers with the whole cost over again, and it's only a few years from license renewal, AND Fukushima happened in the meantime. And the Internet grew. And the local citizens are up in arms. And many of the local politicians want the plant closed permanently, too.  Everyone grasps what could happen there. Our homes could be lost, our lives ruined, our economy destroyed.

So getting San Onofre up and running again is not such an easy battle for the utility this time. Japan may be down to zero reactors soon, and California is already at half it's normal strength and might stay that way.

What's wrong with probabilistic risk assessment? Nothing, in theory. because in theory, the probability of critical bolts rusting out at critical moments can be estimated. That's some theory, though! To think you can put an accurate estimate on human failure is pure folly, especially when most of the time, those failures come from financial cost-saving measures, or job-saving measures.  ("If I tell anyone what I just did, I'll get fired" is a hell of a thought to have after dropping a wrench into a reactor's primary coolant loop, but stray tools have been found in very odd places inside of reactors over the years...)

The real nuclear nightmare is undoubtedly just beginning. Not only is the probability of accidents ever-increasing as old reactors get older and their parts (and their replacement parts) wear out, but complacency has plagued every industry where vigilance is necessary, and the nuclear industry is no exception. It happens to pilots in cockpits, astronauts in space capsules, lookouts on watch for sneak attacks during war, it happens to people trying very hard NOT to get pick-pocketed. Then they get bumped by a pretty girl, a deft hand on the other side grabs the wallet, a third person helps hide the activity, and then leaves with the booty after a hand-off. It's orchestrated.

The nuclear industry orchestrates to steal lives. They steal them from children, infants, and everyone else, as well as from the animal kingdom. In addition to causing billions of deaths in the animal world from Fukushima alone, radiation disasters have caused millions of deaths in the human world already, and Fukushima will undoubtedly increase that toll substantially -- especially if Spent Fuel Pool 4 falls.  Meltdowns are hardly the only worry at nuclear reactors.  In fact, it's the ever-growing, glowing, spent fuel that worries many people the most.

Solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tide, biomass... these are all ready to replace nuclear power. They need a fighting chance, instead of handouts to the nuclear industry.

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