April 08, 2011
Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
Some people reading my recent posts on nuclear power think that I oppose nuclear power. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I'm against is pretending that there are few or no problems with nuclear power as it currently exists.
Let me start with the Chernobyl accident. It was not a tragedy for people who got small doses from the dispersed radiation. That was a big nothing. Lots of headlines - minimal effect. It was a tragedy for those who had to clean up the mess as recounted in the video posted here. Fukushima, baring serious ocean contamination, will be the same. A big nothing for the world and a heartbreak for those who have to clean up the mess.
So what is the way forward? Well first off we need much better designs than the plants currently in operation. What I like to think of as an intrinsically safe design. One that can stand total loss of power for an extended period of time. There are designs on the drawing board that can handle total loss of power for three days. Maybe that could be extended some but it is enough to get through a lot of emergencies if an emergency response team can bring in generators and other needed equipment in 24 hours or less. That means setting up a reserve (or three) trained and ready to handle emergencies.
Once we have the new designs tested and ready for deployment we should over time (not too much time - maybe 10 or 15 years) replace all existing nuke plants that are not intrinsically safe.
What to do in the mean time? Build coal and natural gas plants and start working like crazy to reduce the cost of storage to make wind a useful addition to our energy supplies. It wouldn't hurt to put a LOT more effort into small fusion. Things like Bussard's Polywell. Coal and natural gas will get us through the 10 years or so that the new plants will require for completion of the design, construction, and testing.
OH. Yeah. It would be a VERY GOOD IDEA to get spent fuel off the plant sites. That stuff is an accident waiting to happen. Like this one that happened a few hours ago. Won't it be an accident waiting to happen where ever it is until the two years it takes to cool down passes? Yes. But you are then separating the problems of maintaining safe power production from the problem of safe temporary storage. And after cool down? A long term repository is a very good idea. But then you have the problem of moving the stuff.
If we really need the energy bad enough nuclear power can be made to work. We are not yet at that point. We can take time to think all this through and work out a better system.
A commenter to this post thinks I'm being unnecessarily pessimistic about nuclear power. Of course I don't think so. This blog is libertarian in tone. When the nuclear industry is safe enough to get private insurance I will be satisfied. What we have now is gains privatized and losses socialized. I'm against it.
Go to Map Quest. Type in Byron, Illinois. Run a circle of 16 miles (the map shows a 4 mile interval at the bottom left so 16 miles is easy - that is about 26 km metric) around Byron. My town of about 160,000 will be wiped out economically even if no one dies in such an accident. The total area contains on the order of 300,000 to 500,000 people. That is a lot of homeless people from a nuclear accident in the boonies. If the reactors at Zion, Illinois go up everybody from Highland Park, Illinois to Racine, Wisconsin will have to be evacuated. And that is just the shores of Lake Michigan. The whole area may include several million people.
Here is a first report on radiation levels in the Fukushima zone. Just to give you some idea of the levels at Fukushima compared to natural levels, 0.34u Sieverts per hour is the average dose for Americans according to the Wiki. The international dose limit for civilians is 2.3uSv per hour averaged over a year. Of course that is the external dose. Particles lodged in the lungs are far more dangerous.
So how about an estimate of the reliability of nuke power. Let us discount Chernobyl and TMI and be generous and say one nuke meltdown every 50 years. Let us also be generous and say there are 400 nuke power plants. That is a reliability of one catastrophic accident ever 20,000 years of plant operation. If we are pessimistic we might use 30 years and 300 plants - about one accident every 10,000 years of plant operation. I'd like to see numbers at least 10X that or even better 100X that. One way to do that is to avoid siting plants on or near fault lines.
posted by Simon on 04.08.11 at 03:25 AM
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