The Nuclear Mess

Just When We Were All Getting Convinced to Let the Genie Out of the Bottle Again, We're Back Where We Were

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By Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

In the early days of the year, analysts, commentators and end user and vendor executives were all talking about a renaissance for nuclear power after thirty years. Why? Because nuclear powered steam generation power plants are incredibly non-polluting in operation, and the engineering solutions for disposing of waste fuel are multiple and robust. So, even early eco-activists like Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, and Stewart Brand, publisher and editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, came out in favor of reducing our use of coal-fired power plants in favor of nuclear powered steam generation plants.

In fact, many people in the so called "green" camp have recognized for years that coal plants are incredibly polluting, where nuclear power plants are not. Coal plants even emit radiation, both from their coal storage piles and out their tall stacks, in much higher quantity than a nuclear plant is legally permitted to emit. Huh? Yes, coal contains naturally occurring radionuclides such as uranium and radium, and emits radon gas.

And if you live in Quebec, you are absolutely aware of the fact that acid rain produced from the train of coal fired power plants located up and down the Ohio River from West Virginia to Michigan has nearly destroyed the Great North Woods. Ironically, those plants were originally designed to be nuclear generating stations, which are essentially non-polluting in operation.

The hysteria over nuclear power engendered by Chernobyl and Three Mile Island was dying down. France, Japan, and China were all building new nuclear powered steam generator plants, and even the South Texas Project (www.stpnoc.com) was partnering with Japanese power company TEPCO (www.tepco.co.jp) to build three new multi-Gigawatt units.

People were beginning to think that the actual accidents of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were completely understood and that they could not be repeated. They were wrong. They failed to consider the Black Swan Theory.

According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Black Swan event is a surprise to the observers and has a major impact. Black Swan events are usually rationalized by hindsight as if the event could have, and should have been foreseen. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were both Black Swan events. So was the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Generating Station. Now we are in the last phase of Black Swan Events: we are using hindsight to determine why the event wasn't planned for, and who should be guilty.

If you want all the gory details, there are many URLs where you can find them. Béla Lipták, in the May issue of Control magazine in an article called "The Fukushima Nuclear Accident, Part One" (http://www.controlglobal.com/articles/2011/FukushimaNuclear1105.html) discusses the event with exceptional clarity.

The question has arisen, too, about a major power plant in the Los Angeles area: SoCal Edison's San Onofre nuclear plant, which is literally on the beach in San Clemente, Calif. Originally built without a tsunami wall, San Onofre was upgraded several years ago with a tsunami wall that would protect it against a higher wave than the Fukushima tsunami produced. The containment unit and control rooms have been upgraded to the most modern California earthquake standards, as well. San Onofre is up for re-licensing, and SoCal Edison executives do not believe there will be any difficulty receiving a new license.

There are several schools of thought. Some, like Ed Halpin, of the South Texas Project (See "So what happens now? ") believe that we should wait until we see what the root cause analysis report says about Fukushima Daiichi and audit all the other plants in the world for similar faults and correct them. Others think that this shows how inherently dangerous nuclear powered steam turbine power plants are.

If the latter point of view is correct, and we apply the same thinking to, say, an oil refinery, we should immediately shut them all down because even at the current level of safety, risk analysis, and management of change, we still manage to kill about 100 people every year in the CPI. That's significantly more than have been killed in all the nuclear powered steam generator power plants in the entire world since 1990. If we aren't going to shut down chemical plants, we shouldn't be thinking about shutting down nuclear power plants either.

In fact, we should probably be doing what the Chinese are doing. According to a chart from the Wall Street Journal that Sudipta Bhattacharya, the CEO of Invensys Operations Management, provided me, the Chinese have over 77 reactor-based power plants in various stages of construction from pre-design through partial completion. Although the Chinese have announced a moratorium until they can perform a review based on the Fukushima findings, it doesn't look like they will abandon nuclear reactors as the electricity power source they need to concentrate on. Why? Because China has built all the hydroelectric and coal fired plants they can. They need a huge amount more power than they can generate now.  They are moving some coastal plant sites inland.

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