Safety Instrumented Systems

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

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.

Another point of view is that we should concentrate on "greener" power sources, like wind, water and solar energy. We shouldn't debate the relative greenness of these power sources, because that is immaterial. The most that these energy sources can potentially provide is less than 20% of the current demand for power. Hydrogen as a power source has similar safety problems to nuclear and oil. Hydroelectric plants are being removed because of the damage to fish habitat they produce, while there is increasing evidence that wind turbines (because their resonant frequency is similar to that of the human body) cause significant health risk. The materials and manufacturing methods for photovoltaic cells are dangerous and can produce hazardous waste. Nothing is without challenges.

Fukushima Daiichi is one of the first generation of commercial reactors. Reactor design, both pebble-bed uranium fueled and thorium fueled, has improved mightily, as have the controls and standards, since the plant was built.

While you can never second guess a Black Swan, nuclear powered steam generation power plants are safer than oil refineries in operation, and less polluting than coal. What we should be doing is to design and operate nuclear power plants as safely as we know how…or we should plan for our children to freeze together in the dark.


So what happens now?

Control's editor Walt Boyes had a very frank conversation with Ed Halpin, president and CEO of the South Texas Project about the future of nuclear power. Halpin, a former Navy nuke, is not only the business leader of the STP, he is also the chief nuclear officer. He therefore understands both the technical and scientific issues, as well as the business situation.

Walt Boyes: In light of Fukushima Daiichi, does generating electricity through nuclear energy have any future?

Ed Halpin: Walt-I'm glad you added the clarifier "in light of Fukushima".  The reality is the light on Fukushima (play on words) is not very bright but in all fairness it needs to be.  We, as a nuclear industry, and the General Public, need to understand exactly what happened from a root cause standpoint.  If the drivers of this accident, (from understanding why only a <6 meter Tsunami wall was constructed around the station, to their accident management response) is not fully understood, not only will we cast Nuclear in a bad light (see the latest polls), but we may also miss key vulnerabilities that need to be corrected world wide.

My trust is that the nuclear industry will eventually fully understand what happened.  I believe that when we do, we will actually see that the robustness of nuclear plants in the United States far exceeds the design margin and response capability found at the Fukushima plant.  That said, there will be improvement opportunities we will have to work on.

In the end, people will need to realize that nuclear power is unique and a very powerful technology that needs to be treated as such.  It is also safe, reliable, cost effective and when it comes to green house gases, emission free.  I simply do not see how our nation will meet future energy demands with other power sources alone.  I am all for alternative energy, clean coal etc, but we just wont be able to get there without nuclear power.  It has got to be a part of our future with existing units, and new units.

Walt Boyes: There appear to have been failures of operation, planning and engineering at Fukushima. Which of them were the most critical, and how could they have been avoided?

Ed Halpin: The root cause of why the accident occurred is still under investigation. In fact, the accident is still progressing to the point where the team that is dealing with this incredibly challenging situation is more focused on combating the casualty then investigating the root cause.  From a US standpoint our analysis is mostly based on the results of what we see happening.  I believe a major area of focus needs to be on why they lost emergency power to their protective cooling equipment.  The Fukushima Daiini nuclear station just up the road from Daiichi was hit with a similar size wave, lost offsite power, had their back up power generators start and did not challenge reactor core cooling.  The Daiini station is newer in design and built at a higher elevation.  You will notice now at Fukushima they are building a larger Tsunami wall and moving back up power sources to a higher elevation.  We need to understand why the depth of design margin was not present at Daiichi.  The answer could reflect anything from poor design assumptions that were never corrected to having a "black swan" event.

In regard to the people-my heart goes out to them.  The individuals who have combated this casualty are true heroes.  They are in "significant accident management space" and have been going through this heuristic process, putting their lives on the line.  The infrastructure around them is non existent and they are trying to work around highly radioactive water while they continue to fight to provide cooling to nuclear fuel.

That said, it is apparent something went wrong in regard to the overall strategy of managing this situation following the accident.  Having to deal with multiple core damage scenarios simultaneously significantly complicated their challenges especially in light of the infrastructure damage.  I believe we will learn a great deal from their response to this accident and our learnings will bolster our overall recovery process to help deal with multiple, simultaneous accidents after we apply lessons learned.

Walt Boyes: Nuclear Generating Plants have historically been held to a higher level of environmental, process and functional safety than any other industrial plant, globally. Do you think this is a good idea? Should the bar be lowered or should all other industrial plants (power or otherwise) be held to the same or higher standard as nuclear plants are?

Ed Halpin: I believe the higher standard has definitely helped our nuclear industry.  In the end, we have found that plants that are run safely are typically the most cost effective.  This is especially true when it comes to safety culture.  Safety culture is akin to process safety.  Fundamentally, it is the concept of putting nuclear safety first in all of our behaviors and actions.  Keep in mind our strong focus on safety and the higher standards adopted by our industry happened after TMI (Three Mile Island-clarified for the younger generations who may consider it as too much information).  My advice to all industries is to not wait for your TMI to occur before you collectively raise your standards.

Walt Boyes: Aside from Fukushima Daiichi, whose accidents came at the hands of Mother Nature, most incidents at industrial plants appear to be caused by human error. What can and should company leaders do to instill a safety and responsibility culture into the workforce of a plant?

Ed Halpin: The role "mother nature" played in this event will need to be sorted out.  The facts are that a large wave, approximately 14 meters in height, deluged the station and eventually resulted in the safety related back up electrical power diesels to stop running.  That in turn resulted in emergency core cooling capability being removed.  Apparently the emergency power supply support systems were affected by the wave either through flooding or just being washed away.  Understanding of the probability of such a wave being generated and preparing for this situation is a serious question that needs to be answered.  What were their design assumptions in regard to wave height?  Did those assumptions make sense?

That said, company leaders need to create an environment where their employees feel safe to dialogue.  Walt-I believe in Facilitative Leadership as well as "Crucial Conversations" training.  I am a certified instructor in both courses and teach it every year.  Please see the web site.  http://www.vitalsmarts.com/stp.aspx

Walt Boyes: It is becoming clear that EHS safety, process or functional safety, physical security and cyber-security are intertwined. How do you think plant leadership should respond to make sure that the silos get broken down, and the plant security and safety is preserved?

Ed Halpin: Both are critical.  It is essential to ensure the organizations responsible for security and cyber don't become alienated from the line organization or the decision makers.  That's easy to do with both topics typically because people don't understand their functions and only pay attention to them when they don't work.   My answer would be to have an inclusive environment, one where leadership taps the power of participation.  All have to understand just how vital the functions of these two areas really are. The business planning process needs to recognize this and appropriately incorporate the needs of these entities.

Walt Boyes: Especially in the power industry, it appears that security is being approached from the point of view of legal compliance. This does not guarantee increased security. What should plant and corporate leadership really focus on?

Walt Boyes: Agree Walt.  In our case our security force and our protection plan are a vital part of our organization.  We treat our people well and we let them know that their leadership and actions are essential for overall organizational success.  On top of that…we ensure our budgetary requirements reflect our projected security needs.