Friday, March 25, 2011

Nuclear Accidents and Public Perception of Nuclear Safety

Nuclear safety is both about public perception, the viewpoint of the enemies of nuclear power, and about actual industrial design and practice. Relative to other industries the safety practices of the nuclear industry are very good. This assessment can be made even though the nuclear industry has just gone through its second worst accident. An accident which involved not one but 4 reactors. There were significant releases of highly radioactive fission products, although the total public exposure was small. Workers at the Fukoshima Dai-ichi nuclear plant were exposed to higher levels of radiation, although not enough to toast them. Several reactors were destroyed, and explosions destroyed several containment buildings.

The Dai-ichi accident was due to a planning failure. The reactor site plan did not allow for a 10 + meter high tsunami, ands important reactor safety equipment was overwhelmed and taken out of service by a 10 + meter tsunami. Beyond the failure of the emergency back up generators, the Dai-Ichi reactors were were designed utilizing the nuclear safety science of the day, and while reasonably safe, they were not the safest reactors possible. Indeed the term "safest reactor possible" is ambiguous, because there is a history of nuclear safety, and the history of nuclear safety demonstrates that not every choice that was made regarding nuclear safety was made with the idea of developing the safest possible nuclear technology in mind.

Unfortunately the goal of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in the 1960's was not to create the safest possible nuclear technology, it was to promote the expansion of still very weak nuclear manufacturing and energy production industries to a position of dominance in electrical production. This can be illustrated by a document which Kirk Sorensen has recently drawn attention too. A 1962 report by the AEC to President Kennedy titled, "Civilian Nuclear Power."

This report was signed by a Nobel Prize winning scientist, who was also the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Glenn T. Seaborg. The word safety appeared only once in the report. One page 60 the report contained the suggestion that future licensing reviews should concentrate
on those features which have an effect on the health and safety of the general public.
the report added,
This will be easier to accomplish as reactors become more standardized.
Thus the attitude of the AEC and of Seaborg appears to have been to let nuclear safety take care of itself without further research. Nor did the AEC consider the safety potential of various nuclear technologies important enough to note in its Report to President Kennedy. This neglect was not by accident. Rather it reflected a fundamental attitude of the leadership of the Washington nuclear establishment, which included Seaborg, fellow AEC Commissioner James T. Ramsey, Congressman Chet Hollifield, and AEC bureaucrat Milton Shaw. Within a few years this neglect of nuclear safety would serve as a back drop for the development of a powerful anti-nuclear movement, and a split within the AEC's own research establishment, that would see research scientists testifying against the AEC before Congressional committees.

The Washington nuclear establishment appears to have jointly held a broad set of beliefs about nuclear technology which included:
* The safety of Light Water Reactor (LWR) technology had been established by the United States Navy
* Reactor safety could be assured by adhering to United States Navy nuclear safety practices
* Of all advanced nuclear technologies, Liquid Metal Fast Breeder (LMFBR) technology was the most promising
*Like LWR technology, LMFBR technology was mature
* Other nuclear technologies were less promising, and there for future AEC programs should focus on LWR and LMFBR technologies
* LWR technology simply needed to be implemented, and obstacles should be moved out of that path
* The next step in the development of nuclear technology was the construction of a LMFBR prototype
This set of beliefs was to have an extremely unfortunate effect on the development of nuclear power in the United States, and globally.

It should be noted that scientists within the AEC's own research establishments did not accept the Washington Nuclear Establishment's consensus. Scientists at the AEC's national Laboratories were by no means satisfied with the safety of Light Water Reactors. In particular scientists at the AEC's reactor research facility in Idaho, as well as at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, were concerned that not enough was known about reactor safety, to judge the safety of Light Water Reactors. In addition a continuing series of accidents involving LMFBR prototypes, suggested that the maturity of LMFBR technology had not reached to level of safety that would justify a description of that technology as mature.

One particular problem troubled early nuclear safety researchers,
Because of the scarcity of useful information on fission-product release from fuels, it was necessary, in order to evaluate the safety of early nuclear reactors, to assume that 100% or a large percentage of the fission products would be released to the containment systems in nuclear reactor accidents.
Thus early on conceptual evaluations of nuclear accidents began to paint dark pictures of huge numbers of civilian casualties. Unfortunately, these dark pictures. though not justified by research, still influence public concerns over nuclear safety. The Washington nuclear establishment, focused as it was on the development of a nuclear industry, did not understand the extent to which the public perception of nuclear power would be influenced by the concerns of reactor scientists. Thus by the late 1960's as the nuclear establishment's project was taking shape, the public's perception of the danger of that project was also growing. The nuclear establishment's opposition to further nuclear safety research, which had emerged during the 1960's, became item one in the case against nuclear power presented by a powerful and growing anti-nuclear movement.

In addition to its mistaken beliefe that the safety of light water reactors was established beyond reasonable doubt, the nuclear establishment had concluded that the liquid metal fast breeder reactor wasw by far the prefered line of development for the future of nuclear power. Yet scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory had been able to demonstrate that reactors cooled by liquid salts had the potential to offer numerous advantages over water or liquid metal cooled reactors. Not the least of those advantages lay in the relm of nuclear safety. Molten Salt nuclear technology has superior safety potential, but since the Washington nuclear establishment underestimated the importance of the nuclear safety problem, it did not considered MSR safety potential to be an important attribute.

I personally have no doubt that in most situations that reactors are extremely safe when judged by conventional industrial safety standards. Those standards, however, have not penetrated public perception of nuclear power, and we still face both a public and political leadership, which still believes that the consequences of a nuclear accident may be far worse, than is rationally possible, and hens reactors are far less safe, than experience suggests they are.

It is clear that LWRs are not 100% safe. The Fukushima Dai-ichi accident (or accidents) has demonstrated that at least some safety features of older reactors can be overwealmed by natural disasters. To date the consequences of the Dai-ichi accident have fallen far short of a catastrophy. But whether the public is aware of the distinction between an accident and a catastrophy is open to question. For the enemies of nuclear power, acident and catastrophy are the same thing.

It is clear however, that reactors that could have withstood the natural events that brought about the Dai-ichi accidents are possible. It is clear that better nuclear safety is possible. Better public information on nuclear safety is also possible. It is urgently important to move forwards with the development of safe, low cost and scaliable nuclear technology will be of vital importance for the future of sociate. We now have lss than 40 years to accomplish this. The nuclear safety issue must be resolved, and the public reassured that a nuclear future wqill be a safew future.


Daniel said...

Stop using the past tense, Fukushima is NOT over.

Charles Barton said...

David, I did not wish to imply that it is over, Rather I am drawing some conclusions regarding things we have already learned from the accident. The learning process will, no doubt, go on for months and even years into the future.

BilloTheWisp said...

True, Fukishma is not over, but lets face it - in reality it is a mere sideshow of the real Japanese catastrophe. For some to proclaim that it is some form of catastrophe in its own right (as yet no one has died and very few have been hospitalised) is patently ridiculous.

It is without doubt a very costly difficulty for an old fashioned nuclear plant that should have been replaced years ago. But this pales into insignificance compared to the utter devastation surrounding it due to the earthquake/tsunami. It is regrettably somehow "glamorous" for reporters, to scaremonger about Fukishima while ignoring the "boring" catastrophe that has so far cost 25,000 lives.

I gather that, due to the severity of the real catastrophe, the infrastructure damage to water supply/gas/sewage/petro/chemical plants has not even been fully assessed. God knows what they are spewing out into the environment. But whatever that is, it does not have the "panic sticker" labelled radiation attached to it - so nobody cares, when they really should.

Unnoticed or ignored, - the death toll from Bhopal continues to rise, yet no-one suggests we shut down our chemical plants or stop building any more "just in case".

The final death toll from the Banquiao Hydro distater reached 250,000 (yes 1/4 million) yet we do not shut down our hydro "just in case". Hey. Lets have a nightmare. Think of a hydro dam in the USA or Europe (any dam will do). If it failed how many dead? How much destruction? So why not shut down all the hydro -"just in case". After all, it happened at Banquiao.

People are being scared silly by a stupid, arrogant and ill informed media. As a result, nobody really knows what they fear. But it must be bad, because the press say so.

In the UK we have reached a stage where people are coating their kids in total sun-block all year round because they fear the bogey of solar "radiation". These kids are being hospitalised with Ricketts because they are not getting any sunlight/vitamin D. How sad is that.

I am outraged when I read an ill-informed Californian blog talking about a "Cloud" of radiation heading for the West coast from Fukishima (Panic! Fear! Panic! Fear!). Two drops of water do not make a cloud and the amount of radioactive material or anything else from Fukishma getting to California is going to be considerably less than two drops, if anything at all.

Sorry to sound so angry. But I am. Not at you, or your even handedness. But I am angry at ill informed sheep who blindly follow the scare stories pedalled to them without question, and then express their mock outrage. We risk losing the only truly effective carbon neutral power source we have, as hysterical and inaccurate reporting taints the public's viewpoint. If we continue with this hysteria and abandon modern nuclear then the lights really will go out, not only for us but our children as well.

jimwg said...

It behooves the nuclear industry -- or most anyone related to the technology which can be impacted by public fear and a biased media, to get out a "Carl Sagan" of nuclear energy to assauge the frets and correct the exaggerated spectulations and outright malicious information out there. The "dark mystery" of nuclear energy must be spelled out to the public like yesterday and repeatedly without stop because the passionate detracters won't.


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