[FoRK] Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power

Stephen Williams sdw at lig.net
Wed Mar 23 13:02:04 PDT 2011

On 3/23/11 11:20 AM, Gary Stock wrote:
> On 3/23/11 12:32 PM, Stephen Williams wrote:
>> [boggle at the scope of hubris revealed]
>> [boggle at the scope of irrational paranoia revealed]
> It's neither irrational nor paranoid to acknowledge and anticipate human frailty.

But it _is_ irrational to weigh risks primarily on the basis of fear and misperception rather than reality.  Based on public 
statistics seen so far, nuclear power is cheaper, safer, and less risky than our dominant energy alternatives.  Of course we want as 
much efficient solar, wind, wave, falls, and geothermal as possible, but those don't seem to be able to fill all needs.

For instance, the available knowledge about fracking for natural gas makes it seem much worse than nuclear energy production.

You can't rationally say that nuclear energy is categorically bad because, basically, if you were to construct a power plant so 
poorly that it becomes a nuclear bomb, that would be bad.  You could more realistically say that natural gas, (petrol/gasoline) gas 
stations, tanker trucks, oil tankers, etc. are potential fuel-air bombs (i.e. "poor man's nukes") all around us, potentially with 
widespread devastation.  To make a categorical statement of badness, I think you need to show that A) specific past mistakes will 
inevitably be repeated (in this case, that would mean using 35-60 year old designs) and B) Consequences could be much worse than in 
the past.

And what we're really talking about is comparative badness with other energy production methods, which all have issues for costs, 
safety, health, environmental, and political.  Among the currently reliable scalable (could light NYC or a factory town from a small 
plant) energy types, nuclear only seems to comes out poorly when you add in a lot of irrational risk and cost assessment.

>> The problems have been simple heat, pressure, and water management.
> Which we've been doing for centuries -- and still can't do sufficiently well.

How many composites were available back in 1975?  Advanced ceramics?  Etc.  We've probably invented more materials in the last 10 
years than in all of history, some with exotic properties.  (And all of that really started with NASA in the 60's.)  What we could 
do even 20 years ago is nothing compared with what we _can_ do now, let alone what we're about to do, or what we could invent if we 
have a useful goal.

>> There is a level of engineering that could do far better than we've done so far.
> And yet, we haven't.  Human beings don't always do their best.

We can't do better because we haven't and humans don't always do their best?  What Internet have you been browsing?
>> Of course it is a difficult problem with bad consequences.  But hardly as difficult or with as bad as consequences as fixing a 
>> well head at the deep bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.  And more people died on that drilling platform....  And more people were 
>> negatively affected...
> But, gee... that's just simple pressure management.  It must be trivial to get that right -- after drilling tens of thousands of 
> oil wells for over a hundred years, and millions of water wells for centuries before that.  Right?  With such ~terribly~ bad 
> consequences, clearly the engineers would have planned everything right, and the techs would have done everything right, and the 
> corporation would have set all the priorities right.
> Right?

My point was that the problems there, in very deep water, were much tougher than most of the problems in building and maintaining a 
nuclear plant.  Remotely controlling a deep-water robot with a hefty manipulator is a lot harder than a robotic fireman would be.

> It's a ~fantasy~.  It can't happen while current (inappropriate|pathetic|poor|weak) modes of assigning value and responsibility 
> persist.

Or the current (inappropriate|pathetic|poor|weak) modes of fear and irrational risk perception persist...

> Nuclear power is not a technological problem:  it is an ethical problem; it is a moral problem; it is a cultural problem.  It 
> requires far more significant evolution in human beings and in their organizations than it does in technology.

You mean, evolution out of irrational fear?  A culture of truth and science rather than rumor, disaster movies, and 
willfully-ignorant news blitz?  Ethics of doing the right thing over making your oil buddies rich?  I'm with you there.

>>> Please keep us posted on when such fantasies become ~theoretically~ possible.
>> It seems that some modern designs are already far, far better.  With hardly anyone working on creative engineering since the 
>> market has long been practically non-existent.  Contrast: Now that green energy is hot, we almost daily have interesting 
>> discoveries and leads.
> When we have the changed people, and behaviors, and priorities, and values, and organizations, and economies, and governments, and 
> systems behind such technology, the technology may be of interest.

So, technology isn't the problem, it is people repeating irrational fear and insisting that it shouldn't be done?
>>> Then, when someone actually implements such a thing at some meaningful scale.
>> Widespread belief that it can't or shouldn't happen is the biggest obstacle.
> Human nature ~itself~ is the obstacle -- not belief.  Thebelief derives in part from the fact that we all know we all screw up.
>>> Then, when some community exists that actually permit that unit within sight.
>> See above.
> Ditto.
>>> Then, when any corporation exists that is not corrupt, to build the real one.
>> All nuclear related companies are corrupt?  References? 
> They are no more corrupt than others; they are no less corrupt.  You don't seriously need references for corrupt corporations... 
> do you?

So, if all corporations are corrupt, you'd rather have larger, widespread corporate infrastructure required for coal, oil, natural 
gas, etc. than a small, tight, hyper-scrutinized, technical corporation managing a nuclear plant?

>> People who tend toward corruption are drawn to a dead industry with heavy education requirements, deep investment, and years of 
>> patience?
> No, people who tend toward corruption are drawn to money, and enough complexity to get away with it.  A multi-billion dollar 
> project has "Come and get your cut!" written all over the RFP.

Have you ever read or responded to big RFPs like that?

>>> Then, when a government exists that enforces clear standards, to validate it.
>> The NRC does not have clear standards?  Security and safety knowledge has become fairly advanced.  (I've been a CISSP for 6 
>> years, and someone near me is about to take the exam.  Not nuclear related per se, however I'm sure they use many of the same 
>> risk analysis methods.)
> Key word missed: "enforces."
> For several years, I did validation for automated systems making potent, injectable, and lifesaving drugs.  FDA had ~extremely~ 
> clear standards.  So clear, in fact, that engineers, plant management, and line operators sought to avoid getting caught when they 
> cut corners -- which was constant, daily, and driven by corporate goals.  (See "corruption," above.)
> What FDA couldn't observe, or prove, they couldn't enforce.

The degree of scrutiny and tolerance of cutting corners is directly tied to risk.  They should follow exact details, and should be 
found out if they don't, but clearly there is a cost/benefit ratio to doing so.  Not a comparable situation.
>>> Then, when an economy exists that can afford the inevitable costs of failure.
>> There will always be some kind of failure.  Catastrophic failure?
> Yes.  That's the kind humans are prone to cause.  It's only a matter of time.

With quantum mechanics, anything is possible.  We have to deal with real probabilities.
>> Recently, I was only 20 miles away from a significant natural gas pipeline explosion that killed 4.
> Another simple problem:  some pressure in a pipe.  Clearly understood 150 years ago... easy to avoid... right?

Absolutely easy to avoid, unless you have to lay and maintain thousands of miles of high-pressure pipeline through every residential 
and industrial neighborhood in the US plus connections in between.  They are quoting that just testing the integrity of the pipeline 
properly costs $125,000-$500,000/mile[1].  Categorically dismissing nuclear power as too risky means endorsing everything else as 
less risking / costly / more healthy / more sustainable.

>>> Coz, when ~that~ happens -- when most of physics changes, and most of human nature changes, and most of society changes, and 
>>> most of business changes, and most of government changes, and most of economics changes -- a lot more of us will be a lot more 
>>> willing to embrace nuclear power.
>> For the most part, those are changes that have to happen in people's heads.  The perception gap with reality is very wide.  It is 
>> fine to set engineering and operating standards high.  Just don't require the industry to fight too many imaginary dragons.
> They're not dragons, and they're not imaginary.  They're ~human beings~ and they're all ~over~ the place.
>>> People are only human.  We're screw-ups.  We screw things up.  Things we touch get screwed up.  Things we do screw us up.  
>>> Pretending otherwise is utterly delusional.
>>> The "foolishness" coefficient of requiring utter perfection far exceeds that of seeking mere consistency.
>> I assume both of these things.
> It appears in fact that you ignore both of those things; there's a huge difference.
>> However, we can overcome impossible complexity and need for near-absolute perfection by the right process.
> No.  We can't.  Maybe ~you~ can personally -- or imagine that you can.  But, elsewhere, there are still human beings involved.  
> You keep forgetting those pesky human beings.
>> The space shuttle is fantastically complex.  Each launch cycle requires perfection in many details.  There were two failures, but 
>> there were not caused by failures in any of the complex systems.
> Right.  They were caused by... hmmm... which was it...

One was much more avoidable than the other.

> Really simple stuff that human beings screwed up by ignoring or claiming couldn't happen?
> Or, really simple decisions that human beings screwed up by presuming they couldn't fail?

Everyone involved with the shuttle knows that it is a long, long chain of dependencies where failure of any single functional link 
can doom the whole thing.  That's the nature of flying to space.  You try to make more-likely-to-fail things redundant, but you 
can't do that completely.  That they almost completely succeeded almost all of the time is amazing, and a pretty good counter 
argument to "we can't do anything difficult because human beings screw everything up all the time".  Of course we do, but we work in 
a way to account for that, when it counts.  People, knowing they are always making risk/reward tradeoffs, sometimes get it wrong.  
It is doubtful that anyone thought that the things that failed couldn't fail, just that they wouldn't in those cases.

Something like a nuclear power plant is different in a fundamental way: We are only trying to do a few simple things and we can 
easily have layers and layers of fail-safe and remedial mechanisms to control and support those few simple things.  For this kind of 
problem, you _can_ build a system where many things can go wrong, and the result, mathematically, is always safe (enough).

Ignoring construction and operating efficiency, I think it is possible to formulate a design that is very safe.  If that can be 
proven (and I'm sure it has been long ago), then it is a matter of balancing efficiency with risks.  There is, at some level, some 
level of physics that we can trust.  A steel rod has a certain strength and melting point.  Concrete and ceramics have a certain 
toughness.  Radioactive material puts out a certain amount of heat at certain levels of criticality.  No matter how much heat and 
radiation a chunk of material is putting out, you can spread it around enough and bury it under a big enough pile of other material 
to dissipate its heat.

The main worst case scenario is scaring a lot of people.  In a modern, practical nuclear plant, it doesn't seem possible under any 
scenario to cause more overall damage and cost to people than our currently dominant energy sources already do every year.

> GS 

[1] http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-03-16/news/28693617_1_pg-e-president-chris-johns-pipeline-pacific-gas/2


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