Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nothing can go wrong . . . go wrong . . . go wrong II

One of the points of Who's insuring this? and Nothing can go wrong . . . go wrong . . . go wrong is that there are many reasons why a nuclear plant can lose cooling water to its reactors -- an earthquake is only one of them. And there are causes we haven't even thought of yet. Here's what Stephanie Cooke, editor of the Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, and author of A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, said about that in an op-ed on CNN's webpage:
As frightening as Japan's unfolding nuclear crisis is, worrying about the possibility of an earthquake-related nuclear disaster in the United States should not be our only concern. 
The next nuclear disaster [that was written with a chilling certainty, wasn't it?] is more likely to be the result of something far more common -- human error, a technical malfunction, a large-scale power outage -- or some combination of all three. 
The possible event sequences leading to a large-scale nuclear accident are so numerous they are almost unquantifiable. It is impossible to design against every eventuality.
In a Reuters article linked in the first Nothing can wrong post, the operators of the Diablo Canyon reactors (near the San Andreas fault) assure us that the plant was designed to withstand stronger earthquakes than the fault "is capable" of generating. Hubris has killed a lot more people than earthquakes and tsunamis combined.

Recall it wasn't the earthquake that's really done in the reactors in Japan; it was the lack of electricity and cooling water. From the same Reuters article:
Such a quake could be expected to topple 1,500 buildings, badly damage another 300,000 and sever highways, power lines, pipelines, railroads, communications networks and aqueducts. Property losses of more than $200 billion are projected. 
The hypothetical quake also would ignite about 1,600 fires, some growing into conflagrations that would engulf hundreds of city blocks.
Experts predict the biggest long-term economic disruption would come fromdamage to water-distribution systems that would leave some homes and businesses without running water for months. [emphasis added]
 Well, okay, plant operators aren't perfect, but that's why we have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, right? Here's a little more from the same op-ed:
In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently released its 2010 report card for the country's 104 operating reactors. 
Six of them scored C. In two of those, H.B. Robinson in South Carolina and Wolf Creek in Kansas, the agency said there were too many unplanned shutdowns. Fires and turbine problems were listed as the cause in the case of the Robinson plant and a number of other technical malfunctions in the case of Wolf Creek. 
While that may seem encouraging given there were only six with the lowest rating, the NRC's own effectiveness is under the spotlight in the wake of events in Japan. 
The agency gets mixed reviews in a report released this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report examines 14 "near-misses" at U.S. nuclear plants during 2010 that exposed "a variety of shortcomings, such as inadequate training, faulty maintenance, poor design, and failure to investigate problems thoroughly." The UCS said that "since NRC inspections cannot reveal more than a fraction of the problems that exist, it is crucial for the agency to respond effectively to the problems it does find."
 Fourteen near misses in a single year? I invite you to read Ms. Cooke's article in its entirety and read about some of the hair-raising adventure stories of nuclear plant mishaps around the country.

Here's the lede from a Reuters article about the Union of Concerned Scientists' report that Ms. Cooke refers to:
Spotty inspections of the U.S. nuclear power industry allow plants to continue to operate even when there are known problems in their safety systems, a report by a group of U.S. scientists found.
 I leave you with Avidor's sketch of a possible post-nuclear future along the Mississippi River:

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