Nuclear Stuff

Some scary stuff from a couple of nuclear reactors in Japan. Story Following the earthquake a couple of things happened. “The earthquake triggered a fire in an electrical transformer,” and the earthquake “caused a leak of radioactive water . . . .” Specifically, 315 gallons of water from a tank found its way into the ocean.

I’m very pro nuclear power because it produces no greenhouse gasses, it produces a miniscule amount of waste that must quarantined from the environment, and it has the capacity to power modern civilization.

That said, this story is why we have to be super cautuous with nuclear power.

For the purpose of general education, the water is almost certainly not a big deal. I don’t know what tank the water came from, but I would guess it is drainage waiting to be purified and returned to the reactor. Even if it came right from cooling the fuel, the water (coolant) is not very radioactive unless there is a problem with the fuel. The uranium fuel is encased in steel and doesn’t fail unless it is uncovered, or there are dramatic power spikes or something to that effect. (Which happened in Cherynobyl.)

Which leads to the electrical fire. That is by far and away the most scary of the two reported problems. That is because losing electric power can result in preventing the plant from safely shutting down. Thus, you have a chance of keeping power too high with too little coolant flow.

“All the reactors were either already shut down or automatically switched off by the quake.” This is good, and BTW didn’t really happen at Chernobyl where operators used overrides to prevent automatic shutdowns. Three Mile Island also involved operators preventing automatic actions. Even after the reactor is shutdown cooling is required and that is why the electric power is so important.

It sounds to me like nothing terrible happened with this. I hope that is the case. I know that reactors regulated by the NRC have many redundant systems to ensure there is sufficient electric power available for a safe shutdown. But these things are really scary for multiple reasons.

2 thoughts on “Nuclear Stuff”

  1. If something bad had truly happened, and say the primary fuel source had vented into the sea (I’m totally making this up, I have no idea how likely or impossible the situation is), is this worse, better, or roughly the same impact on life and health and environment as the Exxon Valdez disaster?

    Is that even an apt comparison? I’m all for banning nuclear power if we can prove that over time it kills or maims significantly more people than other forms of power.

    Do tanneries cause greater or fewer cancers than Chernobyl did? Not that Chernobyl was a super thing (BTW, I have a friend who was sterilized by Chernobyl), but I *think* we accept more cancers every ten years from de-greasing leather goods than from Chernobyl’s total cancer load. I’d have to look up the statistics, but it seems to me that a lot of our fear about nuclear power is that it’s invisible and toluene isn’t.

  2. My intuition is the same as yours. Nuclear power being invisible and in the United States developed by highly secretive former military people are probably to blame for the contempt that many people have for it.

    The irrational emphasis on the danger of nuclear power in not limited to environmentalists. Immediately following the attacks on September 11, 2001, and as I understand still to this day, there was much greater focus on concerns about “dirty” bombs and securing nuclear plants, than on chemical plants. Exposure to chlorine gas kills you too. And tanks full of chlorine are not nearly as protected as even the low level radioactive waste.

    I also share you opinion that we should go right ahead and ban nuclear power if it really is more dangerous than other forms of energy production. We should replace one ideological dogma with another. But I feel pretty confident that from a broad perspective, it is at least as safe as coal & fuel oil. Indeed, it may generate less waste than solar depending on the lifetime of the photovoltaic cells.

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