Monday, March 14, 2011

Nuclear Nonsense

EBRII at the Idaho National Laboratory. This image used under a creative commons license.

Critics of nuclear power are pointing to the disastrous effects of Friday’s 8.9 earthquake and tsunami on three now foundering nuclear reactors in Japan as ample evidence to shut down current US reactors and forestall construction of new ones.

These critics raise valid safety concerns. What is happening in Japan is certainly close to the worst-case scenarios that led to a partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979 but have not – and likely will not – approach the absolutely worst case scenario of 1986’s Chernobyl accident.

The knee-jerk reactions to stop nuclear power production, however, such as Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s call to halt to building new nuclear plants “until we understand the ramifications of what’s happening in Japan,” will do little to wean the United States off of fossil fuels or enlighten the public on newer, safer plant designs that could have forestalled the disasters now unfolding in Japan had Democrats not pulled the plug on research funding in the early 1990s.

As reported today by the Idaho Statesman, the Loss of Fluid Test Reactor and the Integrated Fast Reactor, as developed at the Idaho National Laboratory and the Argonne National Laboratory, would have survived the effects of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami with no ill effect. Read on:
The Loss of Fluid Test reactor, one of more than 50 nuclear reactors built on the Delaware-sized nuclear reservation near Arco, was melted down in 1985 on purpose to re-enact the Three Mile Island accident. When the scientists and engineers successfully melted the small reactor core, they popped the corks on champagne to celebrate.

On April 3, 1986, nuclear scientists from around the world came to the INL to witness a test of a new reactor. The Integral Fast Reactor, invented by Idaho Falls physicist Charles Till, was designed not only to turn itself off and cool itself down, but also to burn much of its nuclear waste and create more fuel than it used.
When Argonne workers shut off the coolant pumps, a relief valve opened with a loud crack, scaring the visitors in the control room. But the demonstration worked perfectly. The reactor shut itself down without incident.

Then Argonne’s team brought it back to full power that afternoon and set up a test where the reactor’s electrical system was isolated from the plant the way the tsunami shut off the generator pumps to the Japanese reactors. The Idaho reactor shut itself off again and quietly dissipated the heat.
The technology to make nuclear power much safer than it is now exists. What doesn’t exist is the political exigency to further the research. The Clinton administration cut funding for the IFR in 1994. In 2002, it was identified as the No. 1 technology to pursue as the United States works to develop Generation IV reactors.

Letting current technological advances – and advances in the future – be curtailed by the failure of 1970s technology in Japan is akin to negating the advances of current computer technology because of blown vacuum tubes housed deep within ENIAC. Stalling current research because it’s easy politically while the “ramifications” of what happened in Japan are studied are as technologically backward into opening a new investigation into why Ford Pintos exploded on impact. This kind of political malarkey is unsafe at any speed.

William Saletan, writing at, is calling for such rhetorical restraint. Writes he:
In advanced countries like Japan and the United States, nuclear plants are built to standards no drilling rig can touch. If a sensor, cable, or power source fails, another sensor, cable, or power source is available. Containers of steel or concrete envelop the reactors to prevent massive radiation leaks. Chernobyl didn't have such a container. Three Mile Island did. That's why Three Mile Island produced no uncontrolled leakage or injuries.

Japan's plants were designed to withstand quakes and tsunamis, but not a combination of this magnitude. At the affected facilities, the quake knocked out the primary cooling systems, and the tsunami wiped out the backup diesel generators. Then a valve malfunction thwarted efforts to pump water into one of the reactors. Everything that could go wrong did.

Despite this, the reactor containers have held firm. The explosions around them have blown outward, relieving pressure, as designed. Meanwhile, plant operators, deprived of their primary and secondary power sources for cooling the cores, have tapped batteries and deployed alternate generators. To relieve pressure, they've released vapor. And in some cases, they've pumped seawater and boric acid into the reactors, destroying them to protect the public. Cooling systems are back online at two previously impaired reactors, and a backup pump has averted cooling problems at a third plant.
From what I’m reading, those who are serious about nuclear power are just as concerned as anyone with what’s going on in Japan. The most vehement critics and the most vehement apologists seem too prone to knee-jerk reactions than to reason at this point.

UPDATE: It's getting worse in Japan, with a fourth reactor now involved and radiation levels spiking. Time will tell what'll be the result here.

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