Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chernobyl, 25 Years On

I am an advocate of nuclear power. But it is foolish to think that nuclear power is 100 percent safe. Nothing really in this world is, but those who advocate for nuclear power need to recognize that when nuclear power is unsafe, the consequences can be dire (warning: disturbing images).

A lot of things went wrong at Chernobyl, 25 years ago. Above all, the reactor that exploded was poorly designed and clumsily operated.

A lot of things went wrong in Japan – but what went wrong there was outside the control of humanity. Given what happened, I think the Japanese and those assisting have responded as well as could be expected.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

Excuses and explanations, of course, don’t erase what happened at Chernobyl, nor will they erase what has happened and is happening at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan.

What is clear, however, is that comparisons between the two disasters do not make for an apples to apples comparison, as Joe Colvin explains at the ANS Nuclear Café blog, here.

Here’s what he says in part:
The Chernobyl reactors were a special design using highly enriched uranium in a graphite moderator—and as we learned from studying the event—the accident could only have happened with this type of design. The reactors were created to produce weapons grade plutonium for the Soviet military forces along with electricity for commercial use. They were difficult to operate and required constant adjustment to remain stable. The officer in charge was an electrical engineer who was not a specialist in reactor plants. The sequence of events which caused the accident occurred when operators began an engineering procedure to test the main electrical generator, which was outside of the reactor building.  Delays in starting the test, and management pressure to meet the schedule, resulted in several crucial outcomes that combined to cause the accident.

At Fukushima, from what we know at this time, it’s also plain that situation arose, not from human error in design or operation, but rather from the most extraordinary and unprecedented natural disaster in human memory—and what’s more, it was the tsunami wave, not the earthquake, which occasioned the loss of power and therefore challenged the cooling of the reactors. In fact, the reactors operated as designed and built – they shut down automatically when the earthquake occurred.
Yes, there are lessons to be learned from Fukushima, as Dr. Akira T. Tokuhiro outlines at Idaho Samizdat here.

Perhaps most significant is Dr. Tokuhiro’s call to form an international nuclear disaster strike team, ready to mobilize to tamp down a disaster as soon as possible, rather than waiting the three weeks that were required before international experts were invited and able to come to Japan’s aid. This would, of course, require further cooperation among various nuclear regulatory agencies, power companies, and other bureaucracies, but such cooperation is not impossible.

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