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The China Syndrome and Three Mile Island

  1. Jan 29, 2009 #1

    Ivan Seeking

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    Some people here may remember the movie, The China Syndrome.

    ...allegedly leading to a complete meltdown of the core. Note that in spite of the movie's title, the notion of the core going all the way to China is rebuffed even in the movie.

    I never saw the movie until recently, so I never realized that it opened twelve days before the incident at Three Mile Island!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_China_Syndrome

    Talk about bad luck for the nuclear industry... and great luck for Hollywood!

    Then, four years later came the movie, Silkwood.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/interact/silkwood.html

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086312/

    Not only that, in 1979 we also saw Love Canal.

    http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/lovecanal/01.htm

    This certainly raised suspicion in the public mind in regards to the storage of toxic waste; including the storage of nuclear waste. The point? I just thought it was interesting to note the timeline of these events and the role that they certainly played in helping to shape the public perception of nuclear power.
     
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2009
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  3. Jan 29, 2009 #2

    vanesch

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    Indeed. It seems that nuclear is associated with a large "outrage" factor, much more so than in many other sectors of activity. An interesting read about that is what Peter Sandman tells about the issue on his website http://www.psandman.com/
    Sandman is a known risk communication consultant and he has put much of his material online.

    You see that in nuclear, most of the elements promoting "outrage" are present.
    (see http://www.psandman.com/index-intro.htm and http://www.psandman.com/index-OM.htm on that same site).
     
  4. Jan 29, 2009 #3

    Ivan Seeking

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    I think the key word there is "trust". Vietnam was a recent memory, as was Nixon, and distrust of the government and large corporations was a given. This easily played into distrust of the nuclear industry. And the story of Silkwood didn't help to change this perception. Not only that, we lived under MAD - mutually assured destruction. The potential for the destruction of civiliation due to the use of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons was also a given. Even the men who implemented these policies called them MAD. As children, we had even practiced hiding under our desks in school in preparation for the day that the Russians attack. So the word "nuclear" was unavoidably associated with death and destruction. Next, the remote possibility of a meltdown in a nuclear plant was thought to be far more likely than calculated because of corruption and human failings, rather than because of the process or safeguards. I still adhere to this point of view in regards to both operation and security.

    Note that in a post-911 world, we still find this:
    http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=6597151&page=1

    http://www.psandman.com/index-OM.htm

    Chernobyl was seven years later, in 1986.
     
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2009
  5. Jan 29, 2009 #4

    russ_watters

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    While neither a sleeping security guard saftey nor Chernobyl have much useful to say about the safety of modern nuclear power, they really do hammer home the point of vansesch's link!
    I've never seen that before, vanesch - it's a really good characterization of the problem. Thanks.
     
  6. Jan 29, 2009 #5

    Ivan Seeking

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    Chernobyl, no, but in part because of the timing it did help to shape public opinion. It took place on the heels of the other events mentioned. But sleeping security guards are another matter. This is a great example of how a system can begin to slide. For a more dramatic example we might consider the Challenger shuttle explosion. In spite of redundant safeties intended to prevent that sort of disaster and decision making process, in the end, budget concerns outweighed engineering concerns.

    The Hubble telescope would be another example. In that case it was a blatant deception. And this latest peanut food poisoning fiasco might be another example of a malicious disregard for public safety in lieu of profit.
     
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2009
  7. Jan 30, 2009 #6

    Ivan Seeking

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    The thing is, I have spent most of my thirty-year career watching people in industry cheat and cut corners. Not to say that it happens every day but it is fairly common to see things that shouldn't be done. Also, organizations [companies] can become severely dyfunctional. This in turn can lead to extremely incompetent management of systems and operations. This is partly what happened at NASA in regards to the Challenger.
     
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2009
  8. Jan 30, 2009 #7

    vanesch

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    It was also the base of the Chernobyl disaster, btw. The level of incompetence and disfunctioning was total there, from design, through management, through operation, through emergency management. Everything there went as wrong as it could be, in every aspect.
    But then, the whole Soviet Union was like that in the end.

    Now, there's nothing special to nuclear. Nuclear disasters are not worse than other culminations of dysfunction and incompetence in large-scale activities when looking at cost and victims. If, on a large scale, everything dysfunctions, then that will give rise to cost and victims on a large scale. Not to say that Chernobyl was nothing, but it didn't play in a different category of disaster than other disasters - except maybe for one point: a piece of land has been turned in a natural reserve for a century or two, and is economically dead. Indeed, with most other disasters, there's not this aspect: after a few years at most, you can reconstruct on the same spot.

    You could say that the dysfunctioning of the financial and banking system will probably cost much more and cause way more victims than Chernobyl did. But, true, a few years from now, hopefully, we can put that nightmare behind us and pretend it never happened. That cannot be said of the natural reserve in the 30 km zone around Chernobyl, which is now a natural park "with a guarantee".

    That said, as long as there is a safety culture (that's the thing to check regularly), individual errors are not a problem: the system is normally designed to be robust against individual errors, and even relatively small accumulations of errors. That's the whole idea: that the safety of the whole thing is not based upon one or two elements. It is not because the guard was sleeping that there was a serious problem, by itself. It is not because this or that didn't function, that there was a problem. That's what people have sometimes a hard time realizing: the system is designed such that individual problems are never an overall problem. You need a long chain of individual errors before something serious can start to happen. Of course, if the whole chain is rotten, you will get a serious problem in the end. So one should check the integrity of the whole system, which is nothing else but the safety culture.
     
  9. Jan 30, 2009 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    I don't think it was evil so much as ineptitude. The Allen Report says "The Perkin-Elmer plan for fabricating the primary mirror placed complete reliance on the reflective null corrector as the only test to be used in both manufacturing and verifying the mirror's surface with the required precision. NASA understood and accepted this plan. This methodology should have alerted NASA management to the fragility of the process and the possibility of gross error, that is, a mistake in the process, and the need for continued care and consideration of independent measurements."

    I do think that this is an example of what happens when QA paperwork becomes an end unto itself and becomes more important than actual QA. This is the biggest problem I see with trying to create a "safety culture" - what can happen (and has happened) is that safety paperwork becomes more important than actual safety.

    But there certainly other disasters that do this. Coal seam fires have rendered sections of Pennsylvania uninhabitable for decades. St. Lucia's Flood in what is now the Netherlands in 1287 has permanently reshaped the Dutch coast - places where people once lived are underwater even today.
     
  10. Feb 6, 2009 #9

    vanesch

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  11. Feb 6, 2009 #10

    mgb_phys

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    This was defiantly the problem with Nasa at the time of Hubble (and in the years after) they had a large number of inspectors at PE's plant, all of them checking the quality paperwork but nobody checking the actual work.
    Rather like the security theatre of airport security
     
  12. Mar 29, 2009 #11

    Ivan Seeking

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    http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=D2F74ACA319749F5

    In the news, yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the failure.
     
  13. Mar 29, 2009 #12

    vanesch

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    The question is in how much this was a "near catastrophe", or an almost non-event.

    The first barrier (the fuel cladding) melted, but simply due to remnant heat (radioactive decay), the reactor was stopped. The second barrier (the reactor vessel) was somewhat damaged on the inside, but didn't break, and the 3rd barrier (the confinement building) was still there. So we were still 2 barriers away from the products being released to the outside, and even if that were the case, it would have been a slow, leaking release - nothing comparable to Chernobyl where everything was put out in a smoke plume driven by a still working reactor and a huge fire directly high in the atmosphere.

    So even if (and that's pretty unthinkable) the 2 other barriers would have been broken, we would have had a very serious, but very local, contamination of the site and slightly beyond, apart from a release of volatiles such as I-131, which would have indeed contaminated a larger area, but for a few weeks only. So one would have to evacuate for a few weeks the area in, say a few miles around it, give non-active iodine to inhabitants, and have a serious local cleanup mess on site.

    In other words, the hypothetical "near catastrophe" would be equivalent to a similar accident of a local release of toxic products in industry.

    Statistically, probably a few people would get a cancer (as they would if there were a release somewhere of say, aromatic hydrocarbons or something) a few decades later.

    So the catastrophe wasn't that near, and wasn't that terrible.
     
  14. Mar 29, 2009 #13

    Vanadium 50

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    Even the worst case of TMI would have been far less severe than Bhopal, and carbaryl is still in use almost worldwide.
     
  15. Mar 29, 2009 #14

    Ivan Seeking

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    http://www.pro-resources.net/nuclearnews/NRC study warns of 500-mile radiation spread.htm

    Can you even imagine an evacuation at that scale? Experience tells us that it is almost impossible to evacuate even one city.

    So let's consider something like San Onofre nuclear power plant, in California. A 500 mile evacuation perimeter would include all of San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and even San Francisco. Do you really think this is feasible? It would probably destroy the US economy... in fact it almost certainly would; if not the global economy.

    Note that the GDP of California is about 1.7 trillion dollars US - counting as the 13th largest country and just a little smaller than the GDP of France.
    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2001rank.html
    http://www.dof.ca.gov/HTML/FS_DATA/LatestEconData/Data/Miscellaneous/Bbgsp.xls
     
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2009
  16. Mar 29, 2009 #15

    Ivan Seeking

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    My favorite part of the video is where the country's two foremost experts on the situation were arguing about whether or not the plant was about to blow up due to a hydrogen explosion, even as Jimmy Carter was arriving to see the plant. By the time Carter was informed of the danger, he had already publically committed to seeing the plant. To turn back at that point would send a catastrophic message to the nation. How would you like to be an engineer caught in the middle of that mess? :biggrin:
     
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2009
  17. Mar 29, 2009 #16
    A very unfortunate fate for such an amazingly powerful and efficient source of energy.

    I'm of the opinion that the opposition isn't driven so much by fear as it is by politics, which is driven by the oil industry. Currently, 20% of the US' electricity is generated by nuclear power plants. I'd think if it were the case that the opposition was completely driven by fear, the government would spend just as much time fencing anti-nuke activists as they would environmentalists.

    By the way, that statistic should be enough to destroy any argument about "incompetence". Currently, there are 104 operational nuclear reactors in the US. Perpetuating the belief that we aren't responsible enough for nuclear technology is reckless, irresponsible, and wholly dangerous to economics.

    Nuclear power is the way to go, and the market is ready for it. Now, if only people would stop being so unreasonable.
     
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2009
  18. Mar 29, 2009 #17

    Vanadium 50

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    And about 2% by oil. Hard to see how the oil industry has much to gain here.
     
  19. Mar 29, 2009 #18

    Astronuc

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    http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table1_1.html

    Coal is nearly 50%, and natural gas has eclipsed nuclear as the second leading source.

    Certainly the coal industry has an incentive to have new generation being coal, while gas producers have an incentive to have new generation from gas-fired plants.
     
  20. Mar 29, 2009 #19

    vanesch

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    To really be certain, a perimeter of 50 000 miles would even be safer, don't you think ? :biggrin:

    If it would ruin the US economy to evacuate 500 miles around the plant, to avoid people to get, say, a 0.5 mSv (*) extra dose or something of the kind in that area, then the best thing to do is not to evacuate. And to let them have their dose. It would be far far far less costly to have a few thousand extra cancers over a 50 years time, than to do something crazy like that, wouldn't it ?

    A "nuclear catastrophe" is nothing else but a pollution event, with a certain potential health impact, which is, apart from strong expositions nearby, quite small as compared to most pollutions we already undergo. And it is pretty rare. Not entirely impossible, true.

    (*) world average natural yearly dose: 2.4 mSv.
     
  21. Mar 29, 2009 #20
    Sorry, I did mean 'coal industry'. I've had so many conversations about the oil industry that it's almost a habit to type "oil" before the word "industry".

    That being said, Astronuc has made a good point in favor of my typo.
     
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