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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

building a monument of amnesia to Chernobyl

It was inevitable that the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl would be greeted by American papers drawing the conclusion from an accident putting territory out of bounds for the next six millennia that—improvements had been made! American built reactors are safer than ever! more nuclear power is environmental! Look at those Finns!

So I wasn’t surprised that the NYT did not celebrate the anniversary by some story uncovering the scandalous record of the UN’s IAEA with regard to Chernobyl – its compliance with the Soviet coverup, its outlying figures about death, its attempt to use the massive social disaggregation following the Chernobyl accident (the increase in smoking, the increase in alcoholism, the increase in malnourishment – if you can’t drink milk that is radioactive and other milk is more expensive and you have considerably less spending money, you give up drinking milk – etc.) as an excuse to say that Chernobyl deaths are exaggerated, a result of radiophobia, in effect, using the massive side effects of Chernobyl to cover up the damage of Chernobyl – well, no, I wasn’t expecting anything as radical as that.

So, we have instead, William Sweet, a nuclear power advocate, writing the op ed about Chernobyl.

“And yet, though it went unnoticed at the time and has been inadequately appreciated since, Chernobyl also cast into relief the positive features of the reactors used in the United States and most other advanced industrial countries.

The reactor at Chernobyl belonged to a class that was especially vulnerable to runaway reactions. When operating at low power, if such reactors lost water, their reactivity could suddenly take off and very rapidly reach a threshold beyond which they could only explode. Making matters worse, surprisingly little more pressure than normal in the machine's water channels would lift its lid, snapping the vital control rods and fuel channels that entered the reactor's core.

On the night of April 25, 1986, poorly trained and supervised plant operators conducted an ill-conceived experiment, putting the machine into the very state in which reactivity was most likely to spike. Within a fraction of a second, the reactor went from being barely on to power levels many times higher than the maximum intended.”

Actually, no. The problem with the experiment -- and calling it an experiment without explaining that it was an experiment vis a vis the safety measures that would supposedly secure Chernobyl from problems in the case of shutdown, so that it was the kind of experiment you do in nuclear power plants - was structural. It was supposed to be done in conjunction with turning off the electrical power going to Kiev, but the people supervising electric power in Kiev objected, while the power was going down, that they still needed those lines. Thus, the experiment was extended –which meant extended over two extra shifts, and going on 24 hours longer than it was supposed to. If Mr. Sweet thinks that such a thing couldn’t happen in an American nuclear plant ever – and we are talking ever here, just as we are still talking ever about Chernobyl, where the concrete cladding over unit four will have to be replaced something like 6000 times over the next 12000 years, or there will be a release of radioactivity that will make Hiroshima look like recess – he is a bold man. Chernobyl was an accident waiting to happen.

LI, reluctantly, can see situations in which nuclear does become an option, but we can see no situation in which it can possibly be a long term option.

“Still, critics and opponents of nuclear energy have wondered whether utility companies are competent enough to manage anything so complex as a reactor. The question is a reasonable one. In the 1980's, some anti-nuclear groups joined with free-marketeers to promote electricity deregulation. They reasoned that if utilities were no longer guaranteed cost-plus returns on investments -- the cushy sort of regulation that had prevailed for a century in the utility industry -- they would stop investing in expensive nuclear power plants that were difficult to run.

The utility industry has responded to deregulation by reorganizing itself. And as it happens, companies have emerged that specialize in managing nuclear power plants. Although their record is somewhat mixed (Exelon, for example, stands accused of having carelessly let tritium, a radioactive isotope, leak from three Illinois reactors), on the whole the performance of nuclear power plants has improved substantially.”

By performance, Sweet means the efficiency of power generation. Unfortunately, the deregulatory impulse, plus the pollution-ophilia of the monsters who govern us, is resulting in lessening safety standards to make nuclear power “cheaper.”

From yesterday’s Raleigh News and Observer (for which LI occasionally reviews):

“An oversight 15 years ago at Progress Energy's Shearon Harris nuclear plant ranked as the second-closest any U.S. reactor has come to a nuclear meltdown during the past two decades, Greenpeace reported Monday.

The environmental group, which opposes nuclear power, released a safety report to challenge industry claims of a sterling safety record.

The report comes as Progress Energy of Raleigh, Duke Power of Charlotte and other utilities are seeking to license the nation's first new reactors in three decades. The report reviews nearly 200 problems reported by many of the country's 64 nuclear sites.

Regulators and Progress Energy officials said the incident at the Shearon Harris plant in southern Wake County was serious, but they criticized the Greenpeace characterizations as alarmist.

"We dispute the part that these are 'near misses,' " said Progress Energy spokesman Rick Kimble. "'Near miss' makes it sound like it's minutes from a meltdown. ... This was a case that, if a series of incidents had happened -- all of them statistically remote -- then you could have had a partial failure."

During the 1991 malfunction, a backup cooling system at the Shearon Harris plant had not been functional for about a year before the problem was caught. The system would have discharged some water on the floor instead of pumping all the emergency coolant to the nuclear reactor core.”


crojas said...

Interestings points about the culture of amnesia that the nuclear power industry is helping to foster. What, however, do you make of the recent report that Patrick Moore has recently agreed to become spokesperson to lead a new public relations campaign? Cynical selling out? Genuine change of perspective?

roger said...

Moore has been doing the nuke schtick for much longer than he was a member of Greenpeace. That he is bylined as "former founder of Greenpeace" (who left it in 1986) rather than as lobbyist for the nuclear industry -- and the genetically modified foods industry, etc., etc.

I could respect the comments of a person who advertised himself as what he is. But to live off the conversion moment is too comical to me. It gets me to thinking not that a former Greenpeacer is making some bucks with the nuclear power industry, but that the conversion story is the conman's first resort in these here states. In Huckleberry Finn, is it the Dauphin that goes up to the front of the gospel service, bawling, telling about how he was a pirate and now he's suddenly seen the light and he wants to go back and convert his fellow pirates? It is a perpetually amusing story. I wonder if it is just Americans who fall for the coversion motif?

Anyway, for more about Moore, see here: http://www.sijournal.com/sijnews/1742237.html. I particularly like the lobbying for the PVC industry. The man has no shame. And neither does the Washington Post, which advertised him misleadingly. The word is out in the press -- the boundaries of the narrative are now hedged between those who advocate building more nuclear power plants under the present regulatory regime and those who realize that the market won't take off until we de-regulize -- and that is all you will see on op ed pages until the next accident. You are as unlikely to read any real consideration of the potential risk of nuclear power than you are to read any real consideration of the cost of free trade. There are the verities, and then we can dicker about whether George Bush lied about Niger yellowcake.