Left Justified: Nuclear power accidents do happen

March 30, 2011

By Stanley Campbell

The nuclear power industry was rising like a Frankenstein monster, refusing to die. Then, the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. As of this writing, the containment vessels are holding, but what a scare. This might put the atomic genie back into the bottle.

Atomic power was rising from the ashes (or waste storage pools), ready to suck up more federal funds. In answer to global warming, the nuclear genie was promising safely delivered electricity too cheap to meter.

Well, maybe they gave up on the cost savings.
But shifting our energy generation away from coal and toward nuclear has been a utility director’s wet dream. The bigger the generator, the easier it is to sell the electricity.

They do not want to build thousands of little windmills all over the Midwest! That’s too much like work, and for what? A bunch of namby-pamby little whirligigs! Looks like a children’s playground.

Also, you can forget about energy efficiency. The utility sells electricity, and the more it sells, the more it makes. Whoever came up with the idea of consuming less is un-American, and should be sent back to Russia or Cuba or San Francisco.

So, get used to big power plants humming with the constant breakdown of atoms into neutrons and protons. Using atomic power to heat water that creates steam to turn turbines might be like using a shotgun to kill flies. But it’s manly.

And don’t be afraid of accidents! No one has been killed (yet) by nuclear radiation from a nuclear power plant accident, not directly related to an act of God. And besides, the utility executives learn stuff from accidents. So the more accidents, the smarter they get.

In 1975, at the Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama, a 19-year-old boy used the latest technology for finding air leaks in pipes—a lighted candle. The young man held the flame too close to the pipe, looking for it to flicker.

Oops—he brushed up against the extremely flammable insulation and watched in horror as the fire spread to the electrical cables. It took almost two days and an outside fire department to put out that blaze.

My friends, whenever there is an accident, the experts say they have learned “many lessons.” At Brown’s Ferry that day, they learned not to put the back-up electrical cables next to the primary cables—for if there’s a fire—they lose both of ’em.

One of the earliest accidents in nuclear power history was the partial meltdown near the city of Detroit. Oct. 5, 1966, at the Fermi reactor, all the radiation alarms went off.

The pressure gauges showed a big build-up of steam! One gauge refused to go down as the control room operators let water drain out of the reactor core. One of the expensive lessons they learned that day was: gauges can stick.

They almost lost Detroit.

The most famous American nuclear accident occurred in 1979 at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pa. In three days, a $5 billion reactor was reduced to hamburger. Then-President Jimmy Carter, himself a nuclear engineer, had to visit the plant to finally get some answers.

They learned many lessons during that mishap: You need a monitor to indicate exactly where the water level is in the reactor.

Computers can get behind in their work.

It is cheaper to replace a $5 valve than to fix it when it breaks. And nobody is perfect—that’s why one should double-check his or her work.

And there are lessons learned at our own Byron Nuclear Generating Station, which is just a quick breeze downwind from where you are reading this now. Yes, the boys (and some girls) who work for Exelon have discovered many new things (thanks to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for keeping track):

1. If something looks radioactive—get a Geiger counter and check it out.
2. If it is radioactive, don’t pick it up with duct tape.
3. Thoroughly clean all clothing that might be worn again—especially scuba diving wet suits used to check the nuclear waste fuel pool.
4. Something classified.
5. When an alarm sounds, but it doesn’t look like anything’s wrong, follow procedures anyway, because it might be a real accident.

Many of us Midwesterners might soon empathize with our brethren on the coast of Japan. Let’s hope there are no more big lessons in nuclear power to be learned.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the March 30-April 5, 2011

2 Comments

  1. John

    March 31, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Well, at least Stanley didn’t pull out his “No more Nukes” sign.

    The fact is we have a choice, we either work to manage risk at Nuclear Power Plants, go back to coal and finish off the work on Global warming, or just not have electricity.

    To me, Nukes are the best long-term solution. We do need some work done on safety, but it must be remembered that the earthquake in Japan was unprecedented.

    This may sound silly, but maybe we could mount all future nuclear containment vessels on springs, like the NORAD headquarters in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. There, the entire headquarters is mounted on springs to prevent damage caused by the shock of a nuclear attack. Why not mount containment vessels on something similar, perhaps with an emergency cooling system.

  2. Jeff Stewart

    April 3, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Stanely, you have provided some excellent facts and try to advise about the alternatives. But I do not agree with your assessment. Life is always about choosing between alternatives.

    Today in the US over 70% of all electricity is produced by burning coal. In, Illinois, it is less than 50% since we have more nuclear power plants than any other state. Alternative energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal make up barely 1%. These are expanding but even the wildly optimistic predictions place alternatives at about 25% in 30 years. Why? Cost, efficiency and energy density.

    Do you know it would take several thousand wind turbines to replace Byron Units 1&2? That is far more than exists in the state today. On the best day Byron only provides about 10% of the electricity demand for northern Illinois. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge proponent for alternatives, especially wind in our region. But just like you were/are an anti-nuke activist, there are many that will do most anything to stop turbines beiing built in their back yard.

    I am the first to say that there are dangers in nuclear power generation, just as there all with all alternatives. But to you know what the death rate for the nuclear energy cycle? It is about 0.04 deaths per terawatt hour (TWH) of electrical production. Do you know what it is for coal? Try 161 deaths per TWH of production. That is 5000 times more risk. So solar would the best answer right? Well at 0.44 it is 10 times more risky than nuclear. And wind is almost 3 times at 0.15 deaths per TWH.

    People understandably get nervous about radioactivity because it is invisible. Well, those billions of tons of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, cyanide and mercury pumped into our atmosphere are invisible also. It will take hundreds of years for those pollutants to decay away. But you seem to want to ignore those facts. Let’s put all of the options on the table and talk about the risks rationally.

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