Take It From the Soviets: Safety First

Back at the beginning of this debate on nuclear energy, Debater Jaxas said we needed to consider "how we are going to regulate it, control it, monitor it and manage it sufficiently to the point that the troglodytes on this planet don't use it to destroy us all."

Regulation is indeed fundamental, argues the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board -- and the rules must effectively cover threats from terrorist attacks, sabotage and theft of nuclear materials. The Inquirer editorial highlights a GAO report suggesting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's standards may be well below par.

Nuclear energy regulation in the Soviet Union was also not up to par at the time of Chernobyl's meltdown. Mikhail Gorbachev contends it was the weakness displayed then that set the stage for the Soviet Union's downfall a few years later.

Although some environmentalists have concluded that nuclear waste is the lesser of two evils when compared with global warming, health and safety concerns remain. However the world fulfills its long-term energy needs, the one thing most everyone (Gorbachev, opinion writers and Debaters alike) seems to agree on is that safety must be the top priority.

By Emily Messner |  April 23, 2006; 5:37 AM ET  | Category:  Misc.
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I was talking about this in church yesterday with some guys who do contract work with the government. One suggested we could put the waste in a Basalt flaw, of which there are several in the US. The other said we could dump it in the Marianas trench. While these solutions, or the government's idea of putting the waste in a salt cavern, may be sound, there is no way of knowing, as they admitted, that any solution is actually sound.

It is clear that global warming is a great problem and converting all of our production of electricity to nuclar would greatly reduce hydorcarbon emission, it is not clear that nuclear power is safe inthe long run.

I also note that the release of fresh water from glaciers has reduced saline content in the oceans to the point that a clear threat to plankton and other marine life is foreseeable. This chilling prospect ought to put some steam into congressional, and white house, considerations of the energy topic. Unfortunately, either it hasn't or it has to no demonstrable effect.

Posted by: wetmore | April 24, 2006 10:48 AM

Congress may regulate all it wants, but if a President won't enforce the regulations, or is industry friendly, the regs might as well not be tissue paper. If Bush was in the pocket of the nuclear industry instead of the oil industry, we'd have our own Chernobyl. Which nobody could have forseen, of course.

Posted by: Turnabout | April 24, 2006 01:04 PM

as luck would have it I am reading Wolves Eat Dogs, the latest Renko novel by Martin Cruz Smith. I'm 1/3 through it, and the last 80 pages have been marvelous descriptions of the wasteland of post-meltdown Chernobyl, the techo-city/ghostown of Pripyat, the squatters, the hot spots, the ... wolves. Wonderful reading about what can go wrong (and very funny and moving also).

Posted by: johnfree | April 24, 2006 01:56 PM

Emily: "the one thing most everyone (Gorbachev, opinion writers and Debaters alike) seems to agree on is that safety must be the top priority."

Not really, though if you poll the public on just about anything, not to mention oinion writers (most who lack scientific and statistical training) - they will say that NO product should be used "Unless it is 100% safe!". Sounds good, is a fine mother hen cooing-type of thing to utter before the henhouse chicks, but doesn't match reality.

We unconsciously accept that tens of thousands of farmers will die each year becuase food is a necessity. Chernobyl killed 51 directly (inc heart attack & suicide), and about 2400 from a slight increase in cancer rate so far, an average of 120 a year for all of E Europe and declining. Compared to 5,000 a year killing mining coal and several million a year globally from coal-generated air pollution. Coal deathtoll? Completely accepted because energy is a vital necessity.

(The biggest death toll from Chernobyl was from ignorant hysteria that caused 100-120,000 additional medically unecessary abortions in Western Europe, 350,000 in E Europe and the Former Soviet Union in 1987-88. Anti nukes actually have the gall, commenting on the Zero increase in child mortality - that more would have died in E&W Europe if they hadn't been aborted.)

The truth is that coal will continue to kill millions, workers and people will invariably die in natural gas explosions - and hydrogen ones if we go to that fuel. People will die peacefully or in war over oil use. Another "worse case" Chernobyl-type accident might happen in a country with slack safety standards and kill 4-6,000. Or several million may die from nuclear detonations from a country that has no peaceful nuclear energy, but the bomb - in a war over oil. A LNG facility might blow up one day, killing thousands. We might put up windmill farms and accept that each one probably kills several thousand birds and bats.

Energy, like food creation - assumes inherent risks in production. We can minimize risk, but have no illusion - it is the energy and food we need to survive that comes 1st, safety ultimately 2nd.

Posted by: Chris Ford | April 24, 2006 02:11 PM

Some said something about how Chernobyl could not have been foreseen. But such accidents outside the former USSR *were* foreseen, and prevented, by a certain Hungarian physicist: http://www.npp.hu/erdekesseg/arckep/ujteller-e.htm

More here: http://www.npp.hu/tortenelem/hanford-e.htm .

He died recently. A test of whether an obituarist, if that's a word, is any good: did they mention this, or just call him Father of the H-bomb?

--- G.R.L. Cowan, former hydrogen fan
B: internal combustion, nuclear cachet http://tinyurl.com/4xt8g

Posted by: G.R.L. Cowan | April 24, 2006 05:11 PM

The stores of concentrated energy that are in our power grids are immense.

Coal kills by being under immense pressure - mechanical failures occur, gas leaks that combust or suffocate - and just dumb errors with mining machines that are very powerful and operated by humans. It is the way it was done for a very long time - is probably our reason to accept it - and not demand more safety.

The steam turbines I inspected as a kid (whether powered by coal or natural gas or nuclear) that are used to generate energy aren't 100% safe. The production of these devices designed to handle ultrahigh pressure steam has killed workers simply during building and testing!

Everything we do that moves us has energy - the airplanes, the trains, the cars - the massive forces involved when they go awry are amazing.

Chernobyl was very bad. There are many of us that don't want to die via this new way to die - one entirely created by man in the last 100 years (sure - there are possibly some naturally occuring sites on Earth that may have reached sustainable nuclear fission - but we know the difference between what may have occured a few times over the billions of years of our planet's existence and what we have created in the thousands of nuclear and hydrogen bombs.

The concentrated energy that will be evident if and when hydrogen plants are in full swing to power fuel cell automobiles will be immense too - these could be on the scale of nuclear bombs. Energy production in a small area to supply larger areas such as a city has the potential to be unsafe. Small fuel cells that generate electricity that will move cars or generate enough energy to power in home electric generation plants are not really safe - in 100% safety terms. Hydrogen when mixed with air's oxygen is amazingly explosive with just a few moles of hydrogen and oxygen you can create an amazing explosion.
As does gas and air - but we are 'used to this' - not a reasoned analysis - of course. Risk analysis is something that needs to be open and debated but we need smart debaters.

On the other hand - the issue of Hanford was it was not a good design - it was inherently unsafe. And all the American plants that generate nuclear energy are one-off designs - usually much better than Hanford's/Chernobyl's- but each is unique - with difficult to model potentials to go critical. The French standardized - that would help but not entirely.

The fear for most of us is we just don't detect this radiation. This is the same reason we fear bird flu or the plague or other dreaded diseases. But unlike them - it is man who developed this technology and should protect us from it.

Nuclear waste is impossible to see - you need a geiger counter or some other meter - and one that might measure what you need it to may miss other important emissions - this is the spooky part.

I am the son of a nuclear engineer - during the cold war - shortly after the Cuban missle crisis we built a fallout shelter. I think it is used as a wine cellar now by the home owners.
This has affected my whole understanding of the use of energy - the purposes and the mess left behind and I understand it better after using all kinds of radioisotopes to perform cool molecular biological experiments - it leaves a messy wake that we have to consider. Whether the wake is the CO2 or hydrocarbons in the air from coal and deaths of workers or the potentially deadly spent fuel and reactor components of nuclear energy - or the aging mechanisms in the nuclear weapons - that may kill us yet - but what numbers are we to use?- who can assess - the data aren't there - it is pretty much secret. Top secret. The discouraging part is all of this requires appreciation of mathematics and physics that I know our president and at least half the cabinet can not appreciate.

We need to have the same appreciation for what is really important and pass that to all those enemies and friends that we have - that we all want our children to live - to have a better world than what we have now.

Posted by: johng | April 24, 2006 08:59 PM

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