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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

One blogger's support for nuclear energy

Like many people, I've been watching the developments in Japan since last week's earthquake (now measured at being 9 or possibly even 9.1 on the Richter scale) with keen interest. Especially with the drama unfolding at the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukishima: the one that has had a number of its reactor buildings violently explode (NOT "nuclear explosion" as I heard one CNN reporter claim but rather the result of too much of a build-up of steam).

And like many who are old enough to remember it, I'm led to reflect upon what happened even here in the southeast United States following the Chernobyl disaster twenty-five years ago next month. A week after that catastrophic meltdown there were slightly elevated levels of radiation measured in these parts. There was a sudden rush on potassium iodide tablets (as is happening now). A week and a half after the accident our Boy Scout troop returned to the volunteer fire department nearby after a camporee: we saw a dozen boxes or so of radiation-detecting equipment that had been dropped off. Where were they going to? I still don't know. But I'll never forget the radiation symbol emblazoned on those boxes: the first time that I saw such a thing.

And now, as then, there is a clamor to restrict and to consider even shutting down nuclear power altogether. I've been watching that steadily rise in recent days as I've watched the news or went looking for it online.

And that's what sent me way back into The Knight Shift archives, to a post that I made almost six years ago.

In July of 2005 I was asked to assist in the production of a training film that would be used at a nuclear power facility. We spent two days onsite at this plant. I can't say much about it or where it was even located (I was given permission to write about it in general terms but for the most part asked to observe a clause of confidentiality, and I am still honoring that).

But let's just say that I had confidence in nuclear power already, and I came away from that experience with far more confidence still.

I cannot recall ever being in a place that had as many safety and security measures as this nuclear plant possessed. We're talking redundant systems out the wazoo: backups on top of backups on top of backups. Every person involved in filming had to be given proper clearance before we even came close to the place. And going through the front door meant first negotiating a labyrinthine path discouraging even a brisk jog.

To be allowed to work in the nuclear energy industry in the United States, you have to undergo two years of exhaustive training and testing. And that's regardless of how much real world experience you might already have. Even if you were in the United States Navy and received the world's finest education in nuclear engineering, you're still looking at a couple of years of schooling before you're allowed to operate equipment in a civilian environment.

And then there is more training. And re-training. And more training yet. For every hour that a person works in an American nuclear facility, he or she receives an hour or more of study, testing and drilling.

There is a reason for what some admitted was the monotonous routine of training. I have a healthy respect for anyone who works in nuclear energy production. Because to be employed in this industry entails one undisputed fact that must be borne at all times: that nuclear power is a grim technology. Quite a useful technology. But still one that demands the uttermost respect and even reverence to wield. There can be no allowances for margin of error. "Cutting corners" is under no circumstance an allowable indulgence.

The men and women that we met at the nuclear plant were easily the most dedicated to their profession that I have seen in any commercial industry. They smiled and laughed with us a few times (because one of the things we had been asked to do was to make this training film a little bit humorous) but make no mistake: they afforded no laxity toward their work. They absolutely realized that their continuing employment wasn't the only thing hinging on their job performance... but also potentially the lives of hundreds or thousands of people well beyond the perimeter of the plant.

Nuclear energy is the most regulated industry in the United States. And the people who work within it are the most dedicated that I have seen in any work environment. Even if I had little faith in the nuclear regulatory system, I would have faith in the people who have chosen to work in nuclear energy.

And then there was the design of the reactors that this plant utilized. Which isn't even "cutting edge" by current standards, but we certainly realized how much thought and consideration had been made in the reactors' construction. Not a drop of water that was heated within the reactor made it to the outside environment. Instead that water was used to super-heat water in another set of pipes, which led to turning the turbines of the generators that produced the electricity. It was an extremely impressive system. And newer reactor designs had been developed which in case of a possible core meltdown, would basically "shut down" the reactor on its own.

It was very, very cool stuff.

The last nuclear energy plant that was built in this country came online in 1996, and it had been under construction for about two decades. With the increasing demand for more and more cheap energy, I don't see how we can afford to frown upon nuclear power. We are sitting on technology that makes nuclear-produced energy safer than has previously been possible... and we should be playing it to the hilt. At the same time however, there must be continuing and rigorous research into alternative means of energy production: from sources such as shale oil, nuclear fusion, and even such radical concepts as harnessing the energy of ocean waves.

"Chris, are you nuts?! What about what just happened in Japan?!" Hey, I agree: nothing is without chance of hazard and nuclear energy is definitely no exception. But from what I've been able to determine, the Daiichi plant was already designed to withstand a severe earthquake. It was built as well as any structure could be made "earthquake-proof". The quake last week was some order of magnitude greater than what the reactor buildings... or any other building for that matter... could tolerate. At the risk of coming across as crass and unsympathetic, what is happening now at the nuclear facility in Fukishima resulted from a fluke of fate and geologic roulette. The possibility of all those things going wrong at the same time were miniscule, to put it mildly. But, go wrong they did. And the engineers and workers at the site are doing everything they can to stem the devastation. No doubt, doing so cognizant of what happened to "the liquidators" and others who fought in vain to bring Chernobyl under control.

We aren't guaranteed total safety by any measure. Not during our life in this world, anyway. But we do what we can, as best we can, to most fully employ the minds, the knowledge, and the wisdom that Providence has bestowed upon us. The alternative is to shun our capability completely, at cost of much of human drive and determination.

I see nuclear fission power as a stepping stone to greater things yet to come. Things that are already being labored upon. In the meantime, we should appreciate that we have such productive and still clean technology... and be thankful that there are those among us who have chosen to pursue its availability.


Kevin said...

That's the most rational and calm thing I've read anywhere about the Japan nuclear crisis. I agree.