Sunday, March 20, 2011
The Fukushima Conundrum and Mistakes from the Past
Greetings my well regarded readers, all several of you, I hope that you are in your own way contributing towards assisting the people in those areas devastated by political intransigence, current war, natural disaster and technological malfeasance. If not may I humbly suggest giving to either the International Red Cross or a similar reputable organisation if you can. For many parts of the globe it has been an exceedingly grim month and has reminded us that as humans, it really does pay to look realistically to the past as a way of preventing foreseeable errors of the future. The current meltdown at the TEPCO reactors at Fukushima is I think a prime example of ignoring past lessons, because they were perhaps too unpalatable to accept.
Here I wish to speak out about our history with nuclear power generation. Unlike some I do not claim to speak with qualifications in nuclear science or research. While I have frequently contributed information to articles about the problems of nuclear power, I speak from a position of having studied how humans, both individuals and organisations, interact with complex areas of technology.
Since then the morality, ethics and rational of nuclear warfare have been endlessly argued, from MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) to the tactical employment of nuclear weapons on the battlefield ie ‘small’ nuclear rockets and artillery shells. Having trained for this nuclear battlefield in the Reserves some decades ago I can honestly say I’d have a better chance of survival going Over the Top at Passchendaele or the Somme. The 1960’s British film The War Game gives a very accurate and chilling view of the consequences that I was trained for in the late 1970’s. Since it is going to come up in any discussion of nuclear power I will deal with use of the nuclear bomb in the Second World War.
Technology, Mistakes and Human Nature
The promotional films of the peaceful atom in the 1950’s are now viewed as blatantly false propaganda, anyone with any doubts should check out the documentary Atomic Café on YouTube.
In all of the past nuclear reactor incidents we have had a selection of all of the above real life ‘imperfections’ as a quick example of some incidents will show.
Windscale, Sellafield Reactor
The Windscale or Sellafield disaster had at its core a very flawed design for cooling and operation of a reactor. It used air flow to maintain the reactor temperature and baffles in the chimney to trap any radioactive particles. The wiki article explains enough design, operation and engineering problems to give any person nightmares. Major nuclear contamination was only avoided by a combination of luck and bravery.
Three Mile Island
After the event operators in the control room admitted that all the switches and dials looked the same. In a crisis it was not easy to identify which was the most important readings to respond to. In fact one switch had an empty coke can over it to indicate this was a vital control. In the end an inquiry found that a contributing factor of the disaster was a single stuck valve and human error. The clean up coast was cited as one billion US dollars. Dare I say design didn’t allow for human operators, or the provision of faulty parts in a free market system?
Simply put the ‘five year plan’ ideology rewarded results on paper and in physical form. The effectiveness and reliability of the finished project where ‘never’ put to question. Any significant criticism or critical review was a one way ticket to Siberia. So this reactor as many other Soviet period projects suffered from ongoing flaws from the start. This was compounded during the crisis by the kind of planning and supervision that relied upon the ideology that soviet engineers and equipment was perfect and that reporting failure or problems was a poor career choice.
Even in the face saving culture of Japan, where reporting problems and errors to those higher up in the hierarchy is a public admission of shame, as well as being socially unacceptable, Tepco is in a class of its own. The revelation a few years ago that one or more of its workers were in the habit of transporting radioactive water in a bucket, was to say the least concerning, let alone the other more serious problems that Tepco didn’t want to talk about.
Acceptable Risk and Real Maths
Only today on the BBC a professor of risk management at Cambridge has stated that we are essentially hyperventilating over a minor problem and cites a reel of statistics for radon and background radiation and the results of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to prove his point, as to the overwhelming safety of nuclear energy. All I can say to this is a very famous quote from the ninetieth century British prime minster Benjamin Disraeli ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Reactor in an Earthquake zone? No Worries!
As an example of the effects of this ‘regulatory omission’ I believe a quick visit to the following blog would be beneficial:
The Fukushima Heroes
Currently the safety of a large enough area of Japan and its population is reliant on a very small crew of workers and volunteers. I fear they will suffer similar ‘casualties’ to those at Chernobyl. I somehow doubt that they will be comforted by the statistical improbability of their dying of radiation sickness. Or that their actions will not contribute to the overall protection of any significant proportion of the people of Japan.
This is a simple equation and no amount of supposed scientific malfeasance or management chicanery is going to change the steady tick of radioactive decay. As I said earlier it is an imperfect world, so it is the height of folly to rely upon a range of modern management and technical myths based upon an impossible perfection.
Regards from the good doctor and may all our prayers go towards those physically dealing with this real world crisis.