Pushing the Envelope

A few nights ago, I got involved in a discussion about the current nuclear crisis in Japan on Facebook.  At one point, someone on the thread, an Japan Reactor Explosionadvocate for nuclear power,  stated that the BP oil spill last summer was a greater catastrophe than what is currently happening in Japan.  Although it’s true that the oil spill wrecked an entire ecosystem and has had a devastating effect on the economy of the gulf states, it’s far too early to compare catastrophes.  The ultimate damage inflicted by the out-of-control reactors in Japan, like the ultimate impact of the oil-spill, will not be fully known for years or even decades.

These two disasters do have several things in common.  First, both occur in industries that have terrible reputations for corruption, dangerous cost-cutting, cover-ups, lax regulatory enforcement.  In the case of the BP oil spill, the criminal negligence of BP and its sub-contractors along with both the corruption and incompetence of the government agencies charged with protecting the public and the environment directly led to deaths of the oil-rig workers and the destruction of the environment.  It remains to be seen whether there was any malfeasance on the part of TEPCO and the Japanese government that led to the current crisis.  As is now being reported, however, both the Japanese government and TEPCO have a history of scandals and cover-ups.  When our own Nuclear Regulatory Commission accuses its Japanese counterpart of having a too-cozy relationship with an industry they license and regulate, you know it’s bad.

The other thing they have in common is that no matter how each crisis was initiated, natural causes or human malfeasance, they each resulted in impromptu and frantic research project to avert, or at least minimize the scope of the disaster.  We are a week into this current crisis and we still have no idea what the end looks like and every day the possible outcomes put forth by experts become bleaker and bleaker.  Brave, doomed workers at the site continue to improvise, but despite their efforts the situation continues to go from bad to worse.  The entire worldwide nuclear industry is navigating in uncharted territory.  Hindsight may tell us that the possibility of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami was something that should have been considered, but beyond that, nobody seems to have asked the question, “What do we do if the primary and backup cooling systems fail?” or, “What will happen if the primary and backup cooling systems fail?”  We are now in a situation where an entirely new way to cool down a reactor core must be invented.  Immediately.

Imagine that famous scene in the Apollo 13 where a team of engineers improvise a jerry-rigged solution to replace the carbon dioxide scrubbers on the broken spaceship, only instead of three volunteer lives at stake, it’s tens of thousands who didn’t volunteer for anything.

450x338-alg_underwater_oil-leakDuring the BP oil spill, engineers needed to figure out how to plug up a gushing oil well a mile beneath the surface of the ocean.  It had never been done before.  It wasn’t as if there was a shelf one could go to and grab a deep sea oil gusher cap, it had to be designed and manufactured to order while the crisis, along with the oil plume, was in full bloom.   The first cap didn’t work, so another one was designed and built.  At any point during the crisis, no one was sure anything they did was going to work.

That sounds a lot like what’s now going on in Japan.

In both of these two disasters, no matter what the initial cause, there was a failure (or an unwillingness) at the very beginning to imagine a worse-case scenario and what its solution might be.  And so, what we like to believe is a “routine” operation – drilling for oil or running a power plant – becomes a high-risk engineering research project.

In the case of Japan, there are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives at risk, and land that could be rendered poisonous for decades.  In any human endeavor, there is a risk-benefit analysis to be done; nothing can ever be totally risk free.  The unusual set of circumstances that led to this crisis were certainly low in probability, but the risk of a failure that jeopardizes so many people (and future Japanese generations) and requires a solution that lives beyond our current understanding and ability to manage that is too great to ignore.

Our current technological civilization is driven by energy and the demand for it continues to grow.  Fossil fuels are a finite resource – we are consuming them much faster than the earth creates them – and our continued use of them threatens our habitat.  Unless we want our legacy to be nothing more than a larger version of those mysterious statues on Easter Island, left behind by a society that  both destroyed its environment and depleted its supply of energy through deforestation (see the book reference below), we need to find a clean renewable sources of energy.

It may very well be that nuclear energy is the short term stop-gap solution as the world’s oil reserves become depleted and the environmental impact of burning oil becomes untenable.  If that’s the case, then we’ve got face some music.  First, we must get serious about developing alternative technologies.  Second, we must efficiently use what we have.  That means modern, efficient power grids and yes, saying goodbye to 100 watt incandescent light-bulbs.

Finally, we must recognize when we are pushing the envelope.  The 104 nuclear power plants in The United States, are not ordinary, everyday operations employing known fully understood technologies like steel mills, sewage treatment plants, or bus stations.  Like deep sea oil rigs and spaceships, they are high risk experiments.  If we are going to use them at all, we need to manage them as high risk experiments, no matter what the cost.  The cost of failure is simply too high to ask anyone to bear.

Chernobyl Baby’ Explains Life In A Fallout Zone

© 2011 – 2014, Fred Bubbers. All rights reserved.

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