Nuclear Power and Security

Scientific Curmudgeon John Horgan reads calls for more nuclear power and offers a slightly different objection to nuclear power than most people:

Five years ago, I might have considered climbing aboard this bandwagon, even though Indian Point has an imperfect safety record, but not any more. In fact, I want to whack the neo-nukers and the Times Magazine for irresponsibly downplaying the immense security risks posed by nuclear power.

On September 11, 2001, one of the hijacked jets flew down the Hudson River right past Garrison. A woman I know was gardening that morning outside her house on the river when she was startled by a huge jet roaring overhead, just a few hundred feet above her. Moments later the jet passed over Indian Point before continuing to its fatal destination.

It’s a fine use of September 11th as a rhetorical trump card, but I’m not sure I agree with the larger point. Yes, ensuring the security of nuclear power plants, should we decide to build new ones, will be a formidable challenge. But I don’t think it’s really the killer objection that Horgan does. It’s one of many problems that will need to be faced, but that’s it, at least as far as rational analysis goes (obviously, the heavy emotional weight carried by invocations of terrorism is a separate issue…)

(More below the fold.)

For one thing, as noted by somebody in his comments, there’s no obligation to build nuclear power plants near population centers. Indian Point happens to be in a densely populated region, but it’s a product of a different age, when public expectations of nuclear power were a little rosier than they are now. Nobody would attempt to build a nuclear power plant there now, terrorists or no.

It’s also important not to overestimate the capabilities of terrorists (“All we need to do is find some terrorists who are capable of taking an entire nuclear reactor out of its can while it’s running and without anyone noticing…”). They’re not unstoppable tv-movie ninjas, they’re regular humans bound by the same laws of physics as the rest of us. You can’t make it completely impossible for them to attack a nuclear plant (or a waste storage facility, or whatever), but you can make it pretty damn difficult. Granted, this would require a serious and sensible approach to security, not just for nuclear plants, but across the board, which means it probably won’t happen before 2009, but it’s not an insurmountable problem.

Ultimately, like so many other policy questions since September 2001, the issue comes down to whether or not you’re willing to be ruled by fear. Yes, a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant could be devastating. Is that a reason to categorically rule out nuclear power as an option? Not unless you’re willing to use it as a reason to shut down any and every avenue of scientific exploration. It’s hard to think of a technology that wouldn’t have some scary implications if abused or attacked by terrorists.

The question here is are we as a nation going to hide in the basement with plastic duct-taped over the windows, or are we going to accept that there are risks along with the rewards, and get on with our lives? It’s the same problem in science as in public life in general: Are we going to spend the rest of our lives like children quaking in fear of the terrorists who might be under the bed, or hiding in the closet, or lurking on the Internet, or are we going to face the danger like adults, and make rational decisions about what to do to provide the best world possible for ourselves and our children?

For the record, nuclear power wouldn’t be my first choice as a long-term replacement for oil and gas, but I don’t think we can rule it out entirely, either for environmental reasons or security ones. If somebody manages to come up with a cleaner, safer, and cost-effective alternative, I’ll do the Happy Dance along with everybody else, but until then, it’s got to be on the table with all the other options.

Comments

  1. #1 John Novak
    July 19, 2006

    Just out of curiosity, what is your first choice as a replacement for oil and gas?

  2. #2 Dennis
    July 19, 2006

    I believe that Indian Point’s reactors (I’m not sure about nuclear power plants in general) could withstand a crash from a commercial airliner.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    July 19, 2006

    Just out of curiosity, what is your first choice as a replacement for oil and gas?

    Fusion would be cool. Or did you mean a practical replacement?

    I haven’t spent all that much time thinking about he subject, so I don’t really know enough to have a clear first choice. I do think the problems inherent in nuclear power are great enough that it ought to be something between a stop-gap measure and a last resort, though.

  4. #4 Roman Werpachowski
    July 19, 2006

    The French put anti-aircraft missile launchers around their nuclear plants. Simple and effective.

  5. #5 cisko
    July 19, 2006

    I haven’t spent all that much time thinking about he subject, so I don’t really know enough to have a clear first choice.

    I think it’s important not to have a first choice at this point. Develop the alternatives in parallel until one becomes so clearly superior that there’s no reason to use anything else.

  6. #6 secret milkshake
    July 20, 2006

    The jihad terorist may be a bunch of pathetic clowns but that does not mean they cannot succeed – a 5% strike success rate is no joke. They don’t have to blow a hole into reactor, just blowing up a dry storage cask or draining the wet storage pool would be just as bad.

    But my bigger concern is about the industry standards – there have been close calls that did not get sufficiently popularized. This kind of the problems has been typicaly caused by aging equipment, poor maintenance and moronic management that tried to cut the costs.

  7. #7 Andrew
    July 20, 2006

    All we need to do is find some terrorists who are capable of taking an entire nuclear reactor out of its can while it’s running and without anyone noticing…”
    Is that a Pratchett/Gaiman quotation?

  8. #8 Ray
    July 20, 2006

    Good Omens, I’m pretty sure. From a PR who is already mentally scanning the classifieds for a chicken farm to retire to.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    July 20, 2006

    Good Omens, I’m pretty sure. From a PR who is already mentally scanning the classifieds for a chicken farm to retire to.

    Yep.
    It’s a great scene. It continues from the bit I quoted with:

    “All we need to do is find some terrorists who are capable of taking an entire nuclear reactor out of its can while it’s running and without anyone noticing. It weighs about a thousand tons and is forty feet high. So they’ll be quite strong terrorists. Perhaps you’d like to ring them up, sir, and ask them questions in that supercilious, accusatory way of yours.”

    It’s one of my favorite bits from a book loaded with favorite bits.

  10. #10 trrll
    July 22, 2006

    The terrorist concern is certainly one more reason to avoid reactor designs that operate on the verge of meltdown, critically dependent upon the integrity of cooling systems. On the other hand, it should be pretty easy to build a reactor sturdy enough to withstand a commercial airliner attack or a truckbomb. Poking a hole would not be a good thing, but not necessarily disastrous. Dispersing much radioactivity widely enough to do serious damage would be difficult. You’d could probably do it with a nuclear bomb, but then why do you need the reactor?