Annals of McCain - Palin, XXXVIII: the nuclear moment

Governor Palin's "fruitfly moment" was a display of her utter contempt and disregard for modern science, perhaps even more emblematic than her belief that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. But John McCain has his own moments where we can see his true self:

"It has to be safe, environment, blah, blah, blah"? Translation: "I don't really care about whether nuclear power is safe for people and the environment. It's drill, drill, drill those nuclei."

How does he know it's safe?

McCain suggested nuclear power is a safe energy resource because "we've been sailing Navy ships around the world for 50 years with nuclear power plants on them."

"I have news for Senator Obama, nuclear power is safe, we ought to do it now," McCain said. (Raw Story)

50 years ago was 1958. That means since 1958 we've "known" nuclear power is "safe." To which I have a three word response: Three Mile Island [1979]. And nuclear waste? My suggestion: put it in Arizona.

More like this

As Jesse at Pandagon notes, even though the presidential race is stagnant in that the numbers aren't shifting much, that's not the same as the race being in a dead heat. This would be obvious, if your typical political reporter wasn't a mathematically illiterate moron. Yes, I know that there's…
by Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA The final closing of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant in Vernon got few headlines outside Vermont, but for me it brought back a flood of memories and an important lesson. I am convinced that public involvement with nuclear power in Vermont was a factor preventing…
sillybean » Translation from Aburt-speak to English of selected portions of his SFWA presidential platform[1] "I don't understand why people on the internet are so mean to me, but I fully expect that my patronizing approach will bring them to their senses." (tags: SF writing silly politics) Why…
Back at the AAAS Meeting, I was really annoyed by a session on fracking, the process by which natural gas is extracted from shale deep underground. As I wrote at the time, regarding the industry shills who spoke: I left before the whole thing had wrapped up, because it was that or start throwing…

But nuclear power is safe. And the fundamental point made in McCain's argument that in the last 50 years we've only had a handful of nuclear accidents is a valid point. Contrast the number of deaths due to nuclear accidents in the last 50 years with saythe estimated number of yearly deaths due to pollution from coal burning plants.

Well, they might put it in Arizona -- there are Indian Reservations there, after all. /snark

This gives me an opportunity to ask, though, about an article I recently saw which claims that being in proximity to or downwind of a nuclear power plant is a major risk factor for breast cancer. It seemed a little off to me, but I wasn't sure if that was because it was wrong, or because I didn't want it to be right. It struck me that there might be other cofactors in terms of air pollution and such, but then there's those dark spots in New Mexico/Colorado and Idaho...

Joshua: Your argument is different than McCain's. You say that nuclear power is safe because it has caused hardly any injury or environmental problem (if you don't count Chernobyl, of course), while he says 50 years of nuclear submarines prove it is safe. I'd say you had the better argument, but maybe that's just me. Then, of course, there's the nuclear waste issue. Blah, blah, blah.

caia: The issue with nuclear power for me is the waste disposal and the low probability high consequence event. Joshua makes the perfectly valid point that living near a coal plant is pretty unsafe, too, not to mention the global warming issues.

That means since 1958 we've "known" nuclear power is "safe." To which I have a three word response: Three Mile Island [1979].

I'm not sure what your "response" means. Could you explain?

Does it mean that John McCain is correct about the safety issue because there were no deaths or serious injuries at Three Mile Island?

And why are you so worried about the issue of waste disposal? We've had nuclear power plants all around the world for more than 40 years. What's the problem?

I'm not a fan of John McCain but he's right on this one. Nuclear power is a lot safer than people realize.

Larry: TMI was a potentially catastrophic meltdown of a nuclear core. It happened in the period that McCain said nuclear submarines showed that nuclear power stations were safe.

I guess my question to you about waste disposal is, Why aren't you worried about it? Do you also agree with McCain that it is a blah, blah, blah issue?

Please don't tar the nuclear industry due to McCain's advocacy. Remember, Hitler was a vegetarian. :)

Waste disposal is a political issue, not a technical one. We've known how to safely dispose of waste for decades but due to empty promises from the DOE, congressional mishandling, and the utter unwillingness of government to tackle the problem it created, the utilities (and thus ratepayers) are left holding the radioactive bag.

The three worst accidents worth remembering are Windscale (1957, UK, air-cooled graphite core plutonium production reactor; root causes: design flaw, human error), Three Mile Island (1979, USA, pressurized light-water power reactor; root cause: human error), and Chernobyl (1986, USSR, graphite core light water pressure tube reactor; root causes: design flaw, human error.) Of those, the only accidents that released significant amounts of radioactivity into the environment were Windscale and Chernobyl - the two graphite-moderated reactors. Neither plant had a containment building and in both cases the graphite core burned causing severe fuel damage and radioactivity release.

For all intents and purposes, the only nuclear plants operating in the US are light water power reactors. The post mortem of Three Mile Island accident identified a number of operational and managerial problems that contributed to the accident. Those issues have been addressed and plants are regularly inspected by the nuclear industry's internal regulatory organization as well as by the USNRC to make sure the lessons of the past haven't been forgotten.

Is nuclear energy a panacea? Certainly not; public perception of nuclear power is still pretty bad despite almost 30 years of near flawless operation. But even if McCain wanted 40+ new plants by the end of his first term, he'd be hard pressed to find anyone to produce the number of high quality heavy forgings needed (i.e. turbine casings and reactor vessels.) IIRC there are no longer any domestic suppliers of such components, they must all be sourced from Japan - consider the national security implications of letting domestic heavy industries languish.

It's a little known fact that US coal plants release vastly more radioactivity each year per megawatt than nuclear units (and are completely unregulated in this respect.) We simply cannot afford to burn coal any more, hydro power is tapped out, and no renewable resource (wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, biomass, etc.) can provide reliable base-load generation capacity, even without the predictable increased demand from plug-in hybrid vehicles. This is not to argue against renewables - far from it - we need a diverse energy mix. But renewables and conservation alone simply cannot provide enough power to meet demand. This is not a matter of politics, it's a matter of physics.

A sensible long-term plan for energy independence and reduction of carbon footprint must include nuclear power, preferably with fuel breeding and diversion-proof reprocessing. Breeding and reprocessing extends our existing fission fuel supply by a factor of roughly 2.5 (from 200 to 500 years.) Hopefully there will be enough political and economic will and technical luck to make fusion power a viable alternative, at which point the existing fleet of fission plants can be retired.

I'm not holding my breath. The dominant viewpoints seem to be "drill, baby, drill", "pretend solar and wind and conservation will save us", and the ever-popular "bury one's head in the sand."

Bob: I don't quarrel with the coal plant scenario. This is a very bad way to generate electricity. Once you shut down a coal plant, though, that's it. And we should shut them all. But decommissioning a nuclear plant is a big deal. I'm not sure any of been completely decommissioned (you may know better). And I would disagree whether the disposal problem has been solved. The major technical obstacle is the length of time the waste has to be immobilized and segregated. The danger of an internal alpha emitter is extreme. As someone who deals with improperly managed chemical wastes (and we also have to deal with mixed wastes in the nuclear industry), I am quite amazed at how easily supposedly safeyly disposed of materials finds its way into the environment. Consider the environmental problem we have at the nuclear weapons sites, today (e.g., Hanford) is another illustration.

I would like nuclear power generation to be safe. Indeed one can design a powerplant to operate safely -- if it is properly maintained and operated. Unfortunately experience tells us that plants are unlikely to be operated properly all the time, especially in times of economic downturn, when shortcuts are taken. Not that we could have an economic downturn. Ever.

I'd say a whole string of nuclear incidents in Japan was a warning sign - they include mixing a critical mass of uranium in solution in an inappropriate container, resulting in a chain reaction. Just simple human failures that can cause wide contamination or disasters.

I'm also pretty dubious about the chance of getting lots of nuclear power plants built to the right standards - the Finnish had a major stuff up with a new plant having major flaws (castings or concrete - I forget which - to normal standards but not suitable for a nuclear plant because of radiation causing deterioration). If a modern, educated and low corruption society like Finland has problems what will happen when Indonesia, Pakistan and China build nuclear power plants ?…

Actually that's why the idea of pre-packaged, sealed nuclear plants is an attractive one (as mentioned in New Scientist… ) is attractive.

Oh, I should make a disclosure here.

From 1992-1995 I worked as a safety analyst at a US nuclear plant, initially modeling severe accident scenarios ("core damage events") and looking at "containment response", i.e. the ability to keep radioactive debris from leaking out into the neighborhood. Later I moved into radiological analysis, looking at the radiological effects of the standard set of worst-case accidents.

I "retired" from the nuclear industry in 1995 for personal reasons. The industry was moribund and it looked like deregulation was going to kill nuclear power for financial reasons. I loved the technical work but couldn't stand the rigid bureaucracy or living in a rural backwater. I left on good terms with my employer and until recently have been working as a sysadmin.

As of a few weeks ago, I've de-retired and have been hired by a consulting firm to work on risk issues as varied as the cleanup at US defense sites, decommissioning and dismantling graphite core reactors, and fire analysis in light water power plants. I'm really looking forward to it because the work is fascinating and socially important (the improved salary and benefits help, but they're not my prime motivators.) The new job doesn't start for a few weeks so cries of me being a paid shill are a bit premature.

But even if I am a paid shill, it doesn't help anyone to lie or obfuscate the truth. I leave that to Greenpeace, the Rock Mountain Institute, and the NRDC. Even if no new plants are built in the US, I'll have work analyzing the ones we already have.

Personally, I'd like to see some new plants built in the US. The newer generations of PWRs and BWRs are substantially simpler and safer than the existing crop, most of which were designed prior to 1975.

In the past two decades there has been a lot more emphasis put on "passive" safety features such as large thermal masses (i.e. pools of water) and natural circulation instead of the "active" systems which required a lot more hardware and manual actions to do the same job. Keeping the part count low reduces construction and maintenance costs and improves system reliability. Plants were usually designed to have a 40 year operational life; it's really time to start replacing the older units.

One final thing that seems to baffle people my parents' age: there's no inherent conflict between conservation, renewable energy, and nuclear power. They are by no means mutually exclusive and it's simply blind dogmatism on the part of some progressive and conservative factions that keeps this false conflict alive. As I see it, the goal is to provide reliable, cheap power to as many people as possible while minimizing health and ecological risks. That goal should be what drives the choice of technology. It's not helpful to take nuclear off the table due to criticisms that were addressed and debunked back in the Nixon era.

Bob: Disclosure not necessary but useful. We try to take comments here on their own merits. In this case I think we have a disagreement not likely to be settled by dueling facts, but I am still interested in your point of view. I am not rabidly antinuclear, just very skeptical.


My immediate reaction on seeing McCain harp on nuclear power almost nonstop in the penultimate debate went something like this: "This from the guy who has had how much cancer scraped off his face, now?"

Clearly, of course, there's nothing to say that his melanoma is (or is not) a result of having served on nuclear submarines or whatever, but it was truly a WTF moment, and surely if I had been on McCain's coaching team, would have advised him to stay away from setting himself up for that.

Anyway, there are several arguments against nuclear energy, of course the primary being the storage of the waste material (calling it "disposal" makes it sound like we can actually get rid of it, which is entirely untrue) but also the same reason that's evident right now with gas: having one primary source of energy is a recipe for fucking disaster. We need to move onto a diversified set of sources, and we don't need nuclear power in that set, quite frankly.

As Bob said: "...In the past two decades there has been a lot more emphasis put on "passive" safety features such as large thermal masses (i.e. pools of water) and natural circulation instead of the "active" systems which required a lot more hardware and manual actions to do the same job. Keeping the part count low reduces construction and maintenance costs and improves system reliability..."

While the US stood still, the rest of the world kept building nuclear plants. These newer deigns are safer and easier to build. Individual systems have been re-designed and combined to provide safer more efficient performance. Think of a nice new car in the late 70's vs a new one today. . .

Putting 40 new ones up will take 10+ years due to having to ramp a a whole new workforce. Having not built a nuke in so long, many of the QA /QC inspectors for a myriad of craft activities would need to be trained. A skilled (read: union - hopefully) workforce would have to be increased to fill the 3,000 to 5,000 positions needed for each unit built. Approvals, paperwork and general bullshit will slow, but hopefully not stop the process.

Storage of spent fuel is built on the plant site and other than a "small" release and the ongoing remediation of tritium in groundwater at one plant, I'm aware of no other problems.

According to the NRC***, "13 nuclear power plant units that have permanently shut down and are in some phase of the decommissioning process". They also state, "Ten nuclear power plants have completed the decommissioning process and have had their operating license terminated".


Disclosure: Last 18 years of paychecks have been nuke related.

IIRC there are no longer any domestic suppliers of such components, they must all be sourced from Japan - consider the national security implications of letting domestic heavy industries languish.

While there are a lot of deaths from the coal burning plants, don't forget the cost in miner's lives, too. Not to mention the expense of rescue efforts.

What I take from this is "Dam, Baby Dam!" Just don't live downstream from the dam.

I agree with Bob, the problem of waste disposal is political. If you take spent fuel (which is deadly radioactive fresh out of the reactor) and wait 700 years, it becomes less radioactive than the ore from which the uranium was mined.

The Pyramids are still standing after 5,000 years. We can't do better?

Virtually all the radioactive contamination has been due to weapons production, not power production.

I remain concerned about nuclear power for a variety of reasons: earthquakes only partially respect geologic fault lines, more waste creates more potential for dirty bombs, more cores create more potential for conventional bombs, and there have been more incidents than TMI.

Solar energy has no waste or risks, geothermal energy will have no waste or risks when a few technological problems are solved, and wind energy has no waste though a few risks but it is godawful noisy!!! These are the energy technologies we would do well to invest in.

Why are so many people so entranced with nuclear power? And with coal? The First Nations had it right -- we can trod lightly on our earth.

By Cathie Currie (not verified) on 29 Oct 2008 #permalink

Hard to tread lightly when there's 6 Billion of us.

MoM, The other way to look at it is that we have 6+ billion opportunities and reasons to use effective problem solving to leave our earth in a better condition than we found it.

Infants deficate and micturate anywhere they feel the urge. Parents and civics try to impress on the child that if everyone followed their urges, we'd be in quite a mess. Well, we are in quite a mess because not eveyone learned the lesson, and some who learned the specific lesson failed in the transfer of training.

We could do right by our planet if made an effort to do so -- and we'd be a whole lot happier if we did. Stewardship, effective problem solving -- these are worthwhile and highly rewarding endeavors.

By Cathie Currie (not verified) on 01 Nov 2008 #permalink

Cathie, No argument from me. I'm just sayin' that if there were only 3 Billion, or 1.5 Billion, it would be twice as easy. In a twisted way, it argues against Panflu preparedness. (spoken by someone, part of whose job is Panflu preparedness...)

[Puzzled, scratched head . . . reread your last statement, thought . . . hmmm? . . . reread . . . GOT IT!! HeHe . . . . Ooohhh, no. . . HeHeHe . . .]

I kept my freshman biology textbook -- though I am a social psychologist -- I never could quite figure out why I didn't want to part with it. Finally, one day I looked at the name of the author: Garrett Hardin. For those who are not biologists or social scientists, he wrote the Tragedy[Dilemma] of the Commons, published in Science, that greatly influenced our policy in Biafra. (Where is Biafra?? I have no idea.) I suspect the policy development was much more complicated than that, but his paper is viewed as pivotal.

I am always surprised that most people do not know that some very serious social science theories exist that regard war, famines, and disease as 'good' for the (surviving) human population. I.e., that those of us who work on preventative issues are, in that POV, undermining the human future . . . I think it is better for us to know that others have other POVs, that there are dilemmas and tradeoffs, and that 'they' may not see 'our' 'goods' as 'goods'.

By Cathie Currie (not verified) on 01 Nov 2008 #permalink