Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nuclear Watchdog

The developing disaster in Japan seems like a good time to mention an agency of the US government which has gotten too little recognition for a job very, very well done for many years; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. During the oil disaster in the gulf there was much talk about, “Well, this is the natural result of government regulation.” I kept looking just a few miles up the coast at San Onofre and thinking, “Well, no it’s not.”

Three years ago the NRC caught the operators at San Onofre in some minor safety procedural violations. I read the press release and the infractions were very minor, but the reaction of the NRC was to place full-time, on-site inspectors in the plant for two years to assure proper training and supervision in the plant.

What do they do about major violations? Well, they actually don’t have procedures for major violations, because they are so good at catching and correcting minor violations that major ones simply never develop.

It was the NRC which stepped in at Three Mile Island and prevented that episode from being much worse then it was, and they learned a couple of things from that event. One is that the reactors had been designed with principles that were more pessimistic than actuality. It had been assumed that if fuel elements were exposed to air that they would melt completely and catastrophically, and that did not happen. The reactor actually turned out to be safer than it was supposed to be.

The other thing they learned was that they needed to be more proactive in monitoring the operation of nuclear plants, and they have never slacked off from that lesson. We have not only never had another Three Mile Island, we have never come within shouting distance of such an event, and we have the governmental NRC to thank for that.

My objection to the use of nuclear energy does not revolve around the safety of nuclear plants, and I don’t know that I’m all that anxious about where they are located. Certainly right on top of a fault line is not a good place to build anything, but when backup systems are properly maintained, and with the NRC monitoring their operation, I’m not concerned about the viability of nuclear plants in California. My objection is in terms of the disposition of the spent fuel. Until we have a way to permanently and safely dispose of the waste product of these reactors, we simply do not need to be expanding the use of them.

1 comment:

bruce said...

Agreed with Jayhawk here. My late father was a nuclear saftey engineer, and he used to growl about the talking heads that made nuclear power issues worse than they are. Three Mile Island was a problem, but a relatively minor one, and was dealt with quickly, and we learned from it. The only bad thing was The China Syndrome film opened right about that time and was a PR nightmare for 3MI.. too bad.

Anyway, the Japanese nuclear plants had the misfortune to be hit with a double whammy, a very large earthquake and a nice juicy tsunami. And of course there wa some poor planning involved, like having the diesel power generators on low ground.

I think they are doing all they can do under extreme duress, and the media is (to a degree) making shit up with lack of anything else to do. That's nothing new, of course.

This too will play out and we all will learn from it. Pray that this nightmare for the Japanese will pass sooner than later.

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