We don't know what happened, so how can we learn lessons?
There's a statement: Fools Rush In Where Angels Fear to Tread. I shall begin rushing in with some lessons learned and/or forgotten.
Lesson I: Never Say Never
I said that the sequence of events in Japan could never happen here. I got criticized roundly (and correctly) on that. Nuclear opponents, of course, were all over my statement as arrogant. Howard Shaffer, a nuclear supporter, reminded me quite firmly that saying something could "never" happen was not reasonable. If it is not contrary to the laws of physics, it could happen.
Fair enough. I should not have said it. I will say, instead, that we don't face earthquake and tsunami here, as they do in Japan. Also, we have more safeguards than the Japanese plants had, because we did some serious upgrades after 9/11 and these have made a difference. For example, we arranged the situation in our plants so if the plant's own generators were knocked out, diesel generators brought in by the army could be easily put on-line. In Japan, when replacement generators finally arrived, connecting them to pumps continued to be a problem. Rod Adams blog has a short video on this.
I wish there was more information available, but since these upgrades happened under the umbrella of "security" we will probably never know all the specifics. However, several people in the nuclear industry have assured me that some of the problems Japan faced simply will not happen here. When you add those upgrades to the lack of major earthquakes or tsunamis in Vermont, you can get to "probabilities for this type of disaster are extremely low." Which, of course, is different from "never."
I think I made that improvident "never" statement because I was angry at people equating "a hurricane coming up the Connecticut Valley" with the widespread destruction in Japan. This was completely disrespectful to the suffering in Japan.
Lesson 2: Rethink Evacuations
As I have been watching the situation in Japan, I have come to the conclusions that the people who plan for evacuations assume that the major danger is radiological. So if you evacuate a certain zone, you have improved the health and safety of the people in that zone.
In Japan, this has not been true. The entire country is devastated, snow is falling, fuel is low, 400,000 are homeless and many are living in tents. To quote Associated Press yesterday
Heavy snow and bitterly cold conditions continue to add to the misery of thousands of survivors in Japan. With relief efforts hampered, helicopters are being used to fly supplies to several evacuation centres which have been cut off by the snowfall. Plunging temperatures have put many elderly residents in makeshift evacuation centres further at risk....
Doctors Without Borders, the international assistance group, has seen cases of hypothermia, serious dehydration and respiratory diseases in some of the shelters, said the general director of the group's Japan affiliate.
In the face of this situation, I think evacuation for radiological safety should be considered in the light of other dangers the refugees might face. If they are going to end up sleeping in a high school gym and eating casseroles prepared by the members of a local church, that's one thing. If the refugees are going to be sleeping in tents in the snow, with children and old people whose lives are at risk from cold and hunger, that is completely different.
In other words, this is a matter of relative risk. The radiological issues off-site at Chernobyl and in Japan have been possible long-term effects (increased cancer risk, for example). Dying of thirst and hypothermia is an immediate effect. I am not saying: don't evacuate. I am saying: think about the conditions before you start evacuating. The cure may be much worse than the disease.
Well, as long as I have brought up the C-word (Chernobyl) I might as well go on to say that the World Health Organization and U.N. studies showed that the worst health effects of Chernobyl were the despair, dislocation, and alcoholism in its wake. The majority of these mental health problems arose from the despondent feelings of the people who had been displaced from their homes.
So perhaps my comments on the evacuation should be filed under lessons forgotten rather than lessons learned.
Lesson Three: Worst-Case Scenarios are Scenarios, not Facts
Arnie Gundersen said that this accident would be Chernobyl on Steroids. He seems to have no understanding how the graphite fire spread radiation at Chernobyl. He acts as if the same thing is sure to happen with possible fires in small amounts of zirconium in the spent fuel pools. Well, it makes an dramatic scenario, at least.
In a less dramatic experiment in the video below, U of C Berkeley engineers attempt to burn some zirconium cladding (unsuccessfully). They also discusses the difference between the problems at these reactors and Chernobyl.
Note: If the cladding were in contact with water, it could liberate hydrogen and cause a hydrogen explosion. This is not the same as an on-going fire. Here's a link to a cartoon that the Japanese are using to explain the situation to their children. To watch this, you have to be ready for fart and toilet analogies.
End note: I had many excellent and thoughtful comments on my last blog post about Fukushima and Vermont. I do intend to respond. Thank you all for your comments.