Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lessons Learned or Lessons Forgotten?

In some ways, writing a post on Lessons Learned in Japan is completely premature. For example, I was on a conference call yesterday with a knowledgeable person who said we could not use his name, but only his information as background. He said that containment is intact at reactors 1, 2 and 3. I objected that I thought it had been breached at Fukushima 2, in the torus (suppression pool). He said that they had previously thought it had been breached, but now thought it was okay. He talked about pressure readings staying high. Maybe he is right, it wasn't breached. Maybe he is wrong.

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.


Anonymous said...

Another fine essay, Meridith. Thank you.

I think maybe you surrendered a little too easily on saying the Japan events could "never" happen here. Yes it is technically inaccurate. But it is effectively true. It is true for all practical purposes. It's not arrogant to say so.

What's worse, an insistence on technically perfect language can really undermine the ability to communicate. President Obama said "We do not expect harmful
levels of radiation to reach the United States." You might think that sounds definitive, but you would be amazed how many people heard qualifications and weasel words in those words. It might be technically inaccurate for the President to say "harmful radiation will absolutely not reach America" but it would be effectively true and a lot more people would hear a firm reassurance instead of weasel words.

Jim said...

A flood of which would impact the Vermont Yankee is, if not impossible, highly, highly improbable. The maximum flood level is based on the Probable Maximum Precipitation (PMP) which is 2 hurricanes within 72 hrs.
River flow is considered to be 480,000 cfs and results in a site level flood of 252.5 ft. This compares to the flood of record in 1936 which was 175,000 cfs and resulted in a site level of 231.4 ft. This was, of course, before the Army Corp of Engineers installed the current flood control dams.
VY is also designed for a cascading failure of upstream dams which would not even approach the site elevation.
I think a Fukushima type issue is highly improbable.

Martin Langeveld said...

...the Japanese thought that what happened there was highly improbably, too...

We do not know what the 1000-year earthquake severity at VY is.

We do not know what the 1000-year storm and flood look like (1936 is only 75 years ago, and global warming is probably increasing the maximum possible storm strengths).

We do not know the maximum capabilities of terrorists (as we did not know on Sept. 10, 2001).

We do not know the maximum human errors operators are capable of.

We do not know what hidden vulnerabilities there are at the plant (even the simple low-tech failures of the cooling tower collapse and the tritium leaks were not foreseen and remedied by the plant's owners).

The lessons learned should include the fact that these very real concerns have not been adequately addressed. These concerns should move front and center in VY's ongoing reviews, analysis, planning and communications. The way to sell a license renewal to Vermont is to focus on these kinds of concerns, not on VY-manufactured concerns about rising electric rates, which are an intentional diversion from the real issues.

VY has its license from the NRC. Now it needs to convince the people of Vermont to hire them. This requires a sales process that's more like applying for a job than selling a car. When you're trying to get hired, you don't do it with threats (if you don't hire us, your rates will go up). You do it by responding to the potential employer's questions and concerns about you, by pitching your special capabilities, experience and interests, and by building their confidence in you. To do that, you need to be humble, you need to listen, you need to be responsive, you need to be accurate, you need to be open. Will VY start doing that?

Meredith Angwin said...

I am so sorry I have not been getting back with comments at all, just publishing them.

Martin: I want you to know that I sent your comments about "stop talking money and talk safety" to some people at Entergy, because I agree with them. Though your comments about 1000 year floods and unknown terrorist threats...there's nothing in this world that can be made perfectly safe. I don't know if VY has enough safety measures, and ALL nuclear plants will be looking at that, I assure you! But at some point, there's a tradeoff. I am not saying that VY is AT that tradeoff, I don't know. But insuring against ever-more-elaborate disaster scenarios is not possible for any technology.

I also want to thank Anonymous for the compliment on my essay, and Jim for the helpful information on upstream dams.

I appreciate all the comments, but I have not been good enough at getting back with people. I decided to keep up on this post, since I have totally missed the boat on keeping up with comments on the post before this one. I hope to go back to it, but at least, I won't have missed the boat on too many posts.

Griff said...

"A former Tepco executive told The Wall Street Journal on Saturday that the company had hesitated to ruin the plant with seawater. A Tepco spokesman told The Journal that the company, “taking the safety of the whole plant into consideration, was trying to judge the appropriate timing to use seawater.” "

It's not the technology so much that has me on the fence, it's the will to operate it properly despite the cost. I do not trust business to do the right thing, ever. I can't get around this to support nuclear, try as I might.

Meredith Angwin said...

Griff. I read that article. TEPCO definitely made some wrong decisions, but I don't know how many facts they had WHEN they were making those decisions. Seawater would ruin the reactor, and if they thought they could save it through lesser means, they were going to try. I don't see this as a mad-for-profit decision as much as a lack of understanding of how quickly the situation was evolving. Having once had to make a difficult decision in a lab (I guess I did okay, the lab didn't blow up) with a fluoride fire in a confined space..oh, it is too hard to explain...I think difficult decisions can be difficult.

On the other hand, it may have been a mad-for-profit decision. For example, the Deepwater Horizon executives IGNORED the input of the mud men (mud engineers, nowadays). To make money. That was more cut and dried. If TEPCO executives were also ignoring the words of the technical experts on the spot, that would be just as bad as you say. I am not clear that has happened.

Martin Langeveld said...

Re: designing for 1000-year threat levels — I'm from the Netherlands, and there after the 1953 flood disaster they rebuilt all their dikes and flood control systems to withstand 1000 year floods. If the systems in New Orleans had been designed for 1000-year events rather than 100-year events, the Katrina disaster would not have happened. And in view of rising ocean levels, the Dutch government is now moving toward a 10,000-year design standard. So, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask whether 1000-year standards are in place.

Meredith Angwin said...

Martin. Maybe a thousand year flood is the right number. I don't know the right number. I'm just saying we can't have infinite escalation of what we defend against, or we will spend all our capital on avoiding infrequent threats.

For example, in a country without clean water, water purification plants are a better use of money than upgrading from the 1000 to 10,000 year threat on almost any other structure. Of course, Japan has had clean water for a long time, but the point isn't about Japan exactly.

I am just saying that ordinary-threat infrastructure (avoid water-borne diseases) usually has a better payback than rare-threat infrastructure. The 1000-year flood may be the right decision. However, making these decisions is hard, and it is not a simple matter of profit-mongerers-who-don't-care.

Anonymous said...

The EPA just announced new rules on coal plant emissions of poisonous mercury, arsenic and other toxins. These rules are great. They have been a long time coming and they should have been done a long time ago.

But I saw something in the EPA announcement that made me curious. It said the new rules would cut emissions by 91%. It said this would prevent up to 17,000 premature deaths. I thought, "What about the other 9% ?"

Quick calculation: 17,000 x .09 = 1,530. My crude calculation says even if the new rules go into effect, 1,500 people will still be dying every year from toxic coal plant emissions. Every year!

And the environmentalists are praising the new rules.

Why aren't environmentalists demanding the same level of safety from coal as they do from nuclear? Is a premature death from mercury somehow more okay than a premature death from radiation exposure? And those deaths from coal are guaranteed every year. While the relatively few deaths caused by nuclear accidents happened in highly unusual situations that are very infrequent.

Yes, let's have strict safety rules and enforcement, but please let's have a little balance and fairness too.

Anonymous said...

Here's your lessons learned:

"As the world collectively holds its breath to see how the Fukushima crisis plays out, there's a positive story that is not yet being reported. Despite assertions by its detractors that wind energy would not survive an earthquake or tsunami, the Japanese wind industry is still functioning and helping to keep the lights on during the Fukushima crisis."

Wind saves the day during a crisis. Why don't we just develop more wind and eliminate the chance of another crisis? We can live without nuclear power. Truth be known, we might not be able to live with it.

Anonymous said...

If the brave men in Japan fail and are unable to contain the escaping radiation from their failed plants, we won't have to worry about EPA regulations or coal or anything. There will be enough radiation in the air that mankind, or most of it, will be wiped out. The remaining nukes will then be left unattended and slowly, one by one, they too will fail. Those poor souls who survive the catastrophe of Japan will not survive the hundreds of failed nuclear plants.

A million years from now, once the radiation has disappeared, perhaps the process of life will start all over again. Let's hope whatever it is that follows us will get it right, because with the constant cheering of nuclear power, we have demonstrated that we have not got it right.

PleasantGuitar said...

@Martin Langeveld In the Netherlands, you guys actually plan ahead longer than a few decades?!? I don't think Americans can really imagine that as so much planning in our country is done with a ten year outlook at most, for example, all the new(now nearly worthless) McMansions built in the Intermountain West during the housing boom. Much of these buildings will be swept down the foothills and mountains they'd denuded due to erosion.
We also love to claim we are capitalists here, yet we bail out failed industries regularly. The Union for Concerned Scientists has been making the point that nuclear power makes economic sense only if it's balied out by the taxpayers, who are forced to pay for both the subsidies to build and maintain the plants (and even then plants like Yankee give us problems like leakage) and the bailouts needed when the industry throws us a disaster. This short of reminds one of Wall Street... The question must be asked of American voters why we are willing ton take such abuse?
The infuriating thing for me to read about is that just like BP, good people around the globe are asked to pitch in donations, instead of the crooks who committed the crime. The media treats this as if it was a natural disaster and unpredictable- Japan built a nuclear power plant next to the ocean in an earthquake and tsunami prone(just look at the famous Japanese painting of one) land. Communism failed at it's mission to provide for an equal distribution of necessary goods(food,clothing,transport) as it's mission of using a centralized govt to try and identify peoples' needs failed. Capitalistm, on the on hand, assumes that people don't know what they want and uses continuous innovation to create new desire for goods people wouldn't have wanted otherwise. In one, the central govt is an uninformed distributor and inefficient at getting goods to citizens and the in the other, the individual is a duped uninformed consumer that had to take industries' word that the product they consume is safe for themselves, their families, and communities.
To me the nuclear industry combines the worst of both worlds. The industry has a revolving door in regulatory agencies, support from the centralized federal govt, and is subsidized so that it never truly had to compete. It also tells it's consumers consistent untruths about it's product and uses it's power to spin its image in the marketplace of ideas. The consumer is not really given a choice, he is told he -must- consume electricity without conservation or investment in alternatives. He then is asked to pay for the industries unprofitability,through subsidies and tax dollars gong towards storage of nuclear waste The whole thing just stinks.

Meredith Angwin said...

Anon 1: Wind power is useful, but intermittent. As long as people need power WHEN they need it, not when the wind is blowing, there will be a need for baseload power.

Anon2: The nuclear problems in Japan are not going to wipe out humanity. Wild comments like yours are making me rethink my policy about anon postings.

ChiaraKills: You think the nuclear industry is the worst of capitalism and communism. That is your opinion, and certainly not mine.