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Normal Accidents?

David Levy's picture
University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMB)

David L. Levy received his doctorate from Harvard Business School and is now a Professor of Management and Chair of the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Massachusetts...

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  • Jul 13, 2010
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oil_rig_explosionAs I write, the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf is once again gushing unchecked as BP tries to install a new cap that could end the spillage. A recurrent theme in the discussion of this massive spill is that we shouldn’t trust “fail-safe” technologies or the experts who reassure us that catastrophes cannot happen. Naomi Klein wrote in the Guardian that “This Gulf coast crisis is about many things – corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it’s about this: our culture’s excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us. But as the BP disaster has revealed, nature is always more unpredictable than the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine.” Klein quotes Carolyn Merchant, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a noted proponent of deep ecology, as saying: “The problem as BP has tragically and belatedly discovered is that nature as an active force cannot be so confined. Unpredictable, chaotic events [are] usual [in ecological systems].”

Roger Witherspoon writes about the “Myth of Technological Infallibility” underlying the arrogance and hubris that led President Obama on April 2, 2010 to give his tragically ill-timed assurance that opening up offshore oil exploration was safe: “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.” EPA Administrator Dr. Lisa Jackson explained in a May 24 press conference that there was no federal oversight of emergency plans because “we were told over and over by the industry that it could not happen. So we have few tools out there.”

Witherspoon, like many others, linked the oil spill to the unknown dangers of rushing headlong into a new era of nuclear energy, in an effort to deal with carbon emissions. Witherspoon argues that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission shares the mindset of underestimating risks and being too close to the industry it regulates. For example, the NRC has belatedly recognized terrorism as a threat, but decreed that commercial nuclear operators do not have to plan for such an event because risks cannot be assessed and terrorism prevention is a federal responsibility.

Oil rigs and nuclear power plants are highly complex technical systems, in which the failure of one component can potentially cascade into a larger scale disaster. As oil rigs penetrate ever deeper waters to tap high-pressure deposits, it is difficult to assess the risks and build in adequate margins of safety. But these are not just engineering challenges: the oil and nuclear industries are woven into organizational, economic, and political systems; their technologies and production practices are shaped by market forces, bureaucratic operating procedures, and regulatory agencies. They are complex dynamic systems with unpredictable behavior when certain thresholds are crossed, just like the climate and the economy (as I discussed in A Tale of Two Meltdowns).

Detailed case studies of various disasters by organizational sociologists reveal a common pattern of how complex technologies interact with organizational processes and routines, hierarchical power structures, pressures to cut costs, and lax oversight. Together, these can lead to inertia, distorted cognition, the neglect of warning signals, and poor decisions. In engineering-intense organizations, there is often a hyper-masculine culture in which expressions of concern about risk are treated with scorn. Normal Accidents, Perrow’s classic study of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, concluded that catastrophic accidents were “normal” in the context of highly complex socio-technical systems. Even the most carefully designed safety systems could not always prevent the interaction of human and technological failures from cascading into major calamities. Perrow describes in vivid detail the managerial pressures to ignore risks, to stay on schedule and keep costs under control. Perrow found that information available to decision makers was inadequate, delayed, and sometimes inaccurate, and often subject to misinterpretation under crisis conditions. When people do intervene, there are frequently unanticipated effects that exacerbate matters. Diane Vaughan’s analysis of The Challenger Launch Decision demonstrated very similar characteristics.

Perrow concluded that the unpredictability of complex systems make the risks of nuclear power fundamentally unmanageable, and there are voices expressing the same attitude toward deep sea drilling. But do we have to embrace the deep ecology position that nature “cannot be so confined”? Nature is reliably confined and controlled in the combustion chambers powering cars, planes, and electric power generation. The economy cannot be precisely controlled, but it can be steered. Of course, using historical experience to guide for future decisions in relation to low-probability but high impact events can underestimate risks, especially when technologies are pushing new frontiers.

But there are no absolutes here: the question is always how reliable are the systems, and what are the consequences of catastrophic failure, in time and geographic reach?  Failures cannot be eliminated from complex systems, but they can be managed to tolerable levels. Lean production systems employ statistical process control and input from workers to improve quality and reliability, from the component level to the whole production process. In my doctoral thesis work, I studied how this approach could stabilize international supply chains which had been subject to chaotic disruptions. The Federal Aviation Authority examines airplane safety records and mandates technical as well as procedural changes.

In general, there has been too little attention to the non-technical aspects of risk management, the economic and organizational pressures and wider governance systems. Yet the overall safety record for risky technologies is not bad. More than 4000 offshore oil platforms operate routinely in the Gulf of Mexico alone, and it has been over 30 years since the last major offshore blow out. France has operated 59 nuclear power stations for decades without major catastrophe. About 50,000 commercial flights are operated each day around the world.

If BP succeeds in installing the new cap and staunching the oil flow in the next week or two, this will count as a major regional disaster, but not necessarily one that should prevent all offshore drilling in the future. Within a couple of years, bacteria will have digested most of the oil, and life will return to the coastal regions. There are technological, political, and economic lessons to be learned, and with a bit of luck, we could go another 50 years till the next big blowout.

The risks associated with oil are modest compared with nuclear power and weapons production. Even if power plants can be operated safely, the waste disposal problem remains stubborn. The New York Times recently reported that “the amount of plutonium buried Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State is nearly three times what the federal government previously reported.” Production of plutonium stopped at the 560 square mile site in the 1980s, and clean up has barely begun because nobody seems to know exactly what was dumped where, or how to deal with contaminated soil. Plutonium is highly toxic and can slowly seep into groundwater and the Columbia river. With a half-life of 24,000 years, it needs to be contained for eons of time during which civilizations, languages, and the climate will all undergo profound shifts.

There are some rumors circulating on the web that the BP blowout could trigger a massive release of methane, unleashing tsunamis and toxic gas clouds that would cause massive devastation to the region. A frightening scenario indeed, but the most credible report I can find does not see this as a serious threat. The real risk is that we get back to the business of safely pumping and burning oil and gas as usual, pushing the climate through critical thresholds and triggering global, irreversible changes.

The deep ecology position itself carries some hidden dangers. It reflects the same kind of deep populist distrust of scientific expertise that has animated climate deniers (and which this week’s report clearing the U. of East Anglia scientists of major wrongdoing will do little to allay). And the claim that the existing order is “natural and sacred” has traditionally been used by elites to justify the status quo. Progressive politics demands that we “denaturalize” our systems of production and governance, our assumptions about hierarchy, and our faith – and fears – of science and technology. Progressive politics requires that we be alert to the ways in which science and technology are embedded in social, economic, and political systems, and that we actively manage these systems to transition to a more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable system.

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Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on Jul 13, 2010

David, some of us bother to learn about nuclear safety, before we make allegations about arrogance.  The problems at Hanford are unfortunate, to say the least, and reflect a carelessness that was al to prevalent during the cold war period.  We should learn from past mistakes, and take steps to see that they do not reoccur.  At the very least greater openness is an essential component of any successful nuclear safety system,  but openness is not enough if the gate keepers are ignorant.  There is no excuse for people who write about energy issues to be ignorant about the very technical issues that write about.  

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Jul 13, 2010

David, routine emissions from coal plants have been killing about 20,000 Americans per year for decades, perhaps a million per year worldwide.

In the 70’s and 80’s, a time when fossil fuel was abundant and cheap, the U.S. completed about five nuclear plants a year with no significant strain on the economy, and they now produce our cleanest and cheapest reliable energy. Had we kept that up we could have eliminated coal plants by now.

Chernobyl had a positive reactivity temperature coefficient that enabled it to go to 100 times its rated power level in a few seconds, creating a massive steam explosion. Modern reactors must be designed with inherently negative temperature coefficients making that sort of power excursion impossible. Chernobyl had no massive containment building, allowing the steam explosion to eject about 1/3 of the core out of the building. Modern reactors have a massive steel and concrete containment building.

1… Please describe in detail the sequence of events that could produce a nuclear accident that ejects a large fraction of the core outside the containment building of a modern nuclear power plant.

2…How many such accidents per year would be required to kill as many people as the routine operation of coal plants?

3…How many Americans have suffered and died from coal plant emissions because we stopped building nuclear plants?

The last experimental reactor in the U.S. was build in the 70’s.

4… How many people have died and will die in the future because we stopped work on reactor designs that can increase the energy extracted from uranium and thorium from 1% to over 99% of the available energy, while at the same time reducing the waste storage time to 300 years?

There is risk associated with doing things and there is risk associated with not doing things. The risk of not building nuclear plants and not developing advanced designs is many orders of magnitude greater than the risk of doing those things.

David Levy's picture
David Levy on Jul 13, 2010

and I thought I was going to get attacked for minimizing the BP oil spill! and I agree completely re the everyday dangers of coal power – hence the need to really evaluate risks and costs. My main point is that complex systems generally CAN be managed to operate more safely over time, in an incremental fashion, but it’s very hard to eliminate failure risk completely. This has important implications.

I don’t claim to be an expert on nuclear engineering, and I do hear optimistic things about thorium nuclear – we had someone down to speak at UMass from Lightbridge, who was talking it up – but hardly an unbiased source!

as for costs, we are paying around 18c/kwh here in Mass. partly to bail out the bankrupt nukes, who cannot afford to decommission (oops, forgot to factor those costs in…)

But Bill, you ask that I “describe in detail the sequence of events that could produce a nuclear accident that ejects a large fraction of the core outside the containment building of a modern nuclear power plant.”

– the problem with complex systems is that there are so many feedback loops between technical and human factors that it’s hard a priori to describe the sequence that could lead to a release of toxic nuclear materials. Software engineers can check for rarely occuring bugs through simulation, but that’s hard to do with live nuclear plants.

The French (and Japanese) experience tends to make me think that nuclear plants generally can be operated safely for decades on end, but we don’t have data on thousands of plants (with new technologies) operating for hundreds of years. What failure rate is acceptable?

and back to the question of nuclear waste – the Hanford example is more than carelessness – if nuclear technology proliferates, at least some plants might be operated like this, if not in the US or France, then elsewhere. I still have not heard a good answer for the 24,000 year half life issue…..(aside from Thorium, a very different technology as yet untested on commercial scale).

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on Jul 14, 2010

Bill Hannahan – “1… Please describe in detail the sequence of events that could produce a nuclear accident that ejects a large fraction of the core outside the containment building of a modern nuclear power plant.”

I am pretty sure if you asked the OIM or Company Man of the Deepwater Horizon a couple of days before the accident to describe in detail the steps required to produce a uncontrolled blowout in a deepwater well I am pretty sure that their answers would not have been close to the series of steps that lead to this one.

The point David is making is that the thousands of oil platforms drilling away are perfectly safe and 99.99% of them will not have an uncontrolled blowout in their operating lifetimes or will successfully contain such a blowout before it becomes a problem. However in this case unprecedented and unthinkable lapses and mistakes all chained together to cause an environmental catastrophe.  Who would have thought that a responsible drilling crew would not monitor the backflow from the mud pumps?  Who would have thought that a responsible and experienced drilling crew would ignore a pressure test that indicated that the cementing was faulty. Who would have thought that the people that could have tested the cementing would be allowed to fly off without measurements being made?  The question that David asked is how many accidents can you afford?  BP may be able to afford this one however can the people of the Gulf Coast afford it?

Additionally the required roll-out rate of nuclear reactors to actually make a difference will cause corners to be cut and risks to be taken which will increase the risk that a series of unprecedented events will all chain together to produce a catastrophic accident somewhere at sometime. 

No-one is saying nuclear reactors are unsafe.  Even I do not take this line as I know they are very safe.  Drilling rigs are safe which is why I allow myself live on one for a week at a time.  The point is that with any complex system eventually at some time all the faults line up like ducks and the thing fails.  The main thing to take from this is the consequence of such an event.  With nuclear reactors, because radiation is concerned, the consequence can extend over a huge area, in a worst case scenerio, and can affect the area for many many years causing untold economic and human loss.  It is the same for chemical factories like in Bhupal and other processes that deal with lethal gases and liquids that can be released in an accident.

Admitting the problem is the first step in making nuclear power even safer.  Sticking your head in the sand and saying a nuclear accident is impossible is the very best way to make sure an accident happens sooner.

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Jul 14, 2010

David, you said;

“My main point is that complex systems generally CAN be managed to operate more safely over time, in an incremental fashion, but it’s very hard to eliminate failure risk completely. This has important implications.”

If we could completely eliminate the risk of failure, nuclear power plants would be much cheaper and easier to build. No containment building, no triple redundant instrumentation and control system, no triple redundant high pressure injection system, no triple redundant low pressure injection system, no triple redundant diesel generators, offsite power sources etc.

When human error or mechanical malfunction crashes an airliner people die. When a human error or mechanical malfunction crashes a well built nuclear plant, stockholders shed a tear. The idea that nuclear engineers think they can build accident free nuclear power plants is a straw man argument that projects an image that is the exact opposite of the truth.

“as for costs, we are paying around 18c/kwh here in Mass.”

Our nuclear plants have been paid off for a long time, and their Plant Operating Expenses are only 2.1 cents/kWh vs. 3.6 for coal and 7 for gas.

http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epat8p2.html

Saudi Arabia can pump a barrel of oil out of the ground for $5.00, why do they sell it for $75? You pay around 18c/kWh for the same reason. Also to subsidize renewable energy mandates.

“partly to bail out the bankrupt nukes, who cannot afford to decommission”

How is it that plants that make kWh’s for 2.1 cents and sell them for 18 cents are bankrupt? The time shifted value of money makes plant construction expensive and deconstruction cheap. The technology improves with experience.

“we don’t have data on thousands of plants (with new technologies) operating for hundreds of years. What failure rate is acceptable?”

Define failure. Is failure a ruptured fuel pin, a cracked pipe, a failed sensor? Or is failure an accident that injures or kills members of the public?

“back to the question of nuclear waste – the Hanford example is more than carelessness”

Hanford was the product of the WWII nuclear weapons program, which was as different from commercial nuclear power as night and day. Do you propose to ban the production of airliners due to the F-16 accident rate?

“I still have not heard a good answer for the 24,000 year half life issue”

Then you did not read my comment carefully. My recommendation for Model T nuclear reactor is the simplest Molten Salt Reactor that burns uranium and produces a waste stream containing only fission products that require 300 years of storage. Technically it is not a breeder reactor but it requires 1/6th the mass of uranium that conventional reactors need. The simple MSR could be developed and put into mass production in less time than any other reactor I know of. It would produce the cheapest kWh’s of any design that I know of. Much cheaper than burning fossil fuel.

http://memagazine.asme.org/Articles/2010/May/Too_Good_Leave_Shelf.cfm

My main point was this.

“There is risk associated with doing things and there is risk associated with not doing things. The risk of not building nuclear plants and not developing advanced designs is many orders of magnitude greater than the risk of doing those things.”

What are your thoughts on this point?

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on Jul 14, 2010

David, Nuclear safety technologiy has made enormous strides since the Three Mile Island accident.   It am not adverse to questions about nuclear safety, and to well informed discussions, provide that participants in the discussion know something about the history of nuclear safety, and understand both the basic safety nuclear safety concepts, and how they are applied to reactor design. 

 

The Discussions should be about nuclear safety, not some assumed “universal truths” about human fallability.  The question is how do we go about making nuclear power safe despite our human fallibility.  We can discuss how scientists and engineers propose to make reactors safe, and how sucessful they are.  If we begin with the notion that reasonable nuclear safety is not possible because human beings make mistakes, then the dsiscussion will not be furitful.  

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on Jul 14, 2010

Charles Barton – “If we begin with the notion that reasonable nuclear safety is not possible because human beings make mistakes, then the dsiscussion will not be furitful.”

No-one is suggesting that reasonable nuclear safety is not possible no more than anyone says that reasonable airline safety is impossible or reasonable drilling rig safety is not possible.  The fact is that humans are fallible and make mistakes often at the worst possible time.  Even though billions of air-miles are safely flown planes still crash. Even though thousands of well are drilled some still blow out despite all the safeguards.

No-one actually is attacking your nuclear sacred cow.  Only pointing out that like all complex systems designed and operated by humans they do fail and nuclear power has the potential to fail spectacularly.

BTW private messages are not the way I like to talk normally so how about we keep it in the open?

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on Jul 15, 2010

G, Murphy – “BP possessed exactly 0 (zero) ways to automatically shut down the well.”

Absolute rubbish.  BP and Transocean were following guidelines that mandate several layers of safety for well control. Well Control is an engineering discipline and is enshrined in worldwide consistent legislation and operating rules that companies have to follow or they are not licensed. Thousands of wells at this depth are drilled every year quite safely. BP possessed many ways of shutting down the well and/or completing the well in complete safety however sometimes even the most comprehensive safety systems get overwhelmed.  Have you actually seen a 4 story high Blowout Preventer?

“However, it is a recurrent culture item of antinuclearists, to spin every event whatsoever into their single message: “Fear the Nukes”. It is a religious fervor, based on no information whatsoever.”

Antinuclearists, as you quaintly term, them are simply are asking you to consider that a nuclear reactor is subject to the same failures as other complex systems. Also why is questioning safety deemed by you fervent people as anti-nuclear???? Is that really so hard to do, or is the nuclear sacred cow that fragile?  Renewables are subject to exactly the same failures and wind turbines fail and I am sure there will be an accident sometime at a solar facility.  However the consequences of such failures, even in the worst conceivable accident, are almost entirely contained to the vicinity of the power plant.  For instance repeated failures might lead to a steam explosion at a CSP plant.  No radiation is involved so even if it resulted in the total destruction of the plant that would be it.  The molten salts that they use are non-toxic however additives could make them toxic so there is potential there for a catastrophic failure that extends beyond the boundaries of the plant.  In this case if toxic additives are added to molten salt storage fluid then there will have to stringent controls to ensure that there is an acceptable low probability of leakage and monitoring to ensure that this is true. 

If you suggested that we need to look at CSP safety I would not consider you anti-renewable – I would whole heartedly agree with you as it is probably long over due.  Solar systems are rare at the moment so accidents are also infrequent however as they become more common there will be problems.  The saving grace is that they use standard steam technology that is subject to the same and very long established safety systems of the steam generation industry that has been in existence for hundreds of years and as a massive accumulated knowledge.

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on Jul 15, 2010

G, Murphy – “BP possessed exactly 0 (zero) ways to automatically shut down the well.”

Absolute rubbish.  BP and Transocean were following guidelines that mandate several layers of safety for well control. Well Control is an engineering discipline and is enshrined in worldwide consistent legislation and operating rules that companies have to follow or they are not licensed. Thousands of wells at this depth are drilled every year quite safely. BP possessed many ways of shutting down the well and/or completing the well in complete safety however sometimes even the most comprehensive safety systems get overwhelmed.  Have you actually seen a 4 story high Blowout Preventer?

“However, it is a recurrent culture item of antinuclearists, to spin every event whatsoever into their single message: “Fear the Nukes”. It is a religious fervor, based on no information whatsoever.”

Antinuclearists, as you quaintly term, them are simply are asking you to consider that a nuclear reactor is subject to the same failures as other complex systems. Also why is questioning safety deemed by you fervent people as anti-nuclear???? Is that really so hard to do, or is the nuclear sacred cow that fragile?  Renewables are subject to exactly the same failures and wind turbines fail and I am sure there will be an accident sometime at a solar facility.  However the consequences of such failures, even in the worst conceivable accident, are almost entirely contained to the vicinity of the power plant.  For instance repeated failures might lead to a steam explosion at a CSP plant.  No radiation is involved so even if it resulted in the total destruction of the plant that would be it.  The molten salts that they use are non-toxic however additives could make them toxic so there is potential there for a catastrophic failure that extends beyond the boundaries of the plant.  In this case if toxic additives are added to molten salt storage fluid then there will have to stringent controls to ensure that there is an acceptable low probability of leakage and monitoring to ensure that this is true. 

If you suggested that we need to look at CSP safety I would not consider you anti-renewable – I would whole heartedly agree with you as it is probably long over due.  Solar systems are rare at the moment so accidents are also infrequent however as they become more common there will be problems.  The saving grace is that they use standard steam technology that is subject to the same and very long established safety systems of the steam generation industry that has been in existence for hundreds of years and as a massive accumulated knowledge.

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Jul 15, 2010

Stephen, you wrote;

“BP possessed many ways of shutting down the well and/or completing the well in complete safety”

1… Please list all the ways they had to shut it down after they realized it was out of control.

“Antinuclearists, as you quaintly term, them are simply are asking you to consider that a nuclear reactor is subject to the same failures as other complex systems.”

The risks of the Chernobyl reactor design were well known and discussed in nuclear industry journals before those reactors were built. That design could never have been licensed in the U.S. or most other countries. The accident that happened there was well known to be a possibility. Well blowouts have happened numerous times in the history of the oil industry. Accident sequences that may lead to a blowout are well known.

2… Can you provide an industry journal showing the accident scenarios that lead to the ejection of a large quantity of reactor fuel from a modern plant?

3… What is the probability of that happening?

4… Which plants with containment domes have done that?

“Also why is questioning safety deemed by you fervent people as anti-nuclear????”

I don’t see you trying to educate yourself about the risk/benefit ratio of modern nuclear plants. I see you trying to convince people that the risk of nuclear power is similar to that of other energy sources, with statements like;

“nuclear power has the potential to fail spectacularly”

But you provide no evidence of that, and ignore contrary evidence.

5… How many modern plants have failed spectacularly?

6… If ten people across the country are killed falling off their roof or electrocuted, installing a photovoltaic system, would that be more or less spectacular than the Three Mile Island accident?

“Have you actually seen a 4 story high Blowout Preventer?”

Oh My God, Stephen, have you actually seen a BOP up close, in person, WOW! Have you ever seen a uranium fuel pellet?

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on Jul 15, 2010

Bill Hannahan – “1… Please list all the ways they had to shut it down after they realized it was out of control.”

After it was out of control??? OK I will if you list the ways a nuclear power operator can control a nuclear reactor after it has melted down. Your question is incoherent. Out of control implies a situation where cascading failures have put the well beyond normal well control. The final link the BOP failed because drill pipe to drill to this depth is now stronger and has stronger collars. This failed to cut the pipe and seal the well as it should.

“Well blowouts have happened numerous times in the history of the oil industry. Accident sequences that may lead to a blowout are well known.”

From incoherence to inconsistency. You claim that the oil industry can have accidents and it is well known that blowouts happen. Yes it is that is why the discipline of well control exists. However are you suggesting that nuclear power is somehow exempt from the possibility of an accident because it is all so safe that an accident will never and could never occur?

“I don’t see you trying to educate yourself about the risk/benefit ratio of modern nuclear plants. I see you trying to convince people that the risk of nuclear power is similar to that of other energy sources, with statements like;”

This is not about the cost/benefits of nuclear power. This is about your unbelievable faith in nuclear power that would cause you to imagine that nuclear power is so safe that there is no conceivable sequence of events could lead to a failure of a nuclear power plant. This is faith bordering on religion that you accuse us greenies of.

The only people that I am trying to convince of anything is the nuclear power faithful posting here that seem to think that nuclear power is somehow exempt from the types of failures that happen to every other man made and operated complex system. I cannot imagine intelligent and aware people such as yourselves being this stupidly blind.

I am not even being particularly anti-nuclear here. I freely admit nuclear is safe and have no qualms about the safety of nuclear power – this is not one of the arguments I use as it has no basis in any scientific literature. Only really equally blind renewable people use this argument.

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on Jul 15, 2010

Bill Hannahan – “1… Please list all the ways they had to shut it down after they realized it was out of control.”
After it was out of control???  OK I will if you list the ways a nuclear power operator can control a nuclear reactor after it has melted down.  Your question is incoherent.  Out of control implies a situation where cascading failures have put the well beyond normal well control.  The final link the BOP failed because drill pipe to drill to this depth is now stronger and has stronger collars.  This failed to cut the pipe and seal the well as it should.
“Well blowouts have happened numerous times in the history of the oil industry. Accident sequences that may lead to a blowout are well known.”
From incoherence to inconsistency.  You claim that the oil industry can have accidents and it is well known that blowouts happen.  Yes it is that is why the discipline of well control exists.  However are you suggesting that nuclear power is somehow exempt from the possibility of an accident because it is all so safe that an accident will never and could never occur?  
“I don’t see you trying to educate yourself about the risk/benefit ratio of modern nuclear plants. I see you trying to convince people that the risk of nuclear power is similar to that of other energy sources, with statements like;”
This is not about the cost/benefits of nuclear power.  This is about your unbelievable faith in nuclear power that would cause you to imagine that nuclear power is so safe that there is no conceivable sequence of events could lead to a failure of a nuclear power plant.  This is faith bordering on religion that you accuse us greenies of.
The only people that I am trying to convince of anything is the nuclear power faithful posting here that seem to think that nuclear power is somehow exempt from the types of failures that happen to every other man made and operated complex system.  I cannot imagine intelligent and aware people such as yourselves being this stupidly blind.
I am not even being particularly anti-nuclear here.  I freely admit nuclear is safe and have no qualms about the safety of nuclear power – this is not one of the arguments I use as it has no basis in any scientific literature.  Only really equally blind renewable people use this argument.

Bill Hannahan – “1… Please list all the ways they had to shut it down after they realized it was out of control.”
After it was out of control???  OK I will if you list the ways a nuclear power operator can control a nuclear reactor after it has melted down.  Your question is incoherent.  Out of control implies a situation where cascading failures have put the well beyond normal well control.  The final link the BOP failed because drill pipe to drill to this depth is now stronger and has stronger collars.  This failed to cut the pipe and seal the well as it should.

“Well blowouts have happened numerous times in the history of the oil industry. Accident sequences that may lead to a blowout are well known.”

From incoherence to inconsistency.  You claim that the oil industry can have accidents and it is well known that blowouts happen.  Yes it is that is why the discipline of well control exists.  However are you suggesting that nuclear power is somehow exempt from the possibility of an accident because it is all so safe that an accident will never and could never occur?  

“I don’t see you trying to educate yourself about the risk/benefit ratio of modern nuclear plants. I see you trying to convince people that the risk of nuclear power is similar to that of other energy sources, with statements like;”

This is not about the cost/benefits of nuclear power.  This is about your unbelievable faith in nuclear power that would cause you to imagine that nuclear power is so safe that there is no conceivable sequence of events could lead to a failure.  This is faith bordering on religion that you accuse us greenies of.

The only people that I am trying to convince of anything is the nuclear power faithful posting here that seem to think that nuclear power is somehow exempt from the types of failures that happen to every other man made and operated complex system.  I cannot imagine intelligent and aware people such as yourselves being this stupidly blind.

I am not even being particularly anti-nuclear here.  I freely admit nuclear is safe and have no qualms about the safety of nuclear power – this is not one of the arguments I use as it has no basis in any scientific literature.  Only really equally blind renewable people use this argument.

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on Jul 15, 2010

Steven, Your response is contradictory.  We do not disagree about human failings.  The question then becomes do nuclear safety measures fully take human fallibility into account, and do they provide for the mitigation of all accidents which are likely to occur because of human fallibility.  A final question should be do safety features of current reactors prevent accidents turning into catastrophic disasters.  And if they do not, would it be possible to design reactors that would never fail in a catastrophic fashion?  In order for you to make intelligent contributions to this discussion, you would need to know more about nuclear safety than you currently do.   

By the way, I have little doubt that were you better educated on the subject, you would make the discussion more interesting.

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Jul 15, 2010

Stephen, you wrote;

“list the ways a nuclear power operator can control a nuclear reactor after it has melted down.”

1… They could do nothing. Next generation reactors have core catchers that will contain and resolidify a melted core. They have built in heat sinks that can absorb decay heat for a long time without operator action.

2… They could turn on the containment spray system. That will filter chemically active fission products like iodine and cesium out of the containment atmosphere and convert them to stable precipitates.

At TMI the reactor protection system turned on the emergency injection pumps, but the operators failed to recognize the conditions in the reactor cooling system and turned the pumps off. Had the operators simply gone out for coffee and doughnuts for a while the plant would be online today.

1… How would coffee and doughnuts have worked on the Deepwater Horizon?

The operators at TMI had about 90 minutes to reverse their mistakes before serious fuel damage began. With modern instrumentation systems they would have recognized the problem quickly.

2… How long did the operators on the DWH have after they realized there was a serious problem?

3… What could they have done to prevent the accident after they realized there was a serious problem?

3b…How long did the four pilots at Tenerife have after they saw each others Boeing 747 emerge from the fog? What could they have done?

“However are you suggesting that nuclear power is somehow exempt from the possibility of an accident because it is all so safe that an accident will never and could never occur?”

No, the concept of benefit/risk ratio assumes that risk is non zero. I believe the ratio is much higher for nuclear than for continued burning of fossil fuel and the other proposed energy strategies. You seem to agree that the risk is low, and you agree that the benefit of replacing coal plants is high, so we agree that the benefit/risk ratio is high.

4… Can you provide an industry journal showing the accident scenarios that lead to the ejection of a large quantity of reactor fuel from a modern plant.

5… What is the probability of that happening?

6… Which plants with containment domes have done that?

7… How many modern plants have failed spectacularly?

7a… How many such accidents per year would be required to kill as many people as the routine operation of coal plants?

8…How many Americans have suffered and died from coal plant emissions because we stopped building nuclear plants?

9… How many people have died and will die in the future because we stopped work on reactor designs that can increase the energy extracted from uranium and thorium from 1% to over 99% of the available energy, while at the same time reducing the waste storage time to 300 years?

10… If ten people across the country are killed falling off their roof or electrocuted, installing a photovoltaic system, would that be more or less spectacular than the Three Mile Island accident?

11… There is risk associated with doing things and there is risk associated with not doing things. The risk of not building nuclear plants and not developing advanced designs is many orders of magnitude greater than the risk of doing those things. What are your thoughts on this point?

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