Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Nu-Clear Perspective

"Take a nuclear chain reaction 20 times more powerful than Hiroshima. Run it through a power plant every day near families. What management would negate the risk?"

These angry words came from President Bartlet during last Sunday's episode of the West Wing. In the show, a nuclear power plant nearly exploded and one person died from radiation poisoning in preventing the meltdown. For the record, if this event was true it would constitute the highest casuality total for any nuclear accident in the US, ever.

But still, people are wary of nuclear power. Very wary of it. Critics still cite Three-Mile-Island as a reason not to use this technology even though no one died. Imagine, for a moment, that there was a nuclear disaster with a relativity new technology that killed, say, 300 people. Not just any people, but men and women and children. I would be amazed if there would be a working reactor anywhere in the US within five years of the incident.

Well, it really did happen, but it wasn't radiation or plutonium or Manhattan Project technology that caused it. It was natural gas and the incident is better known as the New London School explosion of 1937. Three hundred students and teachers died from a leaking gas line and the spark from a newly started electric sander.

Natural gas is poisonous, explosive and pumped into millions of homes--most with families--every day. Shitty stuff happens, and it's very sad when it does, but you can't negate risk, especially at large scales. It's dangerous to assume you can.

After the New London explosion, industry started adding minute amounts of odorant to aid in the detection of leaks. When disasters happen, we shouldn't run and hide, throwing the new and unknown away in the process. We learn, adapt and move forward, building a better world for the future.


Chris said...

Too bad that West Wing got cancelled.

Also, your critics might argue that a nuclear accident, unlike a natural gas explosion leaves the environment poisoned for much longer; preventing people from returning to their homes.

James Aach said...

Thanks for the info on the New London gas explosion. I wasn't aware of it. Why was I interested. Well .... I feature a different actual gas explosion in the opening of my new insider novel of nuclear power, "Rad Decision", which is available at no cost at RadDecision.blogspot.com.

I'm an engineer with over twenty years experience in the nuclear industry, and I wrote this book to provide the layman with a chance to understand how nuclear power really works. (Not the media/movie version, but the real one.) Readers at the site have been leaving very positive comments. I hope you'll take a look. If nothing else, you'll find the West Wing scenario was "silly", to use a technical term. Regards, James Aach

Jacob said...

Your critics might also argue that radiation, unlike gas, cannot be easily detected or avoided by the layman. I think that's at least part the problem people have with nuclear power; you, for the most part, have control over your own safety when dealing with gas or other sources of energy. With nuclear power, your safety is in the hands of some anonymous technician down at the plant. People don't like that thought. Especially when it's coupled with a technology that is difficult to understand and primarily linked (in the mind of the public) with massive death.

David said...

I'm not sure if people are inherently afraid of safety being in other people's own hands. Most people would rather have an electrician wire their house than to do it themselves, the reason being for safety concerns.

I think it's a cultural thing. People are afraid of flying even though it's far safer than driving. Part of it's media but another part of it is the focus on the worst-case-scenario. I'm not sure what to do about it except rhetorically smart education. Pithy arguments really do change minds.

m said...

I think also unmentioned here is the fact that the costs associated with a nuclear disaster are spread over the long-term. It's one thing for 300 people to die. It's another for 300 people to die and an entire city to be uninhabitable for the next few centuries. I am not suggesting that the likelihood of this happening is high, but the fact that it has happened is sufficient to demonstrate that it's a potential risk--one we simply don't have with natural gas.

Anonymous said...

I think part of why people are afraid of nuclear power is, like flying, when things go wrong, they go wrong spectacularly. I don't mean that in a good way. Compare how many people die in an auto accident with how many die in a jet crash?

With a gas explosion or car crash, there's a boom and some fire and it most cases it's done quickly (OK the fire from a gas explosion tends to stay around until morning since most gas explosions happen at night). A burning building or an auto accident is an unfortunately common sight. But a meltdown is expected to be bigger and more dramatic with lingering effects. Natural gas has an added smell so you know to get away. You can't do that with radiation. It's invisible unaided and you can die from it years later.

Also remember that the word "nuclear" was first paired with "bomb" and not "power" to most people. There is also nuclear waste which no one wants and contaminates the area practically forever. The "fuck up" potential is much higher now. That doesn't mean we abandon it, it means we make it safer. The Pluto probe used nuclear power and there was no ill effects because nothing went wrong.

This may be "out there" but I wonder if there is a more "spiritual" reason for the mistrust of nuclear power. Nuclear physics deals with the very stuff of the universe, not a common compound. We're dealing with a more primal and mysterious force. When we see a diagram of how a nuclear reaction works, we see drawings of individual atoms and we think "how can something so powerful come from something so small?" The fact it happens on a larger scale and we're talking about the energy of billions of atoms escapes us.

Humanity has been with fire for tens of thousands of years, but nuclear power has been around for less than a century. It takes time to change.