Nuclear and climate risks

by BuryCoal on May 18, 2011

in Climate change, Nuclear power

When operated by human beings, nuclear fission is a bad technology. It is the equivalent of handing a credit card to someone with expensive tastes and no self-control. While it could theoretically be used responsibly – if the people in charge can resist their more harmful temptations – in practice, it is likely that will not happen.

Regardless of who runs nuclear power plants, they will skimp on maintenance, cut corners, cover up problems, and keep running the things after they have ceased to be reasonably safe. There will be lots of accidents the public never knows about, and companies and governments will lie about the seriousness of all accidents serious enough to attract outside scrutiny.

At the same time, humanity is running a calamitous risk by continuing to rely on fossil fuels. If nuclear power reduces how much coal, oil, and gas are burned, it may play an important role in keeping the amount of climate change humanity experiences to a moderate level.

Human institutions may be ill-equipped to run nuclear plants safely, but human beings are perhaps even less willing to accept restrictions on their use of energy. There should be no mistake that humanity is gambling on the future of the species, by continuing to burn fossil fuels with abandon. Compared to that, the risks of nuclear power look more moderate.

It’s a monster of a technology – ugly and menacing – but it may be one of the less bad options for humanity going forward. Of course, that reflects just how troubled the future of the human race might be.

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. May 19, 2011 at 7:37 pm

U.S. Was Warned on Vents Before Failure at Japan’s Plant
NYTIMES
WASHINGTON Five years before the crucial emergency vents at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were disabled by an accident they were supposed to help handle, engineers at a reactor in Minnesota warned American regulators about that very problem.
 
Anthony Sarrack, one of the two engineers, notified staff members at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the design of venting systems was seriously flawed at his reactor and others in the United States similar to the ones in Japan. He later left the industry in frustration because managers and regulators did not agree.
 
Mr. Sarrack said that the vents, which are supposed to relieve pressure at crippled plants and keep containment structures intact, should not be dependent on electric power and workers’ ability to operate critical valves because power might be cut in an emergency and workers might be incapacitated. Part of the reason the venting system in Japan failed allowing disastrous hydrogen explosions is that power to the plant was knocked out by a tsunami that followed a major earthquake.
 
Copies of Mr. Sarrack’s correspondence with the N.R.C. were supplied by David Lochbaum, a boiling-water-reactor expert who works for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge, Mass., that is generally hostile to nuclear power.
 
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot claim ignorance about this one, he said.
 
Plant managers and nuclear regulators are warned about far more problems each year than actually occur, but in this case, the cautionary note was eerily prescient and could rekindle debate over whether automatic venting systems are safer alternatives.
 

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