I’ve been debating with a couple of nuclear apologists on Twitter this week, following my public celebration of the permanent closing of San Onofre’s twin nukes.
My German correspondent Rainer Klute sent me to a very interesting article in Forbes, “How Deadly Is Your Kilowatt?”
The article made quite a number of valid points, including the very high death toll from unregulated coal in China—something that could be slashed quite easily just by adopting US pollution standards.
But when I got here, I had to wonder what the author had been smoking:
The dozen or so U.S. deaths in nuclear have all been in the weapons complex or are modeled from general LNT effects. The reason the nuclear number is small is that it produces so much electricity per unit. There just are not many nuclear plants. And the two failures have been in GenII plants with old designs. All new builds must be GenIII and higher, with passive redundant safety systems, and all must be able to withstand the worst case disaster, no matter how unlikely.
Two failures in the US nuclear sector? Off the top of my head, I can think of three major nuclear failures that could have put wide swaths of the population at risk, had there been breaches of the sort at Chernobyl and Fukushima: Enrico Fermi in Michigan, 1966; Browns Ferry, Alabama, 1975; and of course, Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, 1979. And I knew there were plenty more, so I did some searching. A list of nuclear accidents at http://pec.putney.net/issue_detail.php?ID=18 lists at least 59 incidents in the US. 59 times that could have led to calamity!
While Gen III designs, with several new layers of redundancy, are clearly superior to the Gen II, they are untried, and some scientists have serious concerns about their safety:
Other engineers, although not outright saying that they are not safer, are more conservative and have some specific concerns. Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has challenged specific cost-saving design choices made for two generation III reactors, both the AP1000 and ESBWR. Lyman, John Ma (a senior structural engineer at the NRC), and Arnold Gundersen (an anti-nuclear consultant) are concerned about what they perceive as weaknesses in the steel containment vessel and the concrete shield building around the AP1000. They say that the AP1000 containment vessel does not have sufficient safety margins in the event of a direct airplane strike.
And let’s not forget that the Generation II plants were themselves a reaction to (and supposed improvement over) safety flaws in the old Generation I series.
Also, for all the talk about withstanding the worst-case disaster, let’s not forget that humans have often drastically underestimated the power to create havoc. Nobody thought that a tsunami would breach the seawalls at Fukushima. No one thought New Orleans would be flooded not by Hurricane Katrina flooding the Mississippi, but by the storm’s breech of the levee holding back the waters of Lake Ponchartrain.
Oddly enough, my discussion with Mr. Klute had mostly been on the question of the carbon impact of nuclear, and my contention that all the many steps in the fuel cycle, starting with mining, have a significant carbon footprint. But the Forbes piece didn’t address the issue, and that conversation will have to wait for another day.