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That beautiful blue glow...
January 31, 2006 12:36 AM   Subscribe

Three Mile Island - a study in bad human interface design. Chernobyl in text, pictures (posted previously), and eyewitness accounts. Those are two of the most famous incidents involving mishaps with radioactive material. There have been many more (see also) including suicides, homicides, assaults, and motives forever unknown. But US citizens need not worry - the NRC is on it. What do you know about radiation poisoning? Take the test.
posted by aberrant (55 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
There is far too little shrieking and handwaving in this post. This is NOOKULAR POWER. Evil, evil!

Next time, include a movie of you screaming, "We're all going to die!" Make sure to jump around some to emphasize your point. And be especially careful not to point out that other human activities are dangerous too.

It's the only way to get your point across effectively.
posted by Malor at 1:04 AM on January 31, 2006


Never mind the haters. Nice post, cheers.
posted by Rothko at 1:07 AM on January 31, 2006


For Malor.
posted by aberrant at 1:10 AM on January 31, 2006


Interesting how the documented "lost source" accident reports seem to spike upwards after the fall of the Soviet government.
posted by Rothko at 1:10 AM on January 31, 2006


This one, in Brazil, seems especially tragic to me. Hospital is demolished, but the radsource is left behind to be found by peasant scavengers. They break open the seal and find a blue glowing material inside. They scrape some of the material out (or collect the dust) and use it in one case as makeup/body paint. Girl and other members of a family die.
posted by aberrant at 1:16 AM on January 31, 2006


Wow. Exciting read, that first link. I was surprised to discover nobody died and the radiation exposure was very little. Thanks.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 1:18 AM on January 31, 2006


Rothko, the poster is talking about how awful nuclear power is, when the linked table shows under 200 deaths from civilian nuclear power. Ever. We lost ten miners in a coal plant just a few weeks ago.

From The West Virginia Mine Safety Site: The last year mining deaths exceeded 100 was in 1968 when 152 miners lost their lives in West Virginia mines.

In other words, we lost nearly as many coal miners in just one state, in just one year, than we've lost in the ENTIRE HISTORY of nuclear power. And we're not counting all the knock-on deaths from pollution and radiation (from coal!) being released into the atmosphere.

Dead is dead. It doesn't matter how it happened. And 200 deaths, when you compare it with the myriad of other ways to die, is completely insignificant. We average 36 deaths every day just from driving. So scary nuclear power has resulted in...an extra 5.5 days' worth of traffic deaths.

It's just not reasonable to be up in arms about this.
posted by Malor at 1:19 AM on January 31, 2006


Sorry, Malor, I'm not talking about how awful nuclear power is. I'm actually a proponent of it.

I just thought this would make an interesting post since most folks have heard about TMI and Chernobyl, but fewer have heard about the other accidents involving radioactive material, including some of the early criticality accidents. Note that most of the sources listed in the accidents were not being used for nuclear power generation; they were either used in research, industrial irradiation, as heat sources for non-power-generating purposes, or for something else.

Please don't attempt to infer political agenda here; there is none, despite the mild snark against NRC. Honest.
posted by aberrant at 1:23 AM on January 31, 2006


Malor, by that rationale deaths caused by nuclear power should never be brought up in conversation. How many people need to die before it's worthy of conversation? I could contrast the deaths caused by traffic accidents with the casualty figures from various wars, but that wouldn't make the deaths caused by traffic any less valid/tragic.

I don't think aberrant is "up in arms" about this issue at all, just highlighting interesting facts concerning the deaths caused by nuclear "catastrophes" as they've been labeled.

"Fact Sheet on the Accident at Three Mile Island" is hardly a frothing at the mouth op-ed, is it?

Also, aberrant, that story from Brazil is tragic.
Found this to be quite scary as well: "...arrived in time to prevent the fire department from throwing the source into a river." That's quite a close call
posted by slimepuppy at 1:50 AM on January 31, 2006


Interesting, Malor, I didn't know coal contains so much radioactive material.

Coal is one of the most impure of fuels. Its impurities range from trace quantities of many metals, including uranium and thorium, to much larger quantities of aluminum and iron to still larger quantities of impurities such as sulfur. Products of coal combustion include the oxides of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur; carcinogenic and mutagenic substances; and recoverable minerals of commercial value, including nuclear fuels naturally occurring in coal.

For the year 1982, assuming coal contains uranium and thorium concentrations of 1.3 ppm and 3.2 ppm, respectively, each typical plant released 5.2 tons of uranium (containing 74 pounds of uranium-235) and 12.8 tons of thorium that year. Total U.S. releases in 1982 (from 154 typical plants) amounted to 801 tons of uranium (containing 11,371 pounds of uranium-235) and 1971 tons of thorium. - Oak Ridge Natl Lab Review
posted by roboto at 2:49 AM on January 31, 2006


I'd be much more for Nuclear Power than I already am, except I live in the United States, where the Corporation is Right, and Regulation is Wrong.

Nuclear Power, run correctly, is the only workable answer we have now. We cannot keep burning things for power. But, given the current administrations stance on things like safety and labor relations, I can't trust any company in the US to build a new plant, and I'm afraid of the old ones, to be flat honest.

Redudant safety gear and well trained and supported personell are costs. Costs reduce profits. In the US, that's not allowed.
posted by eriko at 6:11 AM on January 31, 2006


I remember reading about one of the first radiation deaths, Louis Slotin, while in elementary school.

On the whole, nucleaar power does have a pretty good safety record compared with other energy sources. Unfortunately, no one has come up with a way to dispose nuclear waste that peopl find acceptable. Solve that little problem and much of the opposition to nuclear power would go away.
posted by TedW at 6:15 AM on January 31, 2006


I'm sorry, aberrant, I misread the tone of your post. I thought it was "oh god oh god look how horrible this is!" So my original post was meant more as sarcasm than as humor.... it could also be read either way. My apologies.

Slimepuppy, obviously I'm not saying that. What I AM saying is that it's silly to focus on the 'horrors of nuclear power' when, in actual fact, it's quite clean. The risks from nuclear power can't be entirely eliminated without a fundamental redesign of human biology, but they CAN be made very manageable.

I knew coal put out a lot of radioactivity, but I didn't realize how much. Wow! From what roboto is posting, it wouldn't shock me if a single year of coal production from West Virginia did more environmental damage than all the nuclear energy ever released, including the bombs. I can't assert that as fact, obviously, but the sheer magnitude.... 5.2 tons of uranium PER PLANT? Holy shit.

('Course, that was in '82... are they better now?)

eriko, those are good points. I'd be much happier about nuclear energy with a different administration. BushCo would find SOMETHING to screw up, and when you screw up with nuclear power, people die.

TedW: Yep, that is the elephant in the room. From what I know, a great deal of the stuff can be reused, in a properly-designed plant. There's some method of using lower-grade fuels to make better ones, and with careful management, the newer reactor styles wouldn't produce nearly as much waste. The waste that IS produced is incredibly lethal for a few years, but because of the intensity of the radioactivity, the half life is pretty short. So it can be contained and then disposed of within a couple of human lifetimes, which I think is an important design goal.

I believe pebble-bed reactors, which are the other main alternative, are very safe in operation, but produce long-lived waste... so it's less of a problem while it's running, but the waste remains a problem for a very long time indeed. I think the intense-waste plants are like the existing ones we built in the 1970s. We'd do a much better job with them these days, but they still are fundamentally just a couple of minutes away from exploding for years at a time.

We need to really start talking about this stuff... we CAN solve these problems, and the damage done by nuclear power will be far less than the existing energy industries. It's such a dramatic difference, in fact, that I'd rather start switching over now, even with this hideous administration in power. France has the right idea.
posted by Malor at 6:50 AM on January 31, 2006


Any of you had a chance to see this delightful bit of scaremongering (embedded mov/wmv video), courtesy of Greenpeace? Not exactly the message I'd want to get across, especially as they're not really providing an alternative as such, merely empty protesting at the perceived dangers of nuclear power...

Also, Russia is now aiming to mine the Moon for helium 3...
Whether this is an honestly viable option or not, I don't know.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:11 AM on January 31, 2006


What I AM saying is that it's silly to focus on the 'horrors of nuclear power' when, in actual fact, it's quite clean. The risks from nuclear power can't be entirely eliminated without a fundamental redesign of human biology, but they CAN be made very manageable.

Well, it depends on what you call "clean." There are at present vast quantities (hundreds of metric tons) of nuclear waste, stored on site at power plants, in containers not designed for long term storage, while the politicans argue about what to do with it. Even if Yucca mountain opens, there are significant risks in transport.

Whilst none of this has leaked out yet, it IS an environmental disaster waiting to happen. TMI and Chernobyl were dramatic, but exceptional failures. The predictable failures from the way nuclear waste is being managed are actually quite scary and, like global warming, very little is being done.

I studied Health Physics in graduate school and have an idea about the biological effects of nuclear material. I am a supporter of nuclear power - in theory - but I do not support how it has been commercially pursued. France has the right idea - until you realize that it is also incredibly risky. Unless nuclear energy production can - AND WILL - be done properly, from mining to enrichment to permanent disposal, then I don't want any parts of it.
posted by three blind mice at 7:13 AM on January 31, 2006


Absolutely fantastic post. Exemplar.
I especially liked the first person Chernobyl accounts. It's something akin to good sci-fi.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:21 AM on January 31, 2006


Is there anything new here or are these old news? this is not a criticism just a simple question to assess how much effort I might put into these links
posted by caddis at 7:26 AM on January 31, 2006


Definitely click on the 'eyewitness accounts' link. It's very cool stuff.
Soviet planes firing chemicals into radiation clouds, green water falling from the sky.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:32 AM on January 31, 2006


Well, you can thank the people in Nevada for the waste problem. Recently they've managed to get the court to specify that the Feds must plan for Yucca mountain to last for a million years. Which is, of course, completely impossible.

And the transport argument is bogus. They know what they're dealing with, and they'll move in convoys. It's just driving, fer chrissake, and if you're surrounded by escort vehicles and moving at a safe speed, the chance of an accident would be so miniscule that we could run nightly trips for centuries without a problem. And if they make the containers to withstand an impact at X miles per hour, where X = twice the speed at which the convoy actually travels, even if there IS an accident, nothing will escape.

In other words, the 'transport' issue is completely bogus and solvable. And the storage issue would be too. Why on Earth the Nevadans are fighting so hard about Yucca Mountain is beyond me. There's nothing much there to protect.
posted by Malor at 7:32 AM on January 31, 2006


Socrates' take on nuclear waste.

(For discussion's sake.)
posted by Mikey-San at 7:37 AM on January 31, 2006


I would like to say that this part of my link:

P: No. The plane would likely either slide off the curved surface or crush like an eggshell outside. Any jet fuel would burn harmlessly outside. The size of the plane is relatively unimportant, since the plane structure collapses on itself, absorbing most of the impact energy, and only the engines pose a penetration potential.

Should have some better explanation to back it up. Cough, Trade Center, cough.
posted by Mikey-San at 7:42 AM on January 31, 2006


This one, in Brazil, seems especially tragic to me. Hospital is demolished, but the radsource is left behind to be found by peasant scavengers

I remember reading about this when it happened. If I remember correctly, several of the victims are buried in concrete vaults to shield others from the radiation their corpses emit.

Here's another eyewitness account of Chernobyl (scroll down to description). The description of a "raspberry glow" is just plain creepy.
posted by QuestionableSwami at 8:26 AM on January 31, 2006


(1) Every year several tens of thousands of Americans die from particulate ingestion of smoke from conventional power plants.
(2) During the 20th Century, over 90,000 coal miners were killed in the U.S. alone; an untold number died prematurely from black lung disease.
(3) 15,000 people died in India when the Gujarati hydroelectric dam failed in 1979.
(4) 2,000 people died in Italy when the Vaiont dam failed in 1963.
(5) 1440 people were killed in 24 natural gas accidents in the U.S. between 1969 and 1986; and 2070 were killed in 57 oil accidents.
(6) During the Persian Gulf War, there were several hundred thousand deaths (including Iraqis) – partly over the protection of oil reserves.
(7) During the 36-year history of commercial nuclear power (excluding Chernobyl which was a military reactor - used to produce tritium and plutonium), there have been no public casualties.
posted by mariachi at 8:33 AM on January 31, 2006


Forgive the diversion back to the FPP -- one of the links you posted was about improving the speed of human factors engineering reviews. I can attest to the need for this. While I was in grad school at Purdue, I had a work/study job as an aide to one of the human factors engineering professors involved in the study of Three Mile Island. My only duty was to simply make piles of the incoming literature that my professor was to review to make his recommendations. His office was filled with manuals, proceedings, and reports. Filled. Floor to ceiling, or desktop to ceiling. His office was basically a cube of wood with a narrow passageway from the door to the desk chair.
posted by buzzv at 9:21 AM on January 31, 2006


Another eyewitness account:
To get a clearer idea of what had happened we walked outside. What we saw was terrifying. Everything that could be destroyed had been. The entire water coolant system was gone. The right-hand side of the reactor hall had been completely destroyed, and on the left the pipes were just hanging. That was when I realised that Khodemchuk was definitely dead. The place where I was told he'd been standing was in ruins. The huge turbines were still standing, but everything around them was rubble. He must have been buried under that. From where I stood I could see a huge beam of projected light flooding up into infinity from the reactor. It was like a laser light, caused by the ionisation of the air. It was light-bluish, and it was very beautiful. I watched it for several seconds. If I'd stood there for just a few minutes I would probably have died on the spot because of gamma rays and neutrons and everything else that was spewing out. But Tregub yanked me around the corner to get me out the way. He was older and more experienced.
posted by brundlefly at 9:50 AM on January 31, 2006


And the transport argument is bogus.

And the storage issue would be too. Why on Earth the Nevadans are fighting so hard about Yucca Mountain is beyond me. There's nothing much there to protect.

Well malor, your flippant opinion about the concerns of Nevadans reflects your ignorance of the former. Transport is more than just a slow moving convoy. It includes everything from the removal of waste from the site, decontamination, processing, and everything else until it's in deep storage. None of this is easy and none of it is as low risk as you would lead others to believe.

mariachi you make good and perfectly valid points, but one need only look at the photos from the Ukraine to appreciate how fatal a fatal nuclear accident can be. The area visited by photographer will be a dead zone until at least 2525 and the effects will last longer than that. The world is too small for too many of these areas, friend.

It's not fear mind you, just a heathly respect. Some of the cavalier "it's perfectly harmless" attitudes in this thread are what concern me.
posted by three blind mice at 9:54 AM on January 31, 2006


Interesting to see that the number of deaths associated with the medical use of radiation is vastly higher than the number of deaths associated with nuclear energy.
posted by thparkth at 9:59 AM on January 31, 2006


mice, since 1971 there have been more than 20 000 shipments of spent fuel and high-level wastes (over 50 000 tonnes) over more than 30 million kilometres, and no container of nuclear waste has ever been breached or has leaked. Not once.

That sounds like well-managed risk to me.

You're doing the hysterical-jumping-up-and-down thing.....in the ENTIRE HISTORY of civilian nuclear power, there have been a little less than 200 deaths.

You're not thinking. You're just kneejerking.
posted by Malor at 10:41 AM on January 31, 2006


I'm NOT saying it's harmless.

If we make a mistake with nuclear power, people die.

With coal and oil, people die even when we're doing it perfectly.

So which should we be using again?
posted by Malor at 10:43 AM on January 31, 2006


excluding Chernobyl which was a military reactor - used to produce tritium and plutonium

Sorry. The RBMK-1000 reactor was built because it was a high output reactor that used mostly natural U-238 as a fuel and light water as a moderator -- a much easier reactor to fuel than a heavy water or sodium moderated reactor, or a reactor needing lots of enriched U-235. The fact that the reactor produced plutonium was a bonus, but the real reasons these existed was power. The RMBK-1000s at Chernobyl produced 1 gigawatt each, at the time of the accident, there were four online and two building. The four gigawatts of power that Chernobyl produced represented about 10% of the entire power production of the entire Ukraine.

There are bigger RBMKs out there, the current largest that I know of is a RBMK-1500, 1.5GW.

The problem was the positive void coefficent, combined with a bad moderating rod design. The first meant that any voids -- like bubbles in boiling coolant, would reduce the neutrons absorbed by the moderators, thus increasing the reactors running power. Worse, the control rods had empty space at their head ends. When the technicians scrammed Chernobyl #4 -- it's not clear whether they did this because of a problem, or because the test they were running was finished -- the empty parts of the rods displaced enough coolant to send a reactor on the boderline of damage well beyond max safe power.

The US and France knew about this kinds of reactors -- and refused to build large ones. They're very efficent, and very very powerful, but one mistake, and they melt.

(For those wondering -- I ended up writing a report on this, comparing the TMI accident, which destroyed the reactor but released very little radition, to Chernobyl, which was about as bad as it gets.)
posted by eriko at 11:38 AM on January 31, 2006


Good post eriko. I'd always heard that the reactor that melted down at Chernobyl was unstable at lower power outputs but I've never been able to find a good explanation of why that was the case. Where'd you get your info?
posted by joegester at 11:59 AM on January 31, 2006


posted by Malor With coal and oil, people die even when we're doing it perfectly.

Well, if people are dying, then we aren't doing it perfectly, are we?
posted by fandango_matt at 12:03 PM on January 31, 2006


posted by Malor You're doing the hysterical-jumping-up-and-down thing.....in the ENTIRE HISTORY of civilian nuclear power, there have been a little less than 200 deaths.

That's probably because the entire history of civilian nuclear power only spans the past fifty or sixty years.
posted by fandango_matt at 12:26 PM on January 31, 2006


Joegester: see here
posted by aberrant at 1:23 PM on January 31, 2006


Pros, Cons and opinions aside, part of the Nuclear Industry's problem right now is Actuarial. No-one can tell how much the eventual bill, over the lifetime of a plant, will be. As a result, although there's no law against new Nuclear Power plants, no-one wants to build them unless there are some government guarantees writing off future costs. It's just not good business.

The costs of tidying up can be fantastic. In the UK the UKAEA (Slogan: 'Restoring our Environment') has an annual budget for cleaning up our forty year programme of £2 billion. Compare that with the lifetime multinational budget of the ITER Fusion project of around three times that sum. These are our priorities. Disappointing, but we have little choice.

Note that the Spectator link above is sponsored by the Nuclear industry - worth reading nevertheless.
posted by grahamwell at 1:58 PM on January 31, 2006


fandango_matt, that's completely disingenuous. Compare it with coal:

"Where annual coal mining deaths had numbered more than 1,000 a year in the early part of the 20th century, they decreased to an average of about 451 annual fatalities in the 1950s, and to 141 in the 1970s. The yearly average in coal mining decreased to 45 fatalities during the 1990's."

So over the same time period, you're talking more than 10,000 deaths. Just in coal mining. Just in this country. If we were to count places like China, it would be north of 100,000, easily.

If you restrict yourself to the 1970s and later, and still count just this country, coal mining has killed roughly 3000 people directly. In the same timeframe, 142 people died from radiation poisoning. And THAT is including, for instance, 17 deaths to a 'radiotherapy accident', which has nothing whatsoever to do with nuclear power.

Most of the listed deaths, in fact, aren't directly provable as being related to nuclear power... I was just including them for the sake of argument. I see only about 40 that are demonstrably and clearly related to power generation. (and 10 of THOSE were casualties on a nuclear sub, which probably doesn't count.) And those forty casualties were all Russian, from their shoddy reactors.

As far as I can tell, from civilian nuclear power in this country, we have lost zero people. ZERO. And even our weapons development seems to have claimed only a few.

Zero casualties versus 3,000... and it's nuclear power that's dangerous and wrong?
posted by Malor at 2:53 PM on January 31, 2006


Once again I must point out you're comparing the civilian history of nuclear power--which dates back to the early 1970s--with that of coal mining, the history of which dates back to the turn of the century.

In other words, you're not comparing apples to apples. If such a comparison is to be made accurately (and I doubt it's possible) you'll need to factor in equivalent and/or per-capita numbers of coal mines and NPPs, the equivalent number of years in which the operations have been in effect, number of workers, energy output and efficency vs. cost of operations, and so forth--but these are questions for a statistician. And you can't add China to the equation unless you add Chernobyl, the long-term environmental effects of which and exact death toll we won't know for many years. (I'm speaking not only of the people who died in the accident, but also of those who will die from cancer caused by exposure to radiation.)

I'm hardly being disingenuous. You stated, "With coal and oil, people die even when we're doing it perfectly"--well, then we're obviously not doing it perfectly. I don't think either method is particularly wonderful but comparing the two is like comparing airline safety with that of a steamship.
posted by fandango_matt at 3:30 PM on January 31, 2006


The airline safety comparison is apt fandango_matt, and it's the reason why this post is more than fear mongering. The nuclear industry, like the airline industry, works very hard at reducing its risks and both have impressive records, as Malor notes. That's why the self-investigations that Aberrant are good signs. This is in comparison to the fossil powered plants, which don't have anywhere near the same motivation to reduce emissions.

'Course, I like to take the train myself.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:16 PM on January 31, 2006


I was counting Chernobyl. My numbers have been totally skewed against nuclear power -- comparing, up yonder, the stats for coal for just one state for one year, and then just this country, versus all radiation casualties _anywhere_, _ever_. And in every case, despite the numbers being weighted to such an enormous degree, they come back showing that nuclear is safer.

No, it's not that exact. But the deaths in nuclear power are just _so_ small that the trend is clear. I can't give you three decimals of precision, but I can tell you with pretty fair certainty that it's _at least_ three orders of magnitude safer. And you can too, just by using your brain a little. No, you can't see all the variables, but when the disparity is this large, you don't exactly need a calculator.

And as far as coal and oil go.... if you burn coal, you're dumping carbon into the atmosphere. If you bring both industries to near-perfect safety levels, and include all the costs of full remediation (re-trapping the CO2 underground, for instance), the costs of coal and oil would go so high that nuclear power would look downright cheap. Coal mining is dangerous, and there's a ton of carbon and other nasties in the end product. Oil's not quite so nasty, but it does have tons of carbon.

Basically, your own arguments point toward nuclear power being better. If we bring other industries to the same safety level we already get with nuclear, and fix them so that they have no more impact on the environment, energy becomes so expensive that civilization crashes.

If we do coal and oil perfectly, in other words, billions of people die, instead of just hundreds of thousands.

So why don't you like nuclear power, again?
posted by Malor at 4:17 PM on January 31, 2006


fandango_matt, the issue is this: the perfect world in coal/fossil power generation produces byproducts that cannot be contained. These byproducts are toxic to humans.

The perfect world in nuclear power generation also produces toxic byproducts, but these can and (with the two notable exceptions above) have been contained.

So, I think what Malor is trying to say is this: In an ideal situation, fossil power generation results in deaths no matter how well you try to minimize the byproducts. Nuclear power generation doesn't have to generate ANY casualties, as it's practically possible to contain the byproducts in the near term, and theoretically possible to contain them in the long term.

See, e.g., discussion of the Great Smog in which 4000 people (and untold livestock) were killed by the byproducts of fossil fuels.
posted by aberrant at 4:21 PM on January 31, 2006


posted by Malor So why don't you like nuclear power, again?

I never said I didn't.
posted by fandango_matt at 4:26 PM on January 31, 2006


I really didn't intend this to turn into a debate over power generation, though I suppose it's inevitable. If you haven't looked at them already, the nuclear accidents pages are a really interesting read - that folks have murdered people using radiation is something straight out of SciFi, but it's happened.

Maybe we can table the nuclear plant vs fossil plant debate for another thread? It's run away from my original purpose so much that it might be better just to let the debate run its course here. Shrug. I'll wash my hands of the direction and chime in where appropriate.

posted by aberrant at 4:26 PM on January 31, 2006


aberrant: Maybe we can table the nuclear plant vs fossil plant debate for another thread?
Seconded. Thanks for the links.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:37 PM on January 31, 2006


"Sorry. The RBMK-1000 reactor was built because it was a high output reactor that used mostly natural U-238 as a fuel and light water as a moderator"

Chernobyl was a Soviet military reactor, inappropriately adapted for commercial use and unlike any commercial nuclear power plant anywhere else. It was essentially a reactor in a tin shed, without even the most basic safety systems … a unique design that could not even be licensed, let alone built and operated, anywhere in the world except the former Soviet Union. The Chernobyl reactor was inherently unsafe; lives were lost; but it still could not have caused a nuclear explosion.

The Chernobyl design was NOT a light water reactor (LWR) but a graphite moderatored plant design, and not like any used in the U.S. It also had an unacceptable core design characteristic, which cannot be used in the U.S., that is, the core had a positive moderator temperature coefficient. This means that as the fuel gets hotter, the fuel becomes more reactive. With LWR's, as the fuel gets hotter, the water becomes less dense, and the core becomes less reactive (a negative moderator temperature coefficient). LWR cores are naturally self-controlling, whereas graphite moderator cores are not. At Chernobyl, the graphite core became uncontrolled resulting in a pressure explosion, not a nuclear explosion. However, Chernobyl did not have a containment building like U.S. plants, and that explosion caused tons of radioactive dust to be blown into the atmosphere and breathed by humans and animals. The extent to which this caused premature deaths will be long debated. Some claim this number is over 100,000. The number of immediate deaths was relatively low, at around 20.

Sorry backatcha.
posted by mariachi at 4:42 PM on January 31, 2006


Here's an interesting one: The harrowing tale of Louis Slotin and the Lower-The-Top-Half-of-a-Critical-Mass-Sphere-of-Plutonium-Sphere-as-Close-as-Possible-to-the-Bottom-Half-Without-Touching experiment.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:49 PM on January 31, 2006


mariachi, I think you're response to rothko is all because he meant light water *cooled*, not light water *moderated* in his comment.

But I'm confused by the rest of your comment, because while yes, the fact that it had a positive moderator temperature coefficient is is considered be a design flaw, it was the positive void coefficient flaw of the coolant that (largely) started the accident, wasn't it, and the graphite core temperature spiking was a result of that? I'm no nukular scientist, but I've read up on this some, and everything I can find says it was the coolant steam generation problem that set (or started) the whole thing off.
posted by wolftrouble at 5:42 PM on January 31, 2006


The point is not whether coal is safer, cleaner, or more efficient than nuclear power. The point is your comparison--150+ years of industry and technology (during which laws governing safety may not have even existed) with 35-40 years of relatively modern industry and technology governed by safety laws--is somewhat speculative, and in so doing you're engaging in the same rhetoric and hyperbole of which you accuse your opponents. To suggest nuclear power is completely without risk--well, that's just laughable.

Malor, you may be surprised to learn I think nuclear power is probably our only viable option at this point unless tremendous advances are made in solar power-generating technology. I doubt that's going to happen anytime soon, so given what we know about the long-term consequences and histories of the available options, properly-regulated nuclear power is the clear winner--until you realize, as others have noted, the risks of poorly-managed nuclear power outweigh whatever benefits it has to offer. Unfortunately, redundant safety measures, well-trained and supported personnel, and government regulation are costs which reduce profit. Like three blind mice said, until nuclear energy production is managed properly--from mining to enrichment to permanent disposal--I oppose it. We've seen the results and we're suffering the effects of poorly-regulated coal power and I don't support repeating those mistakes with material that has catastrophic consequences when it's poorly managed.
posted by fandango_matt at 5:58 PM on January 31, 2006


posted by Malor Why on Earth the Nevadans are fighting so hard about Yucca Mountain is beyond me.

Well, they're the same reasons you don't want nuclear waste buried under your house.
posted by fandango_matt at 6:09 PM on January 31, 2006


Goddammit, fandango_matt, are you even fucking reading what I'm writing?

EVEN COMPARING ONLY FROM THE 1970s... after the coal industry has a hundred years to mature, and nuclear power was BRAND NEW, nuclear power is STILL unbelievably safer. Direct losses to the entire nuclear program WORLDWIDE was less than we lose, on average, each year to MODERN coal mining. Not coal mining of the 1850s, where we lost 10,000 people a year. Rather, coal mining of the 1990s, where we lost about 40. EACH YEAR in the 1990s, we lost about as many people as we have lost in the civilian nuclear power industry WORLDWIDE... that's including Chernobyl!

Your argument appears to be that, unless it's absolutely perfect, you won't support it... even though the existing methods are demonstrably, wildly imperfect, and are killing people by the tens of thousands.

There's a bit of a difference between having nuclear waste under my house and buried in an unpopulated mountain nearby. But even so, if it were done right, I'd have no problem living right next to a nuclear disposal facility. Radiation is easily detectable and controllable. We have all the technology to handle this properly, as we have demonstrated very thoroughly.

No GO BACK AND READ AND THINK ABOUT WHAT I WROTE instead of just spouting crap without thinking.
posted by Malor at 3:46 AM on February 1, 2006


aberrant: I'm sorry you feel your thread got derailed, but I just don't see where else it could have gone in an interesting way.... I think, without the nuclear power thread, there wouldn't have been that much activity here.

Radiation poisoning sucks. What else is there to talk about?
posted by Malor at 3:47 AM on February 1, 2006


eriko has got it right when he says that we can't trust companies to do it right, and similar to him, I also wrote a report about nuclear accidents, specifically the exact sequence of events that led to the TMI accident.

I spent a few years working in nuclear power plants all over the country. I went into the industry agnostic about nuclear, and came out against it.

The reason I ended up against it is that I found that about 90% of the workers inside really had no idea what they were doing, and about 10% did, and that 10% was feverishly running around trying to correct the mistakes of the 90%. I felt that I was one of those 10% -- specifically, I would review the results of maintenance work that others had done days earlier, see that it had been done wrong (e.g. "no, your analysis is wrong, that equipment IS about to fail") and then having to pick my battles about WHICH equipment to send a crew in again to rework. Or spend even more time and rework it myself. Some problems I just had to let go.

Of course, you see incompetence like this in any industry or workplace, but in nuclear energy, the worst case failure scenario is truly terrible. If you have worker incompetence at a restaurant, or phone company, or auto factory, the worst case failure is far more limited in the damage that it does. And of course these failures happen every day, but hardly ever make the news.

Now, on the other side of the table you've got the massive potential of nuclear energy, which of course was originally "clean* plentiful energy too cheap to meter". So you've got a huge risk and a huge reward, and in the middle you have human beings running the enterprise, and therein is the problem: human nature. It's human to be incompetent, have nepotism in the workplace, be laggard in firing poor workers, have lapses of memory or judgement, and so forth.

Communism held a lot of promise in its ideals of equity and efficient use of resources, but failed in the face of the inate human qualities of greed and selfishness. Nuclear power promises cheap and clean* energy, but fails in the face of the inate human quality of fallibility.

High risk and high reward, with man in the middle.
posted by intermod at 5:46 AM on February 1, 2006


posted by Malor Goddammit, fandango_matt, are you even fucking reading what I'm writing?

Not any more.
posted by fandango_matt at 6:01 AM on February 1, 2006


"I also wrote a report about nuclear accidents, specifically the exact sequence of events that led to the TMI accident"

The Three-Mile Island Unit-2 accident was, in fact, a successful test of the robust design of typical commercial nuclear power plants. Even though the emergency protection systems were deliberately turned off, the accident was contained. Environmental effects: zero. Fatalities: zero. Injuries: zero.

And what ever happened to its sister plant: Three-Mile Island Unit-1? It is running incredibly well. So well in fact, that it was recently purchased by another utility as an investment.

Is that in your report?
posted by mariachi at 2:49 PM on February 2, 2006


This thread needs to be tagged with "nuclear". Took me far too long to find it.
posted by intermod at 7:18 PM on February 28, 2006


I'm for nuclear power. The only question is where to put the reactors? I say we take off and site the nukes from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
posted by kindall at 8:43 PM on February 28, 2006


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