Fact whispers, fear screams

Published by rudy Date posted on March 25, 2011

People don’t understand a lot of things about radiation, so there’s understandable fear. There’s always fear of something you don’t understand—fear of the unknown. It’s a normal human reaction. The solution to it is not to give into that fear. The answer is to understand. I was taught about nuclear power in school, but that was over 50 years ago. Much has changed since and my memory is not what it used to be. So I’ve had to brush up, and do a little research (Google is amazing isn’t it?) Having done so, I’m convinced that the risks are outweighed by the benefits. That belief is supported by what I also do (many seem unable to) and that’s to trust independent technical experts. Note the three words: “independent”, “technical”, “expert”. I will only accept someone who is all three. Independent technical experts have assured us today’s modern designs are safe under almost all conceivable conditions. Not “all”, nothing is totally sure, except death. That is sure to happen somehow, sometime. Ignorance has no place in decision-making.

Let’s look at the safety record in various industries over the past 32 years (since 1979 when the Three Mile Island accident occurred).

More than 25,000 have lost their lives due to maritime accidents, while around 20,000 have died due to aviation-related ones. There have been more than 3,000 deaths recorded due to structural fires and close to 8,000 attributed to train accidents. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, estimates that close to 1.2 million people die of road accidents each year.

Nuclear accidents, on the other hand, have killed 38 people. Here’s a list of them and what happened.

On March 28, 1979 the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant suffered partial breakdown. Around 140,000 people were evacuated after the accident. No deaths or injuries were reported.

Uranium leaked at a nuclear site in Tennessee, United States in August 1979, which resulted in the contamination of more than 1,000 people. There were no deaths.

From January to March 1981, four radioactive leaks were recorded at the Tsuruga facility in Japan. More than 200 people were contaminated. They survived.

On April 26, 1986 an experiment at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in Ukraine went wrong. One of its reactors exploded and this scattered radioactive gases into some parts of Europe. According to reports around 200 people were “seriously contaminated” after the accident. Officials reported 32 deaths. Chernobyl is considered the worst nuclear power facility accident in history. But was caused by an experiment, not through normal operations.

An explosion occurred at a reprocessing plant in Western Siberia in April 1993. The blast resulted in the release of radioactive gas composed of elements such as Uranium-235 and Plutonium-237. There were no casualties.

In November 1995 it was reported that workers trying to remove fuel from 1 of the Chernobyl plant’s reactors got exposed to radioactive gas. No official figure on the number of affected workers was provided.

An explosion occurred at the Tokaimura experimental treatment plant in Tokyo on March 11, 1997. Officials said 37 people were exposed to minimal radiation.

On September 30, 1999 an accident occurred at a uranium reprocessing facility northeast of Tokyo. According to reports some 600 people were exposed to radiation after the incident; 2 workers died.

Non-radioactive steam leaked at a nuclear power plant in Mihama, Japan on August 9, 2004. Four workers reportedly died.

As to earthquakes, this one was of unique intensity.

Since 1980, there have been around 38 major earthquakes recorded by the United States Geological Survey in the world. Two were with magnitude between 5 and 6, claiming around 3,300 lives. Eighteen earthquakes with magnitude between 6 and 7 recorded by the agency during the period caused some 320,000 deaths; 13 with magnitude ranging from 7 to 8 killed an estimated 270,000 people; 4 recorded earthquakes with strength between 8-9 claimed 20,000 lives while a lone 9.1 earthquake that struck Sumatra in 2004 caused around 230,000 deaths. There is now one more at 9, but just look at deaths, about 10,000 so far with a likely 20,000-25,000 in total expected. One tenth of the number of people killed in Indonesia. It shows how being prepared can save lives (Oh there were other factors too, but this was certainly one of the reasons fatalities were so low).

When you realize that each additional point is 10 times the intensity then going from 7 to 9 results in an earthquake that is 100 times stronger. Nuclear plants are designed to withstand a 7-8 intensity earthquake, not a 9. But, no doubt, now they will be. This is another reason why Bataan needs to be looked at carefully not just by nuclear scientists and structural engineers, but also by geologists. A new plant design needs to be equally carefully considered.

What the Fukushima disaster shows is not that nuclear power is unsafe, but that nuclear plants must be modern and fully protected with two (not just one) standby systems. Reviving Bataan is still a possibility, but it is 20 years old so would need expert assessment and an analysis as to which makes the best—and safest—sense, BNPP or a new one. Whichever is the cheapest shouldn’t even be considered, commercial factors have no role in choosing nuclear plants. One thing you don’t do is award the contract to the lowest bidder, maybe the highest. There can be no compromise on nuclear power. You limit the bidding process to only the very top names in the industry. From them and them only, you can perhaps choose the lowest cost.

Where I do have genuine concern though for a nuclear power plant in the Philippines is whether we can be 100 percent (not 99) assured operating and maintenance codes will be followed to the absolute letter. If a bolt is to be tightened to 50 ft.-lbs. will a torque wrench be used, or a guesstimate of the mechanic? This is where I’d have the real fear, the too-casual approach to maintenance in the Philippines. Will the torque wrench even be there? I can’t list the tools I’ve had stolen by people working for me, or the power tools broken by careless handling. A casual approach to operation and maintenance can’t be tolerated; everything must be done absolutely to the letter. That dedication is rare here.

Nuclear power is clean energy, it’s lower cost than other sources, it has almost unlimited raw material, it makes good sense from a factual point of view. I want cheaper, reliable power. Nuclear can give it. Thirty-eight people dead in 30 years—it’s safe.

Time to face facts, not fears.–Peter Wallace, Manila Standard Today

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