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Nuclear Risk

AtomicOne disaster after another. It seems that there are few countries that have come through the past couple of years without wearing some damage from disasters economic or natural. Once again, the Ring of Fire has awoken and claimed thousands of lives. Japan has been considered one of the best prepared countries for a natural disaster such as an earthquake, yet preparation can only lessen the blow, not prevent it, especially with one as strong as this.

I talk about design, sometimes “good enough design” for civil and municipal infrastructure, sometimes systems design using the precautionary principal and the idea of Black Swan Events and predictable risk. One of the best reviews of design coming out of the most recent Japanese earthquake is in regards to the design of the nuclear reactor systems that are currently in a questionable state.

Japan is a sophisticated country with a long history of nuclear power, and also a long history of seismic activity. One could argue that this is Japan’s Hurricane Katrina moment, in that a predictable scenario was not adequately prepared for in advance despite the potential for very severe consequences. The design-basis accident for Fukushima did not include earthquakes of the magnitude of this event (recently upgraded to 9.0 on the Richter scale).

Source: The Automatic Earth – How Black is the Japanese Nuclear Swan?

We can’t predict how big or when the next earthquake is going to be, but it seems reasonable to assume that one day, there will be an even bigger one than we have designed for, (this is the premise behind all structural and civil design – you design for an event that has a probability, say 1 in a 100, or 1 in a 1,000,000 years). In our quest for comfort and affluence, have we compromised the basic premises of safety with the construction of nuclear facilities on fault lines and within tsunami impact zones?

Thirty years ago, no one would have believed that carbon dioxide and other green house gases would have been as critical a issue as they are today – all the systems being designed then were focused on efficiency and productivity in terms of a financial return on a financial investment, with little to no regard for the impact on the environment as a cost to be calculated. But now we know better. The unfortunate thing with nuclear, is that we did know better, we knew of the risks and believed we were better, stronger and smarter than nature.

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A few years ago I read a couple of booklets on the myths and benefits of nuclear power by a retired professor, Physicist and Astronomer, Dr. Colin Keay, who has been a strong advocate for the use of nuclear power in Australia. These books offered solutions to almost all of the problems raised by anti nuclear folks, the storage, handling, disposal, and dismantling of plants and fuel rods, as well as offering a balanced look at the issues surrounding radiation exposure, even suggesting that some people may suffer from a lack of radiation. But the one thing the book doesn’t advocate, is the construction of nuclear facilities in areas where damage from natural events cannot be predicted. In fact, one of Dr. Keay’s main arguments supporting the use of nuclear power in Australia is the fact that Australia is a geologically “old” continent with very stable deep rock structures. Reading these books, one can’t see him being a strong advocate of nuclear power for Japan, or anywhere else with the potential for seismic activity.

Of course, here in Canada, our regulators give us the same assurances that the Japanese probably heard years ago, from the Globe and Mail:

“All of them have been rated and meet the requirement for the level of earthquakes that are possible in their locations.”

However, Canada’s power plants were designed to withstand an earthquake that could be expected once in 1,000 years, while proposed new standards would impose a much tougher requirement to withstand a one-in-10,000-year event.

Interesting that the regulations are being toughened – is that because the existing regulations are not strict enough? This seems to contradict the previous sentence’s efforts to placate us – if the existing regulations were adequate, why increase them?

Anyway, as I scratch out these thoughts on safety, risk analysis, earthquakes and energy, there are thousands of people dead from the earthquake, a couple of nuclear reactors ready to pop or melt as the case may be, and a nation that hasn’t yet considered the cost of rebuilding cities and infrastructure, as the search for survivors turns into a long recovery effort. The clean-up and recovery efforts from the nuclear issues they are facing now will probably run in to many billions of dollars. The energy is cheap as long as nothing goes wrong.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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