A Nuclear Power Plant Is Just Another Machine

Like it or not, the long dormant nuclear power debate has come to the boil again.

Leaving aside the curious way this has become an active “debate” – one wonders which powerful interests and lobbies are behind it, one wonders what inspired them of late to hire spin doctors and light a fire under conservative politicians. Conservative politicians who insult us by pretending this is a “Green” technology. Leaving that speculation behind, there are a lot of technical issues that make nuclear power problematic.

First, let us consider Uranium and Plutonium, the two fuels used by (two different kinds of) nuclear power reactors. These two metals are inherently dangerous. Inhaling a speck – literally speck – of plutonium, is fatal. Storing nuclear fuels, mining it, processing it, requires extraordinary precautions. Layers of lead shielding, impenetrable vessels, steel and cement structures. And everything it touches then becomes contaminated and some form of low or high level nuclear waste.

Compare this to a couple of other common fuels. Say aviation fuel and coal.

Both these substances are somewhat dangerous, and prone to ignition. And potentially explosive, if exposed to a flame or spark. However, the procedures for storing this stuff is simple – you shouldn’t feel particularly nervous standing next to a tank of avgas or a pile of coal. Left to themselves, they are relatively harmless.

The same is not true of nuclear fuel. It’s always emitting something, always there needing to be shielded – the precautions required aren’t just passive (avoiding naked flames) but active.

Now, say you had three containers, each about a litre in volume, one filled with chunks of coal, one with avgas and one with plutonium. If you pour the coal out of the container, it might leave some dust. If you pour the avgas, the container would be slick, still with the a layer of fuel, but could be cleaned and used again for something else. Remove the plutonium, and forever afterwards the container it was in will remember, it will still be radioactive, it will need special treatment to dispose of it. Not to mention that that volume of plutonium could be enough to achieve critical mass, either melting under it’s own heat or exploding. This stuff can also only be stored in small quantities, not too close to each other.

Now, consider two accidentally events, one involving coal the other nuclear fuel. A coal fire might be devastating and dangerous – but once the flames are out, the net result is local and temporary. There might be some burnt buildings and some smoke in the air. Now, compare to a nuclear accident. The results are impossible to predict, not locally confined, and very long lasting. To this day, some farms in Scotland are still being tested for radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Extensive, long range, long lasting effects are inherent with this stuff. It is not a neutral, benign substance.

Turning to nuclear power plants.

A nuclear power plant is a machine, a large and immensely complicated machine, and at the same time a very specialised container for an inherently dangerous substance. A reactor is a complex machine which could be compared to other complex machines – say modern transport jets or indeed the Space Shuttle. The comparison is also apt because all these systems are extremely heavily regulated and have extremely stringent safety standards.

Let have a quick closer look at a jet aircraft – say, a Boeing 737. Each individual aircraft has a stringent maintenance regime, laid down by regulators and the manufacturer, from the moment it rolls out of the factory. After x number of flying hours, these check shall be performed, after x more hours, this maintenance will be required, and so on up to and including striping older aircraft back to the bare metal and looking for hairline fatigue cracks in the airframe. Every part in every aircraft is tracked. Almost weekly there are new additions made to the maintenance manual. After every accident, there are more maintenance tasks added to the list. A plane isn’t allowed off the ground or into the airspace of a given country unless it can be proved to have passed all these checks.

All this is necessary because flying is inherently dangerous. So as far as possible – regardless of the economic consequences to the airlines – all the planes in the sky are taking a known and minimised risk, from a mechanical point of view.

Now, despite all of this, it is impossible to swear that no aircraft will ever fall out of the sky unexpectedly. This is not a guarantee which can be given. Despite the manuals and the engineers crawling all over the planes.

Aircraft occasionally fail for unexpected reasons, like any machine. They have fallen out of the sky because of a single metal filing falling into a screw hole. They have fallen out of the sky because of a mis-applied piece of duct tape. The more complex the machine, the more points of failure. The more complex the machine, the more likely some unknown will one day cause an accident. Look at the space shuttle. No amount of diligent maintenance can reduce this possibility to zero. All moving parts will fail, sooner or later.

A nuclear power plant is also a complex machine.

A nuclear power plant is a complex machine with many complicated sub-systems, several of which – the cooling system for example – are so vital that a failure would guarantee an accident of some sort.

Therefore, it is also impossible to swear than no power plant will ever fail. It cannot be guaranteed, complex systems can and will fail.

A plane crashes into the ground. People in it and on the ground are killed. The houses are rebuilt, the wreckage is cleared up. Devastating for those involved. Devastating for the place where it happened. But you can visit the runway at Tenerife where the worse plane crash every occurred. And find no evidence, at no consequence to yourself.

A reactor explodes. Radiation enters the atmosphere and spread thousands of kilometres on the prevailing winds. The site is off limits (effectively) forever. People exposed at a great distance from the event – in both time and space – are effected. Can we see the difference?

Most modern reactors – outside the old Soviet Union at least – are surrounded by a containment vessel. These are the domed cement shapes one sees in photos of reactors. The idea being that any accident or leakage will be contained inside this structure. This has not been tested in any serious way, although the reactor accident at Three Mile Island (aka Harrisberg) was contained in such a building. This just has the effect of localising the accident, making the building permanently – literally for thousands of years – off-limits. And other lower-level accidents at other similar plants around the world have still managed to release radioactivity into the environment.

Think about the machines around you. Think about how much you trust them. We all take calculated risks, stepping into a car, getting on to a plane, taking the lift. The nuclear power industry and, to a similar extent the (still active) nuclear weapons industry are all taking these risks for us. However, the consequences are so far reaching and so unpredictable, it’s a wonder that they are allowed at all.

At that other notable accident, Chernobyl, during the reactor fire, a vivid blue glow lit up the sky above the reactor as charged particles and x-rays ionised the air above it. People in the town stood on bridges watching this beautiful sight – exposing themselves to dangerous levels of radiation. The fire fighters and other rescue crew on site lived or died simply because they did or didn’t step around a certain corner, they did or didn’t stand in a direct line of sight to the burning reactor.

It is literally only a matter of time and random chance before this happens to one of the existing reactors. Do we really want to increase their number?

No new reactor has been ordered in the US since 1978, none has been completed since 1995. There is talk of “new, safer reactor designs.” These exist exclusively on paper. Would you fly in the very first of a brand new model of plane which has never taken off before?

And regardless of the safety of the reactor, it’s inputs and outputs are all inherently dangerous, for extraordinarily long periods. It will be generations before the city of Chernobyl will be inhabitable again. The US Department of Energy is burying thousands of tons of high-level nuclear waste in a salt deposit in New Mexico. They’re about to spend billions and billions of dollars marking a location as off limits and unsafe – for at least 10,000 years. Why on earth would we want to be expanding this industry?

Cut through the crap. Nuclear power is an answer looking for a question. Nuclear power would be swapping one bad pollution source for one far far worse.