Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An American Chernobyl?

Read John Fuller (or Gil Scott-Heron) and you'd think We Almost Lost Detroit when the Fermi I fast breeder reactor went online.

It had serious problems; zirconium cladding came loose in the reactor vessel and clanged around in the liquid-sodium coolant flow, eventually leading to abnormal operation (and a partial melt-down) which caused the reactor to scram: it shut down.

The operators poked around, found the problem, spent nearly two years gimmicking up the tools and fixing it, and eventually got the thing more-or-less running again. It was never quite what the designers had hoped and in another couple of years, it was shut down.

You may have noticed that Detroit is still there.

So how come? It's not like a liquid-metal cooled fast breeder reactor is an especially forgiving design. But the thing had working safety systems and the operators paid attention to them. In the face of a design or construction problem, they didn't push the system past the point of no return, hoping to win brownie points or dodge a dressing-down, they shut 'er down and began to figure out what went wrong.

And we didn't lose Detroit. Or at least not to Fermi I.

16 comments:

Nathan said...

Not that losing Detroit would have been much of a loss.

At least in these days and times.

North said...

I had an uncle that was at Chernobyl (inspection) some 5 years before things went bad. He refused any follow-up trips.

Roberta X said...

Ouch.

Roberta X said...

...It's an interesting thing that even at Fermi I, I seem to remember reading there was a degree of pig-headedness; the initial reaction to clanging sounds was to keep on running it. Once the metering started looking weird, they took it seriously. It scrammed soon after.

Jerry said...

As a reliability engineer, the boiling water reactors and the pressurized boiling water reactors have always impressed me as less than desirable in that they require continued function, care and attention to shut them down. In many regards, they are the Model T's of nuclear reactors. They work but there are much better designs available which are walk away safe, more efficient and produce much less high level waste. The Fukushima disaster has many lessons, not the least of which is that we should develop state of the art nuclear power plants. Standing in the way, is the massive bureaucracy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; It's easier to continue building Model Ts rather than building something new. The NRC has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. If nuclear reactors became safe, generated little high level waste and produced no plutonium, the NRC would have to reduce staffing levels.

Anonymous said...

SCRAM is an acronym.

Saftey Control Rod Axe Man.

The origin is that it is a guy with an axe on a room with a thick rope, that is under tension, across a surface like an anvil.

His only job was to cut the rope in the event of an emergency.

Cutting the caused the reactor to secure the rods and shut down. Some variations of this safety system still exist today. Designed specifically to work if power to the control systems fail.

Simple, low tech KISS system.

Roberta X remotely said...

R2K is right in that disasters happen everywhere -- I still maintain that excessively top-down systems are more likely to be the cause of their own disasters that systems that are less so.

Japan's culture is fairly hierarchical but even so, they didn't have a mess at Fukihima until the tsunami struck and took out the back-ups; they got through the earthquake pretty well.

Chernobyl, on the other hand, *what* caused that mess? It sure wasn't tectonic stress or a tornado!

--Once things go terribly awry, no group or nation is especially short on people willing to do whatever it takes to claer the immediate problem; humanity has no shortage of heroes when the problem is clear.

Quizikle said...

I've run into more problems due to excessive focus on "top-down" development.

I find it often leads to tremendous inflexibility by the time a project gets to the point of putting nuts and bolts together - just the time when the project may need a touch of tweaking. Leading to a not-uncommon resulting failure to fully meet the expectations of the overall project goal.

I could speculate that insistence on one-direction "top-down" development makes those at the top feel like they're in control.

But I won't.

Tam said...

"SCRAM is an acronym."

Actually, it's a backronym.

Jim said...

Spend welfare money on nuclear fusion: Welfare bums take jobs back from Mexicans, cheap clean energy, easy breezy.

Now, back in the real world.........

Jim

Roberta X said...

Tam: Yeah, the axeman has it on the back of his T-shirt: "If I Run Past You, SCRAM!"

The method was used at the Stagg Field reactor (which ran essentially unshielded, btw).

Roberta X said...

Tam: Yeah, the axeman has it on the back of his T-shirt: "If I Run Past You, SCRAM!"

The method was used at the Stagg Field reactor (which ran essentially unshielded, btw).

Roberta X said...

Jim: synergistic bum fusion?

Drang said...

Not that losing Detroit would have been much of a loss.
Having lived there at the time, I disagree.

...It's an interesting thing that even at Fermi I, I seem to remember reading there was a degree of pig-headedness; the initial reaction to clanging sounds was to keep on running it. Once the metering started looking weird, they took it seriously. It scrammed soon after.
SF writer Lloyd Biggle said that part of the problem was that, in some parts of the plant a red light or a bell meant a good thing, and in others they meant a bad thing. The signals changed depending on where you were and what you were doing.

Roberta X said...

Drang: not surprising. The late, lamented Psychology Today had a nice article on nuke-plant safety, sometime after Three Mile Island, in which such things were pointed out, and the methods and systems used at plants with excellent safety records analyzed. Tricks as simple as choosing the right color ink of strip chart recorders and the use of beer-tap handles (!) to distinguish otherwise identical controls in a row were shown to result in a significant improvement.

Even in my line of work, having or lacking plant-wide conventions for the arrangement, designation and operation of controls makes a big change in how well the users can function at different work stations.

Drang said...

The single most reliable piece of SIGINT gear I used in my career as an MI Geek was the Watkins-Johnson Man Portable Radio Direction Finder, or MRDF, later officially nomenclated (?) the AN/PRD-11. It orignially consisted of three components, the antenna, AKA "Holy Crap This Thing Is Heavy!", the receiver, and the direction finding control. All the knobs and buttons on the receiver and DF control were differentiated by shape and color. The theory was apparently that Jose, or Han, or Mbenga, or whatever illiterate third world peasant you had doing RDF for some reason, would find it easy to remember "Red and round make louder or softer".
What an illiterate third world peasant would do with that information...

WV: jewese. Oy, traif...