Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Freeze In The Dark, Hungry And Thirsty Edition

Look, if you're worried about radiation, stay out of the basement; don't live in a brick house nor take long jet airplane flights. Those behaviors have exposed you to thousands of times more radiation than Chernobyl and Three Mile Island together.

...But don't go on the television and tell me that in an area where the houses and roads have been destroyed, harbors filled with debris and water, gas and electric mains destroyed, that I should mostly be worried about "radiation," especially when the affected area had already been largely evacuated. There are people in Japan still missing meals, without proper sanitation or sufficient water and these are immediate concerns about which something can be done. It is not a matter of luck that Japan, as a nation, as a people, is very good at doing what is needful; but what's needful has very little to do with an atomic reactor in trouble. The same folks handing out meals are passing out iodine tablets...and probably spending more time digging latrines and setting up Port-o-lets, followed by the dull, unexciting record-keeping that will, eventually, reunite families or discover who has been lost.

None of that, of course, is as shiny-scary as going on the air and shouting ATOMIC RADIATION! Chernobyl! Three Mile Island! DOOOOOOM! It's also easier to fly to Washington or Los Alamos in a nice, clean jet (picking up more rads along that way than most Japanese people who don't work at nuke plants) and talk to a nice, clean, non-stressed-out scientist and/or bureaucrat than to actually cover the real story of real people in real trouble a long way away.

(And stop chiding the Japanese power company, too; they knew those plants were old. The oldest one was on it's last bucket of hot stuff, slated for retirement. It seems likely the rest would have followed in due course.)

I guess it keeps (most of) the newsies out of the way of the people doing the real work, but it gets old.


It gets even older when our home-grown freeze-in-the-dark set use the situation as an excuse to tout their no-nukes agenda. The state of the art has moved on since GE cranked out boiling-water reactors in the 1960s. Modern reactors would be shut down by a quake but are generally less trouble when scrammed; backup cooling systems are more rugged. In the U.S., post-9/11 retrofitting beefed up backup systems at existing plants, too, and a couple of the lessons learned in Japan are undoubtedly being checked right now:

1. The "third backup," hooking up big portable gensets to operate cooling systems, was catastrophically slowed due to what is being reported as "incompatible connectors." While I doubt that is the whole story, I suspect a lot of plants are looking at how they'd do if the need arose.

2. It is reasonable to conclude the on-site backup gensets at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station were insufficiently hardened. (To face a 30' tidal wave!) This, too, will have power-plant operators thinking harder about eventualities previously considered improbable.

Last time I checked, the planet's oil supply was largely in the hands of folks who are not our friends; burning oil and coal is increasingly considered gauche. Windmills and solar cells will only take you so far, ditto water running downhill; here in flat, cloudy Indiana, what're we supposed to do? Burn more sulfurous Hoosier coal? Modern nuclear power plants are cleaner and safer. They're not 100% safe; nothing is; but they're a lot safer than the idiots in my TV want me to believe.


Tango Juliet said...


The Left is basically afraid of fire.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Nothing is 100% safe.

If people would integrate that simple fact into their mindsets, we'd be a lot better off.

I see this disaster brought the New Madrid doomsayers back out of their dark closets, too. My take on that is that sooner or later a monster quake will occur in the New Madrid seismic zone, and either we'll be prepared for it or we won't. But I don't lose sleep over it.

wv: mousseme. Not on your life.

Anonymous said...

Radiation is invisible and thus scary. Remember, liberals fear fire.

Shootin' Buddy

North said...

TV news is scary to a lot of people that hide in their homes and watch. There is never a personal recovery from that fright.

Go out into the real world. Risk your life for someone and survive. That is real fright. Afterward you thankfully still have your life as recovery from the experience.

That grows character.

Eck! said...

The only problem with nukes is the hot ash left over.

For those that fear nukes none of them have ever seen a a coal/oil plant suffer a boiler or piping failure. All the energy is in the steam and that can do nasty things.

That and coal and oil have killed people far more than nukes even including those lost to fighting the fires at Chernobyl.

That and Japan is fighting post shutdown colling issues, Chernobyl blew when producing power during a hacked up test. there is a huge difference in both design and what happens during cool down vs during powered operation.

For those that scream water wind and solar I have only one answer, I squared R, or the energy lost to loooong lines needed to get the power from there to wherever not near by.


Old Grouch said...

When the blackouts are ordered, I want the television networks to be first in line.

Sendarius said...

Eck! How much hot ash is there REALLY left from a nuclear reactor.

I don't mean how much "stuff" (like dirty lab coats) that is classified by the EPA and AEC as "radioactive waste" - I mean the REAL waste from the reactor chamber.

It can't be much - a few tons maybe?

In that hot ash, all the really hot, dangerous stuff has a short half life - measured in minutes at most. After all, the radiation that it emits while you are exposed to it is what makes it dangerous, right? Most of this stuff decays in the chamber.

The remaining radioactives have longer half lives - but that makes short term exposure to them LESS dangerous.

For example, the Radium-228 that used to be used on the face of wrist watches has a half life of less than six years. Radium-226 has a half life of 1600 years, but that makes it useless for lighting the dial because there isn't enough emission. The other 23 radioactive isotopes of Radium have half lives of less than a year, making them too dangerous (and short-lived) to use as glow-in-the dark paint.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have seen "long half life" equated to "certain death" from radiation exposure, but it's a crock every time.

Saying something over and over does not make it so.

Tango Juliet and Shooting Buddy have it right - the left is afraid of fire.

Anonymous said...

Well done indeed, Roberta.


Anonymous said...

Do NOT let me catch you sleeping in your basement!

Shootin' Buddy

Anonymous said...

My favorite unit of radiation is the "banana equivalent dose". Since bananas have Potassium 40 in them, eating one subjects you to about 3,000 picocuries of radiation from the time you eat it to the time that the excess potassium is excreted.
Radiation exposure like 3 mile island is about 1/75th of a Banana equivalent dose.

Dr.D said...

You mention that the gensets were not sufficiently hardened. From everything I have heard, it sounds like that they started and picked up the load just fine, so that would indicate that the seismic hardening was adequate for the task.

The problem seems to have been that the generators were flooded by the excess water entering the plate from the tidal wave. This raises the huge question, "where are you going to drain water in an event like this?" That is simply an imponderable, I think.

Generally speaking, you cannot raise the level of the standby gensets very much. They are quite large, heavy, and require very substantial foundations. Typically these are driven by locomotive engines, so they are really large machines, and vibration can be a problem. This is going to require some serious redesign consideration.

The Freeholder said...

God bless you for a voice of reason!

Roberta X said...

Dr. D. --I was being sloppy with the term "hardened;" as in, the standby plants were not set up to survive a 30' tidal wave.

I don't know where one stops designing for the unthinkable; clearly, there has to be a point where someone says, "Enough! We've covered all the probably chains of events." I would not be surprised to learn backup power was already in an elevated location. Clearly, it wasn't in a sufficiently waterproof location and I doubt that's especially practical -- but I'll bet some power plant engineer is already thinking long and hard about some way to keep it from happening again.

perlhaqr said...

Big snorkels!


The comments on that "freeze in the dark" link you put up... dear god.

I guess it's a good thing those idjits don't know that coal plants put out more radioactives than nuke plants do, because of the fissionables in the coal being burned... They might start demanding we shut those down, too.

Dr.D said...

Almost 40 years ago, when we were still building nuclear plants in the USA, I was involved in the construction of the standby gensets. They were huge machines, driven by one, or in some cases, two, locomotive engines. The largest that my employer built hat two 20 cylinder EMD engines, 645 cubic inches per cylinder and 180 hp/cylinder for a little over 7000 hp at 900 rpm.

These big machines were put on I-beam bases made of 21" by 96 lb/in WF, and a 20 cylinder EMD, with heat exchangers, fan, and the whole set up would be about 50 ft long. The generator was a somewhat smaller package, typically only about 15 to 20 ft from end to end. These would go out of our shops with each machine on a flat car, so that meant two, or sometimes three flat cars for the whole machine. I think these were mostly ground floor installations because they would have been very difficult to lift as they were both heavy and cumbersome.

When the parts were assembled, there were dowel pins and match marks to guide the assembly to make sure that everything went together just as it had been in our shops.

The typical specification for these machines is that from the time the signal comes to function, there is a 15 second window in which they must crank, start, stabilize the speed of the rotating assembly, apply field voltage and begin to pick up load, restabilize speed. That is a lot to accomplish on a cold start. The only help they get is that there is hot oil circulating all of the time to make cranking possible.

John A said...

Old or not, the Japanese reactors - like much of post-WWII building there - were built to withstand an event like the once-in-a-thousand-years record-breaking 1923 quake. Which was a 7.0, not 8.9. The difference between being used to being punched by a 7-year-old and preparing against a 12-year-old's punch, then getting clobbered by Sonny Liston at his best.

And even that would have been a relatively small problem for the system, about Three-Mile-Island level rather than Chernobyl.

But losing the pump-driving power from external electricity and two sets of on-site backup generators to the Tsunami, and then (for reasons not yet determined) the last-gasp battery power...

Stretch said...

Make a Libs head explode by asking:
"How many people were killed by Three Mile Island?"
So far this week I've heard guesses between 100s to "we'll never know 'cause all the bodies were dumped at sea."

And they have the same vote as you and I. Excuse me while I bang the wall with my head.

Robin said...

Hear her, hear her.

So far, by my information, no one has even suffered enough of a radiation dose to show symptoms.

Anonymous said...

don't you work in TV? Go down to the news room and BITCH! Good blog girl. Never woulda thunk it. Yeah I know you, have for years. It's a small world afterall.
Let's go shootin sometime.

Geodkyt said...

Nathan has a good point.

Many moons ago, my father imparted on me a piece of wisdom that has been my Rock of Gibraltar and guiding lightt at the same time, through a variety of hairy situations, and now helps me earn my beans and bullets as an engineer:

"The Universe hates you, and will do its best to kill you."

Deal with it. Or die.