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March 16th, 2011

gfish: (Default)
Wednesday, March 16th, 2011 10:57 am
I am, predictably, entirely caught up following the drama at Fukushima Daiichi. Last night was a very enjoyable blur of refreshing news sites and researching aspects of nuclear plant design that I was unfamiliar with. Particularly, I had never explored the exciting world of spent fuel pools before. Turns out, they're super dangerous! This summary of what could happen in the case of pool failure is great, apocalyptic fun. (In the interest of balance, here is the official NRC response, note that it mostly just says pools will never fail, duh, and the suggested changes aren't cost effective. Given that we're now looking at SIX pool failures all in a neat little row, I'm not impressed with their magical 10-6 chance of failure per pool year.)

In short, loss of the water in a spent fuel pool could be really bad. Worse than a full meltdown, as they're not always under any significant containment structure, and certainly never as much as the reactor core. (4 of the 6 in Japan aren't under ANY containment structure, now that the hydrogen explosions have blown out the walls.) Luckily the Japanese do reprocess their fuel, unlike the US, so most of the pools won't contain as much old fuel as a US pool would. But we know the #4 pool at least has a full set of very fresh rods, as they were put there when it was taken down for maintenance last November. And that's the one looking really bad right now, possibly already having exposed some of the rods for at least a period of time. Which makes doing anything about it really hard, as the water is not just coolant but also shield for the rather intense gamma radiation. Once the water is gone, the pool is a very, very, very bad place to be around. You end up with a scenario not too different from Chernobyl in the basic facts of very nasty isotopes burning away and being lofted high into the air. Possibly much worse than Chernobyl, depending on just how tightly packed the pool is.

In the end, I'm feeling kind of pissed off. I was raised, as a friend with better claim to the title likes to say, ethnically hippie. I had a builtin distrust of nuclear power. Too big, too complicated, too prone to catastrophic failure, leaving dangerous waste that had to be managed for ridiculous periods of time. But I consciously got over that. The dangers of staying on carbon-based fuels -- even "clean" ones -- are far greater, if easier to ignore and less terrifying to our monkey brains. I'd prefer solar and wind, but that seems unlikely to be able to provide to the massive amounts of reliable power our civilization demands. So, okay, nuclear. The new reactor designs are pretty awesome. And the safety regs in non-Soviet plants are supposed to be crazy restrictive and careful. Waste management wasn't actually a big deal, I was told. Slightly uncomfortably, I made the decision to support nukes. And now I find out that, as safe as the reactors might be, the fuel is going to build up in these poorly protected pools, waiting to burn off catastrophically the next time power is lost for a few days. It's just insanely stupid, like buying a Volvo and then driving around with a gallon of nitroglycerin strapped to the roof.

Sad thing is, I think I rationally still have to support nuclear. An incident like this every 25 years is still probably better than melting the planet and disolving all the coral reefs, which is currently the only other option. But unless we can find the political will to actually do something with the spent fuel, count me in as an extremely reluctant supporter.

In still crazy, but slightly more gee-whiz news, I would like to nominate the most cyberpunk website of the year. We live in a world where that is actually happening, folks. The future is yesterday.