Could nuclear power address rising energy costs?

May 3, 2006
Nuclear power could be the answer to rising energy costs. If it is, the onus will be on maintenance departments to keep plants safe and reliable.

When Wal-Mart or Google make a ton of money, everyone cheers, but when ExxonMobil posts a first-quarter profit of $8.6 billion (up just 7% from last year, and only $1.2 billion more than the company paid in taxes for the same period), the populace and politicians are outraged. The White House promises to investigate, while laying blame for high gasoline prices on the oil companies’ shortsightedness in not building any new refineries.

Clearly, the U.S. energy supply isn’t allowed to be market-driven, nor is it government-regulated, which leaves us subject to the whims and wiles of heads of state, speculators and terrorists worldwide.

In a world of $75 per barrel oil, where your and my ability to pay for gasoline seems to depend on whether the president of Iran gets to play with uranium oxide (yellowcake), it seems natural to want to relieve some of our dependence on foreign oil (or is it U.S. refining capacity, I’m confused) with more nukes.

Using nuclear power (which we have and they don’t) instead of oil (which they have and we want more of) just seems like a great way to stick it to, well, the people who have the oil. And maybe one of the fallout effects of 9/11 is a greater willingness to take risks to do that, including the risks that come with handling tons of radionuclides.

But as someone who watches over the industrial landscape (and minored in nuclear engineering), I think it’s important to remind everyone that those are significant risks. And the people who are most challenged to mitigate them are not the populace or politicians or engineers or corporate management – they are the people who ensure plant safety, reliability, security and maintenance. People like you.

It was breakdowns of maintenance and operations that caused the two major nuclear powerplant incidents of our time. This past April 26 marked the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, close on the heels of the 27th anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident on March 28.

Among the reasons cited for Chernobyl are lack of a safety culture, communications breakdowns and violation of procedures. The precipitating event was an experimental test run by a process engineer who instructed the reactor operators to violate safety standards: Operating procedures required a minimum of 30 control rods, but only six to eight were in use, and the emergency cooling system was disabled. It was the resulting conventional, not nuclear, steam explosion and fire that spread radioactive material halfway around the world. (The reactor was also a rather dicey design by Western standards, but the Canadians and French might say the same thing about some of the plants we’re still operating in the U.S.)

The Three Mile Island accident began about 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, with a main feedwater pump failure in the secondary (non-nuclear) section. Without the pump, the steam generators stopped removing heat, and the reactor automatically shut down. Pressure in the primary (nuclear) system increased, which is normal, and a pilot-operated relief valve opened, also normal. But the relief valve didn’t close when the pressure decreased, and the signals available failed to show that the valve was open. Unbeknownst to the operators, cooling water poured out of the stuck valve, allowing the reactor core to overheat.

Lack of a safety culture, communication breakdowns, safety standard violations, failed pumps and stuck valves aren’t exotic stuff. The main difference between nuclear plants and everything else isn’t what goes wrong -- it’s what gets spilled.

Human beings are amazing. The safety records of all types of industrial facilities, and especially nukes, are very impressive when you look closely at the myriad of hazards. But we also can be tragically fooled. We have to assume that’s going to occur now and then, and do all we can to minimize the consequences.

Trouble can happen not only in the powerplants, but also in our fuel refining, transportation, fabrication, recycling and storage facilities. And those all need secure, reliable power, water supply, wastewater and rail/highway infrastructure.

When it comes to nuclear power, so far we’ve had a pretty good run. Are we ready to raise the stakes?

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