Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nuclear Power: it's not rocket science

I teach celestial navigation for a living. Some people are intimidated by celestial navigation, but celestial navigation isn't actually especially difficult. The math, which is what intimidates most people, is nothing more than simple arithmetic. Very simple, just adding and subtracting. But you have to do the arithmetic correctly, or you will have a mess on your hands.

I am not a nuclear physicist or a nuclear engineer, but I've worked on nuclear powered ships carrying nuclear weapons for about ten years, and my father worked at the Atomic Energy Commission back when it was still called that. And I teach for a school run by a PhD in nuclear physics. A lot of my friends are nuclear physicists and nuclear engineers. Also, if I may say so, I'm reasonably bright. Over the past 30 years or so I've gleaned a reasonable understanding of how a nuclear reactor works.

It isn't especially sophisticated technology. At the end of the day, it's just a steam engine. The mathematics involved in designing, building and operating a nuclear reactor are not much more than simple arithmetic.

But you have to do the arithmetic correctly, or you will have a mess on your hands.

A couple of days ago I posted about the possibility of earthquake-proofing buildings. If you haven't done so already, please re-read that post. Everything in it applies to nuclear reactors.

Over the past several days I keep reading people stating that the Fukushima reactors were designed to withstand a serious earthquake, but the Sendai earthquake was five times stronger than the designers anticipated. This is true. Here's a hint.

If the actual earthquake that actually hits your reactor is five times stronger than what you built the reactor to withstand, YOU BUILT YOUR REACTOR FIVE TIMES TOO WEAK.

There is no excuse for this. None. You built the reactor in a known earthquake zone. 9-point earthquakes happen. Therefore, build your reactor to withstand a 10-point earthquake. Not seven. That's stupid.

The US Navy has been running nuclear reactors on seagoing vessels for more than half a century without serious incident. Seagoing vessels which on a daily basis withstand far more serious motion than any earthquake will ever create.

"Oh, but after the earthquake the reactors were hit by a Really Big Wave!"

Newsflash. Ships get hit by really big waves all the friggin' time. It's what they're designed for. It's what their reactors are designed for.

Newsflash number two. Tsunamis accompany earthquakes. If you build your reactor close enough to seawater that you are able to use the seawater as your secondary coolant, you need to account for tsunamis.

If you can design a nuclear reactor to withstand the daily rigors of a ship of war at sea, you can damned well design a land-based reactor to withstand a once-in-a-lifetime seismic event.

Oh, but you would have to spend money on that. That might cut into your shareholder's profits.

Congratulations, TEPCO. You did the arithmetic wrong. And now, you have a mess on your hands.


  1. Thanks, Cowgirl.

    The thing is, I really am a very strong supporter of nuclear power. Handled correctly, it is safer and cleaner than almost any other power source (including solar and wind, which I'm also a very strong supporter of).

    But, in addition to further endangering the Japanese public, the Fukushima accident is going to set public opinion of nuclear energy back 30 years or more. Reasonably. It's a shame, it didn't have to be this way.