Missing Link Friday – Atomic edition

The crisis in Japan has dominated the media over the past week. With the earthquake and tsunami over, many bloggers turned their attention the unfolding disaster at the Japanese nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi and its implications for the future of nuclear energy.

It’s not Chernobyl

It wasn’t long before some websites were quoting anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott: “If both reactors blow then the whole of the Northern Hemisphere may be affected,” she told Independent Australia. But at the East Asia Forum, Harvard University’s Matthew Bunn assures readers that : "As bad as it is, Japan’s nuclear accident is dramatically less catastrophic than Chernobyl." He explains:

… there is no real prospect of a runaway chain reaction as occurred at Chernobyl. Instead, what has happened is the melting of fuel in reactor cores, leading to the release of a very modest amount of cesium and other fission products.

And this seems to be the consensus among nuclear experts. When the ABC’s Norman Hermant asked Leonid Bolshov of the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences what he thought about comparisons to Chernobyl, he said "I think it’s misinformation."

The explainers

In the days following the earthquake, a number of bloggers posted explanations of what was happening at the Japanese nuclear plant. At Larvatus Prodeo Robert Merkel posted a summary. "I probably have made some mistakes", he wrote, "I’m not a nuclear engineer. But I’ve been reading stuff by nuclear engineers, which is more than most of the people writing about this stuff…"

A popular summary was written by MIT’s Josef Oehmen. According to Oehmen, the summary started as an email sent to family and friends. But after it was posted by Jason at Morgsatlarge, it went viral. Oehmen writes:

I am a mechanical engineer and research scientist at MIT. I am not a nuclear engineer or scientist, or affiliated with Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, so please feel free to question my competence.

Students at MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) are now maintaining a blog with information about the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and related issues.

What about California?

Not surprisingly, some California residents are worried about their nuclear reactors. Both the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants are built by the sea near fault lines. On Thursday the Los Angeles Times reported that the Diablo Canyon plant in San Luis Obispo had "San Luis Obispo operated for a year and a half with some emergency systems disabled".

Plant operators are assuring the public that their reactors are safe. A spokesperson for Southern California Edison says that San Onofre is built to withstand a magnitude 7.0 earthquake and has a 25 foot high tsunami wall. But at Boing Boing, Xeni Jardin writes:

Well, that’s nice. But this Southern California resident remains concerned: the earthquake that devastated Japan last Friday, throwing various nuclear power plants into crisis and sparking worldwide fears of a major nuke accident, was a 9.0 "great quake." And the tsunami that soon followed? That was 33 feet high.

A nuclear renaissance?

Concern about climate change persuaded some policy makers and commentators to look again at nuclear power. In January this year Dan Yurman posted the 37th Carnival of Nuclear Energy blogs, a round-up of blog posts heralding the nuclear renaissance. Linking to a post on Rod Adams’ Atomic Insights blog, Yurman wrote:

Forty-year-old nuclear plants with paid off mortgages can operate so cheaply that they could sell their output using an "all you can eat" pricing model similar to the ones used by cable television or internet service providers.

Recent events may have dampened enthusiasm for ageing nuclear power plants.

At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin posts an opinion piece he wrote for the Australian Financial Review. Quiggin argues that even without the incident in Japan, the high cost of nuclear power made it a marginal proposition:

… the crucial problem for nuclear power has been fear. Fears about safety have meant that nuclear power plants have been held to much higher safety standards than alternatives like coal, which routinely spew pollutants of all kinds into the atmosphere.

More important than these fears, however, is the fear and ignorance displayed by those who have obstructed the most important single factor needed for nuclear power to become viable – a price on emissions of carbon dioxide.

The good old days

In February running enthusiast Thomas Armbruster wrote a post about the Georgia Reactor Run, a 100 mile endurance trail race through the Dawsonville Wildlife Management Area. It turns out there’s some history on the trail:

… the Dawsonville Wildlife Management Area was once known as the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory. It was a nuclear test site in which the US government was researching and trying to develop a nuclear powered aircraft.

During the 1950s the US air force had plans for a nuclear powered bomber. As this video shows, they even got as far as putting a working nuclear reactor in the air. But despite spending billion dollars, neither the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program (ANP) or the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA) project ever managed to get a nuclear reactor to power an aircraft.

Some of the options the engineers considered might seem alarming today. For example, one of the designs the Department of Defense was planning to test was a ‘direct cycle’ engine. According to a 1963 report:

In the direct cycle, air enters through the compressor, is forced into the reactor, and is heated by the fuel elements. After passing through the turbine, where energy. is extracted to drive the compressor, the heated air is expelled at high velocity through the exhaust nozzle.

President Kennedy terminated the program.

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18 Responses to Missing Link Friday – Atomic edition

  1. derrida derider says:

    Caldicott really is one of those people who just make shit up, isn’t she?

    I can’t understand why anyone listens to those who repeatedly discredit themselves. As dsquared said, giving known liars the benefit of the doubt is a far more common and avoidable human error than the ad hominem fallacy.

  2. Don Arthur says:

    Just because Chernobyl’s a poor benchmark it’s still true that what’s happening at Fukushima Daiichi is far worse than most experts would have expected.

    It will probably take months before anybody knows what actually happened. Right now nobody knows what the sequence of events was and whether the plant’s operators made the right decisions.

  3. Incurious and Unread (aka Dave) says:

    “Forty-year-old nuclear plants with paid off mortgages can operate so cheaply that they could sell their output using an ‘all you can eat’ pricing model similar to the ones used by cable television or internet service providers.”

    “All you can eat” seems to be the modern version of “too cheap to meter

    Ah! Plus ca change…

  4. Tony says:

    Speaking of bombers, Snowy Hydro Valley Power in the Latrobe Valley use the exhaust from Thunderchief jet engines to drive turbines to provide peak load power.

    Just saying.

    Carry on with your debate.

  5. Don Arthur says:

    Tony – Where did you hear that?

  6. Pingback: Japanese Nuclear Emergency: workers at the sharp end «

  7. Tony says:

    I was shown them on site. One was stripped down for maintenance; one was sitting in place, but stopped; one was sitting in place, but running. The exhaust is fed into a “hot-gas windmill” which drives the generator rotor.

  8. Tony says:

    On reflection, the jet engine is the “turbine”.

  9. SJ says:

    What Tony is talking about is “aeroderivative” gas turbines, which are manufactured by GE, Rolls Royce, etc. They’re based upon plane engines, but built with slightly different turbines, and adapted to drive an alternator instead of a turbofan.

  10. Pingback: Rafe’s Roundup March 19 at Catallaxy Files

  11. Patrick says:

    I hadn’t realised until I scanned Quiggin’s article that he thought price was a useful signal in energy generation. No wonder he is against non-coal…wait..

  12. Victor Trumper says:

    oh dear the Catallaxians are championing someone who believes carbon dioxide isn’t carbon pollution and who we do know doesn’t understand that we now know that
    the upward trend in temperature since 1995 is now statistically significant

  13. helga costello says:

    Hopefully Dr. Caldicott is incorrect with her grave predictions. But then perhaps not, the diabolic nuclear monster seems to rear its deathly head again in Chernobyl. see
    Another reality not considered in our insistence of nuclear-fueling our lifestyles besides the still not resolved issue of the save disposal/properly caring for of a substance that will remain toxic for millennia.
    With an ocean polluted with oil and other toxins, more and more of the earth polluted with radioactivity what will you eat? Your money?
    More and more polluted with radioactivity? Check out this:
    and although this is not directly related to nuclear reactors it is all part and parcel of the insanity that is called nuclear industry.
    The fact that pretty much all seaweed and miso foods and iodine pills have been sold out in the US at distributor levels is a sign to me that a fair number of the “dumb little people” don’t trust neither government nor industry officials.

    Imagine, after having evacuated your home and garden, your town, your area, with thousands of others like you to be safe from the effects of the 20 meter tsunami in Tahiti rushing to the Australian shores, and on “homecoming” after a long and arduous journey finding that there’s really nothing to come home to and that the waves washing into Australia’s farmlands were loaded with radioactivity. no home no food.

    Words from my brother in Germany: i saw a documentary the other night about people hunting wild pig in one of the areas that was severely contaminated during the Chernobyl accident. The wild pigs are known to dig up and eat the mushrooms. The pig caught was unfit for consumption so contaminated it was with radiation.

    Any society which does not insist upon respect for all life must necessarily decay. Albert Einstein.

  14. Tel says:

    The exhaust is fed into a “hot-gas windmill” which drives the generator rotor.

    I love it! All of our power comes from windmills these days, errr, there’s the hot gas windmills, and err the steam windmills at the other plant. Yup, it’s good honest windmills all the way down.

  15. Sergei Jargin says:

    Chernobyl consequences: politically influenced science

    In the letter [1] it was noticed that in the volume 1181 (year 2009) of The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, dedicated to the Chernobyl accident [2], references to non-professional publications (mass media, websites of unclear affiliation, etc.) were used to back up scientific views. Many questionable statements are made without references. Moreover, photographs on the page 132, showing “typical examples of Chernobyl-induced congenital malformations” [2] are apparently cut out and stuck on a false background. One of the articles in this volume was additionally commented in [3]. The report [2] gives us an opportunity to purify science from political influences. It shows that Chernobyl consequences were overestimated in the former Soviet Union but not only there, considering many publications from the West, referred to in [2], where Chernobyl consequences have been obviously overestimated, just to name Christopher Busby and Rosalie Bertell. The motives for Chernobyl overestimation in the former Soviet Union were discussed in [4]: financing, international help, etc. In the West, among the motives were anti-nuclear sentiments represented by the Green movement and, obviously, a special relationship to Russia. The world is changing today; and reasons for Russophobia are vanishing. Chernobyl accident has been exploited to strangle worldwide development of atomic energy [5], but, paradoxically, it was necessary so: nuclear energy production should have been prevented from spreading to overpopulated countries governed by unstable regimes, where conflicts and terrorism are not excluded. However, there are no thinkable alternatives to nuclear energy: unrenewable fossil fuel will become more and more expensive, contributing to prosperity in oil-producing countries and poverty elsewhere. Worldwide introduction of nuclear power is unavoidable, but it will be possible only after a globalization with a concentration of power in the most developed part of the world. It will enable to build nuclear power plants in optimally suitable places, considering all geographical, geological, socio-political and other conditions. In this way, accidents like in Japan today will be avoided.


    1. Jargin SV. Overestimation of Chernobyl consequences: poorly substantiated information published. Radiat Environ Biophys 2010;49: 743-5.

    2. Yablokov AV, Nesterenko VB, Nesterenko AB. Chernobyl. Consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2009; vol. 1181.

    3. Jargin SV. Reduction of radiocesium load: supplementation of Cs versus its depletion by enterosorbents. Swiss Med Wkly 2011;141: w13166

    4. Jargin SV. Thyroid cancer after Chernobyl: obfuscated truth. Dose Response 2011; DOI: 10.2203/dose-response.11-001.Jargin

    5. Jaworowski Z. Observations on the Chernobyl Disaster and LNT. Dose Response 2010;8: 148-171.

  16. Nabakov says:

    “exhaust from Thunderchief jet engines”

    Not the ole P&W J75?

  17. Guess what, Independent Australia was right and you were wrong, we weren’t exaggerating when we said it could be worse than Chrnobyl. Now with 3 reactors melting down, it is far far worse.

    David Donovan
    Managing editor
    Independent Australia

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