Nuclear power issues are not about science

It was just a matter of time before this kind of information came out about the problems with the Fukushima nuclear reactor.

One has to wonder what else we’re going to find out about the design and preparations at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

I’m rather tired of people talking about the science behind nuclear power and about how safe it is. First of all, theoretically, anything can be made safe. Science is irrelevant.

The relevant factors are engineering and business. This will determine the ultimate safety of any system. It’s a natural inclination for any business to minimize costs. Engineering any system can be an expensive process, and with something like nuclear power, cutting corners can be costly, as we’ve seen.

There have been serious questions about the safety of the GE Mark I reactors, such that three GE nuclear scientists resigned in process. It’s not about science because, theoretically, nuclear power is safe and can be contained.

In GE’s case, it’s about business and engineering. Oh, statistics play a role here too. They probably have a statistician on staff who gave them the odds against the critical events the GE 3 warned against.

Business decisions by GE probably dictated that they weren’t going to toss the Mark I design and start over. Why waste that investment?

The engineering, obviously, was an issue. Other reactor designs are likely much better than GE’s Mark I. The GE 3 obviously were so concerned about it that they went public with their concerns and resigned from GE.

It’s not a science issue at all. As happens in so many cases, there are other issues at play in man-made disasters, but people mistakenly or intentionally obfuscate those issues with the weak appeal to authority argument (science).

I understand the science behind the reactor, containment, cooling, etc. I trust the science. We’ve studied it for 60 years. So what? I also understand people and that’s the problem I have. I don’t trust the people behind these power plants. If they weren’t heavily regulated, we’d have far more problems than we do now, given the propensity of business to spend as little as absolutely required on virtually anything.

Heavy regulation of these types of operations is no guarantee of safety either, but it’s a start. Regulations have required nuclear plants to have multiple redundant systems to ensure that if problems or accidents happen, we don’t see catastrophic failures such as those at each of the Fukushima reactors.

Evidently Japan’s regulation of these plants was inadequate, especially given the level of earthquake and tsunami activity in that part of the world.

I am not against nuclear power. If the plants and waste are managed properly, they can be a safe, albeit expensive, way to generate large amounts of electricity. In our hubris, humans often don’t see the big picture and don’t change until it’s too late. Nuclear power is not something we want 20/20 hindsight on. We need to ensure that we get it right before we go ahead with these plants. I don’t think there is such a thing as over-engineering when it comes to them.

As the world is increasingly looking for clean and reliable sources of energy, nuclear has become an increasingly attractive option. The disaster at Fukushima, if nothing else, should serve as a warning against hubris, and show us the importance of a thorough approach to safety. More nuclear power plants will be built, so let’s make sure we construct them properly. Maybe Mike Holmes should supervise nuclear power plant designs.

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Alain Saffel

If I were to picture my ideal life, I’d be sitting in some far off land, sipping a coffee in a café, my backpack at my side, camera around my neck, motorcycle at the curb, pondering my next stop or maybe madly typing away on my laptop about my latest adventure.

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