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.

Haiti: looking ahead to reconstruction

haiti-earthquake-devastationThe horror and devastation we’re seeing in Haiti after a massive earthquake leveled so much of the country barely a week ago is almost unimaginable.

I don’t think we’ve ever seen a country hit so hard by an earthquake and Haiti is hardly a country equipped to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

What really surprised me is how so many of the buildings in Haiti crumbled under the magnitude 7 earthquake. I suppose, considering it’s such a poor country, we shouldn’t have expected the buildings there to be up to modern earthquake standards.

With the level of destruction and complete chaos still reigning in Haiti, it may be too early to talk about reconstruction, but it will have to happen at some point. I was watching a news story about the earthquake in Haiti when I saw a scene from the docks of Port Au Prince. Shipping containers were strewn about the dock and had fallen into the bay.

It occurred to me then that when Haiti finally does get around to rebuilding its battered buildings, it should consider a relatively new form of construction that might be quite appropriate for this hurricane and earthquake prone region.

hillside-shipping-container-homeUsing shipping containers as homes and apartments in Haiti may be a quick and easy way to create large amounts of secure and safe housing for the citizens of Haiti. Shipping containers have the advantage of being cheap, strong and are able to be built with in a modular fashion. It’s been done in other areas, unplanned, but it could be planned here.

Once a secure foundation is built, these containers can be welded together and stacked up to seven levels high, effectively creating a strong, cohesive structure.

Haiti has many problems with its infrastructure and these containers could be used as a template for construction in other areas around the world. Systems could easily be implemented on a cargo container apartment building to provide the occupants water, energy and safe waste disposal. Best of all is that their new home would withstand hurricanes and earthquakes.

On the building’s roof it would be easy to set up a series of solar panels and small wind generators to provide residents with electricity and the entire roof could be used to catch rainwater for residents’ use. Combine that with a storage and filtration system and residents have a way to secure some of their water needs. A greywater recycling system could also divert water to gardens for residents to be able to grow some of their own food.

modulute-container-apartmentsInstead of regular flush toilets, it would make more sense to install composting or incinerating toilets to preserve water. It would also lighten the load on Haiti’s overtaxed and destroyed infrastructure.

A layer of spray foam insulation for each container unit would help to reduce or eliminate the need for air conditioning, freeing up electricity for other uses.

I’ve talked before about going off-grid in the city, and while that may not be entirely possible, an increased level of independence would be beneficial for residents of such a building.

Ideally these containers would be converted in another location, shipped to Haiti and assembled there. The world has thousands of unused shipping containers and I believe it would be an ideal way to give Haitians a secure form of housing that could help them recover from this disaster.