Texas City goes BOOM. Thoughts on Nuclear Power. (Kinda pointless, really)

First, let me make it clear I’m not pitting the refinery for the explosion and loss of life - working with distillates of petroleum is hazardous, and at this point no one can say whether they still had safety violations, or not. My heart goes out to the families of those workers killed, and to the workers who were injured.

No, I’m just pissed that this won’t change the public perception of relative hazards between petroleum based energy and nuclear energy. No matter that in the US only three persons have been killed in the history of nuclear power, and I don’t feel like going through the news archives to find out how many people have been killed in refineries during the same period. No matter that a recent environmental conference pointed out that, concurrent with the need to reduce greenhouse gases, nuclear power is the best available choice for electricity generation.

In the eyes of the public nuclear power is Eeevil.

The estimated dose exposure to the general public from Three Mile Island (outside of the plant) was no more than 10 mREM. That’s on the order of the dose exposure one gets from a transcontinental flight. Hell, the highest dose estimate from TMI was only 2 REM, IIRC - which is still less than the Federal limits on occupational exposure.


Just getting it off my chest, here. I’m aware that there are real costs and hazards from Chernobyl, though I will claim that it is unfair to extrapolate from that incident to the US or Canadian or French or even Japanese nuclear power industries. Likewise there was the case a few years back of the two workers in Japan killed by estimating when they had enough uranium in the shipping containers, instead of measuring it. (If you don’t recall that incident - the Darwin Award winners added so much fissionable into the container it went critical. Yes, they did qualify for full Darwins.) There are some real risks, but considering the fact that the majority of the clean burning anthracite is gone/inaccessible, the best places for hydroelectric power have already been used (with the exception of places where the engineering of something to safely harness the power available in places like The Bay of Fundy - I’m not even going to touch the human costs of the Three Gorges Dam.) it seems that a re-evaluation of the relative merits of nuclear power is overdue.

And, no, I don’t think that the majority of the Sheeple will consider any of these things in light of this incident. Frankly, I’ve more hope that the Repugs conduct with regards to the Terri Schiavo case will backfire on them than that people will actually get facts about nuclear power.

First, a great start on assessing the problem. I think that safely constructed fission power plants are a great start towards solving the energy problem, and too much effort has gone into protecting us from the improbable. One thing, which I find important, is that the people who are supposed to be doing risk management are employees of the people whose job it is to maximize income – and there’s a natural, built-in conflict of interest there.

However, I strongly recommend you do a search for coal-fired power, and read in particular the posts by Una Persson, FKA Anthracite, who is an expert professional power plant engineer with a specialty in retrofitting older fossil-fuels plants for greater efficiency and vastly improved emission control. I will confess that before “meeting” her here and reading her comments, I had the same idea about coal plants as is implied in your references.

As a side note, the part of the plant that exploded was where octane levels in gasoline are set. While nuclear power is a reality for producing electricity to fuel our homes, even if all of our power plants were nuke plants, it wouldn’t have prevented this accident.

Polycarp, I’ll take a look for those posts. Thanks.

Ferret Herder, you’re right. I didn’t mean to imply that a change to nuclear power could have prevented this accident - just that in a rational universe it would at least serve to stop people from looking at me funny when I point out I’d rather live next to a nuke plant than a refinery. :wink:

Unless it was a nuclear plant generating electricity used to produce hydrogen and oxygen for a fuel-cell powered car! That has an acrylic dome instead of a roof! And flies with a futuristic high-pitched WHEEP WHEEP WHEEP WHEEP WHEEP sound!

Hell yes. I’ve lived next to coal-fired power stations and fly ash dumps, a coking plant with an associated tar and benzene reducer, an industrial resin manufacturer and a chemical works. I found out a couple of years ago that the resin works had used the land behind my elementary school as a waste dump between the 1930’s and the 1950’s, and my old school is now a federal Superfund site.

Living next to TMI would be an improvement.

If a way to properly dispose of all the byproducts of fission nuclear reactors could be found, I think opposition to them would drop. The power plants aren’t so bad, but all the radioactive gunk they produce (not just spent fuel rods, literally everything that ever contacts anything radioactive) is the nasty part. The best solution so far seems to be bury it in a hole.

But speaking of burying things in holes, people someday are gonna wake up and realize that the fossil fuel road is a dead end. Will it be when gas hits $10/gal because of a world event, or the cost of heating your home becomes more than a dual income family can afford? It takes a long time to build a single nuclear plant, I don’t see fossil fuels doing anything but getting more expensive. If we wait until something dramatic happens to even start applying for all the permits, then the time of construction on top of that, well…

And I’m no greenie. I have close ties to the oil industry, but I sure don’t see a bright future when your whole civilization is based on a supply of fuel that can be cut off in an instant and you have absolutely no back up plan.

The problem with nuclear power is not the safety. Modern plants are very, very, very safe. The problem is the waste. What do you do with it? Germany still has a few nuclear power plants online, and they are currently in danger of running out of places to store their depleted rods.

Even if you build breeder reactors to “reuse” the depleted rods, you still get highly radioactive waste products with really long half lives. So what do we do with those? Just burying them in a salt mine might work for the short term, but what about the long term?

[pointless anecdote]I once visited the nuclear reactor at Biblis as part of our Nuclear Chemistry course. We were even allowed into the actual reactor building, and we were standing on a platform just above the depleted rods they store in water until they have cooled sufficiently to be transported safely (lovely blue Cherenkov radiation in the water by the way) and one of the students asked what would happen if one of us fell in the water. The man in charge of safety said if you stayed near the surface you should be OK, but if you actually touched one of the rods, you were going to die a slow and gruesome death from radiation poisoning.[/pointless anecdote]

Beat me to it!

As Duke says, for many who have a problem with nuclear power, it’s not so much the power plants themselves as the problems of disposing with spent fuel rods and stuff. The plans for disposing of such material within the United States always seem pretty poorly thught out. And the plans for disposing of them outside the US are usually morally bankrupt, and involve paying some thrid world country to dispose of them in Og-knows-what manner, and next to Og-know how many poor people who don’t have the power to do anything about it.

Solve the problems with disposal, and i’d probably be a big fan of nuclear power.

Apparently Mycroft beat me to it also. :slight_smile:

I really don’t see the problem with encasing it and burying it in a geologically stable area. Most of the opposition to Yucca Mountain seems to be irrational NIMBY crap.

This isn’t strictly true.

First off, there’s a big difference between long-lived radioactive isotopes, and short-lived ones. Both in terms of risks and the level of containment necessary for storage.

The majority of the long-lived stuff that people are concerned about, and which actually requires something like the Yucca Mountain facility, are fission products. Some of these have half-lives going on for hundreds of years, or more. Compare that to Co-60, which is the isotope of concern for the majority of the secondary stuff, which has a half-life of about 6 years. Vastly different problems.

Second, a lot of the propagation of RAM waste associated with nuclear power plants can be avoided by changing the heat transfer medium. Pressurized water reactors have a number of things going for them, as I’ll be the first to admit. However that’s not the only cycle available. The proposed ‘pebble-bed’ reactor design has a number of advantages over PWR’s: they can’t melt down; by using helium for the heat transfer medium it allows for a single heat transfer cycle, with the concurrent advantages in avoiding enthalpy losses; and helium doesn’t activate, nor does it carry other contaminants through the core for activation.

Third, burying ‘spent’ fuel has some factors that make me question the wisdom of it. A signifigant fraction of the spent fuel from a U-235 or U-238plant will have higher concentrations of Pu-238 than when they manufactured - this is the whole reasoning behind ‘breeder’ reactors. At the moment the decision has been made to dispose of such ‘waste’ rather than remanufacturing it. I understand the reasoning behind such a decision, especially post 9/11. I do not, however, agree with it.

A recent article in Scientific American discussed the possibility of using a liquid lead cooled reactor to ‘burn’ long lived radioactive isotopes, and to recover some of the energy that they’re emitting anyways. Mind you, working on a liquid metal cooled plant has engineering challenges of its own. Can you imagine the problems with doing maintenance on such? Of course - it’s not a possible consideration unless the decision to reprocess spent fuel is made.

I’m not trying to say that RAM waste isn’t a concern, only that it’s not quite as black and white as you’ve described. There are other options out there.

Actually, the Yucca moutain plan is a pretty good idea, scientifically and otherwise. And you could pretty much go live right on Yucca mountain and not get sick from it.

BTW, I hope that all of you who’ve raised the real concerns about disposing of RAM waste understand that I don’t mean to paint you as being among the ‘Sheeple’ in my OP. I may not agree with your conclusions, but I don’t believe that you’re ignoring facts, or refusing to think about the things I’ve brought up.

I think the Yucca Mountain facility is the best available choice for dealing with spent fuel waste, and is not as controvertial as people like The Union of Concerned Scientists might like to present. Certainly I think it’s a helluva a lot better than keeping said spent fuel in short term storage pools in/near major urban areas. (Which was the reasoning from Kerry that soured me on him.) The risks associated with transporting the waste are real, and need to be addressed. I’m not really concerned with the risks of storing the waste there.

Sorry about the hijack - just wanted to say that I do recognize different levels of opposition to nuclear power: reasoned opposition based on rational assessments of risks and costs; and then the unreasoned nuke=EEEEvil that most people use. No one posting on the SDMB would be a candidate for the second category, even if they don’t agree with my conclusions. (Even if that does mean they are wrong.:p)

Metacom: Most of the opposition to Yucca Mountain seems to be irrational NIMBY crap.

I agree that there’s too much irrational, reflexive “no-nuke-ism” in the nuclear power debate. However, it’s often overlooked that this is to a large extent fueled by well-founded distrust of the handling of nuclear enterprises. As Poly points out, there’s often an inherent conflict of interest, and sometimes the quality control just sucks.

Consider the Department of Energy’s recent acknowledgement that planners for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site may have falsified information about how fast the radioactive material would leak (NYT, reg. req’d):

When nuclear-power supporters can’t produce honest assessments and reliable safety procedures, they are leaving themselves wide open to anti-nuke accusations that the whole concept is inherently bad and dangerous.

They’re also expecting the public to accept severe cognitive dissonance in the way that nuclear activity is generally perceived. On the one hand, our media reflect tremendous concern about nuclear-power activities on the part of governments like Iraq and Iran, noting that reactor by-products could be used to produce weapons, dilating on the dangers of “suitcase nukes”, and so forth.

And then we turn around and expect the public to be enthusiastic about domestic nuclear power plants and storage of nuclear material. When they’re not, we bitch and moan about the bad influence of the eeevil environmentalists.

Face it, proponents of nuclear power generation have done a piss-poor job of convincing the public that it’s a good idea and can be managed reliably. We should clean up our own act rather than just continuing to whine about how stupid people are.

But only by two minutes. :smiley:

Well, some of the long-lived intermediate level waste (this is typically stuff from the reactor core, like control rods that has been irradiated for its lifetime in the reactor) contains isotopes with half-lives in the tens of thousands of years. The really nasty stuff is the high-level waste though. This is what’s left over after the depleted rods have been reprocessed, and usually needs to be vitrified first (incorporated into glass), then stored in corrosion resistant containers, and then buried in a solid rock formation which better be geologically stable. These cans of radioactive isotopes are no fun, even after 50 000 years. It’s not just irrational NIMBY crap. These things are nasty.

I work literally within the shadow of the cooling towers of TMI. Unit 1, the remaining reactor, holds the record for longest period of power generation without refueling and is one of the safest reactors in the world. TMI 2 was an aberration. Now that the cleanup is long over it can be safely stated that you get more radiation from the sun every day than you ever will from TMI.

If NIMBYism is what’s getting in the way of further construction of nuclear reactors, well, let them build it in my backyard. I’ll be sitting pretty for years to come while the NIMBYists are suffering from rolling blackouts.

One more thing: if you live in Texas City after this you’re a fool. This is the second time in 60 years that the town has blown up, although this one is not as bad as the one in 1947. All the same, live there at your own peril.

Sorry, yes I know the differences. I’m not far from WIPP, the low-level hole in the ground, and basically on top of PanTex, which has a mind boggling collection of decomposing plutonium pits from disassembled nuclear warheads. Lots of nasties about these parts.

I was just pointing out, for those who might not realize, that there is more to “nuclear waste” than just spent fuel rods from reactors and that disposing of even the mild stuff still has to be considered.

I’ve mixed feelings about this.

I don’t disagree that there’s a bit of rosy view on one side of that comparison, compared to worst case thinking in the other.

OTOH, no one complains about the fact that we’ve got lots of industrial plants producing nerve toxins here in the US. In fact most homes have aeresol containers of nerve gasses. The fact that most people don’t realize that their bug spray is applied nerve gas doesn’t change that. Nor does it change that plants producing one kind of nerve toxin can make others if so ordered.

The problem with nuclear power in Iran and North Korea is not one of nuclear power itself - simply that the current governments both seem less than rational. To make an analogy: I have no problem with Jane Doe, the accountant, buying a .45. I have a large problem with John Smith, the convicted wife-beater, doing the same thing. The problem isn’t with the gun, rather it’s a sense of unease about what the purchaser might use the purchase for. And, yes, I’m well aware that Jane might be the one planning to go on an office rampage - but at the time of the purchase, there’s been no indication of her tendency to use violence. The same cannot be said about John.

On preview:

No problem, Duke of Rat.

OtakuLoki: OTOH, no one complains about the fact that we’ve got lots of industrial plants producing nerve toxins here in the US. In fact most homes have aeresol containers of nerve gasses. The fact that most people don’t realize that their bug spray is applied nerve gas doesn’t change that. Nor does it change that plants producing one kind of nerve toxin can make others if so ordered.

I know, but this isn’t an issue because, as you say, there is no close connection in the public’s mind between deadly neurotoxins and bug spray. However, there is widespread, intense, and irreversible public awareness that nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants are at least somewhat related.

And people are very worried about nuclear bombs, so that worry easily spills over onto nuclear power plants. That’s a very natural reaction, and it’s a serious hurdle to public acceptance of nuclear power. But lots of nuke proponents just dismiss it as irrational and stupid, so they make no headway in persuading people.

Personally, I think a good chunk of anti-nuke resistance is fallout (ha ha) from the vehement anti-government rhetoric that’s been popular in recent years. Western European countries tend to be a lot more “liberal” about a lot of energy issues—environmental restrictions, support for renewable energy, heavy subsidies for public transit, etc.—than the US is. Yet they’re also a lot more accepting of nuclear power than we are. Why is that?

I think it’s at least partly because they aren’t so strongly encouraged to hate and despise their government. We constantly elect politicians campaigning on anti-government platforms who drum it into us how stupid and inefficient and untrustworthy and incompetent the government is.

Then nuclear power advocates come along and say “Well, nuclear power does involve some non-trivial risk issues, but it’s okay because the government will make sure that it’s acceptably safe.” And we wonder why the public doesn’t jump all over the prospect.

It’s comparatively easy to tolerate dangers you know, even when they can lead to disasters like the Texas City catastrophe. But when you’re being asked to accept a comparatively unknown danger, you need to feel either that you’re getting some significant advantage that makes it worth the risk, or that you can trust the people in charge of assessing and minimizing the risk, or both. The American public at present isn’t particularly convinced of either proposition.