Fog of Nuclear Safety

There is a lot of guff about the perils and promise of nuclear power going around. I am a wary supporter of nuclear power. But I like to think I have sufficient grounding in the science to not freak out when I hear the word “radioactivity.” But I am also sufficiently grounded in economics to know that nuclear power has to huff and puff a bit to be economically competitive.

Here are some of the post-Fukushima reactions don’t make me break out into a cold sweat:

1. Radioactive iodine, caesium, strontium, whatnot, leakage. These are mildly radioactive substances with very short half-lives – the time that they take to lose half their radioactivity. Multiply the half-life by ten and, generally, by then that substance will be pretty much harmless– or no more harmless than the radioactivity we get bombarded by from space, from naturally occurring rays coming from the earth, and so on. Iodine 131, which curiously has gotten the most media excitement, is the most innocuous with a half life of eight days. In other words, it is history in about three months.

2. Poisoned food and seawater. One of the legacies of Chernobyl is the horror stories about babies dying from cancer and the like after drinking contaminated milk and getting radioactive iodine in their thyroid glands. This was actually easily preventable. But the Soviet authorities refused to accept that this was happening, took none of the simple preventive actions that were required, and consequences followed. Poisoned seawater: once the radioactivity gets diluted by something as big as the ocean it quickly gets reduced to the natural level of radiation.

3. Swadeshi reactors. Among the more bizarre schools of thinking coming out of India, post-Fukushima, has been the demand that we stop buying foreign reactors and only stick to Indian ones. While there has always been a cluster of Indian nuclear scientists who are in love with their own designs, this school of thought has found some support from Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. He has argued different types of reactors will pose regulatory problems. This is silly stuff. Regulators around the world have no problem in handling lots of different types of reactors. In any case, Indian reactors are hardly wonders of safety. They are cheap, but fall far short of the safety features of so called fourth generation reactors and are proliferation-easy – in other words, their designs make it easier to steal fissile material. Anil Kakodkar, the former Department of Atomic Energy, addressed the issue of regulatory personnel training in a recent group letter sent to the IAEA on April 6, 2011, on nuclear safety.

Here’s what I do have my doubts about:

1. Black swan events. The Fukushima reactor accident seems to have been the fallout of several unusual circumstances: a tsunami bigger than anything that had been recorded in living memory in that area; a complete breakdown of three backup systems. But it happened. Reactors are tough: most modern domes can, in fact, be hit by an airliner and survive. But a comet or large meteorite may prove too much. But it could happen.

So, for me, it is not enough to say a reactor can handle most likely natural disasters (or human errors). It has to take on some unexpected, “black swan” disasters as well.

Nothing can ever be made to take on every conceivable disaster. That is true. A reactor that is run on uranium is a risk worth taking because while uranium is toxic, its spread is only a mitigated disaster. Remember: the uranium in a reactor is dilute and is nothing as concentrated as the stuff in warheads. A reactor-grade uranium “dirty bomb” won’t be a city buster. But that takes us to another issue.

2. Plutonium peril. The real disaster in Fukushima was reactor number No. 3 which is bust and has plutonium in its fuel mix. Plutonium, I remember once reading in the Guinness Book of World Records, is the world’s most poisonous substance. It is lethal down to a few atoms and has a half life of 24,100 years. And it likes to find a place in people’s bones.

Here is where I have my concerns. And here is what the nuclear power debate should really be about. The risks regarding the use of uranium are low enough to be worth doing. I am not so sure about plutonium. A black swan event with a plutonium reactor would be a genuine nightmare. Here the cost-benefit analysis is skewed.

Why does this matter to India? The Great Radioactive Hope of India is the Department of Atomic Energy’s thorium fuel cycle. Using a breeder reactor, they would effectively be able to use India’s massive thorium reserves and, they claim, end India’s energy security problems forever. Thorium is a wonderful nuclear fuel: it is useless for weapons, a thorium chain reaction can never go loco, it produces no waste and whatnot. But the fuel cycle requires it be merged with plutonium. For those interested in the fuel cycle’s details: click here.  So India would have to build at least some plutonium reactors. Which is where I get a little nervous.

The crux of the nuclear power debate, for me, is about plutonium. And that is getting crowded out by all the other noise. Hopefully, we’ll get around to it at some point.



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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