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Nuclear Power – possibility, probability and facts

By Ernest J. Harkness
For PlanPhilly
The nuclear plant situation at Fukushima-Daiichi has been a serious problem for the Japanese and it appears that the situation is improving. The Nuclear Industry impact is going to be significant, expensive and resource intense. I would like the characterize the impact in two areas. The technical side and the political side.

On the technical side, the industry has placed a significant resource commitment to understand the Japan accident, respond to questions from government and regulatory bodies, educate the public and most important review the design of existing plants to determine if changes are needed.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO – an industry funded oversight organizations) have both issued official documents that require response. The review is significant and it is expected that changes will occur similar to the changes implemented post 9/11 terror attacks, Chernobyl and TMI accidents.

2011 Northeast Region/Pacific Coast Earthquake Damage Report, 21 MAR 0730, Japan Defense Intelligence Headquarters

The U.S. utilities have manned emergency response teams 24/7 with senior officials coordinating the response to the situation. The industry continues to improve due to the self-critical nature and drive to learn from experience.

The political side impact is the main concern for me and my peers. Nuclear Power is the one industry that continues to receive attacks regardless of the validity of the bases for the attacks. Those opposed to nuclear power often will preface the concern with phrases such as “the possibility of” or “the probability of” and continue with some comment of the amount of human casualty that “could” be inflicted. I often ask what is the real concern.

If the real concern is the amount of human casualty or environmental casualty then some interesting facts provide a confusing viewpoint.
    •    Currently approximately 450 nuclear plants and 200 nuclear powered vessels operate in the world today and have been for somewhere between 20 and 30 years with the majority of units starting to exceed the 30 mark. This represent greater than 14,000 reactor years of operation when combined.  In that time there have been approximately 60 deaths of which 51 are attributed to Chernobyl (30 were operators) which I have stated before, a plant that had an irresponsible design and operated by irresponsible government entity.

Lets compare some other data;
    •    According to the Accident Crash Recording Organization (ACRO) in the last 10 years 13,000 fatalities have occurred due to 1,850 aircraft accidents.
    •    According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the last 10 years 320,000 deaths have occurred due to auto accidents.
    •    According to the US Census Bureau in just 2005, 2007, and 2008 combined there have been greater than 44,000 murder victims in the U.S.

In the beginning years of the nuclear power industry one could say that those opposed to nuclear power had a valid point in that the “possibility” or “probability” of an accident and impact to the human population and environment was a valid concern. The industry understood those concerns, took responsible action to address those concerns and continues to respond today.

However, “When does facts start to reduce the possibility or probability margin and we start to deal with facts.  Nuclear power has a very good track record compared to other common activities or crime.  If the real concern about nuclear power is the human casualty then what is the defining fact that drives those opposed to nuclear to focus on nuclear when far more could be achieved if the energy was applied to aircraft or auto safety or improve crime prevention and protection.

If the industry operates another 40 years with the same track record is it still going to be opposed with the rigor some put into opposition? Has the effort of opposition become a belief similar to a religious belief that would tear apart the internal personnel fabric if a change in belief was attempted.

Three Mile Island did not provide any loss of life and the dose received by the public was below the regulator limits and limits known to not cause human or environment impact.  Regardless, the hysteria stopped an industry in its tracks, placed the U.S. in a position that weakens self reliance on power supply, and costs significant amount of personnel and financial resources.

I keep asking the question “when do facts provide reality to the concept of possibility and probability?”

Contact the writer at ejharkness@ejharkness.com

Ernest J. Harkness, is a power generation executive who for 35 years has managed large power generation facilities through a state of change, while ensuring the best performance is delivered in a safe and responsible environment that achieves individual respect. His industry roles have included: 

  •  Site Vice President and Plant Manager for nuclear power plant operation including fiscal responsibility for $70M Operation and Maintenance and $20M Capitol budgets.
  •  Safety Review Board Sub Committee Chairman for Nuclear Utility fleet of nine Nuclear Power Plants in USA.  Sub Committee is responsible for oversight of Quality Assurance Program, Security Program, Site Emergency Response Organization including interface with State, Local and Federal agencies.
  •  Responsible for implementation of performance based operational assessment program for a United Sates Utility Fleet and a Nuclear Facility in Canada, which includes program development, training of staff, and mentoring leadership from Vice President Nuclear Oversight and Regulator Affairs to members of the department staff.
  •  Military experience included the USN Naval Nuclear Power Program as a Mechanical Operator and ships diver stationed on the USS Parche SSN 683 and part of Submarine Development Group.

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