Wednesday, March 16, 2011

No Nukes? Really?

Japan's Crisis Sparks review of European nuclear projects.

Really? Now don't get me wrong nuclear events are big deals but do we always stop production of new products when really old versions fail?  I mean this is like stopping productions on new Cadillacs because a 1967 (the year Fukushima was built) Cadillac killed it's passengers after hitting a train, going 100 miles an hour, in the rain.  

What is it about Nuclear power, or nuclear anything that makes people go guano crazy every time it is brought up?  It has been 44 years since Fukushima was built, it was hit not only by an earthquake several times (I believe 7 times) more powerful than it was designed to withstand, and on top of that was hit by a tsunami shortly afterwards.  So after all that how many workers at the plant died?  How many nuclear blasts have their been?  How many new Hiroshima's have there been?  

Well hearing the reactions of some you'd have thought both plants had blown sky high and the entire island of Japan was glowing green right now with Godzilla rising from the surf to terrorize the survivors.  

Lets take a breath, step back and look at what's going on.  

First off, we're getting reports every fifteen minutes or so thanks to our 24/7 news cycle.  I understand there's a desire to know what's going on NOW but as anyone who has worked on anything knows it takes time for things to work out.  (Are we there yet?  Are we there yet? Are we there yet?)  So lets not expect every news report to be full to bursting with new information. 

That brings me to my next point, the information itself.  Now some of you know, I work for NASA at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex.  That said I have been exposed to more radiation than I might normally have since I work with radio transmitters that are designed to radiate to the depths of the solar system.  Anyone who works in safety can tell you that they take radiation VERY VERY VERY seriously, so seriously in fact they have special rules on dealing with smoke detectors.  (No joke)  I have seen how a full power transmitter can burn right through a plywood board (Made a nice huge hole too) and have heard (it was before my time) how someone stuck their face right in the beam and ended up with a nice sunburn after only a few seconds.  That all said what do most normal people know about radiation?  Let me ask my wife: 

  Me: "Hey Babe, what do you know about radiation." 

  Wife: "Not a lot.  Just that it's bad. Only what I've seen in the movies babe."  

  Me: "Thanks Babe!"  

I love my wife, and to be honest she has a pretty average level of knowledge when it comes to general information, I use her as a guide to the "common understanding" of things.  So in all seriousness this is what I believe most know about radiation, including reporters.  Half Life, Rads, safe exposure limits, any of a number of things that specialists know blow right past most people and that's fine.  You guys don't care about round trip light times, occultations, dichloric mirrors, or X/S/KA band microwave paths so why should you know or care about radiation?  It's a specialized field of study so knowing it's "bad" tends to be enough.  The same can be said of news reports. 

A "spike" in radiation levels to you and me sounds horrible.  To a person actually taking the measurements it can be anything from an "oh that's nice" to "I can run faster than you can."  The fact that those workers are still there fighting to control these things is not only a testament to their bravery, but also to the fact that they know more than we do about what's really going on.  Also, how many of you line workers, the maintenance guys and the operators know a LOT more about how things really work than your bosses?  Hmm?  Be honest.  You know darn well the guys who actually know what is going on in the plant don't have time to come out and tell us and explain it in a way that makes any sense.  So the "official" people doing all the talking are managers, PR people, and administrators.  No one who actually does the work or even understands exactly what's going on.  So just like fire fighters who get out of a blazing building only to go back in a few minutes later when conditions change, the same can be said about the workers at the plant who retreated due to "high radiation levels" only to go back in later.  Especially in emergency situations. 

Which brings me to my final point, the emergency.  People are concerned by what's going on in Fukushima and that's great.  I'm concerned too, but I once again point out how old the facility is.  What it was hit with, TWICE, and how well it has stood up to damage that has destroyed other things.  The safeties did activate, the control rods are down and the main reactions stopped per design.  Sure it is a terrible accident in reaction to a horrible natural disaster, taking all of that into consideration should we really be turning away from nuclear power?  

Seriously we've gotten a lot better at designing these things.  Even so far as to design plants that are basically sealed nuclear batteries.  No giant stacks sticking out of the ground.  No big facilities to attack.  Then there's the entire random and remote change of an earthquake AND a tsunami hitting at the same time in most places, especially Europe! Again bad things can happen, and major accidents at industrial plants are bad no matter what, but do we really have to shut down everything when an oil drill explodes, or a gasoline refinery catches fire.  Yes, investigate, figure out what went wrong, but don't shut down an entire industry because of one accident.  

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