No Nukes: STILL the Only “Good Nukes”!!!

NuclearThis past June, heads of energy companies and heads of Ohio’s State Government came together to announce something that was, for me, both dreadfully unexpected and dreadfully dreadful, too: that they would undrertake to build a new nuclear power plant in Piketon, Ohio—a small town in the south central part of the state, where a nuclear enrichment plant had been located until it was closed, some years ago.

Of course, what made this announcement so unexpected was that there hadn’t been a reactor contracted for in the US since 1977, two years before the ”accident” at Three Mile Island. And that was with the US government socializing a potentially very costly portion of the risk such reactors have shown themselves capable of incurring. (Under the recently reauthorized Price-Anderson Act, in case of an accident—like Three-Mile Island or Chernobyl, the liability of private companies is limited to $10 BILLION, with irradiated taxpayers and their descendents covering ALL damages above that.)

I have a personal history with nukes… Back in the early 1970s, I worked as an engineer on nuclear power plants. Actually, I worked on developing advanced breeder reactors. My job ran from testing, to methods development, to stress analysis. I hadn’t wanted to work on nukes, but a trusted professor had swayed me by telling me that he had changed his own mind about his previous advice that I not get involved with working on nukes, saying that he would feel more comfortable with me working on such risky technology than he would any of his other students: he trusted me not to short-cut safety. I quit when I found out that I couldn’t prevent managers from directing me and my colleagues to take short cuts. The only good thing I took from the experience was a cache of horror stories, which I stashed away for just such a time as this. Let me tell you…

First, though, let me emphasize that although I’ve written these horror stories in primarily technical term, in my view their technological aspect was only an epiphenomenon of deeper and more pervasive management, accounting and financial problems.

I took over a materials test that was intended to specify materials for a lifetime-of-the-reactor component, the “core basket”. To save money, early, “screening” testing had been done in the wrong medium, and every single materials engineer I spoke with said that the results would likely be worse than wrong; that they’d almost certainly be misleading.

At one point, as difficult as this may be to imagine for so important an activity, two different design groups found that the two different codes they were using to analyze their designs gave different results. We traced the difference to the order in which the software added in thermal creep and flux-induced creep [don’t ask!!] Who knows whether every last mistaken design decision that had been engineered into that plant ever got engineered back out!?

Speaking of materials and safety… Back then, no materials had ever been irradiated to the extent that the materials we were using would be during their claimed design life. That meant that we had to run the codes with constitutive properties we had no choice but to assume—and somehow those properties routinely ended up indicating that the design would avoid long-run irradiation-induced embrittlement which could lead to metal components shattering like glass!

Then, there was the “China Syndrome”. One top analytic engineer told me that his original analysis had indicated that an “active core catcher”–that is, pipes with high-pressure pumps–would be needed, because the reactor vessel had not been dimensioned to leave enough room for all the depleted uranium that a “passive core catcher” would require. According to my then colleague, managers had decided that the “active” design was cost-prohibitive, so they re-specified the design conditions so that–SURPRISE!–the probability of failure and associated risks would assure that the reactor operated within “acceptable risks with no core catcher at all!

What really troubled me about all these anecdotes I’ve held stashed within me for almost 40 years is that the higher-ups consistently made forward going decisions. They would start design for long design-life components, as well as a follow-on facility months or years before testing nominally supposed to support component decisions and go/no-go decisions had proceeded far enough to provide the information that was supposed to provide that support.

Now, I realize that the reactors I have written about here were developmental, insofar as the US was concerned; and that, back then, France had several breeder reactors operating, so the big difference was the regulatory and oversight environments. But cookie-cutter reactors are NOT cookies.

In response to those who might say that there has been a lot of progress in the past 40 years and no accidents in the last 30 years… I would be surprised if there hadn’t been “major advances” on the technology front over the past 40 years. But ,as I argued above, my main point here is not really about technology; rather, it was that the technological shortcomings I described reflected management errors.

To begin with, one critic of my argument argued that there had been no reactor accidents in the past 30 years, a time reference that conveniently ignores both the disaster that actually did occur at Three Mile Island and the far worse disaster that somehow was averted there; the cavalier approach NASA managers took toward the safety of seal rings during cold-weather launches of the Space Shuttle; and more recently, the utterly irresponsible approach managers took to credit default swaps, and over the whole period, the equally irresponsible approach GM management has taken to developing competitive technology, to the point that they are in effect seeking protection from previous efforts by their legislators to protect them from more forward looking competitors.

Like we used to say back then, “one nuke can ruin your whole day.” I am willing to consider substantive arguments that management now pursues safety with the same vigor they used to reserve for making profit, but it would be an uphill effort to persuade me. To which I would add a series of questions…Do those who want nukes seek only a power surge, or cash money from a short-term job? Or to stomp “these radical enviros” to prove how tough they are? I must admit that arguments in favor of nukes grounded in climate change present a greater challenge to anti-nuke people like me, but at least that argument can be grounded in the moral dimension, where so far at least, bad managers don’t yet play a role.

I hate to imagine the radioactive mess that an Enron or an AIG “smartest guy in the room” could make if he or she were to treat a nuke as just another opportunity to pocket a few additional million. I imagine that a lot of people will hate to imagine it too—no matter how many jobs a new nuke would most assuredly generate?


How could they explain to their grandchildren that they had sold out their grandchildrens’ planet for however many pieces of silver such jobs that those heads of energy companies and heads of Ohio’s State Government came together to announce back in June!?

Robert A. Letcher, PhD
June 10, 2009

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.


  1. Robert A. Letcher says

    [For simplicity in typing, I’ll refer to me as “Bob” or with first-person pronouns, and to (alphabetically) “Jeff” and “Rod”. I hope that will be OK for both of you.]
    First, again thanks for responding at all, and civilly to boot. I guess, Rod, you won’t be surprised if most of my attention is directed toward your comments. I’ve been wondering how to reply, and another of my first-person horror stories popped into my head. It had to do with selecting the material for one of the “life of the reactor” components near the top of the reactor–maybe it was the head, but something makes me think it was something like an upper core basket (after 35+ years, I’m not even sure there is such an intermediate component.
    Well, because of my earlier success with re-directing selection of material for the seal rings on fuel assembly nozzles and the “[also] life of reactor” [bottom core basket, senior management re-assigned to me testing that would support material selection for the upper reactor component. This testing came with a lot of pressure, because selecting the material quickly became a “critical path item”. And so, the test became critical path too. As I’m sure both of you are aware, critical path items get a lot of attention.
    So you can imagine how VERY SURPRISED I WAS when the lead design engineer on the component whose material specifications i was still setting up tests to guide that specification told me that he had let the contract, with that material specified. As it happened, I left for graduate school shortly after that happened, so i can’t say that the lead design engineer didn’t just “give it [i.e. material selection] his best guess”, intending to put in a change order if test results indicated that would be “appropriate”. But who is to say that he would use-dare i say it?!] an “appropriate appropriate”? Worse, who is to say that the lead design engineer might himself have joined me in leaving for graduate school? And who is to say that the institutional memory would have been developed to recall that the original selection was made on a contingent basis? Or that the cost of a change order could have been absorbed in the budget at the time that need for the correction was finally identified? Or that the manager who at that time had been “promoted” into being most immediately responsible for reporting that such a change was indeed necessary, even if doing so could mean losing a bonus, not just for him or herself, but also for bosses and bosses’ bosses–and nuclear power itself!
    So, I was concerned about two types of humans and two types of shortcomings: engineers who were overly confident in their technique, and managers who were underly diligent in their decision-making or their reporting of it.
    The whole matter is more complicated these days, after most managers and many engineers refused for decades to accept that climate change is a reality. But even with climate change, nukes are at the bottom of my personal list of energy sources. One n nuke can still ruin you whole day, and one waste repository that lets in water can ruin a land for even longer. Negawatts are my hope. Along with doing less. As Amory Lovins said in a talk at the University of Michigan thirty-some year ago, “Anything that exists is possible.” Back then, he used it to argue against the widely accepted as true notion that per capita income of a country and per capita energy consumption were directly correlated: and he did so by pointing out that Sweden didn’t match the pattern. I have no idea whether that is still so, but if it isn’t, then I imagine that Lovins would accept as a “friendly corollary”: anything that once existed at least was possible?

  2. Robert A. Letchet says

    Thanks to both of you–for taking time to comment, and for doing so in civil terms. I’ll try to respond by Tuesday.

  3. jeff alson says

    Robert Letcher’s essay is a chilling reminder of the risks when you combine atom splitting with the profit motive. I am an engineer, and simply do not trust either my engineering colleagues’ ability to fully comprehend the risks associated with “splitting atoms to boil water” or, even if they could do this, their ability to win out over the bean counters and Wall Street money changers who really call the shots. Does anyone really believe that if they could not control derivatives, they can control nuclear power? And, of course, as Mr. Letcher points out, if the nuclear engineers and corporations really believed their press releases, they would not need the Price Anderson Act to limit their responsibilities in case of a disaster.

    Nuclear power is also incredibly expensive, which is why there have been no new orders since 1977. I recently sat next to an executive of one of the major American nuclear companies at a technical conference and he told me that the cost projections keep going up and up, now exceeding $10 billion per plant. While all technologies have costs and risks, I would much prefer to invest in conservation, wind and solar technologies. I believe they will be cheaper in the long run, and do not entail the potentially catastrophic risks of nuclear power.

    I suspect both pro-nukes like Mr. Adams and anti-nukes like Mr. Letcher can agree on one thing–it is truly impossible to know the likelihood of a major nuclear disaster. The public policy question them becomes, do we citizens want to take the unquantifiable risk when there alternatives that are surely safer and likely cheaper?

    I consider nuclear power to be a 20th century technology that will prove to be irrelevant in the 21st century.

  4. says

    I am not quite as old as you, Richard, but I have been professionally associated with operating nuclear reactors from a number of different points of view for almost 30 years. I began my nuclear career in 1981 with some of the most demanding academic training I had ever experienced – even though I had already graduated from the US Naval Academy. I followed that training period with several years worth of direct operating and maintenance experience, where I lived within 200 feet of the power plant for months at a time.

    I got some more education and then went back to a ship as the Engineer Officer and spent another 40 months in intensive operations, training, and maintenance. We were not driven by profits, but we had some significant reasons for wanting to keep the plant running. Our reasons were not short term, however, so we also wanted to keep it running well. Since we lived so close to the plant and we operated it frequently near our own families, we also had strong reasons to keep it operating safely.

    The plants I operated were not young; the last was more than 27 years old when I left and it had been operated by successive crews of young people – average age of perhaps 22-24 – most of whom just had high school educations. However, when I left that job, I was well convinced that the plant could operate safely for at least another 27 years as long as the people took some reasonable precautions.

    There is a reason why the Enterprise is still in service after more than 45 years.

    Many of my former colleagues have entered into the commercial nuclear business; I am quite confident that they have instilled the same characteristics that gave us all confidence in our engines.

    One more thing – you call TMI a disaster, but have you ever dug into the after accident material analysis reports that show that the idea of needing a core catcher is a mere fantasy? A good friend of mine was involved in that evolution; he saw with his own eyes that the “corium” (melted fuel material) had solidified as soon as it hit the core pressure vessel. It only penetrated that vessel about 5/8″ – maximum – and still had about 8 inches worth of steel plus 4 feet worth of concrete containment before it would have entered an uncontrolled environment.

    Impossibility of a China Syndrome

    Rod AdamsPublisher, Atomic InsightsHost and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
    .-= Rod Adams´s last blog ..Apparently Some Companies Believe That Nuclear Construction Will Begin Soon – In the US =-.


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