Monday, April 16, 2012

Counterpunch: "The Perils of Technological Hubris-Nuclear Titanics"

From Counterpunch (4/16/2012), by Karl Grossman:

The Perils of Technological Hubris
Nuclear Titanics

On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, The Japan Times yesterday ran an editorial titled “The Titanic and the Nuclear Fiasco” which stated: “Presenting technology as completely safe, trustworthy or miraculous may seem to be a thing of the past, but the parallels between the Titanic and Japan’s nuclear power industry could not be clearer.”

“Japan’s nuclear power plants were, like the Titanic, advertised as marvels of modern science that were completely safe. Certain technologies, whether they promise to float a luxury liner or provide clean energy, can never be made entirely safe,” it said.

It quoted from a piece by Joseph Conrad written after the Titanic sank in which he noted the “chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.” The Japan Times urged: “That lesson should be applied to all ‘unsinkable’ undertakings that might profit a few by imperiling the majority of others.”

Yes, the same kind of baloney behind the claim that the Titanic was unsinkable is behind the puffery that nuclear power plants are safe. The nuclear power promoters are still saying that despite the sinking of atomic Titanics: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants.

In fact, underneath the PR offensive are government documents admitting that nuclear power plants are deadly dangerous.


The current issue of Popular Mechanics features an article “Why Titanic Still Matters” by Jim Meigs, the magazine’s editor and chief, which states: “In one respect, little has changed. As the recent loss of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia demonstrates, bad decision making can overcome even robust engineering. Virtually all man-made disasters—including the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and the BP oil spill—can be traced to the same human failings that doomed Titanic. After 100 years, we must still remember—and, too often, relearn—the grim lessons of that night.”

Indeed, human error is a big part of what can go wrong at a nuclear power plant. However, even without human error, nuclear power is fraught with the potential for immense catastrophe. A mechanical malfunction simple or complex, an earthquake, a tornado, a tsunami, a hurricane, a flood, a terrorist attack, these and other threats can result in catastrophe. Nuclear power plants and the process of atomic fission in them are inherently dangerous—at a scale of technological disaster that is unparalleled. ...

(The entire article at the link.)

For the counter-argument, there is always George Monbiot of The Guardian, who expressed love for nuclear precisely because of Fukushima.

(h/t John Noah)


Anonymous said...

I think nuclear power plants and other modern miracle technologies are far worse than the Titanic. They don't seriously believe that it's safe, they just want profits. For example, if someone pointed out major flaws in the Titanic's design, would they have spent so much time and money covering up the flaws just to ensure profit? I'm not so sure. But that's what everyone likes to do nowadays.

A common method of earning money in modern society is to create problems, then sell a solution to the problem. Alternatively, people like to create solutions for things that aren't problems and convince people that they need it.

It's those same selfish and greedy people that end up becoming rich and powerful, leading our species to self-destruction. The system is broken.

Anonymous said...

My great grandparents didn't fear the Titanic disaster, as they could make a decision not to board it.

I fear the nuclear age disaster, but have no choice but to be breath it.

They could have learned from the Titanic but they didn't.

Anonymous said...

From the link.
George Monbiot said "A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation."

That same "crappy old plant" had MORE earthquake safety systems than those in the US.

If an earthquake hits US Nuclear power plants. They could suffer as the Japanese are suffering NOW.

They will not be able to live or produce food on an area the size of Los Angeles County.

Greyhawk said...

Human beings are very intelligent when it comes to developing technological advancements but woefully inept when it comes to learning the wisdom to use it.

Anonymous said...

Sadly the same people who are most responsible for the Fukushima crisis are the same ones who are being trusted to fix it. TEPCO should be removed from the crisis resolution effort, but the final bill for all cleanup should be theirs anyway.

Anonymous said...

The containment system of Three Mile Island worked as designed, as very little radiation was released outside of it. There was even a hydrogen explosion/deflagration inside the containment, IIRC. IIRC, half the core melted so the accident was very serious and was rated a level 6, but I would argue that outside the containment it was effectively a level 1, based on the very small amount of radioactivity that was released. This stands in great contrast to Chernobyl, which had no containment, and Fukuichi, where containment has failed badly. The success of TMI's containment system is under appreciated, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to the efforts of accident mitigation as well as generally our use of and dependence on nuclear power, let's just hope that we're not already in the phase of rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic.

Anonymous said...

TMI still had significant radiation release and it's effects have and will continue to kill and effect countless knowing and unknowing individuals. Then there is Limerick which recently had a significant unannounced release of tritium in to the local waterways. The only upside is that most of they have been so polluted by other sources that few people or children ever fish, swim, or play in and around those waters any more.

Anonymous said...

THREE MILE ISLAND MAJOR NUCLEAR DISASTER has been positively associated with cancer incidence.

"Accident doses were positively associated with cancer incidence. Associations were largest for leukemia, intermediate for lung cancer, and smallest for all cancers combined...Inhaled radionuclide contamination could differentially impact lung cancers, which show a clear dose-related increase."

Keen said...

There are still huge ice bergs out there to be navigated and the needed infrastructural course adjustments to avoid them have not been made!!! Among the many above listed human and nonhuman events that can lead to malfunctions and catastrophic consequences perhaps the most likely and devastatingly ominous one has been overlooked!!!; and that is a "solar tsunami"! Two hundred years ago, before the wide use of electricity, such an event would simply be a glorious spectacle and curiosity but now it has the potential to bring civilization, humanity, and the biosphere to it's knees. Now, what it could cause, aside from every city and town around the world being ignited by electrical fires would be an INSTANT CRISIS among all the existing, operating and idled nuclear facilities around the world. It could be like a seizure to the world from which there is no recovery. We need to fix our infrastructures, not our militaries which to some degree have already been hardened to such an event.

Anonymous said...

More reasons not to have nuclear power.

"These statistics suggest that Carrington flares are once in a half-millennium events. The statistics are far from solid, however, and Hathaway cautions that we don't understand flares well enough to rule out a repeat in our lifetime."

keen said...

I just thought I would point out that while the NASA report on Carrington flares provides some good information it also seems to be sugar coated. It points out that we will need a stand by fleet of sattelites ready to replace the ones that will be lost yet it says spacewalking astronauts will be okay if they get back in their sattelite in time. It seems to me they would be okay long enough to experience the catastrophic malfunctioning of their satellite. I would like to see some information delineating what forces that could cause telegraphs to throw sparks, shock people and run uncontrollably even when turned off, would do to the electrical infrastructure we rely for everything today. I would even be interested to know what it would do to earth based photovoltaics. Of course though it is really the nuclear facilities and their emergency supply chains (and the people involved) I am most concerned about.

Anonymous said...

The Monbiot character is a Jew,what more needs be said.

Anonymous said...

Goldberg, Iceberg, whats the difference!

Anonymous said...

Iceberg, Goldberg! What's the diffrence!

Anonymous said...

Carrington flares, Tsunamis! What's the difference?

Did we invent the cart before the wheel?

Anonymous said...

I am surprised the admin. has not deleted the posts right after "The Monbiot character is"
post. It is definitely off topic and adds nothing of value to the discussion. Perhaps admin. is too busy for this,... Which I would understand.

Anonymous said...

@anon 5:26 and @anon 5:30

First of all, I would still say that the radiation release of TMI was "very little," when comparing it to Chernobyl and Fukuichi, by any objective measure. It isn't even close. The ground around TMI is not contaminated as the radiation that was released was due to venting, IIRC. It certainly isn't contaminated compared to Chernobyl and Fukuichi, again by any objective measure. Had the containment failed at TMI, I think you would have seen contamination comparable to Fukuichi, although probably still significantly less. The plant site itself would have been seriously contaminated and surrounding areas would have had to be permanently evacuated (like has happened at Chernobyl and Fukuichi) but again, probably significantly less than Fukuichi although still comparable.

Second, with regard to the reference by anon 5:30, I would have to repeat the old saw about correlation is not causation. That does not mean that there were/are no cancers attributable to TMI. Instead, it would appear that all cancers (or all excess cancers) are being attributed to TMI, without regard to whether this is really supportable. The reference, unfortunately, loses a great deal of credibility in the last bullet point about thyroid cancer, when it reports on a study between 1995 and 2002, between 16 and 23 years after the 1979 accident. The half-life of iodine is about 8 days. According to the EPA, iodine 131 will decay away completely in the environment in a matter of months ( IIRC, after Chernobyl, many "liquidators" were exposed and had to have their thyroids removed, but that became necessary within months, not 16 to 23 years later.

I am not fond of the linear no-threshold model to estimate long term biological damage caused by ionizing radiation. However, I am also skeptical of those who believe in hormesis. Although I have not read both sides of this issue as thoroughly as I would like, my general impression is that both sides make serious statistical errors in their analysis. For one thing, in general there does not seem to be any distinction made by either side between external and internal exposure. Second, there also does not seem to be any distinction made by either side between the three main types of radiation: alpha, beta and gamma. Third, epidemiological studies are hard to design and accurately interpret due to the difficulty in eliminating confounding factors. Fourth, my impression is that there also appear to be non-trivial differences among individuals in tolerance to cancer causing risk factors. The latter makes it especially difficult, as even some clearly strongly carcinogenic risk factors do not seem to cause cancers in certain individuals, even when strongly exposed.

Anonymous said...

For Anon @2:41 PM

Anonymous said...

@Anon 12.23

The increase in thyroid cancer is the result of very young children in this area being exposed to radiation. In other words it does not matter if iodine 131 brakes down in the environment as it has already done the damage. The cancers develop later in life. The effects of radiation persist for several decades.

The younger the age at the time of radiation exposure the higher the risk.

Hormesis (health benefits from low dose radiation) as you say has not been proven and if prolonged exposure is factored in, it seems to mitigate the results ie more leukemias.

Yes, TMI is less of a problem than Fukushima so it does not bode well for the children in Japan.

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