Nuclear Nonsense from Sovacool and Cooper: Part I

I have followed Ben Sovacool’s escapades as an anti-nuclear scholar and/or pseudo-scholar for sometime, and recently noted an improvement in his scholarly discipline in a review on one of his recent papers. But alas the improvement may turn out to be a fluke. David Sella-Villa, the Editor-in-Chief of the William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, has kindly provided me with a copy of Sovacool’s most recent paper, “Nuclear Nonsense: Why Nuclear Power Is No Answer to Climate Change and the World’s Post-Kyoto Energy Challenges,” which Sovacool coauthored with Chris Cooper. The paper is long, but unfortunately contains numerous flaws that mare its conclusions. My usual approach in reviewing long books or long papers is to focus on a section or sections that contain material that I am most familiar with and examine how well the author or authors treated their subject. I also attend to rhetorical strategies including the selection and use of authority, and the selection of information.

Since I am familiar with some basic concept of nuclear safety I will first review the Sovacool & Cooper account of nuclear safety. i first searched the Sovacool & Cooper text for indications that they understood three basic nuclear safety concepts: Safety culture, defense in depth and passive safety. Neither term appears in their 119 page paper which devotes. Indeed most of the 11 page discussion of nuclear safety is devoted to accounts of two major nuclear accidents, the 1986 Chernobyl accident and the 1979 Three Mile Island. A final subsection on on Nuclear safety is titled, “Newer Reactors are the Riskiest”. I will return to this astonishing assertion shortly. First I should note a difference between the treatment of the difference between the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents in nuclear safety literature, and the Sovacool & Cooper treatment of the accidents. In nuclear safety literature, for example the Presidential Report on the Three Mile Island accident, contributing factors are noted, and mitigation approaches are suggested. In the case of Chernobyl, nuclear safety literature is harshly critical of Soviet Reactor design, and the lack of safety culture in the design and operation of Soviet reactors. Among problems noted in RBMK reactor design was a positive coefficient of reactivity, that it the tendency of the nuclear process to accelerate with rising reactor heat. Alvin Weinberg reported that danger of a positive coefficient of reactivity in similar reactors was known to the first generation of American reactor designers. The American NRC would not certify a civilian power with a positive coefficient of reactivity. A negative coefficient of reactivity is considered a highly desirable nuclear safety characteristic, because it tends to shut down reactors as they start to overheat without operator intervention. American Light Water Reactors are characterized by their negative coefficient of reactivity.

The RBMK lacked the outer defensive barriers that characterized Western Light Water Reactor. In the Chernobyl accident. Thus even in the unlikely event that a LWR’s massive pressure vessel were destroyed by a steam of hydrogen explosion, an even more massive containment dome still blocked the release of radioactive fission products. In contrast once the RBMK’s positive coefficient of reactivity lead the reactor’s power production top run away and it began to overheat a rapid build up of steam pressure inside the reactor coolant system lead to a steam explosion. This explosion blew the top off the reactor which meant that all barriers to to the release of of radioactive fission products was removed. In RBMK lacked the outer defensive barriers that characterized Western Light Water Reactor.

Soviet reactor culture tended to disregard nuclear safety to a truly astonishing extent. Thus the RBMK reactor control design allowed operators to override safety features despite the evidence from the Three Mile Accident that operator error was a major factor in that accident. The choice of the Chernobyl operators to override safety controls was also a reflection of the absence of safety cultures. it appears that the reactor operators were not fully aware of the dangers posed by the RBMKs’ design flaws, and were not aware of the possible consequences of operating the reactor while disregarding its safety limits.

It is no wonder that subsequent reviews of the safety of Soviet RBMKs concluded that they were “accidents waiting to happen”

In contrast, the system of nuclear safety barriers in place in the Three Mile Island reactor prevented the escape of most of the radioactive fission products contained in the reactor. The fission products that did escape were biologically inactive gases, that were quickly diluted to the atmosphere and appeared to have dissipated without any detectable long term effects on the health of people who lived in the Three Mile Island area. Numerous safety flaws, and lax safety practices contributed to the the TMI accident, and any account of nuclear safety ought to note how lessons learned from Three Mile Island effected reactor design, NRC regulation of safety practices, and the actual safety culture of reactor operators.

Sovacool & Cooper fail to take any notice of safety lessons that might be learned from the two major accidents they mentioned, or the effect of those accidents on reactor design and safety practices. The the function of the Sovacool & Cooper account of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl seems to be as material evidence in an argument that reactors break, not to provide insight into nuclear safety, its evolution and challenges. A further example of the Sovacool & Cooper reactors break approach is the long list of reactor accidents appended to the Sovacool & Cooper article. While I believe that that nuclear safety requires a careful and detailed study of reactor accidents Sovacool & Cooper simply list accidents without providing the detailed information that might give insight into accident causes, thus rendering their list useless as a source of information that would help improve nuclear safety.

Further issues emerge about data set used to compile the accident list. The listing of the Chernobyl accident indicates that there were 4056 dearths associated with the accident, but all accounts report about 57 deaths. Where did the extra 4000 deaths come from? After the accident, UNSCEAR reported that up to 4,000 additional of thyroid cancer might have been by radiation exposures associated with the accident. Thyroid cancer can be successfully treated in most treatment, with a 97% cure rate in children diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Thus Sovacool & Cooper appear to have made a very large and obvious error in reporting the fatalities of the Chernobyl accident, or to have deliberately padded their data.

Some of the accidents listed by Sovacool and Irwin are not reactor accidents at all. For example a March 6, 2006 accident in Erwin, Tennessee did not involve a reactor. Other accidents in nuclear facilities, for example the July 18, 2007 leak of tritium laced water from the Japanese Kariwa reactor, did not involve any damage to the actual reactor.

A further flaw in the list would be the failure to report Soviet reactor accidents. For example, it is known that there were a large number of Soviet submarine reactor accidents. A comparison of the safety cultures of the Soviet Navy and the American Navies might yield interesting data if linked to accident histories. But tis is impossible of Soviet Naval reactor acciden
ts are ignored.

This nor brings us to the most astonishing aspect of the Sovacool & Cooper account of nuclear safety, their assertion that

Newer Reactors are the Riskiest.

They add:

Unfortunately, safety risks such as those at Chernobyl and Three
Mile Island are only amplified with new generations of nuclear systems.

This is the topic sentence of a paragraph that continues:

Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum has noted that almost all serious nu- clear accidents occurred with recent technology, making newer systems the riskiest.500 In 1959, the Sodium Research Experiment reactor in California experienced a partial meltdown fourteen months after opening.501 In 1961, the Sl-1 Reactor in Idaho was slightly more than two years old before a fatal accident killed everyone at the site.502 The Fermi Unit 1 reactor began commercial operation in August 1966, but had a partial meltdown only two months after opening.503 The St. Laurent des Eaux A1 Reactor in France started in June 1969, but an online refueling machine malfunctioned and melted 400 pounds of fuel four months later.504 The Browns Ferry Unit 1 reactor in Alabama began commercial operation in August 1974 but experienced a fire severely damaging control equipment six months later.505 Three Mile Island Unit 2 began commercial operation in December 1978 but had a partial meltdown three months after it started.506 Chernobyl Unit 4 started up in August 1984, and suffered the worst nuclear disaster in history on April 26, 1986 before the two-year anniversary of its operation.507

Thus Sovacool & Cooper attempt to prove the risk of post-Chernobyl reactors by citing the Chernobyl and pre-Chernobyl accidents. This is a notable lapse of logic, that might be described as down right crazy.

The rest of the argument shifts rather aimlessly between discussing rather vague dangers associated with clustering reactors on a limited number of sites. Sovacool & Cooper appear to believe that nuclear accidents can be contagious, jumping from reactor to reactor on a single site. They worry about all Generation IV technology because one type of Generation IV reactor uses liquid sodium as coolant. They worry about future qualified reactor staff persons, failing to note that at least 25 American Universities and Colleges have degree programs that would qualify graduates to serve as reactor operators, and the United States Navy trains a large number of officers and enlisted personnel in reactor operations every year. Even if these problematic facts were true, how much support do the lend to the assertion that “newer reactors are riskier?” The answer is absolutely none, The passive safety features of Generation III+ reactors make them almost meltdown proof even were they to be staffed by poorly trained operators.

Thus the Sovacool & Cooper discussion of nuclear safety, far from offering us insights into nuclear safety issues, simply resort to an absurdly illogical parody of scholarship. They indeed offer us nuclear nonsense on nuclear safety.

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