Monday, August 24, 2009

Once Upon a Belorussian Time...

So something that fascinates me about anti-nuclear groups is their fascination with Chernobyl. To anti-nuclear activists Chernobyl represents something dark and sinister lurking in the shadows of every nuclear power plant in the world. Every time opposition to nuclear energy or nuclear isotopes comes into the public arena it is swiftly followed by the word "Chernobyl". Or alternatively, Three Mile Island.

In some ways they are right, but not for the right reasons. What Chernobyl represents is not the inherent danger of nuclear energy but the culmination of every scientists nightmare, a point where political directions trump science.

The lead up to the Chernobyl disaster featured politicians or scientists under intense political pressures making decisions that weakened or literally bypassed safety features that were intended to keep the reactor safe with blatant disregard for the danger they were putting themselves and the whole region in. Safety concerns were brushed aside, regulations were ignored and even common sense was for a time suspended.

What few people know is that Canada in the 1950s featured a reactor 'disaster' ourselves at the NRX reactor at Chalk River (not to be confused with the NRU reactor there today) that was as bad as Three Mile Island. In that case, incorrect instructions from a supervisor to an operator, followed by a mechanical failure of a safety system led to a situation where the reactor power was increasing rapidly. The incident 'ended' when the second safety system was engaged and the fission reactions were halted. From that point, the 'disaster' continued until a hydrogen explosion contained inside the reactor permanently damaged it, causing large amounts of damage financially, but the radioactive fallout was zilch.

The NRX accident was pretty much one of the worst case scenarios imaginable for the nuclear industry but it was obvious in the preceeding years that mechanical failures of the safety systems were not being treated properly. And still, the layer upon layer of protection stacked into the system worked to prevent any significant fallout.

Three Mile Island was similar. While humans failed to interpret the information coming to the control room correctly the reactor shut itself down as it was programmed to. Unfortunately without any way to cool the reactor a hydrogen explosion would destroy the inside of that reactor as well, causing significant amounts of financial damage.

What made Chernobyl worse than the other two incidents I mentioned was the intense political pressure which led to safety systems being deliberately disabled. They deliberately put themselves in a situation of increased danger because the government had other priorities that they felt were more compelling.

I worded it that way intentionally. Governments should be careful when they deliberately override regulators and instruct nuclear facilities (or any other facilities for that matter) to operate in situations of increased risk because they feel there are other pressing issues. That is what activists should fear, an activist government that sticks its nose into areas where it doesn't belong.

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