The core damage now unfolding in as many as four Japanese nuclear reactors after Friday's post-quake tsunami doused back-up cooling system generators is already becoming stock material for nuclear nihilists. Once again nuclear's perennial opponents are out in force hoping to use this episode to beat back nuclear power.
Greenpeace USA is asking its supporters to email the president and Congress with the suggested language "It's time to invest in clean, renewable energy. Not risky and dangerous nuclear power." This weekend Reuters reported on green parties in France, Italy, and Germany hurriedly parlaying Japan's reactors into a new ploy to push their respective governments away from nuclear. "We cannot master nature, nature rules us," Germany's Green Party parliamentary leader told the news agency.
After a partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979, the American nuclear industry stalled out, overcome by NIMBY-ism. The country built one more nuclear reactor after TMI. While TMI injured no one, the accident wrought lasting devastation on the country's prospects for energy independence with its perfect storm of an ill-timed disaster movie and a sea of media misinformation. The University of Texas at Austin co-hosted a lecture and panel discussion last week on energy's portrayal in the movies. Michael Webber, a mechanical engineering professor at the university and an expert in energy and environmental policy, summed it up thusly, according to the event's Twitter feed: "The China Syndrome did for nuclear what JAWS did for sharks."
Thanks to TMI, the United States has long lost much of the manufacturing infrastructure to efficiently build new full-scale gigawatt nuclear power plants. There are two plants under construction in Georgia, the first after this needless moratorium, and they are now so expensive that President Obama needed to approve a $8 billion loan guarantee (of an estimated $14 billion construction cost) so that Southern Company could obtain its financing for the huge project.
We shouldn't allow America's re-emerging nuclear industry to be swallowed up by a wave of misinformation following this devastating tsunami.
Nuclear is a key element of plans to minimize the impact of global warming. At 17 tons of carbon dioxide per gigawatt-hour, nuclear energy production actually emits less CO2 than wind (solar has nuclear beat by three tons per gigawatt hour). For reference, coal emits over 1,000 tons and natural gas over 600 tons for the same amount of energy. Facts like these have already swayed many environmentalists into the pro-nuke camp. Al Gore has carefully teetered on the edge of full-on nuclear support for some time now.
Holdouts refer to "safe energy" rather than "green energy" alternatives, aiming to exclude nuclear energy which towers over the green energy landscape as the most reliable source out there. Safe energy is a semantic trick along the lines of "pro-life," similarly implying a false dichotomy. That's because American-led nuclear design upgrades expected to power grids by 2020 change the terms of debate.
Meet the iNuke: small modular reactors chock full of elegant design innovations, built cheaply, operating efficiently, and buried underground for your protection. One of the most promising and practical designs is from Corvallis, Oregon-based NuScale. They've got the safest reactor design the industry has ever seen, one that's drawing a scrum of serious shoppers as the company prepares to file for Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval next year.
"We think we're approaching a breaking point where plants are getting so complex and so large that it's reflected in cost," Dr. Jose Reyes, NuScale's chief technology officer, told the audience at MIT's Energy Conference this month. Dr. Reyes drew intense interest from his rapt audience of MIT students and energy industry players at the conference's panel on small and medium nuclear reactors. He quickly got swarmed as his panel came to an end. I had to catch up with him later.
The Department of Energy funded Dr. Reyes and his Oregon State University team in 2000 as part of the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative. "We were commissioned to come up with a design that was small, compact and could be built easily," he told me, initially in the hope that it could be used in developing nations. The team built a functional model unit at their university lab as proof of concept, and NuScale used that lab while overhauling their plans into a commercially viable option. They ended up with a product that costs one-third of a traditional nuclear plant.
The NuScale mini reactor carries a risk of core damage of once in 100 million years. To put that expanse into some perspective, 100 million years ago, flowers had yet to evolve, and dinosaurs roamed the earth. It was the height of the Cretaceous period. Peer reviewed science will not back me up on my next assertion, but I think I have a fair shot of spontaneously turning into a porpoise about once in 100 million years.
We really shouldn't be awed by this kind of technological development, as unreal as it must seem to Green partiers everywhere. Japan's tsunami-drenched reactors are 40 years old. In the same time, space flight has evolved from impractical government-sponsored rockets and shuttles to the dawn of Virgin Galactic. Nuclear just slimmed down too.
In this case, about 70 percent of NuScale's reactor design is similar to the most recent iterations of water-cooled enriched uranium reactors that are common worldwide and share a lineage to those in Japan. But a lot of mutation can occur with a 30 percent DNA swap out, and in NuScale's case, all of it points to safer operating conditions.
For one thing, rather than the huge gigawatt reactor of the kind capped by a massive concrete dome, a NuScale plant has up to 12 individual reactors made up of self-contained modules, each immersed in water and encapsulated by steel. The 65-foot long by 14-foot wide modules will be manufactured under controlled conditions at a central factory and shipped to sites, dramatically cutting down costs. Four modules can power the city of Madison, Wisconsin. All twelve can light up the entire metropolitan area of Memphis, Tennessee.
Because a NuScale plant is broken up into self-contained mini reactors of 45-megawatts each, the failure scenarios only pose so much risk, says Dr. Mohammad Modarres, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at the University of Maryland and an international leader in the science of probabilistic risk assessment.
Probabilistic Risk Assessments (PRAs) are the most rigorous step for any engineering design, and take months to produce after numerous computer models based data sources like materials analyses. Engineers begin by brainstorming hundreds of possible system failures, searching for any possible way that radiation could find its way into the environment, and then determine a frequency for every conceivable scenario, in the end determining the possible consequences for each outcome. Three Mile Island had just such a PRA, which was highly prescient and laid out a scenario of system and human error virtually identical to what happened there, but the plant's owners and federal regulators didn't heed its warnings at the time. PRAs earned new status in TMI's aftermath.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires PRAs for new designs and established plants alike, using methods standardized by the mechanical engineering profession. Much as the Food and Drug Administration mandates a series of clinical trials to assess the efficacy and safety of a prospective drug, the NRC's layers of regulators and outside consultants examine PRA data. Dr. Modarres performed NuScale's PRA just as he has done for large scale reactors and presented his findings at last year's International Probabilistic Safety Assessment & Management Conference.
Dr. Modarres says NuScale is the safest reactor he's ever come across, 10,000 times less risk of any level of core damage than currently operating standard reactors, and it's 10 times safer than the Westinghouse AP1000 plants China's building now (pending NRC approval, it's also the design that will go up in Georgia).
So what if a natural disaster cut of external power to NuScale's water pumps that cool the reactor core -- the exact scenario now playing out in Japan?
It can't happen. There are no pumps.
In the NuScale plant, "You don't need a pump -- the heat creates a current of water by natural physics. Everything works by natural phenomena." Instead, the plant's steam generator tube is its weakest link, contributing the largest fraction of its 1 in 100-million-year risk. Physical properties of the tube which carries hot steam to the electricity-generating turbine come into play in the analysis. The tube could rupture, sending radioactive steam into the turbine and depriving the reactor core of water. In NuScale's PRA, Dr. Modarres created technical models of possible wear and tear of the pipe and its safety valves that could occur over the years. "We calculate through the 'physics of failure' an estimated frequency for this event," he says. The model gets even more complex, as the reactor automatically replenishes its water (or human operators can do so) through chemical volume control systems. The PRA models have to take into account the likelihood of this system failing too.
NuScale takes advantage of its design simplicity during its pre-NRC submission phase to change out elements and see how that affects its PRA (that pipe may get further tweaking before the NRC sees it). Such revisions on the fly aren't even possible with most larger more complex plants.
The reactor's size is one of its most important safety features. At 1/26th the size of standard reactors, there's simply less radioactivity to let loose. Dr. Reyes told the MIT crowd, "We've not only reduced the frequency of possible accidents, we reduced the consequences of accidents. That's huge psychologically." People who are afraid of flying don't really care about the frequency of accidents he says, it's the huge consequences of a single accident. "We've eliminated that."
Dr. Modarres explains the worst-case disaster scenario this way: "Even if one of the reactors fails and releases its radiation into the containment vessel, and again if that containment vessel fails and releases its material, it would be releasing that material into water, which is one of the best scrubbers for radioactive material." Ultimately a small amount of radioactive gases could make their way into the atmosphere, but mind you the whole operation is in an underground silo.
Since each module has its own separate metal containment vessel (unlike the traditional design of concrete domes that are getting repeatedly blasted in the hydrogen-fueled explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant), the probability of two reactors both leaking radiation is the probability of two independent extremely unlikely events. Even more reactors? Infinitesimal.
What about a major earthquake? "Being inside water, the forces that would be applied to the modules is much less. It's floating inside the water, so they wouldn't have as much force as if they were tied into the ground." Detailed seismic assessments are still being built into the model, and depend on location, but Dr. Modarres does not expect such events will increase major risk significantly.
Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) was sounding the alarm bells this weekend, yesterday sending a letter to President Obama requesting a moratorium on new nuclear power plants, reminiscent of European Greens. In light of the dire challenge posed by global warming, the growing destabilization in OPEC countries, and the ingenuity of America's nuclear engineers, the more appropriate federal response to the vulnerabilities in old nuclear plant designs that we share with Japan is to fully back nuclear energy 2.0 companies like NuScale.
More on the F-16 and Cessna crash, and whether the collision of a military and a civilian aircraft was also a collision of cultures
Early this month an Air Force F-16, under the command of an experienced Air Force pilot, rammed into a small-civilian Cessna 150 propeller plane, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; both people aboard the Cessna were killed.
The next three paragraphs are background for the pointed and interesting reader-messages I am about to quote. If you’re already up to speed with previous installments (one, two, three), you can skip ahead to the messages. They highlight an aspect of the modern military-civilian divide I had not considered before this episode.
In an original item on the crash, I noted some of the perils civilians could face when flying near designated military areas—even though this crash happened in ordinary uncontrolled airspace. That is, it occurred when neither plane was within a Military Operations Area (MOA), where civilian pilots are warned about risks from high-speed military aircraft, nor inside the controlled “Class C” airspace that surrounds Charleston’s airport. (Medium-sized commercial airports like Charleston’s typically are ringed by Class C airspace, so the controllers can sequence in the airline, cargo, civilian, military, and other traffic headed toward their runways. The very busiest airports, like LAX or JFK, are surrounded by larger zones of Class B airspace for their more complex traffic-control jobs. In case you’re wondering, Class A airspace is the realm above 18,000 feet where most jet travel occurs.)
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
A new lawsuit filed against Conan O’Brien underlines the murky territory that comes with accusing another comedian of plagiarism.
On July 25, a Twitter user noticed something strange. The site has long suffered from joke theft—usually involving spam accounts that copy and paste other user’s popular tweets in a cheap bid for attention. But it seemed like, for the first time, one comedian’s stolen jokes were being quietly deleted and replaced by a statement from Twitter referring to “a report from the copyright holder.” After years of flagrant theft, the new policy was heartening. But that the network took so long to acknowledge that a verbatim retelling of a joke by another user counted as copyright infringement points to the issue’s larger nebulousness, which has plagued comedy for decades. If the wording of two jokes aren’t exactly alike, how can you tell one was stolen?
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.