August 25, 2011

Cool It, Rover!

By: Aaron Datesman

At 1:51 pm Tuesday, I briefly went surfing while standing in line at the Au Bon Pain in L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, DC. The cashier panicked, screamed, and ran away, which left me sort of nonplussed. The earthquake didn't cause me to spill my soup, but it did leave me with no idea whom to pay, so for a short while I considered just walking off with my tray. About an hour later, having both paid for and subsequently finished my soup, I enjoyed a nice walk home in great weather. The sidewalks were thronged, and it was very pleasant.

Initial reports placed the earthquake epicenter at Culpeper, later moved to near Mineral, Virginia. I have been to Mineral: it's the location of Virginia Dominion Power's North Anna nuclear plant. So, as many others undoubtedly did, it occurred to me to look up what the situation was at North Anna after the earthquake:

The magnitude 5.8 earthquake that shook the East Coast on Tuesday was centered near a nuclear power plant, raising concerns that the facility could have been damaged.

North Anna Power Station, located about 10 miles from the epicenter, is running its safety systems on backup generators after the quake knocked out the plant’s outside power source.

David McIntyre, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the two reactors at the plant stopped generating power automatically after the quake.

Four diesel generators began backup operation immediately to support the plant’s safety system, he said. A couple hours after the quake, one of the diesel generators broke down.


The North Anna plant was designed to withstand a 5.9 to 6.1 quake.

The quake came “uncomfortably close” to that maximum, said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that advocates stronger regulation of nuclear power.

“We may be off the hook this time, but it was such a close call that we need to move quicker on reviewing all our nuclear plants,” Lyman said.

That the design safety margin with respect to the event which occurred turns out to be so small I find to be very, very worrisome - assuming that we should trust the engineering, maintenance, operations, and oversight at the plant at in the first place. (Experience, not to mention the failed backup generator, suggests that we would be wise to question.) But there's a piece of this story, which I think first began to dawn on the public mind due to Fukushima, which is worth reinforcing.

It's this: the plant's "safety system" is much more than just the emergency lights, and it is connected to outside power. When an incident occurs for which the prudent response is to shut down the reactor, the safety system must continue to operate using either the external utility connection or backup generation. Neither of these can be considered 100% reliable - ask residents of Montgomery County, MD, about their electricity service.

Furthermore, "safety system" sounds reassuring, but it's really sort of vague. I learned something during the tour of North Anna I attended in 1996, however, which provides the proper scale. Of the electrical power generated by the nuclear plant, one-third is directly consumed in the operation of the plant itself. I'm not highly expert in nuclear engineering, but from the standpoint of basic physics it's obvious that most of this energy is expended pushing coolant through the reactor. If that coolant flow is interrupted, the core melts down.

I don't think this is a new point - anyone who followed the news from Fukushima certainly understands it. For those who were paying attention, the point was also reinforced by the emergency at the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in June. Had the power failed for just several hours in Nebraska a few months ago, or had a couple of trees fallen on the wrong power lines in Virginia in August, there could easily have been a repeat of the Fukushima disaster in America in the summer of 2011. These have truly been near misses.

We could tie this story together and make it somewhat more accessible by noting that one-third of the output of one nuclear reactor at the North Anna station is (apportioning strictly by population) about the amount of power used by 200,000 Americans. If that power had not been available to drive flow through the coolant loops at North Anna or Fort Calhoun, disaster would quite rapidly have followed.

Perhaps this is a better demonstration. In the 1950's and 1960's, NASA developed a series of nuclear thermal rockets in anticipation of extending the Apollo program to Mars. I learned about this program (called Project Rover) while I was working at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, and I was astonished. The largest of these rockets, the NERVA NRX-XE, generated 1100 MW of thermal power. A modern commercial reactor generates about this amount of electrical power, and so is probably only a few times larger than the NERVA rocket in thermal output.

You can read about Rover/NERVA on Wikipedia; I bring it up only to point out that, in terms of heat generation, a commercial nuclear power plant in the OFF position basically has the equivalent of a NERVA rocket sitting inside it. That rocket is set to launch the minute the cooling system fails.

It's madness to believe that this technology can be harnessed safely.

— Aaron Datesman

UPDATE: I heard the following from a friend who trained and worked as a geologist in Virginia: apparently one of the two reactors at the North Anna site is actually built on an old fault line.

CORRECTION: I am not infrequently wrong. Myself, I view this as part of the process of discovery and learning. (Sometimes it also reflects sleep deprivation, alas.) If you instead view it as ongoing negation of my credibility on any issue for the rest of time forever, you're entitled to that determination. In this vein, I appreciate the commenter who took issue with most of the second half of this post. I encourage you to read the comments for yourself to follow the discussion. On the specific technical issues raised above, I think many aspects of the critique are correct.

Specifically, what I remember being told in 1996 is probably not correct; it's certainly not correct that one-third of the nuclear power plant's rated output is required to run its cooling systems when the plant is operating. The actual number, as given in several IAEA documents I link to in the comments, appears to be about 5%, or 50MW. This is approximately the amount of average power consumed by 30,000 Americans (assuming 500GW of generation across a population of 300 million persons), and is far smaller than what I claimed. Color me very embarrassed.

Even a reactor which successfully scrams, or shuts down, continues to generate a very substantial amount of heat - initially, around 7% of the plant's output at full operating power. Scaling the requirements of the cooling system by that same factor, we'd arrive at around 3MW of backup generation necessary to remove this waste heat. This is, I believe, about the size of the backup generation units at North Anna. Therefore, this makes sense, and I'm willing to accept the 5% number. I missed by a factor of six, which is not very good. (There are some details which still makes me curious, but this is like a loose thread, and if you begin to pull on it you'll never stop…..)

I believe that the NERVA comparison is legitimate, but not correct as written. At full operation (which was the condition of the plant at 1:51pm last Tuesday), one reactor at North Anna generates about 3GW of heat - that's three times larger than the largest NERVA rocket built by Project Rover (which might not be the one in the YouTube clip). The comparison I should have expressed is this: when it is operating at full power, what prevents the rocket inside the North Anna reactor from "launching" is the plant cooling system. That cooling system suddenly lost power due to an earthquake of unprecedented size last Tuesday. Had a piece of switching equipment (or a second backup generator) inside the plant failed, it's likely that a serious incident would have occurred at North Anna last week.

Apparently the safety systems operated as designed (ignoring that 25% of the backup generation capacity failed) and nothing untoward occurred. But a low probability of disaster is not the same as zero. Would you care to test the odds again? How about sixteen times, all at once? During the 2003 Northeast blackout, 16 nuclear power plants in the US and Canada lost utility service and went offline. The concerns I've outlined about North Anna after the earthquake applied to every one of those plants at that time, too.

This is not a safety margin I'm comfortable with, but it's not actually what worries me most in practice. What worries me is the assumption that the reactor will, in fact, turn off when the operators instruct it to do so. For instance, what if some corrosion inside the reactor causes a sub-assembly of control rods to stick in their channel halfway down? These machines are decades old. This isn't completely idle speculation on my part; we were presented an interesting case study about corrosion inside an operating reactor in the Nuclear Navy while I was a scientist at Bettis. (Ever look inside your water heater?) The higher-ups were very impressed that it had been possible to resolve the problem without decommissioning the reactor, but they never figured out what the offending material had been - or what had caused the corrosion in the first place.

Even the IAEA says quite plainly that the backup generation capacity is not sufficient to cool the reactor if the unit fails to shut down properly. Good engineers ask what happens if the valve sticks or the actuator jams and can't be opened. In my opinion, the answer in this case happens to be: disaster. I have been a practicing engineer. I don't trust complicated machines to operate as designed absolutely 100% of the time.

My apologies for the errors, and my thanks for the constructive (and substantively correct) comments. I encourage any & all useful contributions to the debate on this issue - especially when I am wrong.

Posted at 08:02 PM | Comments (56)

August 23, 2011

The Culprit Identified at Last

August 22, 1971: Aaron Datesman is born.

August 23, 1971: Exactly one day later, Lewis Powell gives the "Powell Memo" to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the blueprint for the all-out attack on the middle class by Corporate America that we've endured for the past 40 years.

Given that Datesman was able to set this in motion in his first day on earth, I hate to think what he's been up to in the other 14,610 since then.

P.S. Due to a typo, the title for the Powell Memo (as you can see in a pdf) is actually "The Attack of American Free Enterprise System."

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 06:35 PM | Comments (6)

August 22, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me!

By: Aaron Datesman

Since today was my fortieth birthday, I'm going to be indulgent and write about myself.

I was fortunate to spend most of last May tromping around in India. This is what India looks like from inside the car which carried my wife and me from Rishikesh to Ram Nagar:

40th Fig1.jpg

I'm thinking of this now because the gentleman driving the car was from Bhopal; both he and his wife were survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide industrial disaster. Like Chernobyl, Bhopal was much more severe than (to my awareness) is commonly understood in the United States. Somewhere between 100-200 thousand residents of the city were permanently injured.

The wife of the man sitting out of the frame on the right, for instance, was permanently paralyzed after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. She lingered on in ill health for more than twenty years before passing away several years ago.

I was unprepared to confront a disaster in India in which the United States was implicated in part because I believed I would never hear about or see anything more wrenching than this:

40th Fig2.jpg

This picture was taken in the summer of 2006 in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, which in my limited experience is (or, more accurately, ought to be) the most beautiful place on earth. This particular location lies at the beginning of a road christened (somewhat cheekily) the "Ho Chi Minh Trail". This incarnation of the Duong Ho Chi Minh was not built during the American War - instead, it was built in the 1990's to support the operation of a huge hydroelectric project in a remote section of northern Vietnam. Although it has now been cross-purposed for showing tourists around, however, the new Ho Chi Minh Trail does also overlie a portion of the wartime logistical network.

As such, the area was repeatedly and intensively attacked by American air forces during the Vietnam War. According to our guide, the area shown in this photograph was sprayed with Agent Orange five different times. Compared to what the rest of the Central Highlands looks like, the landscape in this photograph is essentially lifeless. My principal thought at the time was how much the view reminded me of the desert in Arizona.

(As an aside, the area shown in this picture was a part of South Vietnam prior to 1975. The afternoon in 2006 when I took this picture was the first time I was really able, in my gut, to agree with Noam Chomsky's contention that the Vietnam War was about the United States attacking South Vietnam. I understood it before then, but I don't think I really believed it.)

As great as the evils which humans perpetrate against other humans can be, in my opinion the cruelest souvenir of civilization's existence will be our wanton legacies of environmental and ecological destruction. In my soul I can't make sense of these disasters, and innumerable others like them.

Bhopal and Agent Orange are remote from me, fortunately; but as we are all one humanity, none of us are truly remote, and certainly none of us are immune to folly or invulnerable to its consequences. I am in the mind to think of this today, I guess, as I spent the weekend visiting family in Pennsylvania. It is now impossible for me to think of my childhood home without thinking about the Three Mile Island accident. Apparently my life is like a guided tour of grim industrial disasters.

Happy Birthday To Me!

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 11:59 PM | Comments (22)

August 19, 2011

(Almost) Too Easy

By:Aaron Datesman

Nothing to see here:

A staffer working for Rep. Darrell Issa's Oversight Committee on financial regulation issues has come under scrutiny by ThinkProgress for changing his name after he left his previous position at Goldman Sachs. The story implied that he changed his name three years ago to hide his background with the company.

But Peter Haller, formerly known as Peter Simonyi, said in a statement to TPM that he and his sister switched their names a few years back to respect the last wish of his grandfather to carry on his mother's family name.

Except maybe this:

His last request was that if Theodora marries, her husband and children would carry on the Haller name. As my sister and I became adults, at some point discussions began that we should carry on the name of my mother's family, which had lived in Transylvania (emphasis mine)

Weird, huh? I had formerly assumed that this description from Matt Taibbi was metaphorical:

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity

But that’s the thing about the American aristocracy: using actual vampires would probably be, in their opinion, just brazen enough.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 04:44 PM | Comments (11)

August 14, 2011

Another Victory For Universal Healthcare

By: John Caruso

Yet another judicial blow against President Obamney's corporate health insurance mandates:

[T]he individual mandate was enacted as a regulatory penalty, not a revenue-raising tax, and cannot be sustained as an exercise of Congress’s power under the Taxing and Spending Clause. The mandate is denominated as a penalty in the Act itself, and the legislative history and relevant case law confirm this reading of its function.

Further, the individual mandate exceeds Congress’s enumerated commerce power and is unconstitutional. This economic mandate represents a wholly novel and potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority: the ability to compel Americans to purchase an expensive health insurance product they have elected not to buy, and to make them re-purchase that insurance product every month for their entire lives.

I've talked to liberals who aren't thrilled with Obama's health care plan but nonetheless think it must still be worthwhile, because a) after all, Obama likes it, and b) it at least does something.  The fact that the something it does is to entrench corporate power over health care in the US to the point where it would take a nuclear bomb to dislodge it, not to mention to put a lengthy debate about universal healthcare off the national agenda for decades, either doesn't occur to them or is subsumed by their knee-jerk partisan instinct to at least politely nibble at whatever shit sandwich the Democrats happen to be feeding them at any given moment.  And the imperative of dining on that questionable meal also makes them willing to spin tortured rationalizations around the notion that it's ok for the government to compel us to buy a product from private for-profit corporations for our entire lives.

So it's left to conservatives and their knee-jerk partisan instincts to try to nullify this government gift to some of the most predatory and exploitative corporations in the US.  Thanks for doing what you can to save universal healthcare from the ongoing assault by Democrats and their misguided liberal supporters, 26 Republican attorneys general and governors!

(Yes, I'm plagiarizing myself.)

MOREOVER: The 11th Circuit also explicitly concluded that the expansion of Medicaid in the act is not unconstitutional—they struck down just the individual mandate and nothing else:

We first conclude that the Act’s Medicaid expansion is constitutional. Existing Supreme Court precedent does not establish that Congress’s inducements are unconstitutionally coercive, especially when the federal government will bear nearly all the costs of the program’s amplified enrollments.

So if Congress wants to go back and handle health care the right way—by making Medicaid or some other form of federally-funded health care available to everyone in the nation—there's no reason they can't do it.  For people who'd actually like to see universal healthcare in this country within the next few decades, this decision couldn't possibly have been better.

— John Caruso

Posted at 11:49 PM | Comments (42)

August 02, 2011

No, You Should Start Blaming Yourselves

By: John Caruso

A liberal writes about his erstwhile man-god:

Should liberals blame themselves, as so many are suggesting, for missing these red flags? How can we when so many were convinced of his sincerity? He is the most gifted orator in generations. He made us hear what he wanted us to hear. We so needed to find hope after eight dispiriting years under Bush that we had to believe—the alternative, that he was just another slick-talking politician, would have been nihilistic.

We must stop making excuses for him and stop blaming ourselves for blindly supporting him.

You would think that objectively and accurately assessing the readily available evidence concerning Obama rather than euphorically embracing his empty rhetoric would be recognized—after the fact, if nothing else—as rational, not "nihilistic".  You would think an adult would understand that nobody can make  them hear anything, if they choose to exercise their own judgment and skepticism.  You would think it would go without saying that "blindly supporting" any politician—or indeed any authority figure—is an act for which people most certainly should blame themselves, if for no other reason than to demonstrate a sincere intention not to do it again.

You would be wrong.  In the age of Obama, being a liberal means never having to say you're sorry.

— John Caruso

Posted at 12:46 PM | Comments (110)

August 01, 2011

It Turns Out What Was Obviously Going to Happen Will Happen

Mitch McConnell:

MCCONNELL: It set the template for the president — in the near future, maybe in the distant future — is going to be able to get the debt ceiling increased without a re-ignition of the same discussion of how do we cut spending and get America headed in the right direction. I expect the next president, whoever that is, is going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again in 2013, so we’ll be doing it all over.

So there will be an infinite number of chances for Democratic presidents to slash Social Security and Medicare—and sure normally they'd love to hold an extensive debate on such a momentous decision, but darn it, they're being held hostage by the dastardly insane Republicans so there's NO TIME WE MUST SLASH SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE OR WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE. Etc.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 10:59 PM | Comments (20)