Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Giving it another try

Once-regular readers of this blog have probably noticed that things have been pretty silent for the last ten months. Truth be told, I've been completely separated from the world of engineering for the last year and a half. Between my current job and my non-involvement in the world of technological progress, I can't say I've had much to say.

The situation is changing this Monday, as I start a new job in the defense and space industry. It will require the skills I learned in engineering school and in the US Air Force. My time away from this industry has helped me to see things from a different perspective, letting me appreciate the pay and intellectual camaraderie that are often part of technical work.

In the days ahead I will make more frequent posts when I have some perspective to share on the technology issues of the day. Hopefully I can inspire a few people to see the ramifications of technology from a new perspective as they try to form intelligent, informed opinions of their world.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Case Against Nuclear Power from the Right

Over the decades, the debate over nuclear power could be framed in somewhat simple terms. "Corporate polluters" on the right wanted to destroy the environment with nuclear power, while "Luddite environmentalist hippies" on the left were standing in the way of science and progress. My use of those terms is sarcastic of course, but such is the banality of debate in America where opposing viewpoints are belittled in such simple terms.

In more recent times, environmentalist opposition to nuclear power has softened due to fears about carbon dioxide's role in global climate change. While many environmentalists still put their faith in solar and wind power, the more pragmatic proponents of Anthropomorphic Global Warming have seen the drawbacks of "clean energy" and begrudgingly put their faith in nuclear power as a bridge technology until something better (such as fusion) comes along. But if the left can rethink its stereotypical opposition to nuclear power, can the right rethink its unflinching support?

During the height of the Atomic Age in the 1950's, the American public was sold on the idea that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter." At the most basic level of nuclear physics, the proponents of nuclear power were correct; a tiny amount of uranium fuel could produce far more power than an equivalent amount of coal or natural gas.

As nuclear power progressed from the experimental stage to operational nuclear plants, it became clear that "too cheap to meter" would not survive a head-on collision with reality. While the fuel costs would be comparatively low when compared with fossil energy, the deadly radiation made it necessary to spend a lot of time, money and bureaucracy to ensure the safety of the power plant. These measures made the startup costs of nuclear power astronomical. Nuclear power only became commercially viable thanks to guaranteed loans and laws to limit the insurance liability for nuclear accidents. For free-market libertarians, nuclear power became a corporate welfare queen that could not survive in a free market (although the energy sector is not a free market and operates under heavy government regulation.) While some of the bureaucracy could likely be trimmed to get plants licensed and built faster, some of it is also necessary to ensure the safety of the plants once they go into service.

Can nuclear power compete on an equal footing with fossil fuels? Does nuclear's lack of carbon emissions compensate for any economic disadvantages? These are all some of the complex issues swirling at the center of an unsettled debate on the economics of nuclear power. There is no doubt that even if environmental catastrophe is avoided at Japan's Fukushima plant, the economic impact will be measured in the billions of dollars.

Admittedly I have a fascination with nuclear power. I am extremely proud of the decades of work my father has accomplished in support of nuclear power. I was excited enough about graduate studies in nuclear engineering that I took a 200-level course on the topic before rethinking the direction of my career. Yet the staggering startup costs and the cost (and risk) associated with potential failure are enough to make me question whether taming the power of fission is really worth it.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I had planned on spending this update reflecting on the retirement of Space Shuttle Discovery, but the ongoing meltdown of three nuclear reactors at Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant deserves a bit more attention. As the crisis unfolds, it's worth asking if anything more can be done to limit this disaster's effects, and whether a similar situation could occur within the United States (where 23 GE-built reactors of similar design are operating today.)

The Fukushima Disaster can undeniably be linked to Friday's tsunami, which may have killed as many as 10,000 people as it buffeted the Japanese mainland. While the reactors "scrammed" (shut down) as planned when the earthquake was first detected, the loss of power to the plant's coolant pumps led to their overheating and the eventual melting of fuel rods within the reactors. Fukushima is not typical of the way most nuclear plants behave during earthquakes; American nuclear plants have withstood earthquakes before without overheating. Diesel generators are supposed to drive the coolant systems until the reactor can be brought back online. It's likely that Fukushima's diesel generators were damaged by the tsunami. By this point it's almost certain that none of those three reactors will return to service, since the Fukushima plant officials have resorted to the desperate measure of pumping highly-corrosive seawater into the reactors to cool them.

The larger question is whether it's ever possible to completely disaster-proof a nuclear power plant. The anti-nuclear activists would say that it's not, and argue that there's no acceptable risk level when dealing with the small probability that a disaster such as Fukushima could happen.

"Acceptable risk" is important when considering the consequences of disaster, however unlikely they may be. This past spring & summer's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico certainly made me reconsider whether our society should accept the remote risks of offshore drilling after seeing the consequences the spill created for the Gulf Coast. Will there be consequences after the Fukushima disaster? It's hard to say because of conflicting experts who have taken their message to the airwaves since this disaster started to unfold. Opponents of nuclear power argue that molten nuclear fuel, fission byproducts and other core materials will eat through the reactor's containment vessel and escape into the environment. Supporters of nuclear power generally believe that the molten materials will be contained, and any gases released will be largely harmless as they were during the Three Mile Island meltdown of 1979.

Just as the nuclear power industry appeared to be headed towards rebirth and growth around the world, the natural disaster of the tsunami is forcing policymakers to reconsider its views on nuclear power. I have no doubt that short-term measures will be taken to protect the diesel generators of many nuclear power plants in areas where there is risk of earthquake, tsunami and other natural disasters. There may also be new designs for venting the hydrogen gas which exploded and partially destroyed the outer containment buildings of the #1 & 3 reactors. If nuclear power is not stalled as a result of this accident, we may see a renewed push for safer reactor designs that rely on helium coolant and pebble-like fuel elements.

As America and other nations continue to debate the role of nuclear power, it's important to take measured reactions to the disaster at Fukushima. With any technology there are risks we have to accept when it fails. Nuclear power is an important "bridge technology" between the coal-fired plants we've relied on for too long, and a faraway future of nuclear fusion. Practically-speaking, we will need to accept and minimize nuclear power's risks to meet our nation's energy needs well into the future.

FOr great analysis of what's going on at Fukushima, check out the Nullius in Verba blog. Good stuff!