Local lessons from Chernobyl

Progress Energy's Shearon-Harris nuclear facility has one of the largest stores of spent fuel rods in the US, a number of recently reported security problems and is slated for a couple new reactors in spite of a 1991 near meltdown.

Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster - with Lessons for the Triangle

When: Wednesday, April 26th, 7 to 9 pm
Where: McDougle Middle School,
900 Fayetteville Rd., Carrboro [MAP]

Hosted by NC-WARN.
Click here for more info (Word doc).



...an event which will probably be powered by a Nuclear plant.

So john, are you a proponent of nucular power?

Yes, it is the only reasonable technology for large scale power generation for the future. I like renewable energy, too but it will never be possible to replace nuclear power with it- the energy density of wind, solar, etc is too low.

I find it a bit ironic that people are protesting it using electricity generated by it. And, to compare Chernobyl to our local facilities is an apples and oranges exercise.

I went to the meeting. Mary Olson, the principal speaker,
described the Chernobyl event and its local and international
impacts extremely well, and as far as I could tell, with few
emotions, rather on a factual basis.

Her first message was that, due to the time course of disease, the impact of Chernobly is just starting with
solid cancers and birth defects. Secondly, the
construction of the Chernobly reactor system is not so
different from many of the reactors now in use in the U.S.
and in western Europe -- so don't take too much comfort
in the construction issues. As she explained, the
accident resulted from a series of operator errors
due to misunderstandings of what was going on inside
the reactor itself.

Striking to me was the combination of two things:
First, Mrs. Olson showed photos of Pripyat, the abandoned city about 5 miles downwind from the reactor. It
looks like -- no, it is -- a ghost town. Second, the
Orange County emergency managedment personnel
described their evacuation plan, warts and all.
Raleigh is 10 miles downwind from Shearon Harris.
It is physically impossible to get all the people out
of Raleigh in a day, even in perfect conditions, with
no panic. But these accidents don't happen in
perfect conditions -- there is panic, parents
do immediately drive to their kid's schools, cars do break
down on an already-clogged I-40, etc. But a major
issue that I had not understood, is that the nuclear
accident has its genesis in the loss of on-grid electricity,
and around here, that means hurricanes and ice storms.
Imagine evacuating Raleigh during an ice storm.

It is absolutely inconceivable to me how CP&L, the NRC,
and the Raleigh City Council allowed the Shearon
Harris plant to be built where it is.

I close with an economic-geopolitical tidbit from
Mrs. Olson that I found fascinating. The
USSR spent 500 billion dollars (so far) on Chernobyl
and its human aftermath, a significant contributor
to the economic failure and breakup of the USSR.

Alternative energy means just that, alternative. It doesn't mean trying to say we can have everything just the way it is (energy inefficient applicances, SUVs, etc) through wind, solar, hydro, and tidal power. If the power plant blew up tomorrow and millions died or suffered from cancer and two weeks later we found out that OPEC was out of oil - are you saying we would have no power? Of course not. We would find a way. So, why is it we have to wait for that day. What is it with America and its procrastination with environmental affairs?

I find it a bit ironic that people are protesting it using electricity generated by it.

I love the "irony" that people are using resources created by their opposition to protest or overthrow them. Power, political and electrical, can work with you AND against you.

Well, a reasonable person would know that the plant cannot "blow up"-unless of course you have been trained in Nuclear Engineering by the movie "The China Syndrome" or the folks that ran the "commemorative". The popular press needs to go to engineering school before writing about such technical matters as Nuclear plant design.

The fact is, people will not conserve on their own, in large part. It requires the legislature to pass efficiency laws, etc. Most people do not understand the current energy situation and need to be led. Of course, our local politicians are too busy landing almost a million bucks for a handful of fancy bus stop infosystems, so people know how long they have to wait for their free ride. No time for hard decisions.

Wow, John. Great debate technique, take one word out of context and spin your response around it. Reminds me of someone, someone Republican, someone Presidentish.

We don't need to legislate efficiency. If nuclear power was selling at it's actual cost, people would not buy it. In fact, even with the unfairly sloped playing field due to huge socialized subsidies, it's quite a gamble to build any more of these budget-busters.

The engineers need to pull their heads out of the sand and learn a little about democracy and economics.

I wish someone would run the numbers on the number of people harmed/maimed/killed in the extraction/use of coal.

And oil.

And global warming.

And then talk to the French about how THEY feel about nuclear power...


Reading the article about the French nuclear power effort,
I am reminded of the two times that I have truly stood in
awe (good and bad) of nuclear technology. The first was in
1972. I had just finished grad school, and went out to
Los Alamos for a several-day-long job interview. As part
of that trip, I visited their nuclear weapons museum and
saw the mockups of the two bombs that we dropped on
Japan. They were small, perhaps six feet long, incredibly small in the context
of the amount of damage that they did. I just stood there
and gaped.

The second was about eight years ago. In the context of
the Orange County court case against CP&L's desire
to move
more spent fuel rods into the Shearon Harris pools, I (and
several other elected officials) accepted an invitation to
receive a tour of the fuel handling and storage building
at Shearon Harris.

What I saw there was phenomenal. In two swimming
pools, each about the size of an apartment buildiing
pool, though about 40 feet deep, were half of the
spent fuel rods that CP&L had ever used to generate
electricity in North Carolina. It was eerie. Without
going into the technical details of why, the lower depths
of the pools glowed blue, and the rods emitted bubbles,
just like champagne, the newer rods being hotter,
emitted more bubbles. For the second time I stood
and gaped at nuclear technology.

This was pre 9/11, and we were less concerned about
an airplane being used as a major terrorist weapon.
But I still remembered the previous time I toured the
plant, in about 1985, about six months before fuel was
loaded into the reactor. As part of a tour for the local
chapter of the
IEEE (electrical engineering professional society), we
were given a tour of the reactor and the domed containment
building. The CP&L spokesmen made a big deal about the
fact that the containment building was designed to
successfully withstand the direct impact of a 747.
And it contained an awesome amount of concrete and
very thick and closely spaced ribar.
Remembering that earlier tour, I looked at the construction of the
building that housed the spent fuel pools. It was a
reasonable. flat-roofed, commercial building, not at all designed against an airplane attack. To me, to this day,
this is the one thing about the Shearon Harris plant
that scares me.


If stemming global warming is your goal, the studpidest choice would be to spend mega-billions on nuclear reactors that would not generate electricity for many years rather than take that money and invest in energy-efficiency which could begin making a difference immediately.

I don't support nuclear power either, but the motivation for building and running them is to address peak demand. For those who don't understand how utilities plan and charge, here's a short lesson.

Utilities are billed on two levels: demand and consumption. Demand basically covers current and future infrastructure and is based on estimates of peak load demands. Based on historical demand records, what is the absolute highest demand a utility would be required to provide--that's how they size their infrastructure. So we are all paying for infrastructure based on inefficient use records and local growth estimates.

Consumption is just what it says--how much did you use this month. So as Mark says, if we all switched to compact fluorescent (CFL) lighting instead of using incandescent bulbs, we would pay less now on the consumption charge and eventually the demand data used by the power companies might show less need to increase infrastructure. But I believe they are currently planning (and charging) for 10 years out, so any behavioral changes we make today won't reflect in the planning process for quite some time. Utility pricing is not particularly responsive given the high costs of infrastructure development.

Melanie wrote above:
"Nuclear Energy is rather like abortion…emotionally charged and without middle ground."

Melanie, I agree with everything you said in your entire
post, except for your statement that there is no
middle ground. I think you represent the middle ground
very well, appreciating the pros and cons of all the various power types, and applaud you for your statements.

My mother's father, John Wengrenovich, came to the U.S.
from the Ukraine in about 1910 and, as many eastern Europeans, worked as a coal miner in western Pennsylvania. He died in 1947
of (not surprisingly) respiratory problems. Whenever I
read or participate in debates about nuclear power, he
is right in the front of my mind.

We all want our electricity, as if by magic. No one wants
to live next to the power plant, and no one wants the power
plant to do any damage to the environment, to its employees,
or to us. Unfortunately, this is fantasy.

I disagree. Depends on what your long term view is. Mine is Nuclear Power. Melanie is right, IMHO

Why not invest money in BOTH? I do what I can to conserve now...but I am not inherently opposed to nuclear power. I KNOW the waste is still an issue--but there is new technology out there, and I think it's worth exploring. France gets 76% of it's electricity from nuclear power plants.

Look--my husband was a physics major as an undergrad, got his MS in EE for grad school. DS is a physics major...there is some pretty cool research going on right now. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pebble_bed_reactorYes, Chernobyl was a HORRIBLE thing. BUT. So is black lung. So is acid mine drainage. So is slurry pollution. So are underground coal fires. http://www.offroaders.com/album/centralia/centralia.htm To date, we have been unable to discover a power source that is completely without risk or side effects.

I was TOTALLY anti-nuke when I was younger. In later years I have modified my views...in part because of what coal-powered plants do to the environment--and I'm NOT just talking global warming. Conservation is important. Alternative energy is important. But even "renewables" have their costs. Wind power can be problematic for birds and bats...not to mention the massive amount of LAND windfarms need. Hydro-electric causes problems for aquatic species...both upstream and down.

Yes, we should conserve. YES we should invest in energy efficient technologies. BUT--should we really eliminate the nuclear power option? Is that TRULY being responsible? I don't think so.

I don't think any argument I put forth will change anyone's mind. Nuclear Energy is rather like abortion...emotionally charged and without middle ground.


It''s been mentioned here before, but redesigning appliances or completely turning them off can save a huge amount of electricity:

The International Energy Agency, where Meier now works, says it takes about four nuclear power plants to supply the standby power consumed annually in Europe. By 2010, it's expected the number will grow to eight nuclear plants.

The same article points out that %5 of US, %10-%15 in japan and some European countries, of energy is wasted on standby mode.

The nuclear power output of U.S. plants would be displaced if energy-efficient lighting were installed everywhere in the country.

So what is the real motivation for building & running nukes?

Not to rehash previous discussions, but... Until we modernize the transmission system (%10-15 off the top, a national security disgrace), deal with "small" wastage like instant-on (standby) or efficient lighting (when is Chapel Hill going to do this) , invest real monies on non-peak electricity storage technologies (produce at night, use during the day) and spend "nuke industry" type of monies on alternative energy research, making a case to expand on an energy source promising the longest term lethality and the greatest possible threat to public safety makes zero sense.

BTW, I have a background in the sciences and have monitored nuclear energy developments for 30 years. The "pebble" approach is interesting but still doesn't deal with the long term waste issue, the potential for weaponization and the misuse of by-products.


Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County are all working on energy plans that will address the local structural issues you reference as well as setting goals for carbon reduction that will include transportation. I haven't seen the plan but knowing the people involved, I imagine there will also be behavioral components to the plan. Alice Gordon has taken a leadership role in promoting this collaboration.

OWASA is undertaking a similar investigation of our energy uses and while we're not an official partner in the local government efforts, we are participating. Like the local govts we've joined ICLEI and are including hybrid vehicles in our capital equipment plans and using alternative fuels to some extent (we could do better on this issue).


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