Meltdowns and rabbits: the Holy Grail, Japan style

A rabbit is a fearsome beast if you’re a carrot.

If you’re not a carrot, the rabbit is more likely to be your meal.

That is why the Cave of Caerbannog scene near the end of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail is so hilarious. In that scene, the fearless knights are led to the mouth of the cave by a talkative wizard warning of a terrible monster that guards the cave. The monster turns out to be a little white rabbit, which, while vicious, is easily dispatched by a holy hand grenade. For a laugh, here is the scene in YouTube:

Armed knights fleeing from a rampaging rabbit is pretty much analogous to the Japanese and German governments fleeing from nuclear power because of the Fukushima situation.

Yes, I said Japanese. Reuters reports that Japanese government officials have warned that all 54 of Japan’s nuclear power reactors could be shut down by next April if their host communities won’t allow them to operate.

This report accompanies worldwide “news” that one or more of the affected reactors at Fukushima melted down. I put “news” in quotes to indicate yet another instance in which news organizations have used their rhetorical skill to rehash speculation—which started on Day One of this “crisis”—on frankly rather boring possibilities of meltdown, and turn that rehash into something they had better tell everyone NOW. Why is this news? Because a news organization says it is!

Here is a sample of what is out there now, 89 days after the ferocious quake/tsunami that damaged the Fukushima reactors:

Sounds scary, doesn’t it. But remember to keep in mind the Prime Number in this whole business. That is the only number that matters.

The Prime Number is zero. It represents the number of people who have died because of the nuclear situation at Fukushima.

Which kind of makes those sensational headlines sound like the wizard’s dire warnings in the Monty Python clip.

The scary sounding thing called “meltdown” may indeed have happened. Some or all of the fuel in any or all of the three affected Fukushima reactors could have melted.

And what is the upshot? Zero deaths, 89 days into the event.

Go back and look at the other meltdowns that have occurred in the history of the civilian nuclear sector. The other two, the NRX meltdown at Chalk River in 1952 and of course Three Mile Island in 1979, produced a casualty count exactly equal to that of Fukushima.

Not a single person has ever died because of a nuclear meltdown.

People in Germany and Japan have to keep their eye on the Prime Number. And so do we all.

If we do, we will see that that scary monster called “meltdown” is very much like the Monty Python rabbit. We’re not carrots. So why are we running away from this rabbit?

9 comments for “Meltdowns and rabbits: the Holy Grail, Japan style

  1. June 8, 2011 at 21:31

    Since you’re bringing up pop culture actually the comic strip character Superman is not a bad analogy for nuclear power. Mild Mannered personality, philanthropic, powerful, compact, not boastful, one Achilles Heal Kryptonite in Nuclear Power the Achilles Heal might be the inability to not appear like a monster.

    In that sense the nuclear industry is like Shrek. Maybe those characters can be used in pronuclear advertising.

    • Steve Aplin
      June 9, 2011 at 14:55

      Rick, that’s not a bad idea. Tag the technology to some innocuous character that everyone knows. My vote is for Shrek!

  2. Maury Markowitz
    June 15, 2011 at 14:23

    “Not a single person has ever died because of a nuclear meltdown.”

    Let’s examine the list, at least what I can recall:

    K-19 had a near meltdown that killed 9. K-27 suffered fuel element failure (but not meltdown, it was bismuth-lead cooled so the definition is hazy) that killed 9. K-219 had a near meltdown in spite of SCRAMming, killing the operator and later sinking the sub.

    Chernobyl melted (more than) 30% of its core into the corium lava flow under the reactor, requiring manual opening of the bubbler pool valves which killed two of the three men involved. Other events, many radiation related, killed another 29 in other locations in the plant. UNSCEAR states that the radiation death toll stood at 64 in 2008 and expects it to rise to about 4000.

    Do you deny that these deaths occurred? Do you deny that these are meltdowns, or close enough to consider? Or do you deny that they died *because* of the meltdown?

    • Steve Aplin
      June 15, 2011 at 14:34

      Maury,

      Chernobyl went supercritical, as the result of the operators deliberately overrriding safety systems. That’s what blew the lid off the reactor and led to the graphite fire.

      You can reclassify the accident and call it a meltdown if you’re really determined to change facts.

      NRX, TMI, and Fukushima have between them zero fatalities.

      I know you think we need to pander to societal fears and prejudices, even if that means scaremongering, since that is what gets people’s attention. But are you really saying nuclear energy is more dangerous than the other energy sources? Even on the Enquirer level, explosions are news. So go and google “natural gas explosion” — isn’t there anything newsworthy in any of those results?

  3. Maury Markowitz
    June 16, 2011 at 12:57

    “Chernobyl went supercritical”

    So does every reactor when it is being powered up – that’s the definition. The problem in the case of Chernobyl was not supercriticality, but prompt-criticality.

    “as the result of the operators deliberately overrriding safety systems”

    This claim was widely circulated in 1986 when the accident was first being investigated, and was the main conclusion of that’s year’s INSAG-1 report. As further information came to light over the next few years, it became clear that this was not the case. Quite the opposite, the emergency systems were working throughout. INSAG-7 clearly notes “Certain actions by operators that were identified in INSAG-1 as violations of rules were in fact not violations”. In fact, it was the proper operation of the EPS-5 safety system that immediately preceded the excursion.

    When the INSAG-7 report was published in 1992, it stated that the earlier claims were untrue, and blamed the accident mostly on the reactor design, poor safety culture at all levels, a considerable amount on poor operating procedure, and the rest on the operators changing the test. In particular, it noted that previous similar incidents like Leningrad and Ignalina did not result in changes to the design or operating procedures. And who’s fault was that? The same national group that placed the blame on the operators in 1986.

    If you wish to repeat this claim after reading this official document, by all means, I look forward to your arguments (fully referenced, of course). Here’s the link, I suggest starting on page 23:

    http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/Pub913e_web.pdf

    “You can reclassify the accident and call it a meltdown if you’re really determined to change facts.”

    This thread is about calling meltdowns “bunnies” and nuclear power “superman”. Yet the language here negatively accuses me of doing the same thing? The irony is delicious.

    Let’s see what common definitions of a nuclear meltdown are:

    * Severe overheating of a nuclear reactor core, resulting in melting of the core and escape of radiation (AHD)

    * The melting of a significant portion of a nuclear-reactor core due to inadequate cooling of the fuel elements, a condition that could lead to the escape of radiation (Random)

    * An event where the core of a nuclear reactor is heated so much that it melts. (ABD)

    By any of these definitions, Chernobyl suffered a meltdown: the core melted and flowed into the area under the reactor containment vessel. I have pictures, if you want to see them. In order to avoid this problem causing a further explosion, three divers were dispatched to allow water out of the area, two of whom died as a result. That makes it a fatal meltdown.

    If you have some other definition that you believe points to a different conclusion, by all means, present it.

    “I know you think”

    Oh cool, you have a mind reading device! Can I borrow it?

    • Steve Aplin
      June 16, 2011 at 13:49

      I see I must speak by the card. Chernobyl went supercritical from prompt neutrons.

      The sequence of the accident is the salient issue. The reactor went supercritical (from prompt neutrons), i.e. power maneuvers by plant operators in preparation for a test led to a power surge which overwhelmed the cooling system. Pressure from the steam explosion blew the lid off the reactor. That, not core melt, is the accident.

      Again, speaking by the card, I infer what you think from what you have said. In response to my question about nuclear vs. non-nuclear fatalities you gave the royal wedding vs. Mid-East revolutions as an example. And since you’ve spent a lot of time trying to shoehorn Chernobyl into the death-by-meltdown category I take that as an indication that you also believe a nuclear fatality is more noteworthy than a non-nuclear one. In which case I repeat:

      When the prospect of a single nuclear-related fatality is judged more newsworthy than the plight of half a million homeless survivors of an unprecedented natural disaster, then something has gone egregiously wrong in the editorial rooms of mainstream media vehicles. It is time we admit that we do risk wrong in our public conversations.

      • Maury Markowitz
        June 21, 2011 at 13:32

        “Chernobyl went supercritical from prompt neutrons”

        Well I hope so, all reactors go supercritical from prompt neutrons. They have to in order to start up. Bruce Unit 5 went supercritical from prompt neutrons in July 2009, for instance.

        “The sequence of the accident is the salient issue”

        It is also salient that you are no longer claiming that safety systems were turned off.

        “That, not core melt, is the accident.”

        The definition of “the accident” here is clearly in opposition to your own statement of what “the accident” was in the case of Fukushima. Following the definition you use here, “the accident” in that case was the tsunami, yet you didn’t mention that at all. Instead, the “the nuclear situation” is mentioned along with the term meltdown several times. So again you change the definition of the terms to suit the immediate argument, something I find distracting.

        I prefer to use clear, widely used and unchanging definitions. Did the core melt? Then it’s a meltdown. Did people die as a result of the melted core? Then it’s a fatal meltdown. Chernobyl was a fatal meltdown.

        “Again, speaking by the card, I infer”

        How can you “infer” when “speaking by the card”?

        “I take that as an indication that you also believe a nuclear fatality is more noteworthy than a non-nuclear one.”

        My entire post on the topic said the exact opposite.

        Wait a moment, wait a moment… ohhhh, I get it now! This blog is actually, secretly, an anti-nuclear-power web site!

        If I wanted to be sure people didn’t like nuclear power, I’d set up a blog and make all sorts of poor arguments for nuclear. The arguments would be so weak that they would practically *beg* attacks by nuclear power critics. Then I would make personal attacks, and ignore any of the points they bring up. That way, people reading the blog would see these arguments, and by association, conclude that the entire pro-nuclear group should be written off.

        No-nukes FTW! I’m going to register “spacebasedpower.com” right now! Oh bummer, someone beat me too it…

        Or perhaps this blog is genuine, and the person you’re debating is actually a nuclear supporter attempting to prevent this from happening by weeding out the soft arguments and demonstrating how to improve the debate.

        I leave it to the reader to decide which argument they prefer.

        • Steve Aplin
          June 21, 2011 at 14:43

          Try whatever rhetorical tricks you like. What destroyed the reactor? The lid getting blown off the top. The reactor went supercritical (to speak by the card, underwent a prompt neutron runaway reaction), which blew the lid off the top. That’s the accident. A car veers off the highway into a rock cut, turning the driver into paste and the engine into a clump of mangled metal. By your logic, engine failure caused the accident and killed the driver. By real logic, it was the car going out of control.

          And why did Chernobyl go out of control? Among other things:

          When the reactor power could not be restored to the intended level of 700 MW(th), the operating staff did not stop and think, but on the spot they modified the test conditions to match their view at that moment of the prevailing conditions.

          Well planned procedures are very important when tests are to take place at a nuclear plant. These procedures should be strictly followed. Where in the process it is found that the initial procedures are defective or they will not work as planned, tests should cease while a carefully preplanned process is followed to evaluate any changes contemplated.

          Almost all control and safety rods were out, i.e. not in a position where they could prevent a runaway reaction. They were out because operators took them out. That is what I mean when I say the accident was “the result of the operators deliberately overrriding safety systems.”

          • Maury Markowitz
            August 17, 2011 at 15:29

            “A car veers off the highway into a rock cut, turning the driver into paste and the engine into a clump of mangled metal.”

            With you so far…

            “By your logic, engine failure caused the accident and killed the driver. By real logic, it was the car going out of control.”

            Given that your example doesn’t state what killed the driver, or what caused the accident, it seems odd you would nevertheless suggest to understand my logic!

            As you’re fond (3 times in 5 messages) of “speaking by the card”, perhaps this would be a good time to do exactly that. What we need to discuss is the difference between “proximate cause” and “ultimate causation”. This is well studied in legal terms, as it is the basis for English legal system of negligence. A quick primer…

            Basically, the “proximate cause” is the event that is most closely tied, in time normally, to the problem being studied. The “ultimate causation” is where you get when you continue to work backward through a chain of events to find what caused those events. It can be very difficult to find the ultimate causation in real-world cases, because it’s often difficult to know where to stop. You’ll see why, below. There is also one “special” proximate cause, the “cause-in-fact”. This is the event that makes the follow-on events irreversible. This is often the proximate cause that is considered during legal cases.

            Note that your example fails to provide information that might be used to identify any of these causes. We don’t know how the driver died, just that he did, so identifying the proximate cause is impossible. Nor do you mention what caused the car to lose control, so the cause-in-fact would seem to be impossible to determine as well. And the ultimate cause? Well, clearly, had mankind not evolved then this accident would not have occured!

            So let’s try a slightly expanded version that actually includes the information one would need to study the accident…

            “While driving northbound on the Sea-to-Sky Hiway, Mr. X’s front passenger-side tire blew out due to a puncture caused by scrap metal dropped on the road by a southbound semi-trailer approximately 1 minute earlier. As a result the car was strongly pulled to the right. The car left the hiway at approximately 80 km/h and impacted a vertical rock face at the bottom of The Chief after a period of time that was too short for human reaction times to correct. Due to the angle of the collision, the steering wheel was driven rearward and impaled Mr. X. He died of blood loss while awaiting emergency response crews for 30 minuets and was declared dead at the scene”.

            So in this case it is actually clear that Mr. X died as a result of the accident (note that in your example this isn’t stated – maybe he died of a heart attack and that caused the car to loose control?). Depending on the court case, the proximate cause might be the failure of the ambulance to arrive in time, a design flaw that meant that this car would drive the steering wheel rearward in the case of a frontal impact, a manufacturing flaw in the tire, or negligence on the part of the truck operator that allowed the metal to be on the road (as was the case in the Air France Concorde crash). However, the cause-in-fact is the metal on the road. If the metal had not cut the tire, none of the following events would have occurred.

            So, with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s once again examine Chernobyl.

            The power-switching experiment at Chernobyl, the fifth in a series of such experiments, had been planned to take place starting on 25 April and carrying on into the next day. However, the Kiev regional power authority asked that the experiment be put on hold for a time, as another power plant had gone down and the power from the reactor was needed to make up the difference. As a result, a shift change occurred and the team that was intended to carry out the experiment was changed with a new one that was not familiar with it.

            When power authority cleared the plant to reduce power, the operators overshot their mark of 700 MW and went as low as 500 MW. Normally this would be corrected by momentarily extracting the control rods. For reasons that will remaining unknown to history, the operator did the opposite: Toptunov mistakenly *inserted* the rods almost all the way. This caused the reactor to drop to about 30 MW, almost shut down. To prevent the shutdown, and the associated multi-day startup sequence, the rods were removed again. Several alarms sounded, but the crew was able to bring the reactor to a stable 200 MW at about 1 in the morning (now 1 day after the experiment started). Water flow at this point was high, increasing neutron capture, which required the rods to be further removed to maintain power.

            Now at this point nothing has gone wrong, and the reactor is in a safe, yet unstable, state of operation. The experiment then started at about 1:23 in the morning. At this point steam voids appeared, and as the reactor design had a positive void coefficient, the rate of reaction increased. This cause the SKALA system to call for a shutdown, and at some point someone pressed the EPS-5 button to start an emergency SCRAM. This caused the control rods to be inserted, but they broke inside their channels and blocked further insertion, and the reaction rate soared. The last reading on the control panel was 33 GW, about 10 times nominal power.

            Over the next few minutes several steam explosions occurred. The last of these destroyed the core and stopped the nuclear excursion. However, by this point the graphite moderator was on fire, continuing to build heat (and the use of flammable roofing didn’t help matters). Cooling water stopped flowing, and the core suffered a meltdown. Some of this material reached the bubbler pools, which failed to drain. Volunteers then donned diving suits and manually opened the valves. These men later died of radiation poisoning.

            So then following the example above, which actually does follow my logic, then we need to start by identifying the proximate cause of the deaths of the two divers. The proximate cause was the meltdown. That is, had the core not melted, the divers would not be in the water.

            But then what is the “cause-in-fact”? That is clearly the point when Toptunov *inserted* the control rods. Had that event not occurred, the crew would not have had to react to the shutdown, so they would not have had to remove the rods, nor increase water flow.

            You quote INSAG-7 in an odd fashion, asking “why did Chernobyl go out of control” but then hedging the statement with “Among other things”. However, it is clear that the choice to move ahead with the test series at 200 MW *occurred after the mistaken drop to 30 MW”. So this is *not* the proximate cause.

            But all of this is academic anyway…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *