Friday, August 03, 2007

The Bridge Collapse and Nuclear Safety

The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis brought into public view the issue of aging infrastructure in the United States.

One type of facility that hasn't been mentioned much though is the problem of nuclear facilities especially old nuclear power plants.

In Minneapolis, the bridge collapsed despite passing inspections that did not require its replacement for at least another decade or two. Obviously the inspection regimen was faulty. Some unknown factors caused the bridge's failure, which eventually should be ascertained after forensic investigations that could last a year or more.

Despite the tragedy of the incident, the overall human, economic and ecological effects of the bridge collapse pale in comparison to what would happen in a major nuclear failure.

A major nuclear failure of the most extreme kind could create what is known as the China Syndrome.

Even Chernobyl was not a China Syndrome scenario and thus not the worse case scenario for a nuclear accident. However, Chernobyl caused the evacuation and resettlement of 336,000 people and a 30 kilometer zone around the plant is restricted to settlement for an indefinite period.

If an incident caused a China Syndrome, the overheated reactor core breaks through the bottom of its containment and melts through the earth until it reaches ground water. A steam explosion occurs dispersing radioactive material in a much more serious manner than the Chernobyl fire.

So an unanticipated fault with a nuclear plant has consequences that far outreach that of a bridge failure or even the most serious type of dam failure. While a very major dam break might cause more immediate loss of life, they don't render areas permanently uninhabitable.

A worse case China Syndrome scenario could potentially cause the evacuation and permanent resettlement of millions or even tens of millions of people. Those who chose not to resettle would be in danger of both short-term and long-term health risks.

Old nuclear plants have structures that have often been found badly worn to the point were the containment of the reactor core offered little protection. Not only are these plants in possible danger of failing accidentally but they offer tempting targets to terrorists.

Indeed, al-Qaeda plots to strike nuclear power plants have been discovered just as plots to use airplanes to destroy buildings were made known years before 9-11.

By destroying or otherwise sabotaging the plant's cooling system not just for the main reactor but also for old "spent" reactor cores stored on-site, a terrorist can cause a meltdown in which the core overheats in an uncontrolled fashion.

It may not be necessary to do anything else to cause a breach of the containment but causing or assisting just such a breach is something obviously that could be part of a terrorist attack as well.

Old plants have many spent reactor cores, antiquated cooling and safeguard systems and often cracked and worn containment. For this reason, they are potentially highly-vulnerable targets.

Nuclear power has many drawbacks that make it undesirable, not the least of which are the safety issues, especially those connected with the older aging facilities.

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