Democrats & Liberals Archives

Fractal Expense and Big Disasters

When it comes down to it, doing things right the first time saves you a lot of time and money. When things aren’t built to hold up, bad luck becomes worse. Consider the earthquake that is in the news.

Earthquakes in the east are decidedly more unusual than in the West, where you have plenty of real estate on the more active Pacific Rim. The rockier land, though, serves to dissipate the shock more quickly, and more locally.

In contrast, historic quakes like The New Madrid Quakes of the early 1800s and the Charleston Quake of 1886, cause more damage and are felt over a wider area. Fortunately, though, they're rare, since those areas have long since distanced themselves from the main rings of tectonic combat that keeps California a'shaking and a'shimmying.

And, unfortunately, they're rare, so people don't go through the time and expense of preparing for them, and are caught off guard. The New Madrid quake struck in a time when the area was barely settled, and settled by folks who didn't have to do an awful lot to recover.

Now, though, we have more invested, and it's decidedly more expensive to recover.

I decided now would be a good opportunity to discuss something, a theory of mine on government. My theory is, big disasters happen rarely, but when they do, they prey all the more strongly on the weaknesses of the system. For some, it's an ideal of efficiency to pare costs and responsibilities down to the minimum, and just hope something doesn't go wrong, but in my mind, that's a misguided picture of efficiency.

Scientists, economists, statisticians, and mathematicians have, through their research, discovered that a lot of disasters and fluctuations in conditions adhere to what's called a power law. In fact, Earthquakes stick rather closely to something called the Gutenberg-Richter Law

The idea runs something like this:

The constant b is typically equal to 1.0 in seismically active regions. This means that for every magnitude 4.0 event there will be 10 magnitude 3.0 quakes and 100 magnitude 2.0 quakes. There is some variation with b-values in the range 0.5 to 1.5 depending on the tectonic environment of the region.[2] A notable exception is during earthquake swarms when the b-value can become as high as 2.5 indicating an even larger proportion of small quakes to large ones. A b-value significantly different from 1.0 may suggest a problem with the data set; e.g. it is incomplete or contains errors in calculating magnitude.

Scale-Invariant, is the term that's used to describe this behavior: big Earthquakes act much like smaller ones, just at a larger scale The cookie crumbles the same way whether it's the size of a penny or the size of a hubcap. In fact, frozen potatoes are used to simulate the way rocks break in seismic zones, because they essentially fracture the same way a rock does.

As a matter of fact, if you break a rock, the size of the chunks will obey the power law in their distribution, with big chunks rarer, smaller chunks more common, and smaller flakes most common of all. It's everywhere. In fact, Mark Buchanan, when choosing the title of a book about the operation of power laws simply chose to call it Ubiquity.

At the end of the day, though, the message is this: disasters and the stresses that occur because of them have a distribution that we can speak to in terms of likelihood of occurrence, but not in terms of whether they might occur tomorrow or the next day, or years from now.

Essentially, bad things will happen. There's no avoiding it, and there's also nothing that says that after a historically bad thing happens, like an Earthquake, that it can't happen again in short order. However, in the long run, events like the New Madrid Quake, the 9.0 in Japan, and other such events are far rarer than other magnitudes, and the commonality of those quakes and those events tracks specifically to their magnitude. Small changes happen often, larger changes becoming rarer in a specific distribution.

When our system is capable of handling the disaster, we will rebound. When it's not, our new normal will be worse than before. Sometimes you can't predict it, and it's just your bad luck. But other times, you have the chance to lessen your vulnerability to disaster.

I think our current regulatory system is naive, and vulnerable to smaller shocks than it should be. it's also, in my opinion, more likely to stay knocked down when hit, rather than rebound. While for some, that may just be the breaks, for me, it seems, there is an awful lot that went wrong in the last decade that didn't have to, and a lot of responses to the various disasters that suffered for the fact that people went in with bad assumptions, and naive theories to prove.

For my part, my theory of Government is that the government's job is to prevent some disturbances of society outright, and to help keep this country more robust in its response to other shocks to its system. My theory is that our country, our cities and states will suffer greater damage from the inevitable disasters that both nature and man deliver, when we allow weakness to remain and linger withing our infrastructure and our systems of management.

When America is put to the test, how will we fare? I push for policies that will mean that America will fare better when push comes to shove, and ask for you to join me in advocating for common sense reform to government and regulations to make sure that when the large disasters hit our economy, our society, and our infrastructure, there aren't other disasters waiting to happen, lurking there with the potential to make bad situations worse.

If America is to be strong, we cannot take the integrity of our systems for granted, for they will be put to the test, and rarely at a time of our choosing.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at August 23, 2011 2:59 PM
Comments
Comment #328139

News Flash: Quake sensors removed from around Virginia nuke plant due to budget cuts

Quote:

A nuclear power plant that was shut down after an earthquake struck central Virginia Tuesday had seismographs removed in 1990s due to budget cuts.

U.S. nuclear officials said that the North Anna Power Station, which has two nuclear reactors, had lost offsite power and was using diesel generators to maintain cooling operations after an 5.9 earthquake hit the region.

The North Anna plant, which was near the epicenter of Tuesday’s quake, is reportedly located on a fault line.

Posted by: Adrienne at August 23, 2011 4:30 PM
Comment #328143

Adrienne-
Pennywise, pound-foolish. The question is not what removing the sensors would save, it’s what a failure like that would cost.

Budget cutting isn’t necessarily cost-saving when you fail to factor in important priorities.

This is what I mean by the term “Fractal Expense”. Fractals, because of their recursive shape, have much greater perimeters, areas, or volumes than they seem to have at first glance. Fractal expenses, then, would be what I call cost saving measures which actually end up costing you more, because of the consequences of not making the right investments.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at August 23, 2011 5:38 PM
Comment #328148

Stephen,

Exactly.

Posted by: Adrienne at August 23, 2011 6:41 PM
Comment #328152

Stephen

A couple of books you may have read, if not should - “The Black Swan” “The Drunkard’s Walk”, “Against the God” & “Nudge”.

All life is a tradeoff between various sorts of risks. Risk is not the same as uncertainty. Risk can be quantified. Uncertainty cannot. Some risks are so common that they approach a certainty, some are so uncommon that they approach a zero probability. The worst is uncertainty. By definition, we cannot predict or plan for things we cannot predict.

If you prepare for all the worst case scenarios, no matter the cost or effort, you are missing many opportunities for other things. You have to figure that cost. It is not clear at all, since we are dealing with low probabilities. After something happens, everybody thinks they knew all along. We often then overreact to what we think was our earlier complacency.

The North Anna power station is not far from my permanent house, so I have considerable interest in it staying safe. They removed the sensors. A rare earthquake happened with the epicenter right near the plant. The plant shut down and ran its systems on diesel power. It will probably be up and running again in a short time, as soon as they check for damage. How having senors in operation would have changed that scenario or the result is unclear to me.

There is a story. I cannot recall the details, but it is a very concerned mother who wraps her kids in that bubble wrap. Of course, she replaces one risk with another more immediately harmful.

Finally, Stephen, you are talking about two things that are different. There is a debate about whether we should be trying to PREVENT even low probability disasters OR make our society robust enough to absorb them.

If you read “the Black Swan” you see that the author advocates the latter. We cannot prevent all low probability evens and certainly not the uncertain ones. Our knowledge and abilities are limited. We can create robust systems that will survive most things, like the North Anna station.

Posted by: C&J at August 23, 2011 7:51 PM
Comment #328161

C&J-
I may read some of those books, but let me suggest something here: risk in fact is unknowable. We don’t know whether Irene will be a strong Hurricane when it comes up the East Coast. But we can plan in advance, set a building code in advance, that means that fewer houses will be destroyed in a hurricane. The concept I present of fractal expense relates to that. If you have a shoddily built neighborhood, however cheaper the buildings are to build, you may pay a premium because the buildings are destroyed, and the belongings within damaged or destroyed with them.

This is part of the reason people put together fire-codes, and other such things, part of the reason folks outlawed certain financial practices in the equities markets, and increased disclosure requirements. Why? Because the profit of expedience was swallowed up by the expense of disastrous consequences.

The Japanese are finding that out to their utter dismay with Fukushima Daiichi. We can talk in the abstract about Robustness in the face of such rare disasters, but the truth is, for the system to be robust enough to absorb it, you have to construct things so that their design limits the damage. The more lax you are in the face of those possiblities, the more likely it is that you will have left a whole bunch of weaknesses in place that the disasters can turn into additional problems. Word on Fukushima is that they cut a lot of corners, and that may have changed the outcome in several ways.

The world is filled with uncertainties, but in my experience, most uncertainties regard outcomes which we can say are predictable by their nature.

Take, for example, the decline in home prices after a boom. Now, if you were to say these sorts of build ups are natural, I’d say, yes. People overbid things. Then the market slaps them down by leaving them holding the bag while they’re bid less than they feel they can comfortably sell it for.

But many derivatives programs and other systems in our finance system seem to have been constructed with the notions that the fun would never end. The lesson for some might be that such things are inevitable, so just keep on trucking along. For me, the lesson is considerably different: **** happens, so be prepared for it to happen. Consider the worst case scenario, or at the very least, a reasonable set of expectable reversals.

Plan for, behave for the prospect that what must come up, must come down. Do not expect every system and every outcome to be ideal.

Part of building something robust is not paring everything down to what you think is necessary to endure. Part of building something robust is giving yourself some room for error, rather than building a systemt that lapses into critical behavior far too sensitively. The markets in general might behave critically in this fashion, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow along with everybody else.

Markets don’t truly work until people think for themselves rather than just copying everything their neighbor does. If markets behave almost like intelligent beings do, the way that ant colonies operate, I would say that both are capable of doing what intelligent beings do all the time: make mistakes.

We, thankfully, don’t have to persist in mistakes. It’s a choice, even if all too many fail to avail themselves of it.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at August 23, 2011 9:51 PM
Comment #328162

Stephen

Re risk - that is the point of risk v uncertainty. Risk can be assessed. The classic example is dice. When you throw the dice, you don’t know what will come up, but you can assess the risk. You know that a seven is more likely than a 12. That doesn’t mean that you will not throw 12s ten times before you hit a 7, but you can assess the risk.

That is why those books are so interesting. They are not too hard, which is why I can understand them.

In your East Coast hurricane example, we actually CAN assess risk. We know there WILL be another strong hurricane. We can estimate the chances each year and plan accordingly. All life involves risk and trying to minimize all risks is itself a risk.

Re things like home prices - the fundamental trick to risk is NOT knowing that it will happen but estimating when and how much. We can all guess that stocks will mostly go up and then at some point they will go down. This is always true, but not useful.

Keynes famously said that in the long run we are all dead. Nobody has to be right forever, just more of the time and maybe for a long time. ALL systems made by man or found in nature will eventually fail. We have to live with that and assess the probabilities.

I agree with your point that we have to give ourselves some room for error and build in some redundancies. The question is how much you can afford. You guys gave the example of the North Anna Station. Evidently, it had enough slack built in to survive this quake within the acceptable and planned parameters of risk.

I think we mistake knowledge we have after with what we know before.

Consider the case of the lottery. There is a 100% chance that somebody will win the lottery. The problem is knowing who in advance. There is a chance that the same person will win twice. This has happened. But you should not base your retirement plans on lottery tickets. The same goes for bad luck.

We do all our planning within risk parameters, as we must. When your dead-beat brother in law wins the lottery and makes fun of you for telling him he was dumb, he is just as dumb the day after winning as the many days before. We should not believe that he was prescient. He was just lucky. Somebody had to win; he did. Again, the same goes for bad luck.

Posted by: C&J at August 23, 2011 10:15 PM
Comment #328168

Jack,
This isn’t about “bad luck”, or political ideology, and we don’t need to turn this into a left vs. right issue. It is complete MADNESS to EVER stint on safety precautions when we are talking about nukes. It really is that simple.

Posted by: Adrienne at August 24, 2011 1:26 AM
Comment #328169

My attitude is that we should take care of the things that our outside our heads first, and then work our way in as is practicable to maintaining the better outcomes in the real world.

Earthquakes of this magnitude are exceedingly rare, but not impossible, so I would say a moderate level of Earthquake hardening is in order. We have a lot riding on the line if our luck runs out

There are ways to model the risk, and ways to respond to what is modelled. I would say that it’s very important to respond appropriately on practical grounds, and not just political grounds. Where gridlock encourages otherwise, no matter the intentions, it does not serve us well.

While there’s something to be said for not being too zealous about removing all risk, human imagination being limited and all as to how nature can knock our plans awry, there’s a certain amout of due diligence that I think is necessary for us to avoid excessively catastrophic outcomes. There’s a reason tens or hundreds of people die in natural disasters in America today, where once thousands or more would perish.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at August 24, 2011 1:30 AM
Comment #328175

I tend to agree with C&J on this one. We could waste untold resources preparing for east coast earthquakes (actually we already do) and then be hit by a completely unforeseen disaster. Life has risks, and none of them are as high as driving on the interstate.

Posted by: Schwamp at August 24, 2011 9:27 AM
Comment #328180

Is the human species a natural disaster?

Posted by: jlw at August 24, 2011 11:09 AM
Comment #328181

So what do the Va Tech seismic sensors have to do with nuclear safety at North Anna? Were these some sort of super new sensors that could detect earthquakes before the happened just like John Travolta did in that movie? Were these systems tied in to the I&C so that the plant would shut down prior to the earthquake? And what of the US Geological Survey sensors? Someone was able to detect this earthquake (after the fact of course).

North Anna uses the old Westinghouse PWRs like so many others in the U.S. and France. They passivly scramed instantly when power was lost and the EDGs provided emergency power to all other critical systems until power was restored. Having a sensor that told them there WAS an earthquake would have made no difference to the equation.

Posted by: George at August 24, 2011 11:15 AM
Comment #328184
Having a sensor that told them there WAS an earthquake would have made no difference to the equation.

In an earthquake, there are three types of waves: P waves, S waves and surface waves. The latter two cause the most damage, but move slower than the former. A Seismograph will detect the P wave just before the others hit; possibly giving the plant a short forewarning. If the epicenter is not too close, the forewarning might be enough time to prepare for the incoming S waves and surface waves.

I don’t know any details about the particular seismographs in VA though.

Posted by: Warped Reality at August 24, 2011 11:52 AM
Comment #328185

George-
You may have a point about the reactor and the quake sensors, but there are plenty of other reasons to have good seismic information.

Republicans tend to throw away things these days just because they hate government, just because they want to look like they’re cutting costs.

Cutting off warning systems for natural disasters is foolish. You folks cut funding for new weather satellites, too, which would reduce the accuracy of critical forecasts that same lives and money, as old satellites are retired or stop functioning.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at August 24, 2011 12:00 PM
Comment #328186

I just read that yesterday’s quake was felt all the way from Canada to Georgia — which is an incredibly far distance! This has to be because the energy wave of the quake was passing through ancient, cold, brittle rock. In California, the land mass is composed of softer, younger rock, so quakes here have to be truly massive to be felt such a far distance away.

Living in an area with a lot of active fault lines you really do pick up a lot of info about earthquakes, and I’ve heard many scientists claim that the problem with quakes happening on the East Coast, or along the Mississippi River is that very few people there think earthquakes are worth planning and preparing for since they don’t happen nearly as often. It’s a dangerous mindset, because none of the buildings, roads or highways have been planned and built with any kind of earthquake safety in mind.

It’s now being reported that the Washington Monument is going to be closed indefinitely because engineers have now found a big crack in the top of the 80,000-ton giant marble obelisk. It’s a really good thing that quake wasn’t any stronger because it would have horrible to see what kind of damage that thing might have done had it started shattering into big flying chunks, or simply fell all the way over.
A bunch of the pinnacles also fell off the National Cathedral and that building will now also remain closed until stone masons can estimate what the total damage has been.

Anyway, others here may disagree with me, but I’m sticking with what I’ve already said. When we’re talking about nuclear power, not planning for every single contingency and disaster could without a doubt be a very deadly and costly mistake.

Posted by: Adrienne at August 24, 2011 12:01 PM
Comment #328203

Adrienne & Stephen

I am not saying we should cheap on precautions. But we are always balancing risk. It turned out that the North Anna station had sufficient safeguards to handle this earthquake, which is the biggest in Virginia history. We just don’t get earthquakes very often.

Nobody in the U.S. has ever died as a result of a nuclear power accident. Could it happen? Yes. It is a risk.

Take a much bigger risk - dying in a car accident. Every year thousands of Americans, many young and healthy, die in accidents. Accidents are the leading cause of death for young people.

If we choose to engineer everything to prevent all possible accidents, we cannot live. The car you drive could be made many times safer at a much higher cost. Of course, we could just not allow anybody to drive more than 25 MPH, which would largely eliminate fatalities.

All life is full or risks. We assume all sorts of them all the time. We drive; we fly in airplanes; some people smoke; many people drink or take drugs and there are still people who engage in promiscuous unprotected sex. All these things would be higher on the risk scale than the nuclear station in North Anna. These things kill many more people in an average year than the likely worst case scenario of a complete breakdown of the plant.

BTW - speaking of flying in airplanes, if you fly from LA to NY you get a bigger does of radiation than you would have had you lived next to Three Mile Island when it produced the worst nuclear disaster in American history.

Posted by: C&J at August 24, 2011 7:12 PM
Comment #328205
Nobody in the U.S. has ever died as a result of a nuclear power accident.
SL-1

I’m sorry to be nit picky, but usually one says “no civilians have ever died as a result of a nuclear power accident.”

In any case, I agree with your larger point. Civilian nuclear power in the USA is way down the totem pole when it comes to risk to the general populace. Most Coal plants release more radiation than the average fission plant.

Posted by: Warped Reality at August 24, 2011 8:52 PM
Comment #328208

The type of radiation is to be considered in the argument of risk of death thru radiation. The gamma rays are the killer rays.

Posted by: tom humes at August 24, 2011 9:42 PM
Comment #328210

Warped

Good. Agreed. But it is also true that more civilian Americans have died in the late Senator Teddy Kennedy’s car than in all the civilian nuke accidents in American history.

Posted by: C&J at August 24, 2011 9:46 PM
Comment #328211

SD

“Republicans tend to throw away things these days just because they hate government, just because they want to look like they’re cutting costs.”

Why can’t you enter a discussion without making a rep/dem issue our of it. This is not a dem/rep issue.

Now I will ask, which republicans hate government. Document that or I will consider it a lie and bs combined.

Posted by: tom humes at August 24, 2011 9:49 PM
Comment #328212

Warped,

Come on, the recent Japanese nuclear disaster should disavow anybody of the thought that nuclear power is an insignificant risk to the general populace. The type of nuclear plants that failed in Japan (Mark 1 and Mark 2 design) were known to have significant safety risks and that containment was subject to breach in a major accident. There are 31 Mark 1 and Mark 2 reactors still operating in the US despite almost two decades of knowledge that they had serious safety flaws.

In my opinion, we would be wise to take the advice of Admiral Rickover who managed the design and construction of not only our nuclear naval fleet with an impeccable safety and performance record but also oversaw the construction of the first civilian nuclear power plant. He expressed the opinion, late in his career, that we should do everything in our power to avoid the necessity of nuclear energy. He felt that it was inherently dangerous. But, if unavoidable, that it should be undertaken only under the direct supervision of the government with the highest safety and construction standards.


Posted by: Rich at August 24, 2011 9:58 PM
Comment #328215
Come on, the recent Japanese nuclear disaster should disavow anybody of the thought that nuclear power is an insignificant risk to the general populace.

The risks posed by fission power are indeed significant, but they are less significant than the risks posed by the alternatives.

Posted by: Warped Reality at August 24, 2011 11:00 PM
Comment #328217

Rich and Warped

Warped makes the good point. If you want to get rid of nukes, what do you replace it with?

I know that many people on this blog and elsewhere like to “replace” nukes with some kind of future technology that is cheap, clean and renewable. We would all like to replace all the current dirty technologies with such a thing. But it doesn’t exist.

So what proponent of this sort of argument are saying is that we will replace nukes with … magic.


Let’s look at what we have now and what we can realistically expect in the next ten years. If you phase out nukes, you replace them with coal. If you are willing to accept the deaths that coal causes, the greenhouse gases and the various other types of pollution, then you can advocate getting rid of nukes.

Re having the direct supervision by the government - government does directly supervise nukes. If you mean actual management, you are substituting hope for experience. The nuclear reactor at Chernobyl was directly managed by government. Lots of things directly managed by government do not work very well.

If you put government in charge, even in the U.S. where government is relatively well run, you are putting in charge the types of people who run the public school, the departments of motor vehicles, the post office, Fannie May and Freddie Mac. If you are happy with the results of all these things, go ahead with that government plan.

But as with energy, compare REAL government with real private - and regulated - situations.

There has NEVER been a death from civilian nuclear power in America. Its record is the safest in America, or at least none are safer.

Posted by: C&J at August 25, 2011 5:26 AM
Comment #328218

GovernmentS (a bunch of them including the U.S.) are spending billions building the ITER project in France. The project started in 1985, it’s sceduled to be complete in 2029 with a goal of demonstrating fusion power at 10 times input for one minute. It’s a very interesting project for those on either side of this debate.

Posted by: George at August 25, 2011 8:48 AM
Comment #328219

“Warped makes the good point. If you want to get rid of nukes, what do you replace it with?”

C&J,

Rickover’s main point was simple. Nuclear power may be a necessary evil, but it is nevertheless an extraordinary evil that mankind should avoid not embrace. Radiation kills. It is operationally difficult to manage safely. It produces virtually unmanageable waste and provides opportunity for nuclear weapon proliferation. It is a clean energy source only if you discount the production of the most poisonous and deadly substances on earth and the potential for their entry into the environment by accident or design (weapons).

Rickover’s secondary point was equally simple. If you are going to use it, then you need to govern its design, construction and operation with a muscular organization fully dedicated to safety, quality control and operational oversight. This is the sticking point. The current arrangement is clearly inadequate to meeting those goals. The failure to come to some resolution for storage or destruction of the tons of nuclear waste material is reason alone to give pause for any expansion of nuclear energy. The history related to the GE Mark 1 and Mark 2 reactors should also give pause to your contention that government regulation with commercial private operation of nuclear reactors is sufficient to ensure safety. Those reactors were sold as cheaper alternatives by GE in the 70s and 80s. However, as early as 1972, it was known that the reactors had inherent safety problems and would not be able to contain a serious accident. Unfortunately, the Atomic Energy Commission declined to pull the plug on the design due to the commercial consequences of such a decision on the overall nuclear industry. Commercial viability trumped safety. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/world/asia/16contain.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss

It may well be that a new generation of nuclear plants, e.g., thorium molten-salt reactors, could resolve many of the waste disposal, melt down and nuclear weapon proliferation issues. However, it will take a new approach by government both at the regulatory and funding level to achieve such advances in design safety, efficiency and operation. The private sector will not take the risk. The government sector is too fractured politically today to make the necessary commitment.

It seems to me that in the absence of agreement on a substantial overhaul of the nuclear power industry and commitment to new designs, funding and oversight, we have little choice but to seek viable alternatives. Natural gas fired power plants, carbon capture technology for coal, solar and wind technology, etc.

In my opinion, the public is going to opt for a phase out of nuclear energy in favor of alternative energy development. That may be “magical” thinking, but it is reality. The costs will be too great for a new generation of nuclear power and the public is too apprehensive about its safety.

Posted by: Rich at August 25, 2011 9:57 AM
Comment #328233

I think that some of you folks are overlooking the differences in probable outcomes between everyday risk and say a nuclear emergency. Yes it is more dangerous to get on an airplane or travel the free way. However neither of those potentially deadly outcomes can compare with the immensely larger probability of short and long term mass consequences associated with a nuclear emergency, given the right conditions. As they say hind sight is easy. Hind sight however is not necessarily a fool proof indicator of what to expect in the future.

Imo, cutting corners to save a few bucks simply because something has not happened before is a fools game when considering the potential for mass consequence, no matter the degree of probability. It simply is not a chance that should be challenged.

Posted by: RickIl at August 25, 2011 5:22 PM
Comment #328234

Adrienne, A bit of topic here. Just wanted to say thanks for the Patti Smith tune. I have followed Patti since my young man days. What an accomplished artist and person she is. I believe a screen play is being made of her book “Just Kids”


The power to dream / to rule
to wrestle the world from fools
it’s decreed the people rule

Seems to me this tune would be an appropriate anthem for the revolutions taking place around the world today. Good Stuff.

Posted by: RickIl at August 25, 2011 5:45 PM
Comment #328243
Imo, cutting corners to save a few bucks simply because something has not happened before is a fools game when considering the potential for mass consequence, no matter the degree of probability. It simply is not a chance that should be challenged.

Here’s a quote that seems to share the same attitude as yours:
“With a low-probability, high-impact event like this … If there’s a one percent chance that (a certain event occurs), we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

Do you agree with this speaker? If not, explain why?

Posted by: Warped Reality at August 25, 2011 10:41 PM
Comment #328245

Warped, I would say that the value of life trumps the cost of protecting it. If we are going to delve into the playground of potential negative mass consequence then we should be prepared to do everything humanely possible to prevent that consequence regardless of cost. Otherwise we would be better served looking to potentially more costly, but less deadly alternatives.

Posted by: RickIl at August 25, 2011 11:13 PM
Comment #328246

RickIl

Your attitude is the same one that led to the 2003 intervention in Iraq. The quote I listed earlier is from Dick Cheney.

The fact of the matter is that some risks are worth taking. In 2003, it was worth taking the risk that Saddam Hussein might have WMDs and that those WMDs could be used to kill a multitude of Americans or American allies. With fission, it is worth taking the risk of an occasional meltdown in order to cheaply generate the energy we need for our economy. Obviously, we must adhere to as many reasonable safety precautions that we can, but this is already the SOP in today’s civilian fission plant.

Posted by: Warped Reality at August 25, 2011 11:43 PM
Comment #328253

Warped, If I remember correctly Dick and George presented their case as an imminent threat to the welfare of this nation. Correct me if you feel I am wrong, but does the word imminent not represent a sure thing? Last I knew there was very little risk in pursuing “sure things”. This is a case of course where hind sight plays an issue with regard to risk, as we now know that the probability of risk may very well have been manufactured to effect a particular response. As it turns out the real risk was in accepting Cheney’s words as conclusive evidence that there was indeed an imminent risk in not taking action. It was imo a situation that we did indeed have time to sit back and explore the worth of his claims before assuming the risk of engaging in all out war. Some approaches to risk, as in this case should first have serious and responsible assessments of probable conflicting areas of interest with regard to who is presenting that risk and exactly why.

Imo comparing politically manufactured risks to known scientific risk is apples and oranges comparisons. I am not an opponent of nuclear energy. I am an opponent of careless deregulation in areas that may have long term wide spread catastrophic consequences simply to save a few bucks in the interest of profiteering. In this particular area, foresight and planning for all known potential consequences is paramount. Doing it on the cheap is not an alternative. Playing Russian roulette with the well being of an entire nation at stake is not a responsible alternative. Brushing off an occasional melt down as an acceptable consequence is not a responsible alternative.

Posted by: RickIl at August 26, 2011 9:43 AM
Comment #328256

I’m talking about the decision Bush & company made in 2001-2003 to pursue all possible threats, not the decision the general public made to follow them. Cheney created the “one percent doctrine”; even if the most rigorous intelligence analysis believed there was less than a 1 percent chance of catastrophe occurring, we must respond as if it were a hundred percent chance because of the immense scale of the catastrophe.

The lesson we learned in Iraq is that it is not worth eliminating such risks. In 2003 it was worth risking that Hussein had weapons. This is why we haven’t invaded Iran, North Korea or any of the other bad actors out there.

Imo comparing politically manufactured risks to known scientific risk is apples and oranges comparisons.
In both situations, you have expert opinions that say there is a small, but nonzero chance of catastrophe. Political leaders in both situations are responsible for weighing the costs and benefits of action or inaction. Sounds like apples & apples to me. Posted by: Warped Reality at August 26, 2011 11:14 AM
Comment #328260

Warped, if I remember correctly not everyone was in agreement with the validity or substance of that so called expert opinion. There were many here at home and around the world who challenged that opinion, and rightfully so. Many who urged a sufficient amount of time to verify the claims. I seriously doubt you would be able to find that same sort of opposition to the known potentialities of nuclear disaster.

Posted by: Dude at August 26, 2011 1:53 PM
Comment #328267

Warped,

There is a vast difference between intelligence opinions as to a risk from an Iraqi dictator and known factually verified risks from nuclear power.

We aren’t make guesses or intelligence estimates as to the risks associated with storage of tons of spent nuclear fuel on site. We know that the storage vessels will deteriorate over time. A major problem with the Japanese nuclear disaster was with the spent nuclear fuel rods stored on-site. We don’t have a viable plan for disposing of or storing that material safely in the US.

We aren’t making guesses as to the problems associated with an aging nuclear power system. Plants and metals in pipes and containment systems deteriorate over time from the chemicals and extreme stresses of the operation. The US nuclear power system is an aging system. No new nuclear power plants have been constructed in decades. Many normally scheduled for decommission have had their life extended. We are playing with fire.

We aren’t making guesses about the problems of nuclear weapons proliferation from nuclear power technology. It is an inherent risk that is very difficult to control. How did Pakistan get nuclear weapons?

Granted, we will need nuclear power in the intermediate future. But, we need to pull our heads out of the sand and begin to address the issue in a realistic manner. The aging system needs to be replaced. Safety issues need to be addressed, e.g., plants in earthquake fault lines need to be relocated, storage of nuclear waste needs to be resolved, financing of a new generation of reactors needs to resolved, etc.

Ultimately, in my opinion, we need to plan for the gradual phase out of nuclear power as we know it today. Germany has already legislated the phase out.


Posted by: Rich at August 26, 2011 6:08 PM
Comment #328272

Dude, Rich, others,
Again, I’m not talking about how the 2003 invasion was sold to the American people. I’m talking about the decision making that went on inside the heads of Bush administration people. These people had access to our vaulted intelligence analysts. The best info we had in 2003 regarding Iraq was that there was a small, but nonzero chance that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and a small, but nonzero chance that those WMDs would be used against American interest in the near future. Dick Cheney decided to treat the 1% chance of calamity as equivalent to a prediction with 100% chance of occurring. We now know the problem with that thinking, so why are you repeating Cheney’s mistake when talking about fission power?

A major problem with the Japanese nuclear disaster was with the spent nuclear fuel rods stored on-site. We don’t have a viable plan for disposing of or storing that material safely in the US.

We aren’t making guesses as to the problems associated with an aging nuclear power system. Plants and metals in pipes and containment systems deteriorate over time from the chemicals and extreme stresses of the operation. The US nuclear power system is an aging system. No new nuclear power plants have been constructed in decades. Many normally scheduled for decommission have had their life extended. We are playing with fire.

We aren’t making guesses about the problems of nuclear weapons proliferation from nuclear power technology. It is an inherent risk that is very difficult to control. How did Pakistan get nuclear weapons?

I agree with much of this. Currently, fission plants are highly regulated due to the risks they pose (which is a good thing, otherwise we wouldn’t have had such a long streak of civilian nuclear power operation without any fatalities). We definitely do need to replace old reactors with new ones and we definitely do need to develop a site for disposing nuclear waste. Unfortunately, attempts to do these things have been blocked by nuclear skeptics (who regrettably tend to lean left a bit more than right). We had a site planned at Yucca Mountain; it might not have been perfect, but it was good enough.

Ultimately, in my opinion, we need to plan for the gradual phase out of nuclear power as we know it today. Germany has already legislated the phase out.

This sort of overreaction is unwarranted. The only time fission should be phased out is when it no longer sells in the market. That is, unless science discovers some new risk or danger that overwhelms the ones we already no about, but the chances of that happen are next to nil.

Posted by: Warped Reality at August 26, 2011 10:47 PM
Comment #328274

Here’s my sentiments about Nuclear:
First, you need to acknowledge that the question of whether people should or should not be scared of Nuclear energy on the merits is irrelevant to the actual emotional reaction.

Then, I would ask, what is it that scares people about Nuclear energy? Well, let’s break it down.

First, there is little use denying that nuclear fission and other processes, as carried out in those reactors, are incompatible with human life. If you were to be exposed to that fuel without shielding around it, it could likely kill you. Even just the decay byproducts of these reactions, as we find leaking from these nuclear incidents, pose a threat to human life. Worst yet, that threat is mostly invisible, mostly hidden. If you want something to drive people paranoid, the best thing is something they cannot see or sense directly, like a plague, witchcraft, or communist infiltration.

Second, this is not really a technology people understand on a natural level. A farmer can understand wind and solar power, anybody can understand the energy that comes from something warming something up, or the power of a river as it flows. There’s a genie-out-out-of-the-bottle aspect to this technology, one that always casts nuclear power as the the struggle to tame a dragon that can turn on us in an instant.

Third, when nuclear power safety measures fail, we’re talking some seriously nasty consequences. First, we’re dealing with something here, which is designed to run away with itself to some degree.

In essence, we let a nuclear reaction go critical, and then transfer that heat through coolant to steam that drives turbines, and then from there to cooling towers that vent that heat outwards. To control that reaction, we use water and control rods made of neutron absorbing materials, which get lowered into the cores to moderate the reaction.

But even with the rods down all the way, There’s still decay heat within the fuel, and you need to take that away before it boils off your coolant. Chernobyl failed in a different way, but they had the same problem: no matter what the nuclear material, it needs cooling to avoid melting or catching fire.

Melting and catching fire are of course bad things. Blowing up is worse, of course, because then you’re blowing holes in containment and releasing radionuclides to the environment.

Three Mile Island shook our confidence by showing us that failsafe wasn’t quite failsafe. These are complex machines, and because of that, are vulnerable to failures we may not fully understand while they are occuring. In the case of Three Mile Island, the failure to keep coolant levels up created a partial meltdown, not to mention a hydrogen gas bubble that threatened to blow the place sky-high.

Chernobyl? Well Chernobyl took things all the way. The meltdown at Chernobyl was in part due to human error, and in part due to the fact that they had a really funky reactor design that left little room for error. That, and the fact that the system was moderated by graphite control rods, which were apt to burn up when they got overheated.

Chernobyl also suffered from the fact that it was designed without any real containment around it. The initial explosion blew the top off the building and exposed the core. You had a combination of a burning core sending radionuclide loaded smoke up into the atmosphere, and the possibility of that melted core stew making its way down into the underlying rock and ground water.

Fukushima? Fukushima was fortunately a contained design, but a combination of improbable natural disasters unleashed the demonic forces here. It didn’t help that you had an incredibly strong 9.0 quake, accompanied by an incredible tsunami to start with. That made it harder to get close to this thing in the first place.

With the generators taken out, and the containment probably compromised, the Fukushima reactors ran out of control, combining problems with burning fuel and fuel melting through contaiment with the release of radionuclides.

Long story short, these high profile nuclear plant failures show systems whose failure state shows a tendency to go out of control and badly so, with some long ranging consequences for the communities around them.

Your luck only has to run out once with a nuclear reactor, for whatever reason, people’s thinking goes, for something spectacularlly bad to happen. And everybody makes mistakes, and all machines breakdown at some point. There is a non-removable risk inherent in the most common nuclear plant designs.

Instead of acknowledging that and compromising on it, though, the political tendency of the industry is to maintain a strained sort of “We haven’t been that unlucky before” defense.

Well, there’s a first time for everything. Raise your hand if you want to experience the first complete meltdown at an American plant during a disaster?

No thanks, many people will say.

The practical hurdle will be to design a kind of reactor whose basic failure mode is the system going cold, and the nuclear material remaining contained. Otherwise, it’s literally an accident waiting to happen.

Then you have to convince people of this.

My opinion is, you’re not going to be able to construct enough of these fast enough to make up for fossil fuels. Other options must be considered.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at August 26, 2011 11:05 PM
Comment #328279

“This sort of overreaction is unwarranted. The only time fission should be phased out is when it no longer sells in the market.”

The US has already made a de facto decision to phase out nuclear energy. No new nuclear plants have come on line in decades. More than half of the operating nuclear plants have exceeded their planned life cycle and have been granted 20-year extensions. Only a handful of new plants are in the pipeline.

Simply by attrition, nuclear power will be phased out over the next few decades. The private sector will not take the risk of financing new plants. The government sector is reluctant to fully finance and take over operation of the plants. This isn’t just some “tree hugger” issue. The general public is overwhelming against expansion of nuclear power. The Yucca Mountain experience demonstrates that this is not just a liberal vs. conservative issue. When push comes to shove, nobody wants it in their back yard.

“My opinion is, you’re not going to be able to construct enough of these [fail safe reactors] fast enough to make up for fossil fuels. Other options must be considered.”

This is the reality. There is not enough time to develop and demonstrate the efficacy of new sub-critical reactors and other fail safe designs. In the absence of massive direct government investment in nuclear power development, the industry will continue to die on the vine.

Posted by: Rich at August 27, 2011 6:27 AM
Comment #328280
The US has already made a de facto decision to phase out nuclear energy. No new nuclear plants have come on line in decades. More than half of the operating nuclear plants have exceeded their planned life cycle and have been granted 20-year extensions. Only a handful of new plants are in the pipeline.

And this is incredibly wrong on so many levels.

Nuclear fission should be a growing supplier of our energy as we phase out fossil fuel technologies. It’ll take a long time to build the infrastructure for solar power (other renewables have no chance of contributing significantly to our energy needs). Until solar is ready, fission will be our workhorse. If people want to research new designs that may safer, great, but if that research doesn’t bear fruit it would not be prudent to tear down our already existing nuclear infrastructure. If policy makers come up with new regulations that could be useful for ensuring safety of fission plants, then implement them, but don’t stop replacing our aging plants. The nuclear energy industry is one of the safest in the country due to the heavy regulation provided by the government.

Posted by: Warped Reality at August 27, 2011 7:50 AM
Comment #328281

If Big Money wants nuclear, that’s the way it’s going to be. If Big Money wants to dump fossil fuels on us, that’s the way it’s going to be. If Big Money wants to pump sludge from Canada to Texas, that’s the way it’s going to be. If Big Money wants to drill in the Arctic, that’s the way it’s going to be. If Big Money wants to ruin healthy water with fracturing, that’s the way it’s going to be. If Big Money wants us to believe that our tinker toys are oh-so important to our survival we’ll believe it. Most of us anyway. After all, those printed pieces of paper ARE the wellspring of all life in the Universe.

Posted by: Stephen Hines at August 27, 2011 11:09 AM
Comment #328298

RickIL,
Glad you liked that tune. I love Patti too. And I agree that song is an anthem for people Everywhere!

Stephen:

Your luck only has to run out once with a nuclear reactor, for whatever reason, people’s thinking goes, for something spectacularlly bad to happen. And everybody makes mistakes, and all machines breakdown at some point. There is a non-removable risk inherent in the most common nuclear plant designs.

Instead of acknowledging that and compromising on it, though, the political tendency of the industry is to maintain a strained sort of “We haven’t been that unlucky before” defense.

Well, there’s a first time for everything. Raise your hand if you want to experience the first complete meltdown at an American plant during a disaster?

Spot on, and very well said Stephen! And it isn’t just earthquakes that can endanger these older plants and become a frightening hazard to the population — look at the hurricane that is bearing down on the entire east coast at this very moment. They are predicting widespread power outages all along the path of Irene, and there are many nuclear power plants sitting directly in the path of this monster storm.

We need to be looking towards ocean wave technology and solar because both are currently making huge strides in design and efficiency. Our earth is damaged enough, and it makes absolutely no sense not to look toward clean energy solutions for our long term future.

Posted by: Adrienne at August 27, 2011 4:27 PM
Comment #328414


The Japanese government and the owners of the Fukushima plant knew that a tsunmai larger that the plant could handle was possible.

Workers at the plant told reporters that one of the cores and some of the pipes were damaged before the earthquake.

A large area around the plant will remain uninhabitable, possibly for decades. The Japanese government is considering paying rent to those who own property in the affected area. Many Japanese are becoming resentful of the refugees, most of whom lost everything, including their jobs. An overcrowded country just got more crowded.

Cracks are still opening up under the plant, emitting large amounts of radiation.

The whole truth about this disaster, probably the greatest industrial disaster in history, is going unrevealed.

Posted by: jlw at August 30, 2011 9:32 AM
Comment #328428

“The Japanese government and the owners of the Fukushima plant knew that a tsunmai larger that the plant could handle was possible.”

It is not just the Japanese government and the owners of that plant. It has been common knowledge since 1972 that the GE Mark I and II reactors had an inherent flaw in their ability to contain a reactor melt down in the event of a cooling system disruption. Yet, these reactors were allowed to be produced and to continue operating. In the US, there are about 30 such aging reactors still in operation.

In addition to the astounding revelation that the containment vessel of the plants was never designed to operate in a fail safe manner, there was the revelation of the problem with the manner in which spent fuel rods were stored. There was absolutely nothing to contain the release of their radioactive energy into the environment upon failure of the cooling pools. Oops, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to store them without containment and in the same building housing the reactor.

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Comment #330874

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