Nuclear safety

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What does research say about the safety of nuclear power? The unpublished notebooks of J. M. Korhonen; 10 Mar 2017

I’ve been answering almost exactly the same answer to multiple discussions where people make claims about the safety of nuclear power, so I think it’s time to create a single post with collected information, links, and explanations. This is intended to be a living document, so please, if you have any suggestions about things to add or to remove, leave a comment!
As of 2017, the general results are clear: even and particularly when the entire lifecycle (uranium mining, accidents and nuclear waste included) is considered, nuclear energy is one of the safest energy sources ever employed by humans. There is no doubt whatsoever that even if we totally discount the risks of climate change, energy produced from nuclear power is responsible for very, very much less harm to people and the environment than similar amount of energy generated by any method that relies on burning something. This result is supported not only by mainstream science but also by research commissioned in 2013 by Friends of the Earth UK, and even Greenpeace tacitly agrees. Actual scientists are far more certain.
In the following, I’m ultimately going to break this argument into four sections: 1) overall studies, 2) mining, 3) normal operation and accidents, and 4) waste. As of now, sections 2 and 3 in particular are in dire need for more information.

Nuclear radiation *

operations / plant safety

I Work In A Nuclear Power Plant: 5 Insane Realities Ryan Menzies; Cracked; 8 Sep 2015

Thanks to the documentary The Simpsons, most of us think that nuclear power plants belch out poisonous gas, pour fish-mutating slime into our rivers, and are ready to melt down at the slightest provocation. We're barely exaggerating here -- multiple generations today owe all their knowledge on the subject to a wacky cartoon, and those fears might define the energy production of the world. We had a sneaking suspicion that there might be more going on behind the scenes at these plants, and infiltrating them to investigate probably isn't an option. So we talked to Alex, an engineer at a nuclear plant in the Midwest. He told us that ...

Nuclear power plants vulnerable to hacking attack in 'nightmare scenario', UN warns Ben Kentish; Independent; 16 Dec 2016

Experts fear 'Fukushima-style' disaster as terrorists use new technology to attempt attacks

Russia Hacks Into U.S. Power Plants, But Nuclear Reactors Should Be Impervious James Conca; Forbes; 16 Mar 2018

... what about nuclear? Are we at risk of cyber-induced meltdowns or releases of radiation?
Fortunately, while the Russians may be able to disrupt electricity transmission in general, and electricity generation from many power plants like natural gas and wind farms, they can’t hack into nuclear power plant operations. Nuclear plants are still mostly analog and not connected to the Internet.
On purpose.
Russian hackers can’t affect nuclear power plant operations or safety systems. But they could, and probably did, hack some business, personnel and other non-essential files, which may be embarrassing and a little costly, but not dangerous. These nuclear reactors are truly operational islands wholly disconnected from the Internet.
As we’ve discussed before, a recent joint report from the DHS and the FBI says, ‘There is no indication of a threat to public safety [from hacking of our nuclear plants] as any potential impact appears to be limited to administrative and business networks.’
America’s nuclear plants are one of the best protected of all systems from possible cyber threats. The safety and control systems for our nuclear reactors and other vital plant components are not connected to business networks or the Internet. We learned a lot from Stuxnet, the malicious computer worm that substantially damaged Iran’s nuclear program.
John Keeley of the Nuclear Energy Institute says no reactors operating in the United States have been affected by this hacking.
The nuclear industry does not use firewalls to isolate these systems, that’s not good enough. In the old days, we did have some firewalls which were vulnerable, and the Slammer worm taught us that we do not want to be connected to the internet.
Our plants now use hardware-based data diode technologies developed for high assurance environments, like the DOD. Data diodes allow information to be sent out, like operational and monitoring data, but ensure that information cannot flow back into the plant.
Updating software and equipment using portable devices, have strict restrictions. While there is always the possibility of an inside job, outside laptops and thumb drives cannot be used without serious scrubbing, if at all. But that's different than a cyber-attack.
‘United States utilities with nuclear assets have very robust cyber security programs dating back to the days of Y2K,’ says David Blee, Executive Director of the National Nuclear Infrastructure Council. ‘Operational plant systems controls are segregated from normal business software by several layers of protection, including physical means.’
Since Russia’s hacking of our 2016 elections came to light, it seems that hacking has become the normal daily occurrence in our Brave New World. Global ransomware attacks are becoming common. In 2016, hacking cost the world over $450 billion.
Unfortunately, the global Internet is still developing its immune system. It is essential that we develop organism-like evolving cyber immune defenses if we are to feel secure in this new cyber age. Google’s Project Zero has formed an elite cyber SWAT team that is cruising the net like white blood cells.
But nuclear is fine. Like a shark, it has an immune system from the analog age. Also, nuclear is more monitored than any other industry. According to a spokesman for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NRC is immediately notified if any of the safety, security, or emergency preparedness functions at an operating nuclear plant has been penetrated by a cyber attack.
New nuclear plant designs, like those at the new small modular reactor company NuScale Power in Oregon, have developed advanced cybersecurity systems along with their new safety and operational systems in order to guard against just this problem.
A key feature of the NuScale design is that it employs a defensive security architecture with multiple layers of protection against internet cybersecurity threats. NuScale’s platform implements a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) technology that has non-microprocessor systems - they do not use software and are not vulnerable to Internet cyber-attacks.
Their nuclear plant doesn’t rely on computers or software to provide plant safety, that is, NuScale reactors can safely shut themselves down and cool themselves for an indefinite period of time without the need for computer or human actions, without AC or DC power, and without the need for additional water.
Almost all new reactor designs around the world are incorporating these sorts of features.

reactor safety

Comparing Nuclear Accident Risks With Those From Other Energy Sources OECD Nuclear Energy Agency

Safety from Gen I to Gen III, defence in depth, estimation of risk probabilities

The Generation Game: Why Nuclear Energy Isn’t Getting Safer Duncan Gere; How We Get To Next; 4 Feb 2016

history of nuclear energy, generations of reactors, we are not building latest gen

Nuclear energy: safe, clean, nothing to fear despite fear-mongering American Council on Science and Health; 10 Aug 2015

criticises The Lancet for claiming that evidence from Hiroshima & Nagasaki is relevant to civilian nuclear accidents

Are Safer Reactors Possible? Charles Barton; The Energy Collective; 17 Jun 2011

tritium - and Canadian exposure - Plutonium, underground reactors, oklo

Nuclear accidents

J-value / Waddington, Thomas et al

J-value assessment of relocation measures following the nuclear power plant accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi I.Waddington, P.J.Thomas, R.H.Taylor, G.J.Vaughan; Process Safety and Environmental Protection; Nov 2017

The policies of population relocation put in train following the severe nuclear reactor accidents at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011 are examined using the Judgement- or J-value. Here relocation is taken to mean a movement of people that is long-term or permanent. A review is made of a 1992 IAEA/CEC study of the Chernobyl countermeasures, which includes data from which the effectiveness of the 1986 and post-1990 relocations may be judged using the J-value. The present analysis provides endorsement of that study’s conclusion that the post-1990 relocation of 220,000 members of the public could not be justified on the grounds of radiological health benefit. Moreover, application of the J-value suggests that the first Chernobyl relocation is economically defensible for between 26% and 62% of the roughly 115,000 people actually moved in 1986. Thus only between 9% and 22% of the 335,000 people finally relocated after Chernobyl were justifiable, based on the J-value and the data available. Nor does the J-value support the relocation of the 160,000 people moved out on a long-term basis after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. The J-value results for these very severe nuclear accidents should inform the decisions of those deciding how best to respond to a big nuclear accident in the future. The overall conclusion is that relocation should be used sparingly if at all after any major nuclear accident. It is recognised that medical professionals are seeking a good way to communicate radiation risks in response to frequent requests from the general public for information and explanation in a post-accident situation. Radiation-induced loss of life expectancy, which lies at the heart of the application of the J-value to nuclear accidents, is proposed as an information-rich yet easy to understand statistic that the medical profession and others may find helpful in this regard.

Evacuating a nuclear disaster areas is (usually) a waste of time and money, says study Philip Thomas; The Conversation; 20 Nov, 2017

More than 110,000 people were moved from their homes following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011. Another 50,000 left of their own will, and 85,000 had still not returned four-and-a-half years later.
While this might seem like an obvious way of keeping people safe, my colleagues and I have just completed research that shows this kind of mass evacuation is unnecessary, and can even do more harm than good. We calculated that the Fukushima evacuation extended the population’s average life expectancy by less than three months.
To do this, we had to estimate how such a nuclear meltdown could affect the average remaining life expectancy of a population from the date of the event. The radiation would cause some people to get cancer and so die younger than they otherwise would have (other health effects are very unlikely because the radiation exposure is so limited). This brings down the average life expectancy of the whole group.
But the average radiation cancer victim will still live into their 60s or 70s. The loss of life expectancy from a radiation cancer will always be less than from an immediately fatal accident such as a train or car crash. These victims have their lives cut short by an average of 40 years, double the 20 years that the average sufferer of cancer caused by radiation exposure. So if you could choose your way of dying from the two, radiation exposure and cancer would on average leave you with a much longer lifespan.
How do you know if evacuation is worthwhile?
To work out how much a specific nuclear accident will affect life expectancy, we can use something called the CLEARE (Change of life expectancy from averting a radiation exposure) Programme). This tells us how much a specific dose of radiation will shorten your remaining lifespan by on average.
Yet knowing how a nuclear meltdown will affect average life expectancy isn’t enough to work out whether it is worth evacuating people. You also need to measure it against the costs of the evacuation. To do this, we have developed a method known as the judgement or J-value. This can effectively tell us how much quality of life people are willing to sacrifice to increase their remaining life expectancy, and at what point they are no longer willing to pay.
You can work out the J-value for a specific country using a measure of the average amount of money people in that country have (GDP per head) and a measure of how averse to risk they are, based on data about their work-life balance. When you put this data through the J-value model, you can effectively find the maximum amount people will on average be willing to pay for longer life expectancy.
After applying the J-value to the Fukushima scenario, we found that the amount of life expectancy preserved by moving people away was too low to justify it. If no one had been evacuated, the local population’s average life expectancy would have fallen by less than three months. The J-value data tells us that three months isn’t enough of a gain for people to be willing to sacrifice the quality of life lost through paying their share of the cost of an evacuation, which can run into billions of dollars (although the bill would actually be settled by the power company or government).
The three month average loss suggests the number of people who will actually die from radiation-induced cancer is very small. Compare it to the average of 20 years lost when you look at all radiation cancer sufferers. In another comparison, the average inhabitant of London loses 4.5 months of life expectancy because of the city’s air pollution. Yet no one has suggested evacuating that city.

Fukushima *

Chernobyl *

Post-Fukushima reactor safety improvements

Fukushima Response

Fukushima Five Years Later: SAFER Response Within 24 Hours to Any US Reactor 7 Mar 2016

Japan Lessons Learned NRC

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck Japan and was followed by a 45-foot tsunami, resulting in extensive damage to the nuclear power reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi facility. The NRC has taken significant action to enhance the safety of reactors in the United States based on the lessons learned from this accident. This page is intended to serve as a navigation hub to follow the NRC's progress in implementing the many different lessons-learned activities.

Spain's post-Fukushima safety measures near completion

US Nuclear Energy Industry Even Safer Since Fukushima Nuclear Energy Institute; 1 Mar 2016

Leaders from the U.S. and Japanese nuclear energy industry last week detailed the many ways that safety has been enhanced in both countries in the five years since the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident. The U.S. nuclear industry has invested more than $4 billion and devoted thousands of person-hours to put in place new responses to extreme events, Nuclear Energy Institute Chief Operating Officer Maria Korsnick said at an NEI-sponsored briefing, “Fukushima Daiichi Five Years Later: A Progress Report.”

Committee on Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board / Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; 2016


Turkey Point: Miami’s oceanfront nuclear power plant is leaking


Atomic City Justin Nobel; Longreads; Sep 2017

At 9:01 p.m., on January 3, 1961, a nuclear reactor the size of a small grain silo exploded in the Lost River desert. All three men inside the Stationary Low-Power Plant Number 1, or SL-1, were killed. To this day, they are among the only recorded nuclear fatalities ever to occur on U.S. soil. Even in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear meltdown, in March 2011, no one in the mainstream media mentioned the SL-1 disaster. The tsunami that caused Japan’s meltdown was viewed as something unpredictable, a result of poorly understood plate tectonics and mercurial seas, while the meltdown itself was perceived otherwise. It could have been prevented, said experts, with better safety protocols. Had anyone remembered SL-1, perhaps the conversation would have been different.


'Prolonged and repeated failure' led to workers being irradiated at Trident nuclear submarine base, MoD report finds

TRIDENT submariners were guilty of a “prolonged and repeated failure” which resulted in 20 workers being exposed to radiation at the Faslane nuclear base, according to an internal investigation by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The damning indictment is published in MoD documents seen by the Sunday Herald that also expose a series of radiation blunders on Trident submarines docked at the Clyde naval port. They reveal how safety procedures were flouted when visitors were not given radiation badges, a contaminated sponge was taken from a submarine, and another worker was irradiated. The documents, just released a full two years after a Freedom of Information request, conclude that submariners showed a “lack of understanding of the magnitude of the hazards”.