Sunday, 15 June 2008

On energy

A couple of weeks ago a most common event occurred. Something most people experienced at their homes at least once in their lives.
A valve started leaking. If I understood correctly, it was even supposed to do that, just not as fast. A kind of pressure valve I suppose. Of course, the culprit needed replacing. But since this particular valve was in a reactor of a nuclear plant, the event had to be reported to the respective authorities. The ordinary event turned into a ruckus because someone forgot to strike out a single word on the event report form. The word said: exercise.
Now, let's suppose for a moment that the event was an exercise. Somebody would have decided to train the personnell of the plant on valve malfunction. An odd exercise to be sure since the procedures dictate to stop the plant in such a case and that is certainly not a cheap thing to do with nuclear plants.
As it turns out, the leak was not an exercise and the plant had to shut down the reactor in order to replace the valve. One week, very expensive. But that's not the point.
Either way, exercise or not, the reactor was shut down. So in this particular case the final outcome was the same, regardless of the famous word being striken out. But the outcry of institutions, politicians and envirogroups alike was like we just experienced a meltdown ten times bigger than that of Chernobyl. Go figure.
There are a total of 197 nuclear plants in Europe with an additional 13 under construction. The Slovenian one is neither the biggers nor the smallest. I am pretty certain events like this happen on a weekly basis. Possibly not even being reported due to their insignificance. I may be wrong, but it doesn't matter, does it? The mistake was made while filing a report, not with the procedure that had to be performed in case of such an event. I'm sure every of these 197 plants has well trained personnell and plenty of redundancy so that such minor faults could never grow to real disasters. Chernobyl most certainly left an impression in form of fail-safes, redundant sensors, strict and clear procedures not to mention all the things I have no idea about.

This just shows how punily we react to a simple mistake. We are talking, after all, about the cleanest energy source known to mankind although, granted, it is also potentially the most dangerous. All while Europe's dependence on energy import is becoming alarmingly high. We already have two hundred plants, all operating safely and with less environment impact than any other energy source we have. Yet constructing a new plant seems similar to deploying a nuclear bomb judging by the reactions of various environmentalists. Nobody seems to be screaming when a new river dam is being built despite the fact that such a dam destroys an entire valley, brings tons of fog to nearby settlements, not to mention the possibility that any dam too may fail, causing quite a disaster doing so.

On the other hand I hear that Chinese have started building their plants en masse. They are even exporting the technology to neighbouring nations. They recognise the danger of being too energy dependent and are doing their best to avoid such dependence. Their plan is to bring as many as 30 new plants online in the next 15 years. While that surely isn't enough for such a power-hungry economy, they certainly are doing something about it.

So with cold fusion still at least 20 years away and with Europe's dependence growing to no end, I really think Europe's leaders should rethink their strategy. I'm not saying nuclear is the only way to go, but is sure seems like a good enough interim measure.

Meanwhile, radioactives and respective technology are my bet for mid-term financial investments.

1 comment:

Rok S. said...

I almost needed the same amount of time to finally write down my comments as you did to publish this thought (since the one in March). Just a few comments…

Firstly: The uproar that followed the event was not the result of only “one word not being stroked-out”, an error which was corrected within a minutes after sending the notice (only) to the neighbouring countries. However this came most convenient for various environmental lobbies in some of those countries. The greatest share of responsibility for the commotion that happened lies in Brussels as the ECURIE (European Community Urgent Radiological Information Exchange) mechanism was used for the first time after the Chernobyl disaster. More attention was paid to getting the information out and less to the wording in which this was being done. One friend told me that we were the victims of “to much Glasnost”…indeed as Oscar Wilde once said it: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.« I do not want to downplay the significance of the event - timely (but also accurate) information is vital when it comes to nuclear security. Overreacting can cause more harm than good, so I guess in future cases EU Member States will probably be reluctant in reporting such event to Brussels.

Secondly: If the event would be an exercise the plant would not be shut down…as you said it, it is not a cheap thing to do.

Thirdly: I remember the discussions in the late '80 about shutting down our only nuclear plant. These debates got additional boost in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. The situation radically changed in the last 10 to 15 years. We are no longer talking about shutting down the plant but rather building a second one. The same is with other renewable (non-carbon) sources of energy – two or even one decade ago they were more or less »exotic ideas«. Today they are reality. Indeed, technology made some steps forward during this time and producing energy from renewable sources is not that expensive as it was before. The soaring prices of oil also contributed to some changes in our mentality. So, we are making (rather forced to make) steps in the right direction. However we are not yet at a point where we would be able to radically decrease the use of carbon-fuels on the account of renewables. Someday in the future we will be, but in the meantime nuclear is one of the few viable alternatives.