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Anti-nuclear Conviction

Response to Richard Broinowski

I think Mr Broinowski has missed the point of my article (Fukushima, Arena Magazine 111). It is summed up in the quotation from an observer of the Detroit nuclear crisis:

The most frightening thing for the scientists and engineers was not knowing the cause of the trouble. There were guesses at the meetings as to how long it would take to find out what had gone wrong inside the bowels of the reactor. Some figured it would take a year, if all went well …

The article suggests that after a serious malfunction the risk of such a dangerous situation is in fact intrinsic to a wide variety of reactor types. The danger is evident: not knowing exactly what has gone wrong, and being unable to find out, the responsible staff cannot know what is likely to happen next, and what protective measures are called for. And a disabled nuclear reactor cannot be stripped down and analysed like a car engine.

Mr Broinowski clearly rejects any such pattern of deficient knowledge as sketched above. He points rather to the ‘authoritative account’ by Dr Mathias Braun, ‘released on the web by the French nuclear conglomerate AREVA (of all companies)’. (‘Of all companies’? Perhaps Mr Broinowski missed the addresses given for Dr Braun on page 2: Matthias Braun PEPA4-G, AREVA–NP GmbH, and Matthias.Braun@AREVA.com.) He counterposes the AREVA account (dated 27 March) to my assertion that ‘no clear description’ of the Fukushima events yet existed. But almost immediately he undermines this usage: ‘And we now have the news that there has been a full-scale melt-down in at least one of the reactor cores’. His ‘now’ is 13 May—over two months after the crisis started! How adequate to the engineers’ needs was that early ‘authoritative account’ when they did not know all this time that ‘a full-scale melt-down’ had occurred?

And of course this was only one trickle in a steady stream of ‘news’ announcements that went on for months and may not have stopped yet. It was June—nearly three months after the earthquake—before the most ominous news of all arrived: ‘fuel rods in reactors No 1, 2 and 3 had probably not only melted, but also breached their inner containment vessels and accumulated in the outer steel containment vessels’.

Mathias Braun cannot be justly blamed for his early report. Rather, direct any blame at the fantastic notion that the course of a serious nuclear accident, with the reactor’s internal state known poorly or not at all, is routine and predictable from the outset; it isn’t. Breakdowns have often included a ‘side effect’: a no-go zone, in which the strength of radiation is too lethal to permit human life.  It was only in Chernobyl that people went about their jobs despite the radiation intensity. Some thirty of them died, mostly from radiation burns and/or acute radiation sickness.

This might make a nuclear reactor unique among technical devices: when it breaks down seriously, it can forbid on pain of death any close study (at least if non-robotic) that would detect what exactly is the device’s internal state, and what to expect next. Surely this repellent quality deserves wider recognition. It is hardly surprising that AREVA’s account does not publicise this ‘unapproachability’—it is in the business of selling, both rhetorically and literally, the nuclear production of electricity; the property under discussion is not a particularly good selling point, to put it mildly. But why is it featured so little by nuclear opponents?

Mr Broinowski’s letter might offer an answer. It does not show anywhere that he recognises the phenomenon of the no-go zone, or the way it seriously constrains access to information just when it is most needed. Thus the answer might be that people simply don’t know about it.

I think my views on nuclear power are fairly evident in my article—which ends for example with a reminder of that ‘packed energy which, given the chance, can metamorphose into flame and (far more damaging) into radioactive particles to send around the world’—and in the final words, ‘It is extraordinary that such a monstrous companion could be wished on us, as a rational way to get a kettle of water boiled.’

Yet Mr Broinowski found it a ‘bemused’ article with a ‘lack of conviction’. I don’t know why.

Alan Roberts is a former advisory member of the Nuclear Safety Committee of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.