Hubris of technology and human error: Do we need a new nuke in Fresno?

During the 2010 Senatorial Race in California, one of the Republicans running was Chuck Devore. I am so glad that he did not win. He is yet again one of those who will back up their policy with whatever number makes their case look better. In a facebook comment this week, Devore attacks environmentalists and contrasts the situation at Fukushima as being caused by an earthquake while that at Chernobyl was caused by human error. He then states that the death toll from Chernobyl was “only 50.”

I am not sure where he gets his information, since the governments of Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine put the death toll in the thousands while other organizations go toward 100,000. So much for Devore’s credibility. It is falling dangerously close to that of Rush Limbaugh.

The most intriguing element is that he also ignores information as to how human error contributed to the disaster at Fukushima. News analysts have always wondered why the diesel generators failed and today the news is that a worker failed to double check that the fuels tanks were full.

This is what I mean by technological hubris. We still have not been able to engineer any complex system that is immune to the effects of human error, neither failures to act as it appears to be the case here, nor failures in judgment as affected some of the Space Shuttle spectacular failures.

As the dangers continue to build in Japan, the nuclear industry in the United States are active convincing everyone, especially members of Congress, that is could never happen here. Is this because we are so smart? Because we are so careful? No, they say that it is because we do not have exposure to the scale of the earthquake / tsunami that has swamped Japan’s ability to manage multiple disasters.

Even now, this is part of the justification for a new nuclear plant facility that some want to build near Fresno. Even as the reactors in Fukushima are in danger of complete meltdown, or at least the spent fuel storage tanks… not in any kind of containment… are seriously compromised… the Madera County Board of Supervisors has voted its support for the proposed new reactors. This, in spite of the fact that California law has put a moratorium on new nuclear power plants until the problem of nuclear waste disposal has been solved. Remember… those highly reactive spent fuel rods are not in any containment facility.

John Ellis’s report in the Fresno Bee portrays The Fresno Energy Group as cynically planning to circumvent California’s moratorium.

In December, Hutson and the group said they had found a way around the moratorium. The reactors would be characterized as parts of a water-treatment system instead of power plants.

Water on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is tainted with a variety of salts that make it unsuitable for crops. Power generated could be used to power a desalination plant.

Actually, this sounds to me like a plan hatched by the Westland Water District who understands that their land is becoming increasingly less productive due to the accumulation of salts. Economist David Zeitland has even blogged that we could save a lot of taxpayer money by buying out the entire water district and all of it’s farms. That solution to Westlands’ problems is significantly better than a new nuclear plant. It does not require anyone to engineer a system that is immune to human error. (Actually, this deserves more research and a separate post).

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