Recently, the San Onofre Nuclear plant in California has come under extreme public scrutiny due to damage that occurred in steam tubes. These tubes were subject to some wear due to a computer design flaw. Due to this incident, the plant was shut down for investigation. It’s interesting to note that the main cause of this incident was due to an error in the computational analysis conducted by Mitsubishi that resulted in a miscalculation regarding the steam and water flow in the reactor . The leak from the tube did release a tiny amount of radiation, which was why the plant was shut down, and Southern California Edison does maintain that the amount released is “insignificant or extremely small” . Yes, the error was caught a bit too late, but it was addressed as soon as plant operators were made aware.
A concern that plagues the public regarding the status of the plant is the safety factor. In my opinion, the main reason the plant is receiving so much negative reception from the public is due to the fact that its associated with the word “nuclear”. Lets put some facts in perspective. Sure, there have been serious incidents and accidents that have occurred as a result of nuclear power accidents, but how many of these have resulted in injury to the public? How does Nuclear power compare to other forms of power industries when it comes to risk and fatalities? Why are minor nuclear-related accidents blown so out of proportion in the media, and other accidents caused by coal and gas that cause fatalities on the order of many more order of magnitudes not emphasized the same?
The image shown above (see reference ) shows a proportional image that should hopefully put some things into perspective. The image basically estimates that for every 1 death in a directly induced nuclear industry fatality, 4,000 people die from a coal power induced fatality. The graphic below from September 2010 shows a numerical summary of accidents that have occurred from various power sources. Although this was compiled before the incident in Japan last year, which has only 1 directly related nuclear death and 2 others from the tsunami itself. Taking this into account doesn’t really change data presented here.
(Image Source: http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/newsarticle.aspx?id=28325)
The reason why people are so easily scared when it comes to the nuclear power industry is because of the word ‘nuclear’ and its controversial role in wars, etc. Contrary to popular belief, nuclear power plants have one of the strictest safety requirements and structures and follow the “Defense in Depth” approach. This consists of various safety barriers that are monitored regularly.
What the public fails to understand is to dissociate the image of a mushroom cloud from the word ‘nuclear’ every time it’s mentioned in the news and media. The media needs to make a more conscientious effort to educate the public on facts rather than feed them bits and pieces that leave crucial pieces of information out. The technology to build newer and safer plants already exists. The only factor that stands in the way of acceptance of safe nuclear technology is the lack of public confidence. Government legislation, policy makers and the media influence this public attitude. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, the media and public can come to the same understanding as statistical findings and scientific data and see that nuclear energy industry incidents are so rare and cause the least damage to the public because no other industry takes more safety precautions.
For more thorough reading, the World Nuclear Association site provides a more comprehensive article that details the background of all the nuclear accidents to date and analyzes the safety records of each of the incidents. (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf06.html).
The NEA put out another report I think is useful. It details the safety principles behind nuclear power plants, the past performance of plants, risks associated with accidents and statistical frequencies, and compares them to other major sources of energy in the world today. (http://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/reports/2010/nea6862-comparing-risks.pdf)