Risks of Unknown Technology

Nuclear energy is a new technology; as such it is subject to unforeseen problems. One of the major problems leading to the Windscale fire, for instance, is that the heat sensors in the core were positioned in places that turned out to be inappropriate – thus, the reactor’s instruments displayed a safe temperature long after other places in the core had started to melt and catch fire.

Likewise, it is imperative to operate nuclear facilities only in accordance with their designed and approved functionality. Both the Windscale fire and the Chernobyl disaster occurred when the staff at the facility decided to conduct a test of alternate ways of operating the equipment.

Concomitant with new and unknown technologies are unknown costs. These tend to come to light mostly when decommissioning and/or cleaning up a failed facility, as the process is more public and the operators have less of a vested interest in secrecy.

For instance, the team tasked with cleaning up the failed DGR in Asse, Germany, admits that it will have to invent new technology to extract the leaking waste and indeed that it can’t even find most of the waste do to unforeseen shifting of the rock in which the storage facility is housed.

Likewise, the company cleaning up the exploded nuclear waste storage shaft in Dounreay, Scotland, admits that they have no idea what’s at the bottom of the shaft, and will have to invent new engineering solutions.

The largest nuclear accidents in the world have happened in the US, Japan, Russia/Ukraine and Germany. These are not countries lacking in technical expertise – rather, they are world leaders in high-criticality technology like space flight. So the problems causing these disasters do not stem from lack of expertise – rather, it is because this technology is inherently difficult and the consequences can be more severe than any other technology currently available on earth.

Given the potentially catastrophic consequences of nuclear accidents and the unforeseeable problems with the technology, pre-emptive safety measures have been invaluable, where they have been in place. For example, at Windscale, Sir John Crockcroft, the head scientist, insisted on installing extremely expensive, high-performance filters in its exhaust chimneys. This was widely derided at the time, since in the planned operation of the facility, there was no gaseous exhaust – outside air simply flowed across metal fins to cool the reactor without mingling with any chemical product of the reactor. Thus, during normal operation the filters would have absolutely nothing to do. However, when the reactor caught fire and burned uncontrollably for three days, spewing radioactive Uranium smoke, the filters prevented the Category 5 event from becoming an experience like Chernobyl.

There are only a few working underground repositories for nuclear waste, though several, like Dounreay and Asse, have been closed due to explosions and containment problems. One of these working repositories, the Forsmark DGR in Sweden, has already reported a raft of unforeseen technology malfunctions, even in very simple areas like keeping the access passageway from freezing up, the sealage and integrity of the waste canisters before they even reach the facility, contamination of groundwater, and humidity in the cavern leading to corrosion of metal parts.

Ironically, engineers from the Swedish site now note that to solve the problem of the access passageway freezing up in winter, “for heating of the roadway we nowadays use waterborne heating using the heat from the ventilation of the rock.” Since they nowhere mention that this heating comes from the ventilation system itself, we have to wonder whether this heat comes from the stored nuclear waste.

At this point in its operations, Forsmark, like the proposed Bruce DGR, is supposed to be a low to intermediate level waste site. One of the defining distinctions between these wastes and high level wastes is that only high level wastes are supposed to emit noticeable heat. So one has to wonder whether Forsmark, like other nuclear waste repositories, has been allowed to reclassify high level waste as intermediate in order to pretend to be in compliance with its governing regulations. And although it is certainly ingenious to use this heat to keep the access way clear, one has to wonder how much this heat will build up as Forsmark continues to receive a thousand cubic meters of waste per year, how this heat will behave when the facility is backfilled as is planned when it is full, and how the heat will interact with other technical problems like the unforeseen corrosion.

One also has to wonder – given that these fairly basic problems were unforeseen, and not simply solved (it took four tries to resolve all the listed problems with the access way) how well they’ll be able to deal with more complex unforeseen problems as they arise.

Bottom line: nuclear energy technology is new and unexplored enough that unforeseen problems will be arising for some time yet. Given the cataclysmic nature of nuclear failures, multiple layers of precaution are indicated. Such measures in the past have prevented bad accidents from turning into catastrophes. Yet, just like the Japanese industrial/regulatory complex, neither the Canadian nuclear industry nor the Canadian regulators have shown any interest in planning for the unforeseen problems that inevitably arise.

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