This blog has several posts supporting massive investment in nuclear energy. Next to wind and solar power, it is the cleanest current off-the-shelf technology capable of widespread deployment. (Hydroelectric, geothermal and tidal power are necessarily local solutions.) In the medium term, it is the best alternative to coal for “baseline loads,” until we develop good batteries to store wind and solar power in a reliable, widely distributed nationwide power grid.
Nuclear power produces no air pollution and only a small amount of radioactive solid waste. Unlike coal, it does not pollute the local and regional atmosphere with sulfur dioxide, taint fish worldwide with mercury poisoning, or produce the largest burden of greenhouse gases of any fuel known to science. Whereas coal pollutes the Earth’s entire atmosphere and is the largest single contributor to climate change, America could sequester all of its nuclear waste under a single mountain. If it came to that, the fateful choice between nuclear power and coal would determine whether the next several generations live in a chemical purgatory or something resembling a pristine Earth.
Despite the irrational fears of fringe groups, nuclear power is safe. There is absolutely no risk that a nuclear power plant could become a nuclear bomb. Modern plant designs preclude meltdowns using only gravity, not sophisticated technology that can break down. And we can minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of diversion of nuclear fuel for terrorism with suitable precautions and plant design. France and South Korea have made 77% and 35% of their electricity, respectively, from the atom for decades, without nuclear mishap. Many other countries have similar records.
Yet there is a serious risk in nuclear power—one which has nothing to do with technology. It is not nuclear explosions, meltdowns, terrorism, or disposal of a relatively small volume of solid (and therefore non-dispersing) nuclear waste. It is corruption.
Last year’s tragic earthquake in Sichuan illustrates the problem. Scores of schoolchildren died from substandard construction of school buildings put up by corrupt contractors with the connivance of corrupt local officials. Little, if anything, was done to find and punish the individuals responsible and make examples of them. If the substandard buildings had been nuclear-plant containment vessels, the same earthquake might have affected hundreds of thousands.
Unfortunately, corruption seems endemic in China. Recently the Wall Street Journal reported [subscription required] that Kang Rixin, the head of the state-run China National Nuclear Corp. and a member of the Central Committee, is under investigation for corruption. That’s a terrifying thought, for China has eleven nuclear plants and is planning or building some twenty-three more.
The report did not state the nature of the alleged corruption. But if it involved cutting corners in plant siting, design or construction, the result could be more devastating to the Earth and its biosphere than nuclear-armed Kim and Ahmadinejad combined.
No nation is immune to corruption. During the last wave of nuclear plant construction, an American contractor skimped on the specifications for a nuclear power plant, building vertical supporting pillars father apart than the design specified. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission caught the “mistake” and forced the contractor to tear down the partially finished work and rebuild it to specifications.
This kind of thing happens in construction all the time. That’s why we have detailed contracts, supervising architects and engineers, and multiple layers of independent inspection and review for most buildings and all critical infrastructure.
There is no application for which those precautions are more important than nuclear power plants. In a previous post on this blog, I suggested that we could resolve nuclear-plant maintenance issues with a simple, common-sense rule: if something unexplained goes wrong, shut the plant down, find out what went wrong, and fix it. That seems like nothing more than common sense. But sometimes economic incentives vie with common sense and motivate stupidity or corruption. The trick is to arrange governing laws and practices to eliminate dangerous and perverse incentives and reinforce economic incentives to do the right thing.
Insofar as plant construction is concerned, four steps could help cure the corruption problem for nuclear power. Taken together, they flow from a simple, general rule: “don’t mess with nuclear power!” Do everything by the book, and let scientists and engineers who know what they are doing call the shots. Don’t tolerate the slightest deviation from best practices, let alone cutting corners.
The first step is to separate the job of promoting and selling nuclear power from the job of siting, designing and building plants. As compared to coal, nuclear power should sell itself. Only engineers and scientists who understand how nuclear plants work and appreciate the danger of sloppiness and cutting corners should be in charge of designing, building and running them. Promoters, marketers, investors, politicians and lawyers need not apply. Ideally, the smartest folk about nuclear matters—scientists and engineers in our national nuclear laboratories—should review and approve all siting plans and designs for nuclear power plants.
Second, safety and reliability should be the only (not just the primary) goal of operators, inspectors and regulators of nuclear power plants. Governing statutes, rules, and regulations should make that clear. If private industries run nuclear power plants, government-managed insurance should protect them and their investors against economic loss arising from technical problems that could not be foreseen. That way, there would be no economic incentive to cut corners if such problems appear. Problems that can be anticipated, such as corruption, we should expose and punish severely.
Both government regulators and private operators should have multiply redundant layers of oversight and inspection. They should include both independent private inspectors and government regulators. Private inspectors should have inspection and reporting as their only jobs and should be fired summarily for assuming any other or conflicting duties. Preventable problems, such as cutting of corners in construction, should receive quick and severe punishment, including economic sanctions, blackballing from all future nuclear work, and incarceration of responsible individuals.
Third, nuclear plant managers, including those who supervise plant construction, should be properly trained and certified. Ideally they should all have higher degrees in nuclear engineering. Before hiring, and periodically afterward, they should undergo rigorous testing and certification for substantive knowledge, currency in their field, aptitude and psychological fitness. The testing and certification processes should be no less rigorous than those we use for high-level military and intelligence officials, or for officers responsible for maintaining and operating our nuclear deterrent.
Finally, we should try to instill in nuclear managers and inspectors the spirit of an elite corps, analogous to special forces in our military. We should select them more carefully, pay them better, relieve them for the slightest transgression, and reward them better with recognition, publicity (when warranted) and honor, than any other comparable officials inside and outside government. Pride is a powerful motivator, and both government and private industry (under government mandate and encouragement) could use pride of place and achievement to combat corruption.
With these precautions, the greatest risk of nuclear power—the human failing of corruption—could be minimized, if not eliminated.
As for China, it should bring its investigation of Mr. Kang to a rapid and definite conclusion. If there is evidence of corruption in site selection, design or construction of nuclear plants it should relieve and incarcerate Kang. If evidence of his personal involvement in corruption (as distinguished from toleration or negligence) is clear, China might consider a public execution, like that held not long ago for the corrupt head of China’s regulatory agency for drugs. In the long run, corruption in nuclear plant siting, design or construction could kill or injure far more people than approving tainted medications.