Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reflections on Talk by Annie Kammerer, NRC

Saga Prefecture governor Yasushi Furukawa looks way stressed. The Genkai nuclear plant is in his prefecture and its reactors were shut down for maintenance before the Fukushima disaster. NKH reports that he’s gotten mixed messaged from the national government on whether it’s safe to restart the plant and emotional letters from residents who have either safety or economic concerns (82% of Japanese want to get rid of nuclear power eventually). He doesn’t trust the regulatory body that says the plant’s safe because they gave a clean bill of health to Fukushima before the disaster too. He’s got grave responsibilities to the people in his community, but can’t trust what the higher-ups are telling him. What to do?

At a DC EcoWomen event that I attended last night, Senior Seismologist at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Annie Kammerer pointed out that Japan, like most countries in the world, manages risk to nuclear facilities using a “scenario model”. This model, she says, is much less comprehensive than the “probabilistic seismic hazard assessment” or PSHA model that the US uses. Japan is in the midst of adopting the American model while the NRC has released, on its part, a report on lessons learned from Fukushima (NRC itself has faced scrutiny of late).

Kammerer, a California native who was intrigued by earthquakes growing up, spoke in depth about the ways that the US determines hazard and reduces risk to nuclear facilities. It involved a lot of statistical stuff that I couldn’t quite follow and therefore was a pinch skeptical of. Numbers, after all, can’t encompass every potential scenario.

Still, the US has 104 operating nuclear reactors (not to mention nuclear waste facilities) and one’s got to come up with some sort of hazard model, as deficient as it might be. Kammerer and her colleagues unearth as many potential human screw-ups, as much available data on seismic history, the worst domino-effect scenarios and scientific data as possible and provide guidelines for constructing the best facilities under these circumstances. The goal is to push their findings into law, into the regulations. That can be a long process – 10 years in most cases (check out this infographic on risks to US nuclear facilities).

Although Kammerer says “I’m not pro or con nuclear power” and that “politics and science should be kept separate,” she “would eventually like to see nuclear phased out in the US.”

The DC EcoWomen are a fantastic group of people and had heaps of intelligent, revealing questions for Kammerer. Among them: Is fracking a concern? (yes, and NRC is looking into the implications); Obama’s canning Yucca Mnt. – what does the NRC think? (the decision had more to do with politics than science). I was eager to ask more questions – particularly her thoughts on China’s nuclear industry, the recent findings on tritium leaks at a large portion of US plants, and Diablo Canyon – but time was limited. I think I’ll leave the final word to Rankin Taxi:


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