Tuesday, May 18, 2010

An American Chernobyl

I somehow missed this from over a week ago, but Dmitry Orlov has, in my opinion, hit the nail on the head with his comparison of the unfolding of the Deepwater Horizon disaster to that of the explosion of Chernobyl Station Number 4.

An American Chernobyl
by Dmitry Orlov at Club Orlov
The drawing of parallels between industrial accidents is a dubious armchair sport, but here the parallels are just piling up and are becoming too hard to ignore:

An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 spewed radioactive waste across Europe
A recent explosion and sinking of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform is spewing heavy oil into the Gulf of Mexico

These accidents were both quite spectacular. At Chernobyl, the force of the explosion, caused by superheated steam inside the reactor, tossed the 2500-tonne reactor lid 10-14 meters into the air where it twirled like a tossed penny and came to rest back on the wrecked reactor. The cloud of superheated vapor then separated into a large volume of hydrogen gas, which detonated, demolishing the reactor building and adjoining structures. At Deepwater Horizon, a blowout of a recently completed oil well sent an uncontrolled burst of oil and gas, pressurized to over 10,000 psi by the 25000-foot depth of the well, up to the drilling platform, where it detonated, causing a fire. The rig then sank, and came to rest in a heap of wreckage on top of the oil well, which continues to spew at least 200,000 gallons of oil a day. Left unchecked, this would amount to 1.7 million barrels of oil per year, for an indefinite duration. This amount of oil may be enough to kill off or contaminate all marine life within the Gulf of Mexico, to foul the coastline throughout the Gulf and, thanks to the Gulf Stream, through much of the Eastern Seaboard, at least to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and possibly beyond. A few tarballs will probably wash up as far north as Greenland...

...The political challenges, in both cases, centered on the inability of the political establishment to acquiesce to the fact that a key source of energy (nuclear power or deep-water oil) relied on technology that was unsafe and prone to catastrophic failure. The Chernobyl disaster caused irreparable damage to the reputation of the nuclear industry and foreclosed any further developments in this area. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is likely to do the same for the oil industry, curtailing any possible expansion of drilling in deep water, where much of the remaining oil is to be found, and perhaps even shutting down the projects that have already started. In turn, this is likely to hasten the onset of the terminal global oil shortage, which the US Department of Energy and the Pentagon have forecast for 2012...

I have seen a number of stories comparing this accident to the partial core meltdown that happened in the United States at Three Mile Island. I think in this instance, Mr. Orlov has it correct.

At TMI, at the end of the day, the final safety systems held. The core didn't melt through the pressure vessel, the public was not exposed to high doses of radiation, there was no "China Syndrome," and, in the end, due to the massive reforms it forced onto the industry, it may have very well saved the U.S. nuclear power industry by forcing it to adhere to stringent best-practices. That all came at the cost of severe damage to public perception and a few billion dollars worth of investment, but the end result was probably net neutral, if not slightly positive.

Chernobyl cost the world far more dearly. It put the nail in the coffin of nuclear power development in Europe for decades, it helped undermine the legitimacy of the Soviet state and the mood associated with the "Chernobyl meme" was irrevocably tied to negativity, anger, suspicion and fear and that meme helped kill any hopes of rationally evaluating nuclear power from the mid-80's on. Plus, it helped kill advanced reactor development in the U.S. - the kinds of reactors that would now be up for licensing consideration - fast breeders, compact liquid metal designs, thorium designs, etc.

Deepwater Horizon could very well do the same for the United States. There are experts who are loudly doubting the official leak rate number of 5,000 barrels per day. The government and BP claim that they are more worried about sealing the leak than measuring it - which makes no sense as you need to have an established leak rate to know whether or not your remediation efforts are working. If we later find out that the leak rate truly has been an order of magnitude higher, we could see every BP gas station on the Gulf Coast firebombed to smoking rubble in days.

The show trials that will fall out from this accident will feed anger at corporations and government, will give new life to the eco movement and will severely curtail future domestic petroleum production.

This one is bad, folks.


David said...

While the outcomes you suggest are quite possible if not likely, the scale of the "disaster" does not appear to me in any way equivalent to Chernobyl.


The angst in teleprompter-readers' voices when describing the Gulf oil spill smells suspicious indeed. Methinks we're being BS'ed.

Gregory Wade said...

Orlov is prone to hyperbole. The blowout in the gulf is not a precedented. A blowout in 79 result in 10 to 30k barrels a day leaking into the Gulf for 10 MONTHS: http://www.incidentnews.gov/incident/6250

Flagg707 said...

Thanks for the comments. Gregory, I would totally agree that Mr. Orlov can hyperventilate on occasion.

What I should have been more explicit about is how I think this incident will be treated in the various media and be perceived by the public. That perception and the emotion associated with it will drive an entire generation of political and social decisions. I am much more worried about that anger and that emotion than the final consequences of the leak. If this is used as a hammer to slow down expansion of deep water drilling, then the oil supply picture ten years down the road just got even more bleak than it already is.

At the end of the day, crude oil (as opposed to refined product) is relatively low in toxicity and, frankly, is a "natural" product which can break down. I do think that if we get a bad hurricane at the wrong time it could crap up the beaches and absolutely kill tourism and property values in places along the Gulf, but at the end of the day, the actual effects vs. the perceived effects will, hopefully, be relatively small.