Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Perspectives on nuclear reactors

A few days ago, this article about the design of the Fukushima nuclear reactors got a lot of attention. I appreciated it for its clear, careful description of the design of boiling water reactors. When I posted a link to it on my Facebook page, the comments began to fly, and I saw many of my Facebook friends linking to the same article (and even to a German version of it).

One thing I wondered in the comment stream on my posting of the link was whether a nuclear skeptic who understood the design might also provide an analysis of the situation. Well, it turns out, according to this article in today's New York Times (and International Herald Tribune) that such an analysis has been made—and not only has this reactor design been criticized, it has even been criticized right from its earliest days. And the NYT article cites several people who clearly have the credentials to understand the Fukushima design but have also long identified potential problems with the design that are the very problems that are now causing trouble in Japan.

Given that the author of the first description of boiling water reactors linked above apparently wrote the description in an email to his family to reassure them that things were okay, it's not surprising that he did not mention the existence of long-standing criticisms of the safety of such reactors.

But once the article went public, it's too bad that the MIT people who offered to host the article did not provide that information. This is a case where the "two-sides-of-the-story" ethic of contemporary journalism (which so often leads to a "balanced" presentation of a situation where one side is, as an FB friend put it recently in a different context, "batshit") actually does serve a purpose.

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