Monday, March 14, 2011

Tragedy and Salesmanship

There is an ironic juxtaposition in Le Monde online today. On the one hand, Microsoft is criticized for exploiting the Japanese tragedy to sell its brand (by asking Twitter users to retweet messages from Bing). On the other hand, the Élysée is reportedly extolling the virtues of the French EPR reactor as safer than the type of reactor that is on the verge of meltdown in Japan.

Not only is the Élysée's timing bad, its message is more than a little hasty, since the Japanese event is still evolving, and details are sketchy. Would EPR's safety measures have been equal to a tsunami? We are told that in case of imminent meltdown, EPR's core will cement itself in. But we have also been told that the reason for the Japanese reactors' failures was that they suffered an unforeseen "station blackout," that is, a situation in which all sources of power, including emergency power, were simultaneously eliminated by an incident of unanticipated magnitude. Would EPR's last-ditch mechanism have worked in these circumstances? I don't know, and I suspect the Elysée doesn't either.

What is clear at this point is that safety mechanisms at all nuclear sites will have to be rethought. I have been a supporter of nuclear power, and I believe that France's decision to rely on an extensive network of nuclear power stations was, for all the well-known problems, on the whole a good one. But the Japanese events have made me more cautious, and I think it's not only unseemly but ill-considered for the French government to announce so precipitously and so callously, "I told you so," when it doesn't really know what it's saying.


Kirk said...

An interesting article I read today looks at the situation and points out that everything has worked as it should (at least so far):

I think it's disgraceful how the ecologists are jumping on this disaster to make political hay here in France. They could at least wait until the bodies are counted.

I find it interesting how those who say that France should "sortire du nucléaire" don't say how to replace it. They talk about renewable energy, but that could in no way fill in for what nuclear currently produces. And, if that's the case, then France would have to burn oil or coal, which undoubtedly kill far more people than nuclear accidents; it just takes longer so you don't notice it.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Kirk, The Register story is more than a bit polyannaish. The cores of 2 reactors have been flooded with seawater, hardly a scenario that can be called "working magnificently." There have been 3 partial meltdowns, and one core was reportedly fully uncovered and therefore likely to melt down fully. That is not a happy situation.

Mathieu said...

I would like to add a little something about the EPR. I do not understand why l'Elysée is communicating so much about it when it does not even work.
The first EPR was built in Finland and was supposed to be producing in 2008. In the end, works are still in progress due to malfunctions.
The EPR who is currently built in France (near Cherbourg) was supposed to be finished in late 2010. They say now that it won't be finished until 2012 at least, due to the same malfunctions.

I am not against nuclear power, but when I read such news and see what can happen, I am not at ease. How can there be such problems with an infrastructure of this magnitude and such levels of risks?

Kirk, I understand that today, we cannot replace nuclear power with somethnig else, but I think that if we consider the potential energy savings and other sources of production, our current addiction to nuclear plants could be reduced by far.

Anonymous said...

You should remember the events in France in April 1986 just after Chernobyl. The joke (in France) was that the radioactive clouds came West and split to go around France, never passing over France. Since the government(i.e. including the TV channels/newspapers) did not emphasize the event and expanded on the difference from the Russian design and the safety of the French reactors.