Tuesday, January 13, 2009

He was an engineer who often testified at public hearings about what sites power plants might be built at. He as paid to do this by a utility that wanted to build a power plant on a certain site.

He and people paid by environmental groups who testified the other way at hearings saw and heard each other again and again at hearings. Especially at hearings about nuclear power plantes, feelings were intense and unfriendly.

He got tired of the dance.

Adversarilly--that's how we officially seek truth around here. But he got tired of it. He thought of the smart, well-meaning people on the other side and smart, well-meaning him getting together and just talking, applying what they know to the good of society.

He approached one of his familiar adversaries with this idea, and he was firmly, angrily refused.

So he decided to do it himself.

He decided to have the free-wheeling discussion of how to create power in a free, democratic, power-hungry society with himself, starting from the beginning.

The beginning, for an engineer, is thinking about risk.

The usual way that power plants produce electricity is by boiling water, which runs a steam generator, which produces electricity.

That's how nuclear power plants work also. It's not like when human figured out how to split the atom they figured out how to produce electricty from that split. The controlled nuclear reaction produces heat, which is used to boil water, which runs a steam generator, which produces electricty.

The controlled nuclear reaction produces thousands of degrees of heat in excess of what is needed to boil water. So nuclear plants have those cooling towers that look like cylinders with a waistline.

If nuclear power goes wrong it can do much damage. Damage to people over a whole region--making them very sick outright, or causing them to get cancer when they would not have.

That's the risk, or a big part of it. But an engineer knows there is always risk, with any human-made thing. We reduce the risk to reasonable levels, and we go on.

Richard Meehan was by training and temperment inclined to feel that people testifying against a nuclear power plant were unrealitic about risk. That they didn't realize that there is always risk.

--I'm talking about Richard Meehan's book "The Atom and the Fault: Experts, Earthquakes, and Nuclear Power." There's more to be said.