The Wise Elves Say Cernavoda Earthquake Proof


Looks like I wasn’t the only one wondering just how safe Cernavoda is – and how well it is built to withstand an earthquake.

From Mediafax:

Centrala nucleară de la Cernavodă a fost proiectată să reziste la cutremure cu magnitudinea de opt grade pe scara Richter, iar seismele care se pot produce în România pot avea o intensitate maximă în intervalul de 7-7,5 grade, se arată într-un comunicat transmis de Nuclearelectrica.

In English, the company called “Nuclearelectrica”, which owns and operates the Cernavoda reactor, sent out a press release to the media. The press release states that Cernavoda is built to withstand an 8.0 earthquake (on the Richter scale) and that the maximum earthquake possible in that region of Romania is 7.5 on the Richter.

See folks? A press release says we’re all good! Not only that but not a single citation or reference to just how the good folks at Cernavoda know that the maximum earthquake possible is 7.5.

Furthermore, on Nuclearelectrica’s own website, this press release is nowhere to be found. Which means someone in the company typed it up, faxed it out but didn’t even bother to put it up on their own site. I’m sure they did it this way out of incompetence rather than trying to be duplicitous but still, it’s a poor way to run things, further strengthening my confidence in their capability to run a nuclear reactor. Not everyone reads Mediafax (or their rapidly disappearing links), you know?

But still, let’s assume NE is telling us the truth. Let’s assume Cernavoda is run by extremely competent and knowledgeable elves who have overbuilt the thing so it can indeed withstand an 8.0 (Richter scale) earthquake. If that’s all true, do we still have anything to worry about?

Absolutely. And I’m going to explain how I know this even though I know absolutely nothing about operating a nuclear energy facility.

On a purely emotional level, in simple words even a kid could understand, I’ll first advance this argument: do you think the Japanese engineers are less diligent than the ones running Cernavoda? Really? Because clearly they know how common earthquakes are in Japan. They had generators and all kinds of back-up power sources to maintain core integrity and yet they’re scrambling right now to prevent a major disaster.

So to dismiss concerns about Cernavoda, first you’ve got to say that the folks at Cernavoda are doing a better job at preparing for disaster than the Japanese. I doubt I can find three people in the street who’d argue a Dacia is better built than a Toyota but yeah, fine, somehow Cernavoda isn’t anything to worry about but those Japanese engineers are to blame for what’s going on at Fukushima.

But let’s take this argument further. Let’s go ahead and stipulate that yes, somehow, the wisest elves of all time are operating Cernavoda. And yes, they’ve built the most advanced nuclear reactor of all time and it’s light years ahead of what Japan has and in fact, it can withstand even a 10.0 earthquake, the maximum on the Richter scale.

Assuming all of that is true, would there be anything to worry about? Most definitely. And the reason for this is understanding probability, something I’ve written about here many times before.

Someone earlier mentioned the chance of a meteor strike directly on the Cernavoda plant. Obviously that’s extremely unlikely. Let’s say that there’s a 1 in 10 million chance of it happening. Nothing to worry about, right?

The problem is not necessarily in accurately calculating the odds, although I’d argue that they aren’t being calculated correctly. The problem is that it’s like a reverse 6/49 lottery. Your chances of winning the 6/49 lottery are also infinitesimal. But if all of your numbers line up and you win, suddenly those probabilities don’t matter. You get the millions in your bank account and your life is radically changed forever.

An unpredictably large earthquake, or a series of aftershocks, or a combination of other natural disasters (flood, storm, whatever) or yes, even a meteor strike, and suddenly the numbers line up and there’s a containment failure and a cloud of radioactive poison spreads throughout southern Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and eastern Europe. Then what? Do the odds matter then?

It’s a classic Black Swan event. The chances of it happening are extremely low. But the point is not that it’s likely to occur (because it isn’t). The point is what if it does happen? If Cernavoda wins the reverse lottery, it doesn’t matter (retroactively) how unlikely it was to have occurred. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many days Cernavoda operated safely. All it takes is a single day of something going wrong.

Standing around and saying “all the wise elves never predicted it” isn’t doing anything for the people of Japan right now. And it won’t do a thing for whoever gets sickened (or killed) by radioactivity if God forbid something similar ever happens in Romania.

My point in my original post was never to claim that disaster was imminent at Cernavoda. Nor was I advocating that someone shut down the plant tomorrow and we all rely on candles for interior illumination. My point is that if something awful – earthquakes or just plain old operator error – happens at Cernavoda, it would be a nightmare.

The time to worry about this is now, before it happens, not afterwards. It’s time to open a debate on energy production in this country, to find a way to power all of our laptops and cell phones and whatever else in a safer way, not to mention a less polluting way.

I realize Cernavoda is providing a significant chunk of Romania’s energy needs right now. But guess what? Japan’s nuclear reactors were providing a third of that country’s energy. And now the unthinkable has happened (disaster) and they’re all offline.

Currently the Romanian government is spending billions of euros to double Cernavoda’s capacity as well as taking bids from foreign investors. It seems to me that it would be a far more sensible approach to invest that money somewhere else, in fields that are renewable, non-polluting, and without the risk of lethal contamination if they fail.

I have a whole series of sites in my “to write about” folder here on the computer. And I’ll get into what realistic options Romania has about alternative energy production. But doubling down on a nuclear energy plant that sits in both an earthquake and flood-prone region seems to be quite foolish.

As I’ve said many times before, it is what it is. Cernavoda exists right now and it’s pumping out the electricity while wind farms and solar panels are not. But the future is not going to change unless we start thinking and talking about it today. And that, my friends, is something I believe is urgently needed in this country.

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21 Comments Add yours

  1. x says:

    i’d like to advocate [partial] distancing from taleb style “rationality”. while i’m far from dismissing the black swans and their impact, and far from believing in the existence of “probability of 1”, i do not consider that the nuclear threat in romania is imminent. thus, i do believe that investing in nuclear facilities, building the 3rd and 4th reactor at cernavoda are good things with known returns rather than investing much more in solar or wind technologies, not [yet] efficient and exorbitantly expensive. if we are to panic about cernavoda, we should take a similar stance on our everyday life. the danger of a brick falling on your head while walking through the city or the dangers of crossing the street are also “from extremistan”, nevertheless, you’re taking the chance and do those things everyday. considering you would have a 10.000 years life, would you still take the risk? what about an infinite life? on the short term we do it without thinking. on the long term you either violate rationality for immediate rewards or end up in an infinite vegetating state, doing nothing.

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  2. han says:

    The argument that nuclear power is not fail-safe is correct, but in fact we (as humanity and individuals) make decisions all the time based on trade-offs, as in does the benefit outweigh the danger.
    Here is a list of things that kill a lot of people yet we still do them: use automobiles, buses, trains, airplanes, ships, elevators; live/work in buildings (that may collapse when an earthquake happens), have sex, use electricity, gas, etc..
    So I’m not sure what the point is, is it that nuclear energy is dangerous so it should not be used (what about using automobiles then, is that still ok or should be outlawed?)
    or is it that the dangers are too high for the benefits (this is debatable of course, but we need to look at all the available facts)?

    As general solutions to the energy problems I think we should:
    1) reduce our individual consumption as much as possible
    2) research solar panels (the Sun is still the best energy source .. having created the fossil fuels, the winds, tides, water currents and biomass that can also be harvested for energy .. although in a less efficient way and with higher risks). However research is costly, and although Romania should participate, it is not in a very good position to spearhead these efforts..

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  3. Ayceman says:

    Ahem, The Japanese for some odd reason made Fukushima only withstand a magnitude 7.9-8 earthquake, which was very irresponsible, since M9 earthquakes were known to have occurred in the past centuries.

    Cernavodă is also made to withstand M8 earthquakes. The info is wrong in the article, since the largest possible earthquake for Vrancea is 7.8-7.9, because Vrancea can’t accumulate that much energy to create a larger Earthquake. Additionally the Dobrogea plateau is a good insulator.

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