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.

21 thoughts on “The Wise Elves Say Cernavoda Earthquake Proof

  1. Hello Sam,
    i’m from Constanta, which is close form Cernavoda (45 minutes car trip).

    Safety. Cernavoda use the CANDU system, not boiling water (BWR) like Fukushima – a newer technology and backed up with 2 different emergency systems (BWR has one. There are a lot of differences also (fuel, which in Japan is enriched) and any specialist will tell you that CANDU technology is more safe than BWR.

    Fukushima. They lost their main power supply. Their secondary power supply (diesel generators) were flooded by tsunami. Their third backup power supply (batteries) encountered technical problem in order to make it work and last only 8 hours.

    Earthquakes in Romania. Earthquake prediction it is a science, not a fortune teller job. If they say that in Vrancea the maximum range of earthquake is M7.5, is like that (btw, seems like japanese built their plants for maximum M8).

    If you think that Nuclearelectrica PR people are dumbass (and yes, in 21 century you have to update your website too), look for relevant infos here http://www.infp.ro/ (those guys are not that dumb, trust me).

    And let’s rephrase – all problems in Japan are caused by tsunami wave, which flooded backup systems and not by earthquake itself.

    Btw, i’m not an engineer so use the mighty google for relevant technical informations.

    Greetings

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    1. hi :-)

      roberto, you are one of the very few people who is able to explain correctly and clearly why the nuclear powerplant in Cernavoda is not Fukushima, and the main differences between CANDU and BWR technology. Yes, nuclear powerplants can be dangerous IF their design is flawed. Even a bicycle can be dangerous it has a faulty design! My father is an engineer at the power-plant, he has worked for many, many years there. I visited the power-plant a few times. It has an open door policy – anybody can visit it actually! (well… if the check they do on you gives back a good result, i suppose that people with a criminal record are not allowed).

      So i know a few things, for example: the earthquake in 77 scared Ceausescu a lot. So, when he decided to build a nuclear powerplant, the russians immediately offered to build it with their soviet technology (like Cernobil). But Ceausescu wanted guarantees that the powerplant would be able to withstand a strong earthquake (8 Richter). The Russian technology was not able to guarantee this. but the Canadians, with their CANDU technology, granted this. This is a true story, of the main reason of why Ceausescu chose the Canadian and not the Russian technology – because of the 77 quake. The reactor even is able to withstand a Boeing crashing directly on it. As Roberto said, there are two emergency systems, which are located in two completey separated places, and based on two different technologies.

      So, lets say that an 8,5 earthqzake happens (or that a plane crashes on the reactor), so an event which is so dangerous and powerful that it makes the reactor stop (I did not choose a meteorite-event, coz even a smal a meteorite would prolly destroy half of the world, so it would be more destructive than a meltdown). The reactor is automatically stopped, and the first emergency sistem kicks in, to cool down the reactor in order for the nuclear reactions inside the core to stop. This process (the complete shut down of the nuclear reactions takes i think 24-48h – i dont know exactly…). Lets say that… something else happens, the second destructive event, which is powerful enough to make the first emergency sistem to crash. But the 2nd emergency sistem goes online. And if a third event destroyes this second system… well, there is the last option – cooling down the reactor with Danube water.

      BUT… what are the chances that these 3 extremely dangerous events all happen in the same area, in a 24-48h time interval? A 9Richter quake would maybe able to accomplish actually all the harm that these 3 events would do… but… when we#re talking about such a natural disaster… well… it would cause more destruction and victims than the possible meltdown.

      Its the scientists and engineers who designed the plant the ones who guaranteed that the powerplant has no problems with an 8 richter quake. This means that even with an 8,5 quake, there would be damage, maybe even major damage, but … the probability of something extremely bad to happen, very low. ANd its not elves who say that in RO there is a maximum of 8 degree quake, its scientists. As someone pointed out, nature is quite unpredictable sometimes, and there are chances that an 8,5 quake happens in Ro, BUT these chances are very low. And Cernavoda is a few hundreds km far away for the Vrancea region, so it would feel the quake less. The place was not chosen randomly – they made studies, to find out which is the best and safes place for a nuclear plant.

      And for all this harmful events to happen all in the same time… you just have to multiply the chances that each event would happen. And even after 3 multiplications, you get a number which is sooooo small (something like… one chance in 10^30), that in reality this chain of events cannot happen.

      Let#s take the Fukushima event. Strong quakes are a lot more probable to happen in Japan, and following tsunamis have also a quite high probability. When u take into consideration the BWR model, and the fact that there was only one emergency system… well… if u do the math, u get a low chance that something bad happens. ANd yes, this truly happend, this rare chain of events happened. But when u think about Cernavoda… the probability is a lot, a lot, A LOT, lower, and math does not lie. I mean, it is more probable that a lightning hits u, than something really bad to happen at cernavoda.

      As for the other BWR nuclear plants… well… dunno what to say, but certainly, it is needed more than one powerful harmful event to cause something reaaallly bad to happen.

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  2. Talking about safe, safer, the safest… errare humanum est!
    “Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric resigned from their jobs after becoming increasingly convinced that the nuclear reactor design they were reviewing — the Mark 1 — was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident.
    Questions persisted for decades about the ability of the Mark 1 to handle the immense pressures that would result if the reactor lost cooling power, and today that design is being put to the ultimate test in Japan. Five of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which has been wracked since Friday’s earthquake with explosions and radiation leaks, are Mark 1s.”
    http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/fukushima-mark-nuclear-reactor-design-caused-ge-scientist/story?id=13141287

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    1. Another myth busted: Japanese companies handle things in a very responsible way. Really?!…
      “As many people here are well aware (TEPCO) has a history of not being forthcoming about nuclear safety issues, particularly those surrounding earthquake-related dangers. In 2003, all 17 of its nuclear plants were shut down temporarily after a scandal over falsified safety-inspection reports. It ran into trouble again in 2006, when it emerged that coolant-water data at two plants had been falsified in the 1980s.”
      http://timshorrock.com/?p=1113
      http://www.evz.ro/detalii/stiri/fukushima-cum-au-ascuns-japonezii-incidentele-nucleare-mai-vechi-924057.html
      http://www.lefigaro.fr/sciences/2011/03/14/01008-20110314ARTFIG00568-quand-le-geant-du-nucleaire-japonais-cachait-des-incidents.php

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  3. Hey…for some insane reason I just god back from a talk with some physicists and geologysts (how-ever you spell it) in UK and the conclusion of the talk that was regarding nuclear plants and earthquakes was that you cannot possibly design anything that can stand without doubt against an earthquake that is bigger than a 7.5 Richter scale. Anything beyond that stops being predictable because there are simply too many things happening at the same time. And if you ever reach a 9.0 Richter scale nothing man made can stand because the ground waves are as big as 2 meters high. So yes….Japan took a BIG risk with that power plant….

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  4. Just my two cents in here.

    1) Completely agree that the Cernavodă plant in not exactly state-of-the-art or in the best place to start with. However,

    2) Our options at this point are either spending an insane amount of $ on technology that might or might not prove to be feasible OR keep going nuclear. Yes, electric blah, regenerable and so forth, but keep in mind countries far more advanced than us haven’t managed to bring it to the profitable side.

    3) The current main source of energy is fossil oil which we have no clue whether or not has peaked. We hope it hasn’t and hope it will stay there for at least 40 years more. While nuclear plant have been around for quite a bit, windmills and the such are a quite novel concept. Basic economics tell us that novelty costs A LOT if you’re on the buying side, so our options right now are either to slightly expand the nuclear backbone or go spending like crazy in other to get a jump-start on regenerable stuff.

    I’m afraid I’ll keep a conservative view and disagree with you. Not because I trust the damn government on safety, but because I don’t trust them to switch lanes sufficiently fast.

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  5. I believe we should invest more in the safety of nuclear power plants and not renounce nuclear energy altogether.

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  6. Ok Sam I have to respectfully disagree with you here and not because I nurture some love towards nuclear energy in itself, I can assure you I am as frightened of the damn thing as anyone rational. It is the way you formulated the argument that I disagree with. One could speculate that the same stands true for flying aircraft. It is very very unlikely something bad will happen (I read somewhere that you would have to fly continuously for 125 years to have a one digit percentage risk of being involved in an air crash) yet following your logic we should all be alarmed because something MAY happen anyway. Well yeah, but then again there is a risk associated with every single thing you do…

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  7. Sam, I have to disagree with you on your opinion on nuclear power. I understand it can be dangerous, extremely dangerous in some cases if it’s mishandled, but I think it’s a worth wile risk. Like I said before there is enough usable nuclear material on the earth for billions of years, it doesn’t even have to be renewable. If one of your biggest concerns is the nuclear waste I also said that waste can be reprocessed and used again, in some cases 90% of it, so it’s also recyclable. In any case Romania doesn’t even have any nuclear waste deposits, it has to export it.
    Keep in mind that there are hundreds of nuclear power plants and their track record is fairly good with only Chernobyl being downright catastrophic and there are only a few reactors of that type. Romanian’s reactors were made with the help of the Canadians and using their design. I haven’t heard of any problems with that design.
    Getting back to the Romanian government’s decision not to invest in solar and wind power. Those technologies are very expensive, not efficient or reliable enough to compete. We also don’t have enough places where both wind and sun light are constant all year round.
    I think there was already a program for subsidizing the placement of solar panels on buildings, which is a good start. But if you want a clean, reliable, flexible and powerful enough system to produce electricity when you need it I can’t see a better choice than a nuclear power plant.
    Romania’s main source of electricity is burning cole, which I already showed you produces more radioactivity than nuclear plants.
    I’m not saying that renewable energy sources should be ignored, I’m just saying that we can’t rely on them right now, and they’re not as easy to install all over the country as just picking a site and building one nuclear plant and the churn out alot of cheap electricity.

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  8. Well…the problem is, and it will always be political. When nuclear energy was discovered they had two options: fusion or fission. They chose fission because they could make bombs out of it. The only thing that the other method provided was a safe power source and because of the political problems of that time (aka: WW2) the “logical” way was to make bombs. After WW2 they could have switched but….USA-USSR….you get the point. And the point is, that a fission based nuclear plant can also be transformed fairly quicly to produce weapons. That’s why fusion is not fully developed and researched even today after so many years.

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    1. I’m not ascerting my superiority here or anything, I just want you tu be better informed.

      The reason why fusion is still not a viable method of generating electricity after 60 years of research has less to do with politics than with the huge challenge it really is to harness the power of the sun.
      Fission is naturally occuring on earth all the time. It means that one radioactive material absorbs neutrons and becomes two other materials, thus producing heat.
      Fusion is the other way around, using enormous amounts of heat you can combine two different types of atoms into one. The Sun at first created that heat because of it’s gravity which started a nuclear chain reaction creating even more heat. This is the reason why it’s such a big challenge to make an efficient fusion reactor because we can’t produce that much gravity and we have to use electricity to make super heated plasma and contain it well enough with giant magnets. At present we have to use more electricity in the system that the system produces.

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      1. I fully see your point, and i don’t deny that they are doing some research but it is not sufficient. Let’s say you have n given funds to make energy and weapons and you are in the middle of a war. You are not going to take those “n” founds and make something that creates a deficient in the other sector. The best way than was to produce both at the same time. If the same amount of many and energy (as in human creation energy) would have been invested in fusion, we would’ve had fusion today instead of fission.

        Yes i agree with the fact that fusion is not fully developed but that’s just because at some point in time, the money and energy went into bomb-making, because i’m sure that at the begining they were both equally unstable.

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      2. You know what I was saying earlier about “the art of trade-offs” ? It applies here, too.

        “If the same amount of many and energy (as in human creation energy) would have been invested in fusion, we would’ve had fusion today instead of fission.”

        I really don’t think so. Achieving fusion is MUCH MORE DIFFICULT than achieving fission, that’s fission was chosen as a more promising development path.

        The first fission reactor went on-line in 1942, while work on fusion reactors is still experimental. Don’t you think that maybe, just MAYBE, there’s a reason for that ?

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