1. Topic: Can next-generation nuclear reactors be “safe”?

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Assignment 2 Workthrough
I am not going to work through one of the given examples as that will skew the class assignments, instead I have introduced a new topic for this demonstration.
1. Topic: Can next-generation nuclear reactors be “safe”?
Source Article: http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2011-03/beyond-fukushima-daiichi-can-better-reactors-provide-safe-nuclear-powered-future
Summary: it is argued, in light of the recent Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, that it is necessary to build “next-generation” nuclear reactors that can achieve a much higher level of safety. Note that the claim is not that absolute safety is possible, but that the kind of disaster that happened at Fukushima-Daiichi can be avoided in the future.
The key concept at stake here is that of “safety”, how safe can next-generation reactors be, what does it mean to say they are “safe”, etc. In short, can a safe nuclear reactor be built?
2. What are the claims made in the article about safety?
“… most of what’s gone wrong with Fukushima Daiichi's 1970s-era reactors has already been learned and accounted for in the latest nuclear power plant technology.”
“… redundant and passive safety systems [in next-generation designs] work without the help of an operator, or even electricity, during times of duress, be it man-made or natural.”
“Generation III-plus includes a handful of high-tech plant designs, many of which still await regulatory approval. Others, like France-based Areva’s Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) and Westinghouse’s AP1000 (both are pressurized water reactors) are already under construction, and they are designed to withstand exactly the crisis the 40-year-old Japanese reactors are failing to deal with, whether operators are around to trigger emergency countermeasures or not.”
“Areva is currently building four EPR reactors, two in China and two in Europe. The design includes four independent redundant cooling systems, two of which are engineered to survive an airplane crash.”
“Westinghouse’s AP1000 packs a battery of passive systems that use natural air flow, gravity, and other natural phenomena to remove pumps and valves from the equation; if the plant begins to overheat these measures will automatically cool the core for up to three days with no external intervention whatsoever.”
‘“Some new designs might be more robust than others, but generally I think they share flaws in that if you are going into uncharted territory with a severe accident case--which is where we are now with Fukushima--that all bets are off,” Lyman says. “I’m not sure that once you reach that point there would be any clear significant advantages to the new designs.”’
“Truly safe, secure nuclear power requires plants that simply cannot melt down, and that means going smaller rather than bigger. Podowski thinks one potential future relies on many smaller, distributed nuclear plants--so-called small modular reactors--that would contain a small amount of nuclear material, power a small area of the grid, and be protected by a smattering of passive mechanisms.”
3. Identify the philosophical problem

The philosophical problem the most relevant to this case would be the problem of induction, as the next-generation designs mentioned are being built, under construction, engineered to be safe, in the design stage, etc. Thus it is not possible to know if they will behave as they have in experimental tests or computer models. Our limited experience with these reactors may not translate into long term safety.

4. Find background articles to flesh out arguments and check facts

This article is from a popular science publication, it would be worthwhile to locate a few other articles, maybe even from scientific periodicals, to ensure that the details are correct.

5. Evaluate how the authors handle the problem of induction when making claims about safety

You are required to evaluate the author of the article in question, but if you find that other authors also make the same claims (or the same mistakes) then it would be worthwhile to address the broader trend in the literature rather than just focus on one article. In the case of this article:

  • For the most part the article author asserts that there have been great strides in reactor design that have already taken into account the problems encountered in the Japanese reactor disaster

  • So he gives the impression that this particular problem has already been solved

  • Still, it is acknowledged in the article that there will still be unknowns associated with accidents, and thus that next-generation designs may not be sufficient

  • In this sense the author has acknowledged the problem of induction, even if it was not explicitly discussed

  • However, the author then goes on to claim that smaller-scale inherently safe nuclear reactors may be sufficient to guarantee safety, as it is physically impossible for certain kinds of accidents to happen

  • For these reactors the author does not raise the possibility of unknowns, so he treats them as if they have solved the safety problem

Remember that you don’t have to solve the problem yourself, it is not up to you to make the case for safe or unsafe reactors, it is your job to map out how the author or authors handle the philosophical problem in question (induction)

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