This Sort Of Thing Will Be A Problem

Blogging is not my “job” but it has forced me to become a dedicated follower of news. There was a time years ago when I read the front page of Google news and the New York Times and thought I was pretty tuned-in to what is going on. Since then I’ve learned not to congratulate myself and to seek, instead, the news that’s not fit to print: The Intercept, Counterpunch, Al Jazeera, and local/topical news. Putting customized search strings in Google news is another good trick – in case you’re wondering how I manage to scavenge up so much horror about the F-35 program: it comes to me automatically.

The big problem is, as I read with a wider scope, I am more susceptible to bullshit. I’m embarrassed to admit that I more or less used to believe what I read. The New York Times was credibility itself; I hadn’t even heard of James Risen or studied the timing of news releases such as the Abu Ghraib torture story or the timing of the warrantless wiretap program disclosure. As much as I am dubious of Wikileaks’ claim to a sort of nihilistic agnosticism, 2016 showed me, instead, that Assange was willing to play with, and be played by, the Trump campaign. I’ve described, before, how becoming an avid watcher of Adam Curtis’ weird documentaries has made me feel like there is a reality below the surface reality of day-to-day analysis (what we might call history in the making) – I’m uncomfortable with my lack of certainty and the massive amounts of additional reading that I have to do. And I still feel like I make mistakes.

This is one of those situations. It’s something that completely escaped my notice when it came around, and I find that a bit head-scratchingly odd. Here we looking at a story that I’d expect to be front-page news for a week, with CNN talking heads yelling, “The water is getting higher! Is this going to be another Fukushima?” “I don’t know, Bob, but we’ve got a re-treaded warhawk former Marine Corps Major to speculate wildly!” [cut to dramatic logo]

Somehow, when this happened, in 2011, I was blissfully unaware of it. Fukushima was in March 2011 and was all over the news, but in June 2011 a nuclear reactor in Nebraska did a fairly good impression of being about to do the same thing. I would say it’s a tribute to good engineering except it really does not resemble good engineering in any sense of the term.

You’re probably going to ask yourself “Is Fort Calhoun named after racist, slavery-supporting, congress nullifying, secessionist John C. Calhoun?” Yes, it’s auspicious, isn’t it? It’s a bit odd that the “cast iron man” from South Carolina would have a base in Nebraska named for him, but that’s how the south rises again, at least in its imagination. Anyhow – there is a nuclear reactor at Fort Calhoun, on the peaceful banks of the Missouri River. I’m sure that GerrardOfTitanServer would howl long and loud if there was any discussion about meltdowns and radiation leaks into the US’ longest river, but he can just howl: this seems like a potentially severe disaster, especially coming right on the heels of the Fukushima melt-down. [To be fair, the containments at Fukushima were not breached but the reactor cores did melt to a puddle of nasty radioactive shit and it will cost billions of dollars to clean it up eventually] So, the river flooded and the whole thing seems to have been back-page news. It got some mention in the business section of CNN. [cnn]

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Nebraska’s flooded Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant is raising fears that other power plants in the United States are vulnerable to extreme weather events.

The Nebraska plant, located along the swollen Missouri River, is currently surrounded by about two feet of water. The facility, designed to withstand at least eight more feet of water, is reportedly dry inside, shut down and not thought to be in any immediate danger.

It’s nicely chosen language, “surrounded by about 2 feet of water” sounds like no big deal. But, in fact, it’s also an engineering failure that the water got so close in the first place. This is clever, except not so clever [very good pictures on cryptome]

So, you keep water out, with a great big bag of more water! It’s pretty clever so long as there is no current pressing against it and bouying it up; it’s not like water floats in water but it’s the same density.

With the river 5 to 7 feet above the flood stage, “everything is just fine” but you’ve got to admit the optics (as they say) suck. Also, there was one account I found that someone accidentally tore the water berm at one point. [planetthoughts] They also declared a “no fly” zone around the area allegedly because there was some refueling and maybe radiation but, really, it seems that they didn’t want pictures that show clearly that the fucking reactor is built in a flood plain.

This bugs the hell out of me because the people who are discussing it are violating all of the principles of engineering, making claims that are carefully spun, like:

The Fort Calhoun facility can withstand flood waters reaching 1,014 feet above sea level, according to an NRC statement released on Sunday. The flood waters are currently at 1,006 feet above sea level, said the statement, and aren’t expected to go higher than 1,008 feet.

I’m doing some math and if I’m right they’re saying that there are 6 feet of ‘safety margin’ and I can hear the ghost of Richard Feynman saying “if you have to put an emergency berm up around your reactor, you’ve already exceeded your ‘safety margin’ and now you’re operating outside of your design specs – because, surely, nobody’s reactor design specs say ‘may flood now and then.'” I’m not doing a complete survey of the entire waterway but one of the other phrases that caught my attention was something about how the flooding was a result of up-river dams doing emergency overflows. Yes, that’s all fine and predictable but I sure hope those dams don’t have failures that cause ‘unusually more than the usual unusual’ flooding. When engineers are optimistic, I am pessimistic.

Granted, my pessimism about engineering is because I used to work in software; I used to be fond of commenting (and I wasn’t kidding) that “humans just aren’t very good at most of what we do.”

See what I mean? The reactor’s in a declivity. The land on both sides is quite a bit higher. There’s your engineering margin for error. I’m not going to start doing topographical surveys of reactors in the US, but climate change is going to result in more severe weather, fires, floods, and droughts. And, of course, the water will rise on the coasts.


  1. Dunc says

    If you want to talk about river and flooding related issues that ought to be much higher up the agenda, there are few bigger in the US than the impending “capture” of the Mississippi river by the Atchafalaya… There’s a brief summary of the issue in Forbes here, which links to a very, very long, but very well-written piece that I’d really recommend in the New Yorker here. Short form: the Mississippi is inevitably going to change course, it’s only being held in its current course by some massive engineering structures that are already very close to failure, and when it does finally go, it’s going to completely reshape a good chunk of the south, including wiping Morgan City and a huge amount of oil infrastructure completely off the map.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    I used to be fond of commenting (and I wasn’t kidding) that “humans just aren’t very good at most of what we do.”

    Keep this in mind the next time a religious apologist starts talking about the inexplicable wonder of the human intellect and consciousness.

    The reactor’s in a declivity. The land on both sides is quite a bit higher.

    And that was done on purpose – for access to the cooling water that most reactors need.
    That bit where they were expressing levels of an inland river relative to sea level was hilarious.

  3. invivoMark says


    That bit where they were expressing levels of an inland river relative to sea level was hilarious.

    What’s hilarious about it? It wouldn’t make sense to express levels of a river relative to most other things. The ground the plant is built on certainly won’t be completely level, and rivers have higher or lower levels depending on season, rainfall, and other factors.

    Relating water level to sea level is an unambiguous way to express it with a low chance for error.

  4. says

    I expected something like “water level is 22 inches above normal height” not sea level, which is hardly absolute and has that convenient built-in rise. It seems like they were downplaying the flooding.

    Also, “the reactor is shut down” does not mean it’s not hot and doesn’t need to be kept cool. I notice that we are quickly informed that the reactor is shut down, as if it’s just something you can wring out and fire back up if it gets a little wet.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    @3 What’s hilarious about it? …

    It is an attempt to trivialize the flooding. Hey, what’s a couple of feet when everything is on the scale of ~1000?
    The phrase you will hear most often in such descriptions is flood stage, which is defined locally.
    Yes, the level of a river varies with season and rainfall, but unless it is jumping its banks, who cares? “Flood stage” defines the point at which it jumps its banks.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    I have another idea: Who cares about sea level, which after all is going to change with global climate change, and in fact changes by the hour based on tides. Why not express everything by distance to the center of the Earth?

  7. says

    There are some other fun bits of engineering difficulty at the Ft Calhoun reactor [powermag]

    The project team encountered many challenges, as would be expected with a project of this magnitude. One of the more interesting was making the penetration into the containment building. As is typically the case on nuclear renovation projects, it was necessary at Fort Calhoun to cut a hole high in the side of the containment building so that crews could remove and replace components. In the case of Fort Calhoun, the containment building had been installed at the end of original plant construction, effectively sealing in the components and leaving only a small equipment hatch for maintenance.

    One challenge faced by Bechtel was that this containment structure is the only one in the U.S. with post-tensioned tendons arranged in four layers using a helical pattern, with the tendons running in a curved diagonal from top to bottom. To cut the 15-foot-diameter hole in the 4-foot-thick reinforced concrete wall, Bechtel had to remove (and subsequently replace) 68 tendons and detension an additional 40 tendons—much higher numbers than the company had encountered on other post-tensioned containment structures. The crew cut the hole in the shape of a hexagon (Figure 2) to minimize the number of tendons severed.

    That’s really interesting engineering – one would expect that if the plan was for huge components to be replaced, the building would be designed with access ways for huge components. It’s just another of those engineering things: there goes a bit more of your margin for error. And it reveals that the designers didn’t take long-term maintenance into account, which is … thought-provoking.

  8. invivoMark says

    … or, measuring water height relative to sea level is just a standard and perfectly normal thing to do, especially for an engineer. Mean sea level has a standardized and clear definition. “Normal height” does not. (Yes, Marcus, MSL is absolute, and it doesn’t change – the term refers to a historic mean and won’t change as sea level rises).

    Why the hell would you assume that it’s trying to be deceptive? Do you think it’s difficult to subtract 1006 from 1014?

    And how would expressing things by distance to the center of Earth be an improvement? Earth is not a sphere, and that measurement would not be intuitive nor particularly helpful. What “problem” do you think it would solve?

  9. says

    The reactor is built in the nice flat area from where the river was, at one point. It screams “flood plain” to me but I’m not an engineer or geologist. I wouldn’t build a house there, though I’m sure the view is great and the real estate is cheap.

  10. says

    … or, measuring water height relative to sea level is just a standard and perfectly normal thing to do, especially for an engineer. Mean sea level has a standardized and clear definition. “Normal height” does not. (Yes, Marcus, MSL is absolute, and it doesn’t change – the term refers to a historic mean and won’t change as sea level rises).

    Yes, I guess you need some kind of fixed reference-point, right? It just seems a bit weird to me because inland you often get water that’s above sea-level. For example, I have a pond on my property that is at 1200 feet above sea level but it’s in an (obviously) “low spot” around here. I guess if I were concerned with the energy from the water drop, that would make sense, but it doesn’t seem to be useful information at all regarding flooding. Of course that would require knowing the average height (above sea level) at myriad points.

    I’m still a bit suspicious about how they presented that metric. Yes, most ‘muricans aren’t going to subtract two numbers (all those digits!) and would have probably preferred something like “the river is 1 foot over its banks and the reactor’s berm can handle another 5 feet of additional flooding” I’ve always felt that metrics should be relevant to the problem that is being discussed and I get suspicious when they’re presented in a way that’s potentially obscuring something. For example, a metric I’d want to know is how high that flood plain is from the river’s normal top: is it 1 foot or 10? I can subtract well enough but it seems like a simple question. Of course the river is going to vary, too, so give me a range.

  11. kestrel says

    I’m sort of involved with a new dam structure, and the staff gauge on it (this reads the height of the water in the reservoir) is indeed measured as an elevation from sea level. I think that’s pretty standard. There are piezometers on the dam (these are sort of like little wells) and those too, when the reading is done, are converted to an elevation above sea level.

    Nevertheless this is incredibly short-sighted, to build such a thing in a low spot like that, and naively think the river will never flood or change course. Also, no way to get parts in and out? I have to wonder if these were some sort of mad cost-cutting schemes. Because money is just so incredibly important.

  12. EigenSprocketUK says

    Marcus, if they really wanted to obscure the safety margin from the citizens, they would have expressed it in metric units.

  13. says

    When engineers are optimistic, I am pessimistic.
    Granted, my pessimism about engineering is because I used to work in software;

    As a mechanical engineer who does a fair share of programming, I would not consider software an engineering discipline.

  14. seachange says

    My partner teaches math. Yes, the average American CAN’T do the subtraction. If you think that they even would if they could (that is to say, you are supposing that they are not credulous and lazy readers) is wrong. Especially since of those who could and would, they think of it like I and Marcus do.
    There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Marcus was right to call it out as a lie.

    I DO have a degree in Geology. That is a flood plain.

  15. Reginald Selkirk says

    And how would expressing things by distance to the center of Earth be an improvement? …. What “problem” do you think it would solve?

    The intent was to satirize your defense of using mean sea level in Nebraska, which I admit was once part of the Niobrara Sea. The most sensible solution has already been mentioned: flood stage, and it is a wonder that you completely avoided it in your response.

  16. Tethys says

    The old channel is clearly visible to the west on the map at Marcus’s #10. Navigable rivers fall under the jurisdiction of the US Army Corps of Engineers, and all locks or dams are mapped according to their elevation from sea level.

    All six dams on the Missouri are upstream from Nebraska. I fully expect the reactor is also very close to an Indian reservation, because white supremacy is built right into the basic infrastructure. I would like to say times have changed since the 70s, but the pipeline battle is just another example of the Indians getting screwed for the sake of oil barons profits.

    It would be easy enough to look up the 100 year flood and normal flood levels for any large riverside city. The ACOE has a database of that sort of information. Insurance companies are better at assessing flood risk. The army has an overall conquering mindset to problem solving, but they generally can be trusted to take accurate measurements and make records.

  17. Allison says

    Marcus Ranum @10 [map]

    Looking at the left side of the relief map there, there’s a flat strip that loops from the river, then cuts into the hills, and then loops back to the river. It looks for all the world like an old ox bow. This suggests that the river is in the habit of making rather sudden changes in its course, and the ox bow goes through what I assume is the reactor.

    So not only do they have to worry about floods, they also have to worry about the Missouri River deciding to run right through the plant.

  18. invivoMark says

    @Reginald Selkirk,

    What on Earth makes you think that flood stage is an unambiguous measurement?! Flood stage is based on an arbitrary zero point that is different for each given body of water, and it’s generally defined based on estimated human impact. It’s useful for weather forecasts, but it’s a terrible measurement for engineering purposes.

    While you’re pretending to be clever, meanwhile the rest of the hydrologic world is regularly measuring water level by height above mean sea level. See, for instance:

  19. says

    Its OK: obviously CNN’s business reporters knew their readers are hydrologists and engineers so they used the most technically correct metric.

    I expected that news reporters would discuss the observed and measured flooding of the river and compare it to the reactor plant’s expected ability to withstand flooding – what a concerned or curious reader would be interested in.

    One fascinating point Anitav Ghosh mentions in The Great Derangement is that the Japanese coast near Fukushima is marked with ancient high water markers from historical tsunami – “do not build lower than this.” Someone looked at that and said “perfect place for a reactor!” With a river that has multiple dams upstream I would want to think that risk was considered and mitigated. That’s not too much to expect, is it?

  20. invivoMark says

    CNN was quoting from an NRC report, and NRC, of course, is full of engineers.

    I don’t love defending a CNN article, but they did mention at the very top of the article that the difference was eight feet. The 1,014 feet quote is halfway down the article (and well past the title and picture, where most people stop reading anyway).

    The most obvious reason that CNN didn’t report the level of flooding in terms of flood stage or some other metric is because the writer probably had no idea and didn’t want to look it up.

    I’m all for criticizing the obvious slants and disingenuous wording found in mainstream media, but this is just ridiculous.

  21. springa73 says

    I’m no engineer, but it just seems like a very bad idea to build a nuclear reactor in any place that has a significant chance of flooding – along the ocean, in the floodplain of a river or lake, or any place like that. I would think that “high and dry and far away from potential flooding” should be high priorities when choosing a site.

  22. billseymour says

    rsmith @14:

    As a mechanical engineer who does a fair share of programming, I would not consider software an engineering discipline.

    As a work-a-day coder, I’d have to agree with you.  Many of us never seem to get past the novice level (the old “one year of experience twenty times” trope).

  23. Tethys says

    The necessity of cooling a nuclear reactor requires easy access to a large volume of water. Thus they are sited along large rivers and on seashores, often well within the 100 year flood zone. A smaller body of water would eventually start boiling, which obviously would be a problem.

  24. says

    springa73@22, Tethys@24

    Most power stations are actually *steam turbine* stations that use different heat sources;

    * furnace (coal, oil or gas fired),
    * fission reaction,
    * geothermal energy.

    They all use the [Rankine cycle](
    The higher the difference between inlet and outlet temperature, the higher the efficiency.

    The steam exiting the low-pressure turbine is cooled and condensed back into a liquid by a condensor. It is this condensor which requires copious amounts of cooling water and most often the big evaporative cooling towers.

    As the linked article explains, this efficiency is limited to around 63%.
    That means that 37% of the thermal energy input needs to be taken away by cooling. So for a 600 MW(thermal) station, which is not unusual, you need to get rid of around 222 MW(thermal) of waste heat at a temperature not much above ambient.

  25. cvoinescu says

    rsmith @ #25:

    You’re optimistic. PWR and BWR nuclear reactors necessarily operate at a very low temperature compared with coal and gas-fired plants, or some gas-cooled reactors, so they’re a lot less efficient in their conversion of thermal to electrical power. The Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant is a small single unit (the smallest in the US), at only 478 MW electrical net (or 484 MWe — sources vary slightly). The reactor generates 1500 MW thermal energy. It needs to put just under 1000 MW into the environment as part of the Rankine cycle. (The balance is a couple dozen megawatts of electricity used for operating the plant itself — pumps, control systems and so on.)

  26. springa73 says

    @#24, 25

    Forgive my ignorance – so it seems like you can’t really have a nuclear power plant without very large quantities of water nearby for cooling purposes. That puts the problem in a different light!

  27. Tethys says

    Monticello Minnesota is a city along the Mississippi River where there is a nuclear power plant. I am not an engineer but I know it puts out enough waste heat to keep the river ice free in winter. This is quite an impressive feat for our far north location, where frozen water and snowpack are typical winter conditions.

    This open stretch of river is the wintering grounds to a large proportion of the trumpeter swan population, and assorted other waterfowl.

    They are quite impressive, and a bit of an endanger species success story. A video of feeding time is on youtube, if you would enjoy that type of thing. You can also see that the river banks don’t have a great deal of relief from normal river height in this area. The modern building code doesn’t permit building within the 100 year floodplain, but much of our power infrastructure was built to a less environmentally sound standard.

  28. seachange says

    #18 @Allison

    Yes, in a million years, whatever evolves into intelligent life after we kill ourselves off will look at this sedimentary formation. Right now, we see a floodplain, because we’re living on it. What they will see is ‘a river’.
    It will show an odd point source of radioactive minerals inconsistent with the deposition regime, with a dissipating plume that will help them infer which way was downstream. They will be able to guess about where we stored the waste from this source by following the suite of minerals and their decay.

  29. says

    I have worked a lot with engineers and I think the digs at them are partially justified and partially unfair. Engineers design thing within margins that are prescribed to them by 1) their managers 2) laws and regulations. Whereas the managers always try to pressure the engineers to disregard the laws and regulations in the name of greater profits.

  30. cvoinescu says

    springa73 @ 27: No worries. The large amount of water is not an absolute necessity, but it’s a whole lot cheaper to build the plant where it has access to water. Environmental regulations limit the temperature rise (so it doesn’t cook fish eggs and other living things), and that simply means more water. The Fukushima 1 site was on a tall bluff, but they wanted to save energy pumping seawater, so they bulldozed most of it to only a few meters above sea level. The engineers were concerned with the location of emergency generators in the basement of the turbine hall, but the higher-ups decided to follow the GE plans exactly. Whether these two were good or bad decisions is up in the air (and deep in the ocean and all over the soil in the exclusion zone).

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