Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Kiefer Sutherland Owes Us Another PSA.

My buddy Angus has been itching to hijack Garfield Ridge for his own nefarious designs. He criticizes me every chance he gets, only to turn around and beg for a chance to post. Alas, I'm always one for charity, so I relented.

Angus felt so strongly about the plotline to this season of 24, he was compelled to write-up this essay on the show's treatment of nuclear power. The guy's got like, six master's and bachelor's degrees-- since I have no idea how the electricity gets to my wall (lasers?), I'll let him defend his comments if necessary.

Without further adooooo, I give you the angry Scotsman:

I am as big a fan as Dave of 24, but after the public service announcement from Agent Jack Bauer about the loyal members of America's Middle Eastern immigrants, I would like to request another PSA. This should go something like this...

"Hi. I'm Kiefer Sutherland and I would like to pass on an important message about our show. The idea that you could use a computer to hack into a nuclear power plant and cause it to go critical is complete bunk. Computers can be shut down, communications can be cut, and most of all, every nuclear power plant in America has a manual control to completely extinguish the reaction. So enjoy our show, but remember, there is an infinitely greater chance of a terrorist blowing himself up than of him causing a nuclear meltdown. Thank You"

So, why should we get this PSA? Because it is reprehensible that Fox worries about the fictional legitimacy of Muslim extremists eager to kill Americans, while peddling a story that computers can kill us all by melting down our powerplants. I'm all for suspension of disbelief, but if we are educating viewers to avoid false stereotypes, then let's not villify the nuclear power industry.

As someone who has researched nuclear power in graduate school and worked in the nuclear power industry, let me explain just how unlikely the 24 scenario is, and why we need to be better educated about nuclear power.

As the world moves towards a post-hydrocarbon future, nuclear power will once again rise as a legitimate, safe, and low-pollution solution to our energy needs. Wired magazine reported in last month's issue that even environmentalists are starting to see that nuclear power is cleaner in the long term than oil, gas, and coal, and when managed correctly using a reprocessed fuel cycle, ultimately easier on the environment. But I digress...

So, why can't terrorists meltdown our power plants over the internet? Well... several reasons, some of which Agent Bauer mentions above...

1. Computers have off switches and communications networks can be unplugged.
Terrorists hack in, you turn off the phone, reboot the computer and you're back in control. You have backups for your computers, don't you think that nuke power plants do as well?

2. "OK, but they permantly broke the computers and they can't control the plant now."
I'll buy that, but all plants have manual controls. REAL buttons and dials that can, in a pinch, control the reactor. (See Silkwood for some pictures). Worst case, no computers. . . so your workers just turn off the system manually.

3. "Ahh, but," you say, "it took too long for you to notice the meltdown and it is too far along for you to manually control."

Once again, far fetched, but this shows how safety concious the nuke industry is. Every reactor in America (light water reactors) has a manual system to flood the reactor chamber with a high neutron absorbant solution, and kill the reactor. The system is controlled by a manual valve. (Think fire hose valve...) If the reactor gets out of control, manually spin the wheel on the valve and the reaction dies, no matter how far its gone.

This has happened, as a matter of fact-- but in India, not in America. A reactor's control system failed due to a fire and had to be stopped in this matter and it worked flawlessly. Click here if you would like to know yet another reason to be glad you don't live in India.

"OK, so can terrorists meltdown all of our reactors at once?" NO.

"Could they meltdown one?" Only if they physically took control of the reactor, and it is for this reason that every single nuclear power plant in the country has its own SWAT team. Not coffee and donut swilling $5.00/hr security guards, but MP5 toting professional soldiers. Check online for the yearly national SWAT competitions-- a nuke plant almost always finishes in the top 5.

Anyway, learn more about your friend nuclear power. And remember, knowing is half the battle.



I'm not watching 24, and the specific scenario you mention sounds like crap, yeah, BUT

I know surveillance devices can be placed to turn on computers that are plugged in through an outside impulse. So even if you shut down your computer, it could be turned on again.


I hate to post book titles as arguments, but basically these guys both point out that complex systems like nuclear power plants (or nuclear weapons systems) are capable of compounding failures due to their complexity. So once you throw a monkey wrench in a nuke plant, it's quite conceivable that things could go way wrong in interesting and unpredictable ways. These two books give really chilling, all-too-true examples of each.
I don't know about that, See-Dubya. So long as there are manual controls, then the computer systems are conveniences that can be unplugged, or failing that, treated like the fax machine in Office Space. As much as I hear Macs being talked up by their owners, I doubt one would be able to cause a nuclear meltdown if someone took a fire axe to it.

I am not even remotely an expert, as my knowledge of nuclear power is restricted to what I gleaned from "Tom Swift and his Flying Lab". However, it sounds like terrorists might possibly be able to cause a nuclear plant to shut down, but ridiculously improbable to cause one to go Cherynobl.
Dude, they just hacked into Paris Hilton's phone! That was a clear demonstration of the terrorists' capabilities. None of us is safe, umm, are safe, umm, we are in great danger.
Beware anyone using the "Jurassic Park" argument that an complex system can't be fully understood. That only applies in situations. like weather prediction, that you have great difficulty knowing the complete set of inputs and their interdependencies. Nuclear power has been around since the 50's and is a well understood, well-governed, but basically simple process. Go to the Smithsonian American History museum in DC and you can see one of the first ever reactor control stations. It is simple, with toggles, switches, and dials. They haven't got much more complicated, and a new one hasn't been built in over 25 years. Think about that in comparison to the available IT systems that could be installed when it was built. When the new pebble bed reactors come on line in a decade or so (if approved) I'm sure that they will be built with more integrated computer controls, but also with more security safeguards and overrides. For more general government provided power plant info, I direct you to...

PS... Thanks Dave
Wait a second ... you're saying that something on television is ... improbable? Man, I feel so betrayed. I'm getting rid of all my Manimal tapes.
This was a fascinating read. As someone who lives near a high-profile reactor in downstate NY and constantly hears the hysterics predicting doom, it was also downright reassuring. Thanks for posting it Dave / Angus.
I would like a PSA from the people who made "Never Ending Story" to reassure people that:
1) There is not such thing as a story that never ends - just Coulter books that seem that way
2) There are no giant flying dogs out there - that sh*t scares me
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