Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Truth About Nuclear Power - Part 22

Subtitle:  Fukushima - The Disaster That Could Not Happen

The Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor meltdowns have been extensively watched and written about.  This article gives my perspective.   The basics are these: the plants were heavily damaged by a larger-than-expected earthquake, at 9.0 magnitude, and a larger-than-expected tsunami of approximately 50 feet height about 40 minutes after the first earthquake.  (the initial shock was followed by hundreds of after-shocks.  

Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, Reactors 1-6 Before Earthquake
source:  ORNL

Some of the after-shocks were major earthquakes themselves, at 7 or greater magnitude.) Meltdowns occurred in 3 reactors, with the extent of the meltdowns yet unknown.  Explosions that destroyed containment buildings occurred in 4 plants.  Radioactive water was dumped into the ocean because operators had no other place to store it.  More radioactive water continues to this day to leak out of cracked foundations, through the porous soil and into the ocean.   Fish caught nearby were ruled unsafe for human consumption due to radioactivity.  Children living near the meltdown plants already have high rates of thyroid cancer, yet thyroid cancer in children is extremely rare.   US sailors on an aircraft carrier developed radiation sickness and other health issues.    This disaster is still unfolding, as even the technology-savvy Japanese struggle with what to do and how to do it.   No matter what nuclear technology is in place, a meltdown will occur when zero power is available for day after day.   That is the fundamental fact of Fukushima Dai-ichi.

The lessons for all of the nuclear industry are clear, and grim:  even the best designers and operators take huge risks when gambling human lives and health against the powers of Nature. 

It should be noted that the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors are not large, but are medium size.  If a similar meltdown occurs in a modern, large reactor, the devastation would be proportionately greater. 

The nuclear industry advocates continually state the plants are safe; yet disaster after disaster occurs.  Is it time to invoke the insanity clause: when one repeats the same old steps over and over, while expecting different results, this is insanity?  The Big Three meltdowns thus far are Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima.  What plant will be next in the massive meltdown missive?

Facts on events of March 11, 2011

It is important to note a few features of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plants: there are six reactors located right on the coast, they use seawater for cooling, and they are only a few feet above sea level.  An earthquake rated at 9.0 occurred, and reactor units 1, 2, and 3 automatically shut down.  The land movement, or shaking, in the East-West direction was greater than the design.   Unit 4 was already shut down for routine maintenance.  Emergency generators started at all six reactors 1 – 6.    40 minutes later, the 50-foot tsunami hit and all power was lost except for one generator at reactor 6.  The other emergency generators stopped.   The one operating generator was then connected also to reactor 5, and those two reactors (5 and 6) were cooled sufficiently to go into cold shutdown.   Note that the diesel-powered generators were underwater for some time during the multiple tsunami waves.

However, units 1, 2, and 3 reactor cores melted down due to an extended lack of emergency power.  Also, buildings in units 1, 2, 3, and 4 exploded – probably from hydrogen production as the fuel melted.   It is not yet clear exactly why unit 4 exploded, as
Fukushima Dai-ichi Containment Building
After Explosion   source: ORNL
it was not operating at the time of the earthquake.

In addition, the operators were unable to maintain cooling in the spent fuel pool at reactors 1, 2, 3, and 4. 

Subsequently, operators attempted to cool the meltdown reactors’ cores, with little success.  Ultimately, out of desperation, seawater was used.  Seawater is highly corrosive, so metal parts in contact with seawater are ruined.  Afterward, a series of water storage tanks were installed and water was pumped through the melted-down reactors and spent fuel pools and back to the storage tanks. 

Substantial leaks through the ground and into the sea occurred, with radioactive water flowing into the sea.   The earthquakes damaged the foundations sufficiently to provide leakage pathways through the foundations and into the sea.   Note that some nuclear apologist sites claim that the earthquake itself caused no damage.  This is patently untrue.  If no earthquake damage occurred, the foundations would not be cracked and leaking radioactive water into the sea.

It will be years before anyone can open the reactors and determine the extent of the damage due to earthquake and meltdown, just as was the case after the meltdown at Three Mile Island.

 see link to ORNL report

and NRC report: "Recommendations For Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century"  see link


What everyone needs to know about nuclear power plants and their designs: designers play the probability game.  Somebody (perhaps an expert) provides the odds of natural disasters of different severities occurring in the next 50 to 60 years, for things such as earthquake, tsunami, dam failure, tornado, volcanic eruption, hurricane and its storm surge, and others.   Typically, a small event is quite common, but the largest events are extremely rare.  To save money, the plant is designed to withstand a given event with an appropriately remote chance of occurrence in the plant’s lifetime.  The plant is not designed to withstand the greatest known event of all-time, especially when the odds of the event occurring during the 50 to 60 year life of the plant are very small.   This is the probability calculus used in designing nuclear power plants.    In the Fukushima Dai-ichi event, the earthquake design was slightly exceeded, however the multiple aftershocks of large magnitude were likely not in the design basis.  The tsunami design was far less than the actual 50-foot tsunami that occurred.  One source states the design was for a 23-foot tsunami.  That then shows that nature flung a wall of water more than 27 feet higher than was expected and planned for in the design. 

The next unexpected design problem was complete isolation from any power for days on end.   The plants are designed for a power failure, with onsite diesel-powered generators to supply power for some hours until grid power is restored.  At Fukushima Dai-ichi, the diesel-powered generators were inoperable after the tsunami.  There was no backup plan in place for grid power loss for days or weeks, plus no diesel-powered generators.   The Japanese management and operators were smart, well-trained, resourceful people, yet even they could not prevent meltdown in the cores without a power source.   What happens when a similar outage occurs in a third-world country?

There are other lessons from Fukushima Dai-ichi.  What about other deprivations, other than grid power and emergency generator power?  What of loss of cooling water – the lake, river, or other source?   Even nuclear plants close to shore, as Fukushima Dai-ichi is, can lose ocean cooling if the land is thrust upward in an earthquake so that the water intakes are now above sea level.   Even if electrical power were restored in time, it is mighty difficult to cool reactor cores without any water.   What about dam break, with flood including mud, debris, rocks, or ice blocks?   Ash rain from volcano?  Crash impact from missile?  Crash impact from a heavy aircraft, even a bomber loaded with bombs?  Multiple mechanical breakdown of critical pumps – e.g. bolts all failing at the same time as happened at Salem 2 in 2014.  Or, the electrical grid disconnected plus diesel generators that will not start due to any malfunction.  

What about sabotage – deliberate destruction of key cooling equipment due to a security breach?  This is a favorite theme of movies, but could it happen?  Hopefully not, with security teams on the alert.

Nuclear advocates falsely insist that the Fukushima Dai-ichi core meltdowns were due to the old, BWR (boiling water reactor) design.  That is false.   Even a modern PWR (pressurized water reactor) design would meltdown without power for several days.   This is a fact that is recognized by NRC and other sober persons.

Foundation cracks and radioactive water leaks, as have occurred at Fukushima Dai-ichi, are being addressed now, three years later.  The plan is to install an ice-dam in the earth surrounding the plant.  The ice will be kept cold by refrigeration units, powered by the grid.  In effect, there will be a giant section of artificial perma-frost underneath the leaking foundations.  One hopes that this works, and that the grid does not fail yet again.   Meanwhile, for three years the cracked foundations have leaked radioactive water into the ocean. 

Despite the claims of nuclear proponents, Fukushima radiation clearly has impacted public health, land, air, and ocean with contamination.  The radioactive air plume arrived in just a few days at the US west coast, although the radioactivity was far below danger levels.   Tsunami flotsam arrived in other countries, radioactive water flowed into the ocean, fish, crops, and milk were contaminated.

It is early yet in the life of a nuclear meltdown, but there will be cancers, diabetes, thyroid illness, and mental problems (worry, stress).   There may also be birth defects.   Unlike at Chernobyl, there will likely be no early deaths from radiation sickness.  However, there very well could be early deaths from cancer. 

Japan has made decisions on shutting down other nuclear reactors, instead using other fuels / plants for power – oil, coal, and natural gas.  Recently, some reactors have been restarted.  Nuclear power is very controversial in Japan at this time.   Germany has declared it will not build new reactors, and will shut down existing reactors in a few years’ time.  China has declared it will continue building reactors, as will India. 

Other countries took a long, sober look at their own reactors and preparations for a similar situation: if a long period without power occurs, what would they do?    The US response is to have a few resource centers, with critical equipment being available to any reactor in dire straits.   One hopes the nature of the disaster lends itself to timely delivery of the critical equipment.   

Other new requirements were issued by the NRC.  The NRC issued a long report with about 20 new requirements for the existing fleet and any new construction.   See link.


It appears the world has reached a tipping point, or perhaps is beginning to lose patience with the never-ending lies and deceptions from the nuclear industry.  Before Three Mile Island, the industry insisted the plants were safe.  Even the NRC bought into the “things are safe” mantra, until operator error after a common equipment malfunction (a pump stopped pumping) at Three Mile Island showed the “things are safe” line was totally wrong.  Then, Chernobyl exploded and spewed radiation all around the northern hemisphere – yet the nuclear apologists stated this was an aberration, rogue operators in a badly designed plant were doing an unauthorized test (it had graphite for moderation – basically carbon that can easily burn).   Now, Fukushima Dai-ichi has three reactor cores melted down, with four containment buildings blown apart in four separate explosions, a spent fuel pool that overheated, cracked foundations that allow radioactive water to flow into the ocean, and many children already diagnosed with thyroid cancer.   Their young lives are changed forever.   Even today, nuclear apologists insist that the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster (they don’t call it a disaster, rather the word they use is “incident”) was just an unfortunate natural event that is too rare to ever be concerned about again. 

The truth about nuclear power is this: no design is adequate for what Nature can put forth.  No humans can accurately and confidently run the numbers and predict the odds of a massive natural disaster.   No contingency plan can anticipate every eventuality.  The price we pay as a society, as a human race, is living with the very real, and rational, fear of another meltdown in a reactor near you.  How many more human errors will be made, as equipment breaks down, as natural disasters occur, in combinations that were not planned for?   How much more unsafe are the plants, when the regulatory agency relaxes rule after rule after rule?

This concludes the article on Fukushima: The Disaster That Could Not Happen.   Next, is the San Onofre Shutdown Saga. 

Previous Articles

The Truth About Nuclear Power emphasizes the economic and safety aspects by showing that (one) modern nuclear power plants are uneconomic to operate compared to natural gas and wind energy, (two) they produce preposterous pricing if they are the sole power source for a grid, (three) they cost far too much to construct, (four) use far more water for cooling, 4 times as much, than better alternatives, (five) nuclear fuel makes them difficult to shut down and requires very costly safeguards, (six) they are built to huge scale of 1,000 to 1,600 MWe or greater to attempt to reduce costs via economy of scale, (seven) an all-nuclear grid will lose customers to self-generation, (eight) smaller and modular nuclear plants have no benefits due to reverse economy of scale, (nine) large-scale plants have very long construction schedules even without lawsuits that delay construction, (ten) nuclear plants do not reach 50 or 60 years life because they require costly upgrades after 20 to 30 years that do not always perform as designed, (eleven) France has 85 percent of its electricity produced via nuclear power but it is subsidized, is still almost twice as expensive as prices in the US, and is only viable due to exporting power at night rather than throttling back the plants during low demand, (twelve) nuclear plants cannot provide cheap power on small islands, (thirteen) US nuclear plants are heavily subsidized but still cannot compete, (fourteen), projects are cancelled due to unfavorable economics, reactor vendors are desperate for sales, nuclear advocates tout low operating costs and ignore capital costs, nuclear utilities never ask for a rate decrease when building a new nuclear plant, and high nuclear costs are buried in a large customer base, (fifteen) safety regulations are routinely relaxed to allow the plants to continue operating without spending the funds to bring them into compliance, (sixteen) many, many near-misses occur each year in nuclear power, approximately one every 3 weeks, (seventeen) safety issues with short term, and long-term, storage of spent fuel, (eighteen)  safety hazards of spent fuel reprocessing, (nineteen) health effects on people and other living things, (twenty) nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, (twenty-one) nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, (twenty-two)  nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima, (twenty-three) near-disaster at San Onofre, (twenty-four) the looming disaster at St. Lucie, (twenty-five)  the inherently unsafe characteristics of nuclear power plants required government shielding from liability, or subsidy, for the costs of a nuclear accident via the Price-Anderson Act, and (twenty-six) the serious public impacts of large-scale population evacuation and relocation after a major incident, or "extraordinary nuclear occurrence" in the language used by the Price-Anderson Act.  Additional articles will include (twenty-seven) the future of nuclear fusion, (twenty-eight) future of thorium reactors, (twenty-nine) future of high-temperature gas nuclear reactors, and (thirty), a concluding chapter with a world-wide economic analysis of nuclear reactors and why countries build them.  Links to each article in TANP series are included at the end of this article. 

Additional articles will be linked as they are published. 

Part Twenty Two - this article

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

Marina del Rey, California 

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