Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fukushima Dai-ichi: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Fukushima Dai-ichi crisis is like a horror movie, in which a very bad man, the very embodiment of evil goes on and on committing evil deeds. Nothing the victims and potential victims do to stop him is in the slightest effective. Yet despite the almost the insatiable deprivations of the bad guy, almost no one dies, although the victims are quite frightened and are constantly seen running away from the bad guy and screaming in fear. Our story features the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Dai-ichi workers have emerged as the heroes of the story. They are the good. They represent the best in the Japanese national character. They have been brave, resourceful, intelligent, and tireless. They have been quite literally prepared to die rather than to admit defeat. The Japanese engineers and technicians who are struggling to bring the Dai-ichi reactors under control have improvised because they face problems that their manuals and training never prepared them for. Despite a seemingly unending series of setbacks, the Japanese workers remain resolute. They appear prepared ready to die rather than accept defeat, although they are not taking unnecessary risks.

The good, paradoxically enough include the Japanese nuclear plants, which performed up to specifications, and would have lived out their useful lives had they not been subjected to an unusual event, a 500 year tsunami. Even at their worse, they have not produced large scale casualties. The nearby Fukushima dam performed far worse, it burst during the March 11th earthquake, 5 houses were washed away in the insuing flood, and 8 people turned up missing. Four bodies were subsequently recovered. In contrast the Dai-ichi reactors shut down properly during the earthquake, and would have survived, largely intact had not their emergency electrical system been overwealmed by the effects of the earthquake on the grid, and the tsunami on the emergency electrical system. Power for the emergency electrical system was clearly the weak point of the GE Mark 1 reactor design, but GE designers never considered the possibility that one of their Mark 1 reactors would have to face a 30+ foot tsunami.

The good should include both Westinghouse and GE, which are committed to designing and building safer reactors, although whether their safest reactors could have withstood the Dai-ichi tsunami is open to question.

The good also includes China, a nation that appears committed to the development of nuclear technology that is not just safer, but safe. China is committed to the development of at least two melt down proof reactor types, as well as other nuclear safety innovations.

The Good also include members of the Nuclear Blogging community including the usual suspects Barry Brook, Dan Yurman, Meredith Angwin, Rod Adams, Margaret Harding, and many others who have worked tirelessly to give the public accurate information, in the face of the mounting hysteria coming from the mainstream media. Nuclear bloggers have not sugar coated the bad new, but they have told the story in perspective.

In further defense of the GE Mark 1 reactor, it must be said, that nuclear safety is the product of an evolutionary process in science. As insights grow, new safety features are added to reactors, but nuclear safety is not perfect. Reactors have proven to be far safer than conventional fossil fuel energy sources and indeed far safer than renewable energy sources. The public, however, fails to appreciate the objective evidence of nuclear safety, and sees every nuclear accident as an unleashing of the nuclear boogyman. The media positively loves nuclear boogyman stories.

The bad in our story include the Japanese corporate culture which managed to ignore known safety issues with the Dai-ichi site. The Japanese Pacific coast has been repeatedly subjected to tsunamiss, and a major Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 should have given Japanese safety planners pause. The discovery, announced in 2009 that the northeastern coast of Japan is subject to 10 + meter tsunami's every 500 years or so, and that it probably had been about 500 years since the last one, appear to have not drawn Japanese safety planners attention. The Tokyo Electric Power Co., clearly failed to develop a safety culture that penetrated to the highest levels of management. They were no doubt good at operating their reactors precisely as the GE safety manuals proscribed, but they were asleep to threats that were not included in the manuel.

The bad also include the Light Water Reactor. The Light Water Reactor is far from the safest reactor design. It was attractive to the United States Navy because it represented an evolution of the boiler, a technology the Navy understood. A boiler is a closed pot which contains water. The pot can be heated and as it heats up the water will change to steam. When heated under pressure, water will remain a liquid at a temperature that is higher than the atmospheric boiling point of water. A boiler becomes more efficient as the water in it is heated past its natural boiling point, but high pressure boilers are dangerous and can explode. Thus the use of water as a coolant inside a reactor is a two edged sword. It can serve as a useful source of motive power and generating power, but it requires containment.

When atoms split inside a reactor they leave two atoms of residue. The residue is made up of isotopes of various elements. Most of those isotopes are readioactive, and radioactive means potentially dangerous, and potentially hot. Confined within a shut down reactor, radioactive isotopes continue to radiate, not hurting any one, but with the radiation comes heat, that needs to be removed from the reactor core, or the core willl heat up, till it reaches the melting temperature of the materials contained in it. If that ever happens inside a light water reactor it will go bad.

Thus a shortage of coolant water after an emergency shutdown is the worse thing that can happen to a reactor. It can change a good light water reactor into a bad light water reactor. But how bad is our light water reactor at its worse? In terms of human casualties the answer is not very. So far two workers are missing, and must be assumed dead. One of the workers reportedly died of a heart attack. A number of workers were injured, most not seriously, a numer of workers were exposed to radiation, again in most cases the radiation exposure was not serious.

Compared to the Fukushima dam failure, the casualty picture at Fukushima Dai-ichi is less grim, the media concern is highly disproportionate to the problem. Considering the amount of damage that has occurred to the Fukushima reactors, the casualty figures are remarkably light.

In addition to producing radiation and heat, Light Water Reactors can produce hydrogen gas if their emergency cooling systems braak down, and the core starts heating up. This happened at Three Mile Island, although the hydrogen remained within the containment vessel. In the Dai-ichi accidents, hydrogen gas was vented several times, and the vented hydrogen exploded inside containment buildings, damaging containment buildings and in at least one case, the spent fuel pool of another reactor. The hydrogen management system of the Mark 1 reactors proved unsatisfactory, to say the least.

The media performance during the Dai-ichi accident has been disgraceful. The media has been almost uniformly ill informed. Reporters who know nothing have done very well as panic mongers. The media has turned a industrial accident that occurred as the result of a truly horrible natural disaster, into a major story that has diverted attention away from the real story, the damage the earthquake/tsunami has done to Japan, and the thousands of casualties, and focused global attention on one aspect of the story, the Dai-ichi accident. Even worse, the media has spread an enormous amount of panic around the world concerning almost entirely harmless amounts of radioactive material. The performance of the media thus truly belong in the bad category.

Now we come to the ugly. We have a hugh mess at Dia-ichi that will probably take years to clean up. Radioactive materials have escaped into the atmosphere, and drained by now into the sea. At least small amounts of theoretically dangerous plutonium have escaped the shattered core of at least one Dai-ichi reactor. All of this is very ugly, but probably far more ugly than bad. Few if any Japanese are likely to end up suffering illnesses related to radiation exposure or to exposure to radioactive materials. Don't get me wrong, the escape of radioactive materials is not at all desirable, but it is far less dangerous than the media portrays it to be. Most of the escaping materials are likely to be nobel radioactive gases, that are quickly dispersed in the atmosphere. In addition nobel radioactive gases are not biologically active and don't stick around if even the slightest breeze is blowing. Thy are just not very dangerous except when they enter the imagination.

The volatile fission products are a little more dangerous than the radioactive nobel gases, but not a great deal more dangerous if exposed people take their potassium iodine pills. Radioisotopes are seen by the public and the media as the main feature of the nuclear horror show, but they are a vastly overhyped menace, far more ugly than dangerous.

The public relations performance of the nuclear power industry continues to remain ugly. It has historically failed to address public fears about nuclear safety, even though by conventional standards it builds and uses a safe product. The Dai-ichi crisis has caught the reactor manufacturers - many of them Japanese - flat footed, and they have yet to come up with a well thought through account of their commitment to public safety.

The performance of the de facto anti-nuclear Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization that never misses a trick to spread nuclear-phobic panic, has been consistently ugly. Along with the anti-nuclear Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists has aided the media in creating and spreading public radiation panic. Neither organization wants to develop safe reactors. The goal of these organizations is to remove nuclear power from the public list of tools to fight global warming. If they succeed their classification should be changed from ugly to bad.

Finally in the ugly category we must place the United States Government with its 40 year effort to impede the development of safer reactor designs. Unlike China, which is willing to look at safety potential as a valuable component to reactor development, the United States Government has put the development of radical improvements in nuclear safety in the back of the bus.

Finally, we must include in the ugly category a public which has allowed nuclear-phobic fears to interfere with its own best interest. We have a public that fears nuclear power far more than it fears its automobiles despite the tens of thousands of automobile casualties it experiences every year. In coming years the American public may pay a very high price for its unwillingness to take any risk at all on nuclear generated power. The future will not belong to cowards.

18 comments:

Tom Murphy said...

I have just started reading blogs associated with nuclear power generation and appreciate all that I have learned in a few short weeks.

You lose me when you praise the reactor design by stating it performed up to its specification. I understand you are using very precise language to make the point that the earthquake and resulting ocean wave exceeded the expected "accident design basis".

I hope the nuclear power generation community will come to realize that, to most of the General Public, the purpose of the reactor is to prevent the release of ANY radiation and of ANY fission products to the environment under ANY circumstances.

This is an extraordinary expectation. It is unfair that other industries and other sources of power generation are not held to the same standard. It may not be technically possible.

I believe nuclear power will be embraced in the USA when one of the following occurs:
- continuous rolling blackouts [the lights don't turn on when you turn on the light switch]
- melting of the polar ice caps
- severe economic disadvantages due to high cost electricity

Anonymous said...

Charles, Thank you for an excellent summary of events and issues associated with the Japanese disaster and the affected nuclear power plant.

Your point that we must be brave and move our nuclear technology ahead is really good advice. We must address the issues of depleting of fossil fuels, over-population, and climate changed.

Generation IV high temperature nuclear fission technology that has the potential to produce electricity cheaper than dirty coal and hydrogen for nitrogen fertilizer and synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuels is needed.
The path that we follow must place trust science and technology. Our goal should be to develop affordable nuclear power and made it available to the third world so that they can industrialize and grow their economies. The solution to overpopulation is wealth. Nations with GDPs above $7500/capita have negative birthrates. Energy is equal to wealth. You have previously reported that nuclear power is an inexhaustible energy source. For our environment's sake and our economy's sake we need to embrace modern Ag (including genetically engineered organisms) and nuclear energy. To do otherwise will place our grandchildren in a world of mass starvation.

I highly recommend this paper:
Viewpoint: We should stop running away from radiation By Wade Allison University of Oxford http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-12860842
John Tjostem

Charles Barton said...

Tom do you understand that both coal fired power plants and your natural gas furnace and stove release radiation? The public only cares about radiation from nuclear power plants and chooses to ignore radiation from other sources including cosmic radiation when you fly and x-rays when you see your doctor. Some of the isotopes which the public fears from reactors, gets administered in medical tests, with out members of the public worrying. Excuse me for saying this, but the fear of radiation from reactors only is crazy.

Daniel said...

"Excuse me for saying this, but the fear of radiation from reactors only is crazy."

Those reactors can release a whole lot of radiation...and in the case of Fukushima they ARE releasing a whole lot of radiation & contamination. And they reactors appear to be spiraling even further out of control...

Jim Baerg said...

BTW everybody who realizes the worth of nuclear energy should tell people about this chart:

http://blog.xkcd.com/2011/03/19/radiation-chart/

Charles Barton said...

A lot of radiation strikes the outer atmosphere of the earth every day, and 99.99% of it is not the least it dangerous. Radiation is not dangerous if it doesn't encounter the human body, and for most radioactive materials escaping the Fukushima reactors that will be the case. This was the case after three mile Island, and was the case for most survivors of Chernobyl who never got a radiation related sickness. The dangers of radiations from nuclear accidents is hugely overhyped.

Anonymous said...

Charles, Thank you for an excellent summary of events and issues associated with the Japanese disaster and the affected nuclear power plant.

Your point that we must be brave take risk on nuclear technology ahead is really good advice.

I highly recommend this paper:
Viewpoint: We should stop running away from radiation By Wade Allison University of Oxford http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-12860842
John Tjostem

Anonymous said...

The public might want to consider the actual consequences of not pursuing nuclear energy versus the possible risks of doing so.

Charles Barton said...

Anon, the public of course can decide what it wants to, but the angers and risks related to nuclear power, are far less than the risks that the public would be taking if it chose to persure the corse offered by renewable energy advocates.

Anonymous said...

Charles that was precisely my point. The actual consequences of continued fossil fuel use and the non-solution of renewables pose a far greater threat than the possible risks posed by nuclear.

Tom Murphy said...

"Tom do you understand that both coal fired power plants and your natural gas furnace and stove release radiation?"

Did you read my post? I said this nuclear power generation is unfairly held to a higher standard than other forms of power generation.

It will require a massive education campaign in order to change how the General Public views the risks associated with radiation.

As an aside, I don't understand why so many posters assume that anyone questioning nuclear power does not understand the science. There is this concept that "You disagree with me, so you must be irrational or uninformed."

On many issues, people with an equal understanding of the facts can disagree.

Anonymous said...

Good conversation.

http://live.washingtonpost.com/radiation-concerns-in-the-us.html#submit-question

Dee Zsombor said...

Small typo should be radioactive noble gases and not nobel gases. Other than this thumbs up!

John Wheeler said...

Charles,
Thank you for your thoughtful and skillfully written analysis. I agree wholeheartedly with most of what you wrote. I do have a different opinion, though, of the performance of nuclear industry. I have seen much engagement and practical, fact-based presentations from the nuclear community at large; NEI, ANS, nuclear executives, televised tours of nuclear plants, use of social media, etc.

While improved, I agree it is not enough. The industry is being out played and out gunned by the likes of Greenpeace and the UCS, but it’s a great improvement over the past. I hope this experience will cause industry leaders to recognize we need to treat media and public relations with the same thoroughness, systematic planning, and practice that we do nuclear safety because both are equally important to the survival of nuclear energy as a significant power source in the USA.

Manuel Royal said...

Excellent article. It bugs me that, because I'm a bleeding-heart liberal, a number of organizations apparently assume I'm anti-nuclear. Opinions about energy policy (and the reality of global warming) are politicized when they should be based on the best available science.

Charles Barton said...

Nanuel, maybe all those so called liberals who say they are against nuclear power really are not all that liberal.

Mick said...

". . . maybe all those so called liberals who say they are against nuclear power really are not all that liberal."

Having common sense and being liberal are not mutually exclusive. ;-)

I, too, have a very liberal outlook (but I'm pragmatic) on life and I also support nuclear.

I really appreciate the civility of the debate here; Whenever I comment on Fox News stories, e.g., on AGW, I catch flack (invective, really) from the far right. When I comment on stories on HuffPost, e.g., nuclear, I get grief from the far left.

McSkeptic

Anonymous said...

I like how you said that safety is an evolving science. Could you perhaps cover the disparity between NRC required safety changes to the GE design, and whether such changes were communicated via NRC/GE to NISA/TEPCO, and were executed? There is the NRC notice in 1989 for hydrogen venting equipment retrofits, which at first glance appears to not have been applied in Fukushima.

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