Japanese nuclear troubles giving pause to domestic nuclear push
Update: Good Business Insider article on why people can stop worrying about a radiation disaster in Japan.
Unfortunate to see that, as the US nuclear industry is poised to make a comeback, the difficulties that Japanese utilities are facing with their reactors in the aftermath of the tsunami are threatening to impact the industry here in the U.S. The NY Times is reporting that some policy makers and environmental groups are calling for a pause on any planned nuclear developments,
The fragile bipartisan consensus that nuclear power offers a big piece of the answer to America’s energy and global warming challenges may have dissolved in the crippled cores of Japan’s nuclear reactors.
… Mr. Obama is seeking tens of billions of dollars in government insurance for new nuclear construction, and the nuclear industry in the United States, all but paralyzed for decades after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, was poised for a comeback.
Now, that is all in question as the world watches the unfolding crisis in Japan’s nuclear reactors and the widespread terror it has spawned.
Some policy makers are using the crippled Japanese reactors as a springboard, calling for extensive new reviews of, and regulations on, existing and planned nuclear generation. Others are cautioning that with the limited information available in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami, “it’s not a good time to be making American domestic policy” .
The Wall Street Journal has a good article that describes what is happening in the Japanese reactors as operators cool the reactor after the shutdowns. The authors argue that a release of nuclear material would be unlikely and describe how the Japanese reactors are different from the Chernobyl reactorl
The core of a nuclear reactor operates at about 550 degrees Fahrenheit, well below the temperature of a coal furnace and only slightly hotter than a kitchen oven. If anything unusual occurs, the control rods immediately drop, shutting off the nuclear reaction. You can’t have a “runaway reactor,” nor can a reactor explode like a nuclear bomb. A commercial reactor is to a bomb what Vaseline is to napalm. Although both are made from petroleum jelly, only one of them has potentially explosive material.
… None of this amounts to “another Chernobyl.” The Chernobyl reactor had two crucial design flaws. First, it used graphite (carbon) instead of water to “moderate” the neutrons, which makes possible the nuclear reaction. The graphite caught fire in April 1986 and burned for four days. Water does not catch fire.
Second, Chernobyl had no containment structure. When the graphite caught fire, it spouted a plume of radioactive smoke that spread across the globe. A containment structure would have both smothered the fire and contained the radioactivity.
If a meltdown does occur in Japan, it will be a disaster for the Tokyo Electric Power Company but not for the general public. Whatever steam releases occur will have a negligible impact. Researchers have spent 30 years trying to find health effects from the steam releases at Three Mile Island and have come up with nothing. With all the death, devastation and disease now threatening tens of thousands in Japan, it is trivializing and almost obscene to spend so much time worrying about damage to a nuclear reactor.
One of the comments after a TheHill.com blog post demonstrates the safety factors built into our nuclear plants. The comment notes that this is an absolute worst case scenario for a western nuclear plant – an older plant, hit by a 9.0 earthquake, 6.5+ aftershocks, and a tsunami.
Update: This Daily Mail article notes that unnamed “officials” are admitting that the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor has gone into “meltdown” as the “fuel rods appear to be melting inside three damaged reactors.” Reuters has also published pictures of a hydrogen release and explosion over unit three of the damaged plant. Over 180,000 people have been evacuated from the area and U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet has been moved from the area after detecting raised radiation levels. Japanese government spokespeople argued, however, that it was “highly unlikely” that all three reactors had gone into meltdown, that inner containment vessels remain intact, and that all radiation levels in the area of the reactors were within legal limits.