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.

13. March 2011 by Jason Hayes
Categories: Energy, Marketplace Information, NIMBY, Power Generation | Tags: , , , | 1 comment

One Comment

  1. I attended an “event” at the National Press Club on April 14, 2011. The event was entitled “The Future of Nuclear Power”. Former Congressman Phil Sharp presently employed by Resources for the Future–a thin-tank of questionable background and backing spoke as if on behalf of the nuclear industry. The press sought answers to s handful of simple questions relating to long-term safety of nuclear power generation in light of Fukishima’s possible “China Syndrome”.

    Rather than answers, the practiced politician provided lengthy and confused tangles of disinformation. He effectively shut out of most of the opportunities for press to address the questions to GreencePeace’s representative Jim Riccio. Ricio was asked pointedly by one reporter if the environmental movement was split–with a group favoring nuclear over coal and hydrocarbons due to the CO2 issue alone. Riccio stronly denied this-asserting that all felt that radioactive waste and risk was a far worse danger than CO2.

    Although this might seem obvious to anyone without a biased economic interest, but it is reassuring that today’s environmental folks remain practical enough to recognize that real pollutants with half-lives of decades and centuries are a clear and present danger as we watch the situation in Japan continue to deteriorate towards “criticality”.

    That means a nuclear explosion. the reactor whose core has in part vaporized with plutonium escaping primary containment—–the position of that teardrop of molten material sinking through concrete and steel raises the question. What if the congealed mass goes critical–and 750 tons of spent fuel at that plant are scattered into ocean and across the Japanese isles. There are 54 reactors in Japan at about 15 separate “plants”. Each has 10 tons of hot reactor core to cool. Each has spent fuel pools with thousands of tons more half-consumed “hot” nuclear material on hand–in the agregate. If Fukishima goes critical, the heavy radioactive metals -plutonium and its brethren will drop out over Japan–tons of it. Long-term Japan would be uninhabitable. It will be a dead-zone. The unanswered question is how long will plant workers stay at their posts at the other plants under a heavy fallout of deadly plutonium? They cannot bring these reactors to cool phase in less than days-will the workers survive that long?

    If the workers at the other 50 odd reactors all over Japan run or die courageously, but uselessly before the rods slide into cool storage——will the rods stay cool after the pumps all over Japan go off -and all cooling ceases? What about the storage polls? Japan holds the key to extinction of mankind-maybe most life!

    In the rush to cut costs-and politically demonize inherently safe fossil fuels has mankind placed itself at risk of extinction. EPA has funded RFF-funded this self-absorbed Congressman. We have let this risk grow to unprecedented levels-its time to throttle back on the psuedo science that tells children the gas the exhale is more dangerous than ingestion of plutonium-and life-long dosage.

    It is time to take this head on to the average person. That person-like most reasonable people would lagh at the idea of designing a vehicle with its gasoline tank perched on top of the engine. And equipped with a rabbits foot in case the engine catches fire as they are sometimes known to do. This absurdity is what has happened in the nuclear industry. There are storage tanks atop reactors across this country holding FOUR times the planned limits-which called for removal of spent rods after 5 years’ cooling-then cold storage. They did not follow the rules do that to cut cost-but the Congressman overlooked that –Greenpeace did not. But the Congressman asserts that US plants do not reflect the same rsk as Japan because US regulation of nuclear reactors is so much more effective than Japan’s regulation.

    The facts contradict the assertions and we all stand to die, and watch our children and grandchildren die painful deaths in front of us—- if Ex-Congressman Sharp is wrong. I hope it was worth it for him.