Neutrons, Electrons, Electric Current, Nuclear Power, Nuclear Chain Reaction, Residual Decay Heat and Pressurized Water Reactor

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 18th, 2012

Technology 101

We create about Half of our Electric Power by Burning Coal to Boil Water into Steam

An atom consists of a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons.  And electrons orbiting around the nucleus.  Protons have a positive charge.  Electrons have a negative charge.  Neutrons have a neutral charge.  In chemistry and electricity the electrons are key.  When different atoms come together they form chemical bonds.  By sharing some of those electrons orbiting their nuclei.  In metals free electrons roam around the metal lattice of the crystalline solid they’re in.  If we apply a voltage across this metal these free electrons begin to flow.  Creating an electric current.  The greater the voltage the greater the current.  And the greater the work it can do.  It can power a television set.  Keep your food from spoiling in a refrigerator.  Even make your summers comfortable by running your air conditioner. 

We use electric power to do work for us.  Power is the product of voltage and current.  The higher each is the more work this power can do for us.  In a direct current (DC) system the free electrons have to make a complete path from the power source (an electric generator) through the wiring to the work load and back again to the power source.  But generating the power at the voltage of the workload required high currents.  Thick wires.  And a lot of power plants because you could only make wires so thick before they were too heavy to work with.  Alternating current (AC) solved this problem.  By using transformers at each end of the distribution path to step up and then step down the voltage.  Allowing us to transmit lower currents at higher voltages which required thinner wires.  And AC didn’t need to return to the power plant.  It was more like a steam locomotive that converted the back and forth motion of the steam engine into rotational power.  AC power plants generated a back and forth current in the wires.  And electrical loads are able to take this back and forth motion and convert it into useful electrical power.

Even though AC power allows us to transmit lower currents we still need to move a lot of these free electrons.  And we do this with massive electric generators.  Where another power source spins these generators.  This generator spins an electric field through another set of windings to induce an electrical current.  Sort of how transformers work.  This electrical current goes out to the switchyard.  And on to our homes.  Simple, really.  The difficult part is creating that rotational motion to spin the generator.  We create about half of our electric power by burning coal to boil water into steam.  This steam expands against the vanes of a steam turbine causing it to spin.  But that’s not the only heat engine we use to make steam.

To Shut Down a Nuclear Reactor takes the Full Insertion of the Control Rods and Continuously Pumping Cooling Water through the Core

We use another part of the atom to generate heat.  Which boils water into steam.  That we use to spin a steam turbine.  The neutron.  Nuclear power plants use uranium for fuel.  It is the heaviest naturally occurring element.  The density of its nucleus determines an element’s weight.  The more protons and neutrons in it the heavier it is.  Without getting into too much physics we basically get heat when we bombard these heavy nuclei with neutrons.  When a nucleus splits apart it throws off a few spare neutrons which can split other nuclei.  And so on.  Creating a nuclear chain reaction.  It’s the actual splitting of these nuclei that generates heat.  And from there it’s just boiling water into steam to spin a steam turbine coupled to a generator.

Continuous atom splitting creates a lot of heat.  So much heat that it can melt down the core.  Which would be a bad thing.  So we move an array of neutron absorbers into and out of the core to control this chain reaction.  So in the core of a nuclear reactor we have uranium fuel pellets loaded into vertical fuel rods.  There are spaces in between these fuel rods for control rods (made out of carbon or boron) to move in and out of the core.  When we fully insert the control rods they will shut down the nuclear chain reaction by absorbing those free neutrons.  However there is a lot of residual heat (i.e., decay heat) that can cause the core to melt if we don’t remove it with continuous cooling water pumped through the core. 

So to shut down a nuclear reactor it takes both the full insertion of the control rods.  And continuously pumping cooling water through the core for days after shutting down the reactor.  Even spent fuel rods have to spend a decade or two in a spent fuel pool.  To dissipate this residual decay heat.  (This residual decay heat caused the trouble at Fukushima in Japan after their earthquake/tsunami.  The reactor survived the earthquake.  But the tsunami submerged the electrical gear that powered the cooling pumps.  Preventing them from cooling the core to remove this residual decay heat.  Leading to the partial core meltdowns.)

Nuclear Power is one of the most Reliable and Cleanest Sources of Power that leaves no Carbon Footprint

There is more than one nuclear reactor design.  But more than half in the U.S. are the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) type.  It’s also the kind they had at Three Mile Island.  Which saw America’s worst nuclear accident.  The PWR is the classic nuclear power plant that all people fear.  The tall hyperboloid cooling towers.  And the short cylindrical containment buildings with a dome on top housing the reactor.  The reactor itself is inside a humongous steel pressure vessel.  For pressure is key in a PWR.  The cooling water of the reactor is under very high pressure.  Keeping the water from boiling even though it reaches temperatures as high as 600 degrees Fahrenheit (water boils into steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit under normal atmospheric pressure).  This is the primary loop.

The superheated water in the primary loop then flows through a heat exchanger.  Where it heats water in another loop of pumped water.  The secondary loop.  The hot water in the primary loop boils the water in the secondary loop into steam.  As it boils the water in the secondary loop it loses some of its own heat.  So it can return to the reactor core to remove more of its heat.  To prevent it from overheating.  The steam in the secondary loop drives the steam turbine.  The steam then flows from the turbine to a condenser and changes back into water.  The cooling water for the condenser is what goes to the cooling tower.  Making those scary looking cooling towers the least dangerous part of the power plant.

The PWR is one of the safest nuclear reactors.  The primary cooling loop is the only loop exposed to radiation.  The problem at Three Mile Island resulted from a stuck pressure relief valve.  That opened to vent high pressure during an event that caused the control rods to drop in and shut down the nuclear chain reaction.  So while they stopped the chain reaction the residual decay heat continued to cook the core.  But there was no feedback from the valve to the control room showing that it was still open after everyone thought it was closed.  So as cooling water entered the core it just boiled away.  Uncovering the core.  And causing part of it to melt.  Other problems with valves and gages did not identify this problem.  As some of the fuel melted it reacted with the steam producing hydrogen gas.  Fearing an explosion they vented some of this radioactive gas into the atmosphere.  But not much.  But it was enough to effectively shut down the U.S. nuclear power industry. 

A pity, really.  For if we had pursued nuclear power these past decades we may have found ways to make it safer.  Neither wind power nor solar power is a practical substitution for fossil-fuel generated electricity.  Yet we pour billions into these industries in hopes that we can advance them to a point when they can be more than a novelty.  But we have turned away from one of the most reliable and cleanest sources of power (when things work properly).  Using neutrons to move electrons.  Taking complete control of the atom to our make our lives better.  And to keep our environment clean.  And cool.  For there is no carbon footprint with nuclear power.

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Iran says their Nuclear Program is for Generating Electricity and Powering Merchant Marine Ships

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 15th, 2012

Week in review

First they wanted to develop nuclear power to generate electricity.  Now they want to make nuclear-powered merchant marine ships (see Iran parliamentary committee approves construction of nuclear-powered merchant ships by Associated Press posted 7/15/2012 on The Washington Post).

A Iranian parliamentary committee has approved a bill requiring the government to design nuclear-powered merchant ships and provide them with nuclear fuel, an Iranian news agency reported Sunday.

The bill appears to be a symbolic gesture to bolster Tehran’s argument that it has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. The West suspects Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at developing weapons technology, a charge Tehran denies.

Nuclear-powered vessels other than warships are rare, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has said in the past that nuclear-powered merchant ships would be uneconomical…

The West has raised concerns that Iran might cite submarine and other nuclear-powered vessel construction as a justification for producing weapons-grade 90 percent enriched uranium.

A nuclear-powered merchant marine ship?  Gee, I wonder how much the Somali pirates would get for one of those?

I would not allow an Iranian nuclear-powered ship of any kind anywhere close to U.S. territorial waters.  Imagine letting a nuclear reactor melt down in a U.S. harbor.  That would bump Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Chernobyl down the list of worst nuclear ‘accidents’.  I put ‘accidents’ in quotations because with the Iranians it probably wouldn’t be an accident.

This would just give the Iranians an opportunity to work on nuclear propulsion systems.  If successful (and if they have the funding and the resources) they will transform that technology into a warship.  Or a submarine.

Or perhaps they won’t do any of this.  They may just develop a nuclear weapon under the guise of producing weapons-grade material for ‘peaceful’ purposes.  And once they have it they’ll put it in a bomb.

The real question is how long are we going to let the Iranians down this road?  Far enough that they can threaten Israel, the U.S. and our friends and allies with a nuclear capability?  This is what we worried Saddam Hussein would do if left in power in Iraq.  He wanted to stay in power.  At any price.  So he could oppress his people.  And perhaps his neighbors.  What’s scarier with the Iranian leadership (NOT the Iranian people) is that their main goal does not appear to be in this life.  But in the next.  Which means nuclear retaliation and annihilation may not dissuade them.  Not if they get to take out their enemies first.

Perhaps the greatest foreign policy failure of the Obama administration was not helping the Iranian people during the Green Revolution following the 2009 Iranian presidential election.  It’s particularly sad because we didn’t help these good people but we did help the Muslim Brotherhood rise to power in Egypt.  And helped al Qaeda rise to power in Libya.  The so-called Arab Spring.  Which was more about the rise of Islamism than the rise of Democracy.  While we did nothing to support a real Democracy movement (the Green Revolution) in Iran.  One shudders to think of the consequences of this foreign policy blunder.  Especially now that the Iranians are aggressively pursuing a nuclear program.

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Japan is Restarting their Nuclear Reactors to avoid Rolling Outages and High Electric Bills

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 17th, 2012

Week in Review

Japan is facing the economic reality of energy in the modern economy.  And is restarting their nuclear reactors (see Japan approves 2 reactor restarts, more seen ahead by Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka posted 6/16/2012 on Reuters).

Japan on Saturday approved the resumption of nuclear power operations at two reactors despite mass public opposition, the first to come back on line after they were all shut down following the Fukushima crisis…

The decision, despite public concerns over safety after the big earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant, could open the door to more restarts among Japan’s 50 nuclear power reactors…

The push to restart the two Ohi reactors, before a potential summer power crunch, also underscores the premier’s eagerness to win backing from businesses worried about high electricity costs that could push factories offshore…

Nuclear power supplied almost 30 percent of electricity needs before the March 2011 disaster, which triggered meltdowns at Fukushima, spewing radiation and forcing mass evacuations…

Like it or not the modern economy runs on energy.  And the clean energy the environmentalists so like that powers the Toyota Prius has to be generated from something.  They hate coal and oil.  They’re against building dams.  Which only leaves natural gas and nuclear as only viable options.  Japan is not a country rich in fossil fuels.  So they turned to nuclear power for 30% of their electric generation mix.  There have been some bumps along the way but Japan is still there.  They even survived the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. 

Public trust in regulators was tattered by evidence that cosy ties with utilities were a key reason Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Co was unprepared for the tsunami, and subsequent signs that relations remain far too snug…

“We can no longer go back to a life that depends on candles,” ruling party heavyweight Yoshito Sengoku said in an interview with the Sankei newspaper this week.

The Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency, the current watchdog, has approved stress tests for Shikoku Electric Power Co Inc’s 890-megawatt No.3 reactor in Ikata, southern Japan. Next on the list for possible approval are two Hokkaido Electric Power reactors in Tomari, northern Japan and Hokuriku Electric’s two in Shika, western Japan.

The Fukushima plant survived an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale.  An earthquake that was so powerful that it moved the earth.  The New York Times reported “NASA scientists calculated that the redistribution of mass by the earthquake might have shortened the day by a couple of millionths of a second and tilted the Earth’s axis slightly.”  The earth may have moved.  But the Fukushima plant did not.  And probably would have emerged unscathed had it not been for the tsunami that followed.  Which submerged the electrical distribution equipment that powered the cooling pumps.  And because this distribution equipment was not rated to operate submerged in water it failed.  Causing the Fukushima disaster.

Fault nuclear power all you want but the plant survived most of the worst the earth could throw at it.  It only failed when the ocean moved inland.  It withstood the powerful force of that wave (it swept some buildings away whole).  But not the effect of water entering the electrical gear.  Highly conductive saltwater.  Which just shorted out the works.  And stopped everything electrical from working.  Making it even impossible for the backup generators to power the cooling pumps.

Note how much power they will connect to the grid by connecting one reactor.  The No.3 reactor in Ikata can produce 890-megawatt.  Let’s compare that to wind power.  In Texas on the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center they have 421 windmills on nearly 47,000 acres with a nameplate rating of 735.5 MW of installed capacity.  With a capacity factor of 20-40% for wind power on the high end that reduces the actual power to 294.2 MW.  And that’s only when the wind is blowing.  The capacity factor for nuclear power is 60-100+%.  At the LOW end the No.3 reactor in Ikata will put 534 MW onto the grid.  In short nuclear power blows wind power away.  And you don’t need 47,000 acres to build a nuclear power plant.  Which is good because Japan doesn’t have land to spare being one of the most congested nations in the world. 

How can Japan not restart their reactors?  There are just no better alternatives.  Unless they want to suffer through rolling blackouts during the summer, pay higher electric bills and lose businesses seeking cheaper power.  Which is the alternative.

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Japan shutters 52 of 54 Nuclear Reactors because of Fukushima, Energy Imports cause Trade Deficit

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 11th, 2012

Week in Review

The two oil crises in the Seventies hurt Japan’s economy.  Because the Japanese have little domestic energy sources.  Which means they have to import most of their energy.  Coal.  Natural gas.  And, of course, oil.  After suffering the economic fallout of two oil crises in one decade they made a decision to prevent that from happening a third time.  By diversifying their energy industry.  And going nuclear.  Increasing the amount of electricity produced by nuclear power to almost 25%.  Which helped to insulate them from another economic shock.  But that all changed with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster (see Japan reports record current account deficit posted 3/7/2012 on BBC News Business).

Japan has reported a record current account deficit because of rising energy imports, as the country’s economic recovery remains fragile…

In the aftermath of the 11 March 2011 tsunami and earthquake that triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear reactor, Japan shut 52 out of 54 reactors.

This led to shortages of fuel for generating electricity, which meant more of it had to be imported…

The yen slipped to trade at 81.26 to the US dollar, as the trade deficit raised fears about how long Japan would be able to manage its large public debt.

The massive earthquake created the massive tsunami.  The tidal surge of the tsunami caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  An extremely rare event.  It has only happened once in the era of nuclear power.  In fact, the nuclear part of the reactor survived all of this.  It was the old technology that didn’t.  The electrical distribution equipment.  Because it was located in the basement.  Which became flooded with sea water.  Which disabled the electrically driven cooling pumps from operating.  Despite backup generator power being available. 

The technology exists to move electrical distribution equipment to higher ground.  And to waterproof it.  There exists power cables rated for underwater use even.  There is no technological hurdle preventing the kind of electrical updates to prevent another extremely rare event causing another electrical failure like at Fukushima again.  And they’re simple projects, really.   Build new distribution equipment on high ground where a tidal surge can’t reach it.  And rerouting critical systems to this new distribution equipment.  You could do this.  Or you could shut down 52 of your 54 reactors for political reasons.  And import more fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil) to make up for the energy shortfall.  Increasing your trade deficit.  And risking your ability to pay one of the highest debt loads of any state (as a percentage of GDP).

One thing you can’t do, though, is make up this energy shortfall with solar or wind power.  Because the cost of building the infrastructure to produce that much energy is prohibitive.  And the power it produces is too unreliable.  For sometimes the sun doesn’t shine.  And sometimes the wind doesn’t blow.  So to please the antinuclear environmentalists who fear another extremely rare event from happening they have to replace clean energy (nuclear generated) with dirty energy (fossil fuel-generated).  Which doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Then again, political decisions rarely do.

To put this into perspective consider this.  Your odds of lightning striking you are greater than you winning the lotto.  Yet your chances of winning the lotto are greater than another Fukushima from happening.  And people will buy lotto tickets.  But they shun nuclear programs.  Unless, that is, a rogue regime is using it to enrich uranium that could also be used to make a nuclear bomb.  And that regime is Islamist.  Which wants to conquer the world.  Strange how Japan has to shut down their nuclear program while Iran doesn’t.  A country, incidentally, that sits on huge petroleum reserves.  And doesn’t need nuclear power.

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Anti-Nuclear Crowd yearns for Chernobyl in Japan

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 13th, 2011

Enough of Exploiting Japan’s Disaster for Political Gain

First it was an environmentalist saying global warming caused the 8.9 magnitude earthquake.  A sure grasping of straws in their quest to move man back into the cave.  Then it was anti-nuclear power Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, who said we should learn from Japan’s near Chernobyl-like disaster.  And move back into the cave.  And now it’s Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chiming in (see “Put the brakes” on nuclear power plants: Lieberman by Will Dunham posted 3/13/2011 on Reuters).

“I don’t want to stop the building of nuclear power plants,” independent Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”

“But I think we’ve got to kind of quietly put, quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami and then see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming on line,” Lieberman added.

Put the brakes on?  What, he wants to slow down from the breakneck speed we’re building new nuclear power plants and bringing them on line?  That’s going to be pretty hard to do considering the speed we’re going at.  I mean, when was the last time we built a nuclear power plant in the United States?

It’s not about what happened at the Fukushima Power Plant, it’s about what hasn’t Happened

We’re missing the big picture here.  The nuke plants didn’t kill or wipe out cities yet.  Like the earthquake-tsunami one-two punch has.  Let’s not lose sight of that little fact (see Nuclear Overreactions posted 3/14/2011 on The Wall Street Journal).

Part of the problem is the lack of media proportion about the disaster itself. The quake and tsunami have killed hundreds, and probably thousands, with tens of billions of dollars in damage. The energy released by the quake off Sendei is equivalent to about 336 megatons of TNT, or 100 more megatons than last year’s quake in Chile and thousands of times the yield of the nuclear explosion at Hiroshima. The scale of the tragedy is epic.

Yet the bulk of U.S. media coverage has focused on a nuclear accident whose damage has so far been limited and contained to the plant sites. In simple human terms, the natural destruction of Earth and sea have far surpassed any errors committed by man.

So in the grand scheme of things, the Japanese nuclear plants are minor players in this great tragedy.  Even that embellishes their role.  Much of Japan lies in waste.  Because of the earthquake and the tsunami.  The nukes so far have been innocent bystanders in the death and destruction.  But it’s all we focus on.  Even though they haven’t really done anything yet.  But under the right set of circumstances that don’t currently exist…they could.   So we use the big ‘what if’ to further shut down the already shutdown American nuclear power industry.  Why?  Simple.  Because congress can’t place a moratorium on earthquakes or tsunamis.

So back to that question.  When was the last time we built a nuclear power plant in the United States?

But more than other energy sources, nuclear plants have had their costs increased by artificial political obstacles and delay. The U.S. hasn’t built a new nuclear plant since 1979, after the Three Mile Island meltdown, even as older nuclear plants continue to provide 20% of the nation’s electricity.

So Senator Joe Lieberman wants to tap the breaks on a car that’s been parked and in the garage since 1979.  How does he do it?  Where does the genius come from?

No coal.  No oil.  And now no nukes.  Translation?  No power.  I guess we should practice our hunting and gathering skills.  Because we’re going to need them when we move back into the cave.  Of course, we’ll have to eat our food cold.  You know.  Carbon footprint.  From those foul, nasty, polluting campfires.

In America, Coal, Oil and Nuclear Power all Wear Black Hats

Some in Congress just love the planet so much.  They want to get rid of coal and oil and replace them with clean energy.  Which means nuclear power.  Because windmills and solar panels just won’t produce enough power.  Especially when they want us all driving tiny little electric cars that are going to suck more juice off our strained electrical grid.  And just how strained is our electric grid?  Remember the Northeast Blackout of 2003

High summer currents caused power lines to sag into untrimmed trees.  As lines failed some power plants dropped off the grid.  This strained other power plants.  And other power lines.  More lines failed.  More plants dropped off the grid.  This cascade of failures didn’t end until most of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario lost power.  It was huge.  And if you experienced that hot, stifling, August blackout, you know that windmills wouldn’t have helped.  There was no breeze blowing.  And solar panels wouldn’t have helped you sleep at night.  Because there’s no sun at night.  No.  What would have helped was some big-capacity power generation.  Like a coal plant.  An oil plant.  Or a nuke plant.

Energy demands increase with population.  And with electric cars.  We need more generation capacity.  And the only viable green solution is nuclear power.  And now we’re dilly dallying about the dangers of clean nuclear power because of what didn’t happen in Japan (see Japan Does Not Face Another Chernobyl by William Tucker posted 3/14/2011 on The Wall Street Journal).

Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), a longtime opponent of nuclear power, has warned of “another Chernobyl” and predicted “the same thing could happen here.” In response, he has called for an immediate suspension of licensing procedures for the Westinghouse AP1000, a “Generation III” reactor that has been laboring through design review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for seven years.

Talk about the irony of ironies.  The Soviet-era nuclear reactor at Chernobyl was the most dangerous ever used.  That reactor went ‘Chernobyl’ because of its design.  A graphite core that caught fire.  And no containment vessel that let plumes from that fire spread radioactive fallout throughout western Russia and Europe.  If the Soviets had used the type of reactor that’s getting all the media attention in Japan, there would have been no Chernobyl disaster.  And now the irony.  Rep. Markey wants to suspend licensing of the world’s safest nuclear reactor (the Generation III) by citing the world’s most dangerous reactor that Japan doesn’t even use. 

But facts don’t matter when you’re just against nuclear power.  No matter how safe the Generation III design is.  Or the fact that it doesn’t even need cooling pumps. 

On all Generation II reactors—the ones currently in operation—the cooling water is circulated by electric pumps. The new Generation III reactors such as the AP1000 have a simplified “passive” cooling system where the water circulates by natural convection with no pumping required.

Despite this failsafe cooling system, there are calls to stop the licensing.  To put the brakes on.  To move back into caves.  All because of what didn’t happen at Fukushima.  What didn’t happen at Three Mile Island.  But what did happen in a Hollywood movieThe China Syndrome.  (But that’s a whole other story.)

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.

What the Japanese earthquake has proved is that even the oldest containment structures can withstand the impact of one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history. The problem has been with the electrical pumps required to operate the cooling system. It would be tragic if the result of the Japanese accident were to prevent development of Generation III reactors, which eliminate this design flaw.

Looking at Japan with Awe and Reverence

Japan has been nuclear since 1966.  They now have some 53 nuclear reactors providing up to a third of their electricity.  Yes, Japan lies on the Ring of Fire.  Yes, Japan gets hit by a lot of tsunamis.  And, yes, they now have a problem at a couple of their reactors.  But the other 50 or so reactors are doing just fine.  Let’s stop attacking their nuclear program.  So far they’ve done a helluva job.  And the Japanese know a thing or two about nuclear disasters.  They lived through two.  Hiroshima.  And Nagasaki.  Which make Chernobyl look like a walk in a park.  If anyone knows the stakes of the nuclear game, they do.  And it shows.

We should be looking at Japan with awe and reverence.  If they can safely operate nuke plants on fault lines and in tsunami alley, then, by God, we should be able to do it where things aren’t quite as demanding.  And should.  It is time we put on our big-boy pants and start acting like men.  Before we give up on all energy and move back into the cave.  And down a notch or two on the food chain.

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Japan’s Nuke Plants/Coastal Communities withstood the Earthquake but not the Tsunami

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 12th, 2011

The Awesome Power of Water

Japan’s most powerful earthquake caused a lot of damage.  But the tsunami’s damage may be even greater.

In 1923 the 8.3 magnitude Kanto quake killed 140,000 people.  In 1995 the 7.2 magnitude Kobe quake killed 6,400 people.  The 8.9 magnitude that just hit may have even killed fewer people.  The official count just recently exceeded 1,000.  But we’ll never know.  Japan’s buildings may have withstood this quake.  But the tsunami that followed made coastal communities just disappear. 

In Minamisanriku some 10,000 are missing.  That’s more than half of its population.  And that’s just one coastal community.  Others no doubt suffered the same fate.  The water just came in so fast (see The town that drowned: Fresh pictures from the port where 10,000 people are missing after it was swept away by the megaquake by Jo MacFarlane posted 3/12/2011 on the UK’s Daily Mail).

It only took a few minutes for the 30ft wave to wash the town away with terrifying force. The locals desperately tried to escape to higher ground. But most did not stand a chance.

During an earthquake you can stand in a doorway.  If the building survives you’ll probably be okay.  But there’s not much you can do when a 30 foot wave races toward you.  Other than run away.  To high ground.  Because a 30 foot wave is about as tall as a 3 story building. That’s a lot of water.  And nothing will stop it.

Never let a Good Crisis go to Waste

First it was an environmentalist looking to exploit the Japanese earthquake in the name of global warming.  Now an American congressman wants to exploit the earthquake to hinder the growth of nuclear power (see Japan quake disaster shows U.S. at risk of Chernobyl-type event by Alexander Bolton posted 3/12/2011 on The Hill).

Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, warned Saturday that the U.S. is vulnerable to the type of nuclear accident that has sent waves of fear through northeast Japan…

Markey said he hoped the Japanese would act swiftly to bring the situation under control and avoid a Chernobyl-style disaster.

I’m glad he made this statement.  Because I don’t know if the Japanese knew the full extent of what they were facing.  I mean, they’re only up to their elbows in it.  How could they see things as clearly as a politician in Washington?  I’m sure the Japanese ambassador will bestow him with gifts, grateful for this erudite observation.

Chernobyl-style disaster?  I doubt it.  He’s comparing apples to oranges.  Different reactor design (the Chernobyl reactor was a unique Soviet-era design considered to be the most dangerous reactor type in the world).  Different technology.  Different safety precautions.  And, due to its physical size, no containment vessel.  Nothing at all like the Japanese reactors.  Or the American ones.

Japan’s reactors did okay during the earthquake.  Their problems didn’t really start until coastal areas disappeared in the wake of the tsunami.  Yeah, it’s possible that the US Pacific coast could suffer a similar seismic event.  It does sit on the Ring of Fire.  But earthquake-tsunami one-two punches are more probable in Japan than they are on the US Pacific coast.  What happen in Japan could happen in the US.  Just as a meteorite could crash into a nuclear reactor.  Anything is possible.  But the odds favor certain events in certain places. 

Here’s a newsflash.  Life is dangerous.  Driving in a small, fuel-efficient car is dangerous.  Your odds are greater dying in one of those cars than in a nuclear accident.  But we’re not going to stop building small cars, are we?  And neither should we use what’s happening in Japan to further hinder an already hindered industry.

Is it Chernobyl bad or Three Mile Island Bad?

So what is the danger with those nuclear reactors in Japan?  A lot of people are opining.  And they’re not saying the same thing.  So who do we believe?  Depends on which experts you trust more (see Health risk from Japan reactor seems quite low: WHO posted 3/12/2011 on CNBC).

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Saturday that the public health risk from Japan’s radiation leak appeared to be “quite low” but the WHO network of medical experts was ready to assist if requested.

So CNBC has a source that says it may not be that bad.  While The New York Times has a source that says things are bad and can get worse (see Danger Posed by Radioactivity in Japan Hard to Assess by William Broad posted 3/12/2011 on The New York Times).

“The situation is pretty bad,” said Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist who advised the Clinton White House and now teaches international affairs at Princeton. “But it could get a lot worse.”

Even Japanese officials appear to be contradicting each other (see Japanese Government Confirms Meltdown posted 3/12/2011 on Stratfor).

Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said March 12 that the explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 nuclear plant could only have been caused by a meltdown of the reactor core, Japanese daily Nikkei reported. This statement seemed somewhat at odds with Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano’s comments earlier March 12, in which he said “the walls of the building containing the reactor were destroyed, meaning that the metal container encasing the reactor did not explode.”

How about hearing from a guy that isn’t there but went through his own nuclear reactor crisis.  In Pennsylvania (see Three Mile Island Meltdown: Richard Thornburgh’s Advice for Japan by Eleanor Clift posted 3/12/2011 on The Daily Beast).

Richard Thornburgh is watching the developments in Japan with a keen sense of déjà vu. He had been in office as Pennsylvania governor only 72 days when he was confronted with a potentially catastrophic event at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Harrisburg. It was resolved without cost to human life, or the environment, which by no means is certain in Japan.

Though what occurred in Japan is the result of a natural disaster, the Republican says, the challenge officials face is identical: “To get a grip on what the facts are.”  That’s difficult when you’re dealing with complicated technology and an abundance of experts, often with their own agendas…

Thornburgh’s advice to his counterparts in Japan is to “just keep plowing ahead on getting a grip on the facts. Make sure the right experts are in place. The quality of the facts is going to determine the quality of the outcome…”

Watching the television coverage of Japan disaster and the ominous news of an explosion at one of its nuclear power plants, he cautions that “there’s nothing inherently unsafe about an explosion—it depends what exploded.” The Japanese have paid careful attention to safety and standards, unlike the Russians, who confronted a similar catastrophe with their reactor at Chernobyl in 1986. When he visited Chernobyl years earlier, Thornburgh recalls, it didn’t even have a containment facility.

So what exactly did explode (see Nuclear power industry watches warily as Japan’s aging reactor is hit hard by Joel Achenbach posted 3/12/2011 on The Washington Post)?

The explosion was not nuclear. Industry officials said it was created by the release of hydrogen gas that mixed with oxygen and exploded.

The building around the reactor vessel is partially destroyed, but Japanese officials say the primary vessel and the reactor core within are intact.

“If the reactor vessel is breached . . . then this radioactive stuff starts coming out in copious amounts,” said Robert Alvarez, a former senior adviser to the Department of Energy who studies nuclear power at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

Well, perhaps we know this much.  A non-nuclear explosion occurred.  There is no real radioactive fallout.  And we can compare and contrast what we know now about what we knew then. 

As at Fukushima, the Three Mile Island accident was triggered by a disruption of water flow to the reactor. Several instruments failed and operators did not realize that pressure was building inside the reactor. A heavy secondary containment shield ultimately prevented all but a tiny amount of radiation from escaping into the environment.

The Chernobyl disaster, in contrast, was caused by a crude reactor design and at least six fatally flawed decisions by operators during a risky test. A huge power spike and the bad decisions drove the reactor out of control. An explosion then blew the reactor apart and spewed radioactive debris for a week.

Unlike U.S. and Japanese nuclear plants, Chernobyl lacked the heavy shielding that eventually halted the Three Mile Island disaster – and that all of Japan desperately hopes will prevent Fukushima Daiichi’s unit one from melting down.

Yes, there’s uncertainty.  But it appears that what’s happening in Japan is less Chernobyl.  And more Three Mile Island.  If it turns out this way this won’t be so bad after all.  And it will say a lot about Japan’s nuclear power industry.  For Three Mile Island didn’t get hit with an earthquake AND a tsunami.

Right now all eyes are on the nukes.  People are holding their breath.  Once they secure the power plants, though, it will be anticlimactic.  For the real work will then only begin.  The cleanup.  The rebuilding.  And the wakes. 

God give the Japanese strength.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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