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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Earthquake and Tsunami Devastate Japan

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 11th, 2011

Have they no Shame?

It’s started.  Even before the aftershocks stopped.  The global warming crowd is blaming man for Japan’s earthquake (see Some respond to Japan earthquake by pointing to global warming by Amanda Carey posted 3/11/2011 on The Daily Caller).

Hours after a massive earthquake rattled Japan, environmental advocates connected the natural disaster to global warming. The president of the European Economic and Social Committee, Staffan Nilsson, issued a statement calling for solidarity in tackling the global warming problem.

“Some islands affected by climate change have been hit,” said Nilsson. “Has not the time come to demonstrate on solidarity — not least solidarity in combating and adapting to climate change and global warming?”

“Mother Nature has again given us a sign that that is what we need to do,” he added.

Of course, he is counting on that the rest of the world being as ignorant as he is.  Global warming doesn’t cause earthquakesTectonic plates shifting along fault lines do.  It’s a completely different science.  If you can call global warming science.  Which, based on his statements, you can’t.

Shame on these people.  Rubbing their hands together in glee whenever some horrible act of nature occurs that they can politicize.

8.9 Magnitude Earthquake hits Japan

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake is the biggest yet to hit Japan.  Since they’ve been keeping records, at least.  It’s caused some incredible devastation.  And a tsunami.  But it’s something Japan was prepared for.  And she will survive.  Because she has done it before (see Daybreak reveals huge devastation in tsunami-hit Japan by Edwina Gibbs and Chisa Fujioka posted 3/11/2011 on Reuters).

The quake surpasses the Great Kanto quake of September 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.

The 1995 Kobe quake caused $100 billion in damage and was the most expensive natural disaster in history.

This time the death toll will not be anywhere near what it was in 1923.  Thank God.  The cost will be severe, though.  But it’s better to face that then hundreds of thousands in deaths.  Like they had in Haiti.  With their 7.0 magnitude quake.  Over 300,000 thousand died there.  Why?  Because of their poverty and political corruption.  For poverty is the leading cause of death in the world. 

Japan is an advanced nation.  A nation of laws.  With a strong economy.  Her people are prosperous.  Making life better for everyone.  Because of this, her people worked in buildings designed to withstand the power of earthquakes.  And a lot of them did.

Free-Market Economies are Safer to Live In

In advanced nations with strong, free-market economies, people come first.  These economies, after all, respond to consumer demand.  Safety matters.  So they build things safe.  Because the people matter.  And they demand it.

Contrast that with a command economy.  In National Socialist Germany (i.e., Nazi Germany), the state came first.  And the state didn’t hide that fact.  People were expendable.  Their needs were subordinated to the state’s.  Ditto for their enemy.  The Soviet Union.  In fact, when the Red Army was on the move, the infantry advanced ahead of their tanks.  To protect their tanks from land mines.  You see, with their vast population, it was easier to replace people than tanks.  For their people were an expendable resource.

This mindset no doubt played a role in the Soviet economy.  And their nuclear program.  What happened at Chernobyl could not have happened in the United States.  The Chernobyl nuclear reactor design was flawed.  And there was no containment vessel.  Safety was not a driving design criteria.  That’s why during testing the reactor core heated beyond control.  And exploded.  Without a containment vessel, that explosion threw up radioactive waste into the atmosphere and across Europe.  This did not happen at Three Mile Island.  Because in our free market economy, people come first.  So we build things safe.

Japan’s Nuclear Power Plants Overheating

Some of Japan’s nuclear reactors are having problems.  They’re overheating.  It’s nothing to do with their design.  In fact, it’s their design that has kept them this safe so far after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and up to 7 (and still counting) aftershocks measuring 5.2 or stronger.  It was the one-two punch of mother nature.  The earthquake took out the primary electrical power.  Then the tsunami washed out their backup generators (see Report: 2 Japanese plants struggling to cool radioactive material by the CNN Wire Staff posted 3/11/2011 on CNN World).

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday on its website that the quake and tsunami knocked out the reactor’s off-site power source, which is used to cool down the radioactive material inside. Then, the tsunami waves disabled the backup source — diesel generators — and authorities were working to get these operating.

A double failure of low probability.  In power redundancy, it is common to have two electrical services from two independent electrical grids.  The plant can operate split over both or entirely on one or the other.  That’s one level of redundancy.  Should both of these sources go out (which in itself is a low probability), then there are on-site diesel generators.  Completely independent and self contained.  So no matter what happens with the offsite electrical sources, the generators can provide electrical power.  That is, unless they’re submerged in seawater.  Nuclear power plants may also have a battery backup as well.  Of course, batteries only last so long.  And don’t do well submerged in seawater.

Nuclear reactors boil water to make steam to produce electricity.  The boiling of this water is what cools the reactor core.  Even with the reactors shut down there is still residual heat that will grow unless the cooling pumps keep running to circulate water around the core.  And this is the problem they’re having.  The cooling pumps aren’t running.

This won’t be another Chernobyl

The disaster that hit Japan would have destroyed a lesser nation.  They need help.  And we should give it.  Whatever they need.  But in the end, they will shake this off and go on with life.  Because they are a people who can take pretty much whatever life throws at them.  Let’s just hope they can get those cooling pumps running again.  They have good designs.  Good operating procedures.  Good safety measures in place.   And some of the best nuclear people in the business.  This won’t be another Chernobyl.

Let’s help Japan.  And keep the Japanese in our prayers.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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