Sunday, March 13, 2011

Japan's Nuclear Emergency and the Future of Nuclear Power

The ongoing crisis in Japan at several of the country's nuclear reactors is sure to fuel a renewed debate over the future of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel and other alternative energy sources.

Concerns over a possible meltdown and containment failure hearkens back to crises at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, both of which effectively ended the development of nuclear power in the United States.

Yet, there are lessons to be learned from the ongoing situation in Japan.

For starters, it took a massive 9.0 earthquake and the ensuing tsunamis and the failure of several backup systems to bring the Fukushima to the point of failure. The reactors at issue were first brought online in the early 1970s, and the technology has progressed significantly since then. Lessons learned from Fukushima will be incorporated into the development of nuclear reactors in Japan and elsewhere.

It appears that while the reactors survived the earthquake and its aftershocks intact, not as much attention was paid to the tsunami threat, which caused significant damage as seen by before/after photos here and a legacy of trying to achieve a perfect solution to a crisis rather than one that would be adequate to avert a crisis:
In the hours after the blast at Reactor No. 1, nuclear advocates argued that Daiichi’s problems were singular in many ways and stemmed from a natural disaster on a scale never before experienced in Japan. They pointed out that the excavation of fossil fuels has its own history of catastrophic accidents, including coal mine collapses and the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some also said there might have been missteps in handling Reactor No. 1. A quick alternative source of water for cooling the destabilizing core should have been immediately available, said Nils J. Diaz, a nuclear engineer who led the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2003 to 2006 and had visited the Daiichi plant.

Mr. Diaz suggested that the Japanese might have acted too slowly to prevent overheating, including procedures that might have required the venting of small amounts of steam and radiation, rather than risk a wholesale meltdown. Fear among Japanese regulators over public reaction to such small releases may have delayed plant operators from acting as quickly as they might have, he said — a problem arising in part from the country’s larger nuclear regulatory culture.

“They would rather wait and do things in a perfect manner instead of doing it as good as it needs to be now,” Mr. Diaz said. “And this search for perfection has often led to people sometimes hiding things or waiting too long to do things.”

With virtually no natural resources, Japan has considered nuclear power as an alternative to oil and other fossil fuels since the 1960s. It has regarded its expertise in nuclear power as a way to cut down on its emission of greenhouse gases and to capture energy-hungry markets in Asia.

Japan is one of the world’s top consumers of nuclear energy. The country’s 17 nuclear plants — boasting 55 reactors — have provided about 30 percent of its electricity needs.
However, there should be significant concern over the reactors recently built or conceived in China, which is criss-crossed with numerous active faults. The Sichuan quake revealed that the Chinese authorities did not adhere to its own building code standards, and that substandard building techniques and materials led to countless deaths and injuries. Schools that should have been seismically resistant to the Sichuan quake collapsed killing all within.

A nuclear plant built with similar quality of construction would be a disaster waiting to happen and one can't rely on the Chinese government to give assurances that these structures were built to specification.

However, the Japanese building codes exceed anything seen in China or the United States. They are built to resist earthquakes but failures in the backup systems exposed a weak point in the technology and procedures that will have to be addressed.

Conflicting reports over whether another tsunami is imminent - no significant quakes are reported in the vicinity, but there are reports that a hydrogen explosion involved reactor 3, the other reactor at Fukushima that was of serious concern.

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