Fukushima: it gets even worse

As though it wasn’t bad enough already. The NY Times reports that the meltdown may have already escaped containment and begun boring through the concrete floor, according to a computer simulation of the original accident.

Soon after an earthquake and a tsunami on March 11 knocked out cooling systems at the power plant, nuclear fuel rods in three of its six reactors overheated and slumped, the operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, has said.

In the No. 1 reactor, the overheated fuel may have eroded the primary containment vessel’s thick concrete floor, and it may have gotten almost within a foot of a crucial steel barrier, the utility said the new simulation suggested. Beneath that steel layer is a concrete basement, which is the last barrier before the fuel would have begun to penetrate the earth.
Tepco based the simulation on projections of decay heat released by the nuclear fuel and other estimates. The results suggest that the uranium fuel rods at the No. 1 reactor were most badly damaged, Mr. Matsumoto said, because it lost cooling water before the other two reactors did. The fuel rods were exposed for several hours before fire trucks could pump in emergency seawater.

Because the simulation suggests that heat released as a result of radioactive decay “far overwhelmed” the effect of the cooling water, he said, and because temperatures in the inner pressure vessel that originally housed the fuel are thought to have dropped quickly, Tepco now assumes that “100 percent of the fuel at Unit 1 has slumped” into the outer primary containment vessel.

I still believe that nuclear power is a good stopgap measure while we develop alternate means of power, including geothermal, solar and wind. The main problem with nukes is not that a bad situation is possible, but that we’ve had a very long time to try to implement better safety protocols and we as a species just keep fucking it up with our own corner-cutting and profiteering. For how well those plants should have been able to weather the tsunami, they failed catastrophically and at too many points. The catastrophe wasn’t even a single-point-of-failure one, and yet it should have been reasonably foreseeable.

Fukushima: it gets even worse

3 thoughts on “Fukushima: it gets even worse

  1. 1

    I still think, considering the nuclear waste situation alone, that nuclear is the worst of all fuels.
    The risks are apparently not manageable as Fukushima and Chernobyl have shown, and to engage in a technology that inherently cannot be controlled when things go wrong is quite mad in my opinion.

  2. 2

    Unfortunately, the whole industry is designed for single point of failure. They had to consider an earthquake OR a tsunami, and only considered a tsunami that was 12 meters high. Right now we keep 40 year old plants running because its cheaper than building new plants, even as its seen that the old plants didn’t really think about what might happen-see the NRC keeping North Anna shut down because no one thought there would be that magnitude of an earthquake. Getting their risk assessments in line with 100 or 1000 year events should be necessary, not “overly conservative” as the power companies claim. I’d definitely prefer nuclear over the ridiculously dirty coal plants that are strewn around and fighting as hard as they can against clean air laws (bailly where I currently live, and tanners creek where I used to live), but the government really needs to crack down on nuclear relying on only single point of failure accidents and very sloppy probabilistic risk assessment.

  3. 3

    The problem isn’t the technology, and it can be quite easily controlled in emergencies. The problems are the profiteering and corner-cutting that Jason mentions, and the fact that ancient plants are kept in operation long past the point they should be at least seriously overhauled. The latter problem is because modern laws – designed around understanding the safety issues – are so strict that it’s less hassle to maintain ageing plants under grandfather clauses than to build new ones. And again, that comes down to money – the laws are just fine; the people are too damn cheap.

    Fukushima (1) was 40 years old. It was only switched on 20 years after the first commercial reactor ever. It had a history of safety issues… and poor safety management (including a scandal involving falsifying safety records – and revelations that some critical parts of the plant hadn’t been inspected in decades. Add to these facts that the design was known to be flawed before the plant opened, and known to be seriously flawed only a few years after opening. There was also a major report in the mid 2000s about the safety of the plant that was more or less ignored (not completely ignored: they were actually doing some of the work recommended in that report when the tsunami hit).

    And Chernobyl… geez where to begin there? First, the reactor was critically flawed, but we’ll let that slide because it wasn’t as well understood in the 80s as it is now (although, yes, they should have known it was flawed, had they done the proper engineering work). We’ll also let Chernobyl’s spotty safety record slide. We’ll also let the equipment failures slide, because, hey, stuff breaks down from time to time. But the reality is that the day of the experiment, the Chernobyl reactor was a) running with all the emergency equipment shut down, b) not running according to the standard operating instructions because c) those instructions had been overruled by a party man who wasn’t even a nuclear physicist.

    The year is 2011, almost 2012, not the early 1970s. Don’t judge the state of nuclear technology based on things like Fukishima and Chernobyl – those reactor designs are not only older than my father… they have been known to have serious design flaws since before he was a teenager. We are perfectly capable of building reactors that could have survived that tsunami (or shut down safely if they couldn’t – the new CANDU designs can shut down in ~2 seconds). Hell, designs that have been around since I was in diapers are plenty safe enough… and naturally we’ve gone far beyond. There are no engineering reasons why things like Chernobyl or Fukushima should have happened in the first place, and certainly no reason that they should ever happen again in the future. It all comes down to money and politics.

    On the other hand, I can’t really advocate spending any more on researching new fission technologies. There are so many other promising new technologies. There are advancements in solar cells, such as newer organic film technologies, nanogenerators which might enable many devices to power themselves without batteries or other supplied power, and some dude is even building an open source fusion reactor.

    Fukushima is a tragedy, but – as is usual – not of failed technology, but of failed humanity. The Japanese knew all about the problems years ago, but either covered them up or ignored them. (Although, to be fair to them, they were just barely starting to do some of the recommended work when the disaster happened.) There were dozens of points where flags were raised, any of which, had the job been done, would have prevented the disaster, or at least minimized it. And yes, yes, I understand economics – I understand how expensive scrapping a nuclear power plant is (plus the cost of building the new one)… but look at the costs of not doing it. Nuclear power is fine, and could be safe, if only we were more responsible about using it.

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