Though there is still a lot of work to do in completely stabilizing the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, and that effort is not made any easier by the strong aftershocks that continue to occur, it is not too early to begin thinking about ways to assist in the long term effort to ensure public safety. The damaged reactors will continue to require some amount of forced cooling as the radioactive material they contain decays away and the structures and debris around the site will need to be put into a condition that eliminates any risk of uncontrolled releases of radioactive material.
Yesterday, my good friend, Dan Yurman, who blogs at Idaho Samizdat, The Energy Collective and the ANS Nuclear Cafe, posted a thought provoking blog titled Decommissioning Fukushima. In that post, Dan laid out some back of the envelope calculations of the magnitude of the challenge facing TEPCO as the plant owner. He also introduced some comparisons between the effort required and the effort invested in other decommissionings and damaged plant clean-ups.
Some of my pro-nuclear colleagues told Dan that they thought his post was interesting, but terribly depressing. Some even mentioned that they thought it would simply provide material for the antinuclear opposition to use against our favored energy technology.
I had a different reaction. I thought that the post was a great conversation starter. It offers a point of departure from which many people with different backgrounds can offer their ideas and engage their creative problem solving skills.
For example, Dan’s post talks a bit about the infrastructure challenges that TEPCO faces that played no role at all in the effort to clean up after the Three Mile Island accident. Since the area around Fukushima Daiichi was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, the company will have difficulty bringing in necessary equipment and supplies – if they try to bring them in using trucks and highways.
I have a different background than Dan. He has spent a significant portion of his life in landlocked places like Idaho, where goods and services have to come by rail or highway. I grew up on the coast and spent a good portion of my life traveling on the ocean and on the Chesapeake Bay. From my point of view, Fukushima Daiichi has no access issues at all – it is an oceanfront site with an installed breakwater. Moving large equipment onto the site and contaminated debris off of the site is far easier than it would be for a site that has no ocean or river access. Ships carry far larger cargos at far lower cost per ton than trucks or trains.
There are also a lot fewer impacts on local communities and a lot fewer opportunities for the professional opposition to impose their will by highjacking the political process in small jurisdictions.
Dan’s post also provided some estimates regarding the amount of contaminated water that will need disposal. Once again, the issue of perspective and paradigms came into play. For a place like Idaho, which is essentially a desert, finding a place for several million gallons of water might seem like a big challenge. From other points of view, a million gallons is a rather modest quantity of water. Here is a comment that I added to the thread on Dan’s original post.
(Note: this version is slightly modified compared to the original. It contained some references to other comments that have little meaning without additional context.)
Dan – with all due respect, I think your background in DOE sponsored clean-up efforts has colored your view of the challenges and resources that face TEPCO. The impression that I get is that you believe that “millions” of gallons of water is an enormous amount that will present very difficult challenges for many years to come.
While I am not trying to minimize the difficulty, think about how many millions of gallons of water per day that an operational power plant the size of Fukushima is designed to handle as part of its normal operation.
I just happened to have been playing with some sea water flow numbers the other day because of the new EPA cooling water rules. Those rules apply to all facilities that use 2 million gallons of water per day or more. I wanted to find out the applicability in megawatts of thermal energy so I could get an idea for the size of generator. It turns out that a plant producing just 7 MWe needs at least 2 million gallons of cooling water per day.
Fukushima Daiichi had 6 units with a total of capacity of about 4400 MWe. At full power it would require at least 1250 million gallons of cooling water every day. What that means in this case is that before the tsunami, there were dozens of very large pumps and pipes on the site. There were also filters, ion exchangers, and holding tanks.
Presumably, some of that equipment is still functional and can be brought into use in a clean-up or cooling effort. TEPCO will eventually move to a point where they are using some kind of closed cycle cooling and reusing the contaminated water as a coolant so that they stop producing more water that needs disposal.
They also have access to water borne vessels that can bring in large equipment and can handle large volumes of fluid. Tankers that travel the ocean are far cheaper per unit capacity than tankers that travel on highways. There are already news reports about Japan getting in touch with Russia to “borrow” some of the ships that Russia has used to clean up its decommissioned submarine fleet. As it turns out, Japan actually paid for at least one of the ships and gave it to Russia as part of the international effort to help out with that task.
I fully expect that the clean up will be difficult and expensive. I just do not think that it will be as difficult or expensive as your post implies.
There is no doubt in my mind that it will end up being a far more thorough clean up with far less impact on the surrounding area than BP’s rather superficial effort to clean up after the Deepwater Horizon’s fatal explosion and many months long spew of many millions of gallons of deadly chemicals into my beloved Gulf of Mexico.
The aftermath should result in many thousands of additional nukes (translation – nuclear professionals) spread out all over the world who get the opportunity for hands on learning about the engineering and technology effort required to clean up after a major nuclear plant casualty.
While having an earthquake and tsunami wipe out 4400 MWe of emission-free generating capacity is not a “good” thing, when mother nature dumps a huge load of lemons on you, it does not hurt to think about ways to turn them into lemonade, lemon pie, and lemon cake.
On another topic – I am sure you have heard a lot about water leaking from a crack in a concrete structure full of water at Fukushima. Did you hear that the leak has now been stopped?
During a hearing of the US House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 6, 2011, Rep. Ed Markey drew a comparison between the leak at Fukushima and the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher. Here is what he said:
“To assess and then sop up the radioactive water that has begun spewing into the ocean, they are relying on the use of bath salts and diapers.
“Just like the use of pantyhose and golf balls to stop last year’s oil spill, the Japanese have been compelled to try a “nuclear junk shot” in desperate attempts to stop an environmental calamity.
I did a quick search – during the Deepwater Horizon debacle, the first discussion about using a “junk shot” in an attempt to stop the flow of tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico occurred on or about May 8, 2010. The leak was declared stopped on September 21, 2010. That means that the spewing of oil continued for about 170 DAYS after BP turned to the “desperate” measure of a junk shot while the flow of radioactive water from the crack was stemmed less than 30 days after the earthquake and tsunami occurred.