1. Thanks, Rod. I feel some nukes have lost perspective, and some credibility, in the wake of this event. I myself was overly optimistic in a rather public fashion in the hours after the quake. The tsunami has still done the more harm, but it is likely that a 20-40km radius around the plant will be deemed uninhabitable for years to come.
    I am following the latest radiation measurements here: http://www.quora.com/How-serious-is-the-nuclear-radiation-in-Japan-right-now/answer/Carl-Lumma
    Also, see the comments on this answer, which tries to place the 20-40km radius in context, in terms of the land use of another popular energy source (tar sands).
    best, -Carl

    1. The radius of an exclusion zone may extend out to 20-40 km, but I believe that most of the land within that radius will be open due to the deposition of radioactivity being done in patches that coincides with rain patterns.

      1. Absolutely. You can see on the DOE flyover maps, the actual area of concern is, at present, much smaller than I’m using above. Still, I was shocked how well this event is holding up compared to an energy source we use every day. Syncrude claims to restore mines on about the same time scale as it’ll take for the Cs137 rad levels to go below a reasonable background (e.g. Denver). But I’m willing to bet the restored mines will not come back as well as the fallout zone. Also, the surface mining has staggering impacts on fresh water.

  2. “Though I hope that the Japanese government does take the step of permanently evacuating large, lightly contaminated areas, there is little doubt that some formerly prosperous farms and fisheries will be out of business for a very long time. ”
    you mean
    Though I hope that the Japanese government does NOT take the step of permanently evacuating large, lightly contaminated areas, there is little doubt that some formerly prosperous farms and fisheries will be out of business for a very long time.
    I suppose ?
    I would add that if the fishes in Japanese waters could vote, they would raise both hands for a release of Cesium 137 into the sea that would stop fishing : http://articles.latimes.com/2010/sep/04/business/fi-japan-fish-20100904 .
    Agricultural losses may be less than first thought, because, according to the pro free-trade British think tank Policy Exchange, “EU consumers pay 42 percent more for agricultural products than they would if the <agricultural subsidies> system were dismantled. Americans pay 10 percent extra, Japanese more than twice as much. For less well-off families, for whom food takes up a large proportion of household income, freer trade would mean a noticeably higher standard of living.” Maybe that the Japanese will finally understand that Thai Rice is just as good as Japanese Rice for much cheaper. The Farm subsidies for the affected zone could be in the billions $ per year !
    Actually, the Fukushima prefecture could become a very good site for… a new Nuclear Power Plant ! Now that the pressure has been released, the area could be good to go for at least 60 years without a major earthquake. Industrial sites fueled by cheap and clean nuclear energy could actually be the best use of the land. It know this seems far-fetched now, but who would have believed two weeks after the Chernobyl accident that the other reactors on the site would still be operating 20 years later ?

    1. @Charles – thanks for catching the wayward “not”. I have corrected the post.

    2. As far as the Japanese agricultural policy is concerned, I understand that corporate-run agriculture of any kind is illegal in Japan.
      I believe it was the legacy of an Occupation-era land reform, designed to ensure that Japanese farmlands could never again be concentrated in the hands of a small number of owners, as this was believed to have been a contributing factor in the rise of Japanese militarism.

    3. I think Chernobyl’s remaining 3 reactors were operated until the end of the year 2000, so it was 15 years not 20 years. But it’s interesting, reading stories about it one can’t help but notice how the people living closer to Chernobyl were far more favourable to it than those far away. Farmers who returned to the exclusion zone only a few years after 1986 lived happy long lives in many cases. Only the EU countries became hysterical about the little fallout they received, and it was them, not the Ukrainians, that forced the shutdown in 2000. The video of the final shutdown at Chernobyl on youtube is well worth watching – while there was Champaigne flowing at Greenpeace headquarters, the people who operated the plant, and their families, looked like they were attending a funeral.

  3. I think its good that you’ve changed your position, Rod. I no longer see the “Stop Worrying About ‘Spent’ Fuel Pool Fires” post. Was it deleted?

    1. Yes. What apparently happened was not a “fire” with flames, but close enough in terms of release of volatile fission products. Zircalloy tubes still do not burn, but flaked off zircalloy in a place where there is a lot of heat and steam do react strongly enough to add heat.

      1. Hi Rod,
        I think this is too bad. During the course of this crisis I went from concerned to genuinely scared when I read about the potential fires in the spent fuel pool (the “Chernobyl on steroid” part that you debunked) to feeling stupid for having panicked after reading your take on it. Now it seems that you may have had access to some more information and might have changed your stand regarding this issue somewhat, but to what extent exactly?
        It looks to me that this issue is one of the most important one in this whole affair, having the capacity to change the whole story from “everything was contained as designed” to “the containment promise was a myth because half of the hazardous material was outside of any containment to begin with”. What exactly is you understanding of it now?
        I don’t think you should feel bad about changing your mind, on the contrary. Everybody is up in arms regarding nuclear energy, some much too pessimistic, some much too optimistic, with half of the people hanging to their opinion as to a cult; what is mostly lacking about it is a dispassionate, rational analysis of its pros and cons from people who have some valid knowledge and experience to share. So please keep bringing your valuable insight, even if you have to scratch some of your words sometimes. It will help everybody build an educated opinion about this crucial subject.

  4. The used fuel seems to have caused most of the difficulty here. While there is defense in depth for the core, it seems that much of the problems and challenges have come from the fuel rods outside the core. How do the new AP1000’s address this issue? Is this only an issue for the first few months the fuel is outside the core or does this type of release have potential for years?

  5. Well, I commend your repentance. Idolatry is always failure, and man’s Tower of Babel will always come crashing down around him. BTW, I think that the passive safety features of ESBWR and AP1000 eliminate many of the concerns with after-event core cooling on a LOOP:
    Furthermore, having elevated spent fuel pools in the GE Mark I, II and III designs is simply stupid (though Mark III containment is the best of the lot, and the last to have been developed). GE took a minimalist approach early on, but that’s all fixed in ESBWR.
    Now should existing BWRs be shutdown? No, not necessarily. But let this be a lesson against overconfidence – the worship of the work of man’s own hands.
    BTW, I don’t necessarily think that if Fukushima Daiichi were PWRs, the result would have been all that much different. And I do think people will reconsider reliance on the active safety systems of Areva’s EPR and Mitshubishi’s APWR when passive safety in AP1000 and ESBWR are available. I do, however, have two criticisms of GE-Hitachi: One, they won’t invest their own money into ESBWR. They want someone else to finance it for them – sort of like going to a Ford dealer, asking for a new car, and the dealer tells you to give him money so he can first design and build it. Two, Jeff Immelt is close friends with the White House and no matter how much you’re in love with that man in the Oval Office, he is NOT pro-nuclear, nor is Jeff Immelt.

    1. I am sure that Westinghouse and GE and maybe the US NRC will try to frame it as a “passive vs active safety” debate, but I think that it is much more an “engineered vs structural safety debate”. Passive systems are just as good as the structural integrity of the piping in the building. We have just seen that Hydrogen can really compromise that. Additionally, estimates of highest possible seismic vibrations on the site will have to be considered with a much more suspicious eye in the future. Maybe the Nuclear Industry didn’t cover itself with Glory in the Fukushima episode, but seismology has been even more humbled. As a consequence, relying on seismic theory for designing safety margin is probably not a good idea. And sentences like the one I just picked on the GE link you gave “In fact, these measures will keep the core at or below their normal operating temperature for a period of time established by the regulatory authorities“. do not reassure me. What happens after that period ?
      No industrial installation is “walk-away safe”, but NPP should be “walk-away acceptable”. This is what has been achieved for the waste challenge (despite what the greens say), but for a NPP, the last sentence of the emergency procedure guide should be “evacuate the site” and operators should have to follow it without having the feeling of betraying their fellow country(wo)men. My preferences for doing so are in my post above.

  6. An Article in the NY Times made it much clearer about the skittishness of the Navy about radioactive contamination. The problem is that external contamination complicates the task of monitoring their own reactor for leaks. Shippers are also concerned that radioactive contamination will complicate getting their shipments through customs. Additional delays could be fatal in the competitive world of international shipping.

  7. I don’t understand your post at all.
    From an engineering stand point, there is nothing different between the situation today and the situation at the time of your happier, eager to bash skeptic posts.
    The plant was grossly deficient in design. It was an engineering failure. It’s failure modes were fairly obvious to see after 2004.
    The plant was grossly deficient in operation. The claims that the pools were safe to overload were obviously nonsensical, and rank of pure 1984 Challenger logic. It worked last time when we went beyond design specs, so we think it will be okay this time.
    The nuclear industry was grossly deficient in preparation for a disaster. Since 1986, rad hard robots have been known to be a #1 priority. In the past few years, there has been no reason not to stuff every powerplant full of rad hardened iRobot PackBots, or as K. Eric Drexler suggests, rad hardened Parrots. Similarly, there is no reason for there not to be rad hardened cameras with a week of battery backup covering every angle within the plant.
    Any plant should not require power just to permit water to be pumped into cooling ponds or to replenish supplies. Any plant in a tsunami and earthquake zone should be prepared for 9.0 if not greater earthquakes.
    What this post reeks of is “oh yeah, that was the old plants. trust us, the new plants are going to be different. oh yeah, tepco is corrupt, but pg&e, sce, con ed, we’re different. oh yeah, that was a third world carbide production plant, we wouldn’t do that in our own backyard.”
    That is the exact sort of hubris, the exact sort of bogus, no basis for it, unrealistic thinking, happy thinking that gave us Fukushima AFTER 1979, 1984, 1986.
    That is the exact sort of hubris, the exact sort of bogus, no basis for it, unrealistic thinking, happy thinking that gives us nuclear protests and a stalled nuclear industry even when we know coal has severe problems.
    There is a great deal of learning to be done, it is not clear Rod, you have done any of it yet.

    1. @Jay – there is a reason why many of the things that you suggest are not being done – it is a simple matter of money versus risk. I will grant that there are deficiencies in some designs, particularly with regard to the particular sites where the plants are located. However, do you know how long it would take and how expensive it would be to qualify “iRobot PackBots” for operating inside a nuclear power plant? How much do you think a “rad hardened camera with a week of battery backup” would cost and what unknown risk are you imposing by adding a large number of batteries with that kind of capacity inside a reactor containment building. As far as I know, most long life, high energy batteries have at least some risk of spontaneous combustion.
      It would also be complete overkill to require all plants in an earthquake zone to be prepared for 9.0 quakes since some types of faults are simply not capable of achieving that magnitude of movement. The result of your suggestions would be a dramatic increase in risk associated with extracting more natural gas – imposing them would add about 4-8 trillion cubic feet per year of demand for that fuel.

    2. “The nuclear industry was grossly deficient in preparation for a disaster. Since 1986, rad hard robots have been known to be a #1 priority. In the past few years, there has been no reason not to stuff every powerplant full of rad hardened iRobot PackBots”
      They are there : http://www.groupe-intra.com/index2.htm . You don’t need to have them in every plant, just fly them by plane in the day after the accident. I am sure the Japanese have their version, and they will use them !
      Similarly, there is no reason for there not to be rad hardened cameras with a week of battery backup covering every angle within the plant.
      Lots of batteries can generate hydrogen, which, as we have seen, is a no-no into the plant. So it may not be that straightforward.

    3. Oops, my rad-hard robot comment was inserted at the top of thread instead of this branch of the conversation.

    4. Read up on earthquakes. It is not the size of the quake it is the movement of the building. It has been too long, but one thing I do remember is that you could be right on top of a “9.0” earthquake and only feel a mild shaking. It all depends upon the soil between you and the center of the earthquake. As I remember in the flatter portion of New Jersey, for example, the soil turns to “quicksand” and could swallow up improperly designed buildings That is why all of the skyscrapers are on Manhattan Island (Solid rock) and none right across the river. In this situation Nuc plants are built almost like a boat – they float! We had rooms on the lowest level that were not used for years – they were only built because the concrete pad foundation had to be big enough for the rooms that were above it. Sort of like a “full” basement rather than a “partial – with crawl” space for a house. I believe the plants on the shore of CA have the same situation – don’t know for sure.

  8. Rod, It takes courage to admit it when we’re wrong — once more you’ve proven that you deserve the respect that many of us have for you.
    Like TMI, this accident is going to open up a new discussion about nuclear safety. Already I’ve seen an article in the NYT saying that the problem that blew the roof off two of the reactors at Fukushima was anticipated in the 1980’s and that U.S. reactors of that type have long since been modified to prevent that. (If only they’d stop their drumbeat about “dangerous uranium”)
    I think now there’s going to be a public discussion about station blackout, but the good news is that it’s been talked about in the engineering literature for years and solutions are somewhat developed. SMRs could have advantages in station blackout conditions, but some of the events at Fukushima will also cause skepticism about facilities that co-locate a large number of reactors. At Fukushima we saw multiple accidents interacting, creating a situation that made it more difficult for the workers to get a handle on the situation. For instance, there would have very little trouble with the used fuel pools if it hadn’t been for the LOCA accidents creating locally dangerous conditions.
    The Gen III+ concept, if realized, should improve the basic reliability of reactors to the point where the ‘domino effect’ of multiple failures becomes much less of a concern, but shared systems that could cause multiple failures, such as the single water pool that 12 Nuscale reactors would sit in, are going to come under scrutiny.

    1. I very much agree with this comment and excellent post. I see good reason to learn from past mistakes, and look very carefully at design and siting considerations from 40 years ago that were overlooked in this case (and why some of the more recent upgrades were not enough). But I also think many of the lessons learned from this accident (and perhaps the most important ones) will have nothing to do with the nuclear industry (per se). From deepwater drilling, to shale gas development, hurricane and flood protection efforts (Katrina), minimizing toxic emissions from coal power plants, earthen dam failures for coal ash, and much more, it’s clear we’re not going to stop doing these things, but that we need to be doing them more effectively, and with greater attention to detail and managing risk (because nothing in this world is free of risk). I look closely at the rapidly rising gas prices in my neighborhood, and realize that the era of cheap and affordable energy is over (and we shouldn’t be trying to hold onto this at such a direct consequence to public risk). What sets nuclear apart, in my mind, is that the expansion of the industry will rest to some degree on people understanding it, and having a high degree of confidence in the technologies (old, current, and emerging), and especially for those living in close proximity to power plants (and this would include most of us in the US). I have no doubt that utilities, regulators, and engineers have the talent and expertise to meet these many challenges now and in the future. And I also believe this site will go a long ways to help meet these goals, and keep important safety and industry concerns in the spotlight.

  9. I hope the industry is not going to focus too much on the hydrogen issue. It is true that it was ultimately what triggered the demise of Fukushima’s plants (without hydrogen explosion, we would have stayed into a TMI scenario ). But I don’t think it will be solved adequately by putting hydrogen recombiners everywhere. IMHO, from a communication, but also from a practical standpoint, the double or triple failure of containment buildings is a real wake-up call.
    In a way, it is unfair, a containment building is mostly made to protect from the consequence of a positive reactivity excursion that would blow the vessel, but absolutely nothing can contain infinitely rising steam pressure.
    This being said, the biggest lesson is that the devil is in a too narrow definition of the Design Basis Accident. The Japanese have the best seismologist in the world, they took the “creme de la creme” to try to forecast the maximum magnitude for an earthquake magnitude, and they failed by a factor 5 !! It shows that we know much less about earthquakes and therefore tsunamis than we think. As earthquakes are “correlating” events, defense in depth is defeated in that case. As a consequence, we need design that do not depend on seismologists.
    The other event that, in my opinion, should be included into Design Basis Accident is WAR. It is quite likely that the next 50 years are going to be less peaceful than the last for many reasons, and conflict for scarce energy resources won’t be the least of them. 40 years ago, civilian nuclear power was only the realm of countries that had atomic weapons or who were clearly under a nuclear umbrella. War damage to a NPP has always been implicitly prevented by MAD policy and I don’t think it is a gamble that any country should take. Concrete penetrating missiles is a much easier technology to build than nuclear missile, and, when used against a NPP or a spent fuel pool, is even more disruptive of a developed country industrial infrastructure. In war, wounding the enemy is often more debilitating that killing it ! Relying on ground to air missile defense to prevent that risk is not defense in depth by my book.
    All this leads me to locate NPP and pool storage at some depth under the sea. After all PWR were created for just that purpose !
    At 100m below sea level and 20 miles from the coast, with dynamic positioning, there are no earthquake, no tsunamis and an infinite quantity of water available for cooling. The absolute worst case (explosion of the pressure vessel) will probably trigger just a release of volatile fission products, with some (or even most ?) of them immediately absorbed by the bubbling before they reach the surface. The distance from the coast would automatically dilute the impact from the radioactive pollution. Apart from a few fishermen in the vicinity, the worst economic and lives harm would be minimal. All the technology is there and is proven by decades of service, it is “only” an industrialization/cost problem.
    Submarines for the one or two decades of pool storage before reprocessing should also be considered. Keeping stores of spent fuel on a NPP sire or at a reprocessing facilities create lots of vulnerabilities to air raids.
    Can it be extended further than PWR into fast reactors ? Possible, but I would instinctively prefer lead over sodium as a coolant. For me, the ideal would be a submarine “Nuclear Candle” a la TerraPower, cooled by lead and located inside a submarine.
    It won’t solve the need of high temperature for industrial processes that will be needed one day or another. Molten salt reactors are probably the future there, because they allow for the regular removal of fission products, thus negating the biggest threat, and allow for quite high temperature. But my feeling is that a lot of industrial developments, especially materials qualification, are needed before this technology matures.

  10. Rod,
    I have been lurking on your blog for years, on and off, and appreciate your views and efforts. Here I came from March 11, looking for insight. This accident is likely to eventually sit at 6 on the INES, and it was absurd for the Japanese to call it a INES-4 so early on, as I understand that someone did (I hope that it was Tepco, or the J PM’s office, and not NISA, anyone here recall ? ) Anyway, let’s assume INES-6. The previous INES-6, Kyshtym, was far worse than this is likely to be, so I would put Fukushima at the 3rd worst ever. Why was Kyshtym so bad ? It released a huge quantity of long- lived FP in a brief, violent pulse. I believe that the EURT spread higher levels or Sr and Cs, farther, than even Chernobyl did. It is a concentrated trace, not an expansive gyre, of radionuclides, as you will get with releases over days and weeks of shifting weather at Fukushima and as occurred at Chernobyl. Hundreds of civilians died from acute exposures, including widespread beta burns. That’s what counts as Nuclear Safety in the house that Uncle Joe Stalin built. Wasn’t the old Red Empire grand ? You were definitely one of the good guys in your submariner days, Rod. Thanks for a little contrition, and don’t pay any attention to any anti-nuke trolls, Rod.

  11. Rod,
    I appreciate your recognition that this event is greater than you thought it would be back on March 11 or 12 and I take no solace in the fact that it seemed rather plain to me that this was going to be a very, very serious event. I’ve always appreciated the effort and sincerity that you put forth in your blog and it is tough to be wrong, but you were wrong because you did not have sufficient knowledge of system interactions and the impact that an extended loss of all AC power would have.
    Many changes and modifications are going to come from a full review of this event but it is simply a knee jerk reaction to lay the blame on the Mark I design. It also plays right into the hands of those who use questions raised and resolved 30-40 years ago to tarnish the safety of Mark I BWRs. The impact of a severe accident was evaluated in NUREG 1150 and the Mark I primary containment responded in the rugged manner that was predicted including its response to the hydrogen burn that occurred, in the primary containment.
    Although I do not have full knowledge of all the design details of Fukushima 1, 2, & 3, I suspect that they were not equipped with a hardened vent system. Many, but not all, US BWRs installed this in the early 1990s. The hardened vent (Carbon Steel, Sch. 40 piping routed directly to the plant stack or outside) allows operators to reduce pressure within the primary containment without leaking Hydrogen into the secondary containment. This feature is a key part of the Severe Accident Guidelines and I suspect that had this feature been installed or usable, if installed, the sequence of events at Fukushima would have been quite different. The failure of the secondary containment at Fukushima is what sets this accident apart from that which would have been serious but could have been managed.
    Obviously the industry will be reviewing this event in great detail and I suspect the result will be dramatically improved flood protection, where needed, a greater focus on the protection of switchgear rooms to ensure that AC power can be distributed and an increased focus on Station Blackout coping strategies. This entire event could have been mitigated if AC power had been available and distributable.
    I think that a focus on the elevation of the spent fuel pool is a side issue and not germane to the event. Certainly if you breach the pool it may be difficult to maintain it full of water and a lower elevation with the pool surrounded by soil would provide an additional barrier, but the causal event was the destruction of the secondary containment. Even if the pool was located at grade elevation the destruction of the secondary containment would have filled the pool with structural steel and concrete as happened at Fukushima. This alone would have had a great affect on fuel geometry and cooling capability.

    1. @Jim. You seem to have a pretty extensive knowledge of the BWR Mark I containment design. I’m wondering if you have an alternative explanation for the build-up of hydrogen in the secondary containment building (i.e., top floor of the reactor building)? This would seem to indicate one of two possible failures in R1 and R3: 1) to the primary containment vessel or 2) to the hard venting pathway (which ends in emissions stacks outside of the power plants)? There is also a question of the build-up of pressure inside the primary containment vessel

      1. The contaminated water is almost certainly a result of damage to the coolant pumping systems, which have gone through a hell of a bad few weeks. It’s possible it’s coming from cracks in the torus, as well, but I put my money on the pumping systems.
        If the pressure vessel had been compromised in a significant way, this would have a rapid and noticeable impact on pumping operations and pressure inside the reactor, and they would have figured it out by now.

        1. @Jim. Thanks for that detailed description and summary. I haven’t yet been able to find a venting pathway from the primary containment vessel to the second containment structure (that can be operated from the control room). So I don’t think this is possible, and it just doesn’t make any conceptual sense to me (why would you engineer a safety system that deliberately vents dangerous radioactive gases into a primary working area of the power plant, and thus rendering it permanently off limits). Venting gas through pipes in the building and experiencing a failure at the Standby Gas Treatment System is certainly one option, as you describe. The hard vent, as reported by NEI, is supposed to move the steam, heat and pressure to “outside the reactor building.” I’ve subsequently been told this doesn’t require fans, or AC power, and by-passes the SGTS (but I’m not sure about the source of this particular claim).
          UCS has a summary of an experiment conducted at the Brunswick nuclear plant in North Carolina

          1. A hardened vent or similar was required to be installed at US Mark I’s in the late 1980s. The one that I am particularly knowledgeable about is quite capable of withstanding without failure or significant leakage the reported pressure in Unit 1 (>800 kpa). Certainly at high pressures > the nominal 44 psig accident pressure primary containment leakage would be expected to exceed the required 0.8% vol/day design basis. But I wouldn’t expect that this led to the explosion in the secondary containment’s of Units 1 & 3 since they reported that they were performing a filtered vent before the explosions. It is, of course, possible that they were describing a vent path from the suppression chamber which would have allowed for scrubbing of radionuclides through the torus water, but I think that is probably unlikely and that the vent path was through the non-functioning SBGTS which would have either failed precipitately or leaked heavily. We will know much more as the facts come out over the next year or more.
            FYI, the hardened vent path I am familiar with can be operated remotely, if power is available, or manually at the valve. Although, not an ideal method it is a key function in severe accident management and would likely have preserved the secondary containment and prevented the damage to the spent fuel pools.

        2. Without power to the standby gas treatment fans (push/pull fans to move the gas thru and to keep the ductwork at a lower pressure than the building, so contaminants leak INTO the duct instead of OUT of it), the vapor being vented from containment simply just backs up out of every other HVAC register in the building.

  12. Not sure if the I like the system of grading Nuclear Disasters. The idea that a scale exists seems to overstate the danger of it happening. I agree that Fukushima turned out worse than we expected but compared to Chernobyl it is still a small accident. Also it was easy to surpass Three Mile Island considering TMI’s radiation levels were so small. Thanks to Mike Greaves who pointed out Kyshtym. After blogging on Nuclear for over a year I was unaware of Kyshtym.

    1. The Soviets had far worse accidents, and many of those weren’t reported in any newspaper, they exist only in anecdotal form. But there is a reason why Russia is the number 1 exporter of nuclear reactors right now: Trial and error works and is the foundation of all science. Trial and error is the fast track way to perfection, and works so much better than ivory tower debates. Energy remains the root problem of most of the world’s problems, yet the new “attitude” in the western world seems to be that we can’t take any risks anymore, risktaking is essentially illegal (such as driving without a safety belt). At the same time it is seen as perfectly acceptable to delegate the risktaking to the military and to redirect destruction and death to other places in the world, such as the middle east.

  13. Rod,
    I agree with ‘pronulear’ here.
    I realize that you are not happy with your original claims of complete safety, and some regretful bad assumptions, but to say that this accident is even close to being in the same league of the Chernobyl disaster really both vastly overstates this accident and understates Chernobyl.
    Yes, there will be some cesium contamination, and yes, there will be some health effects. But I have been monitoring the IAEA rather closely, and compared with Chernobyl, well, its a peashooter. Compared to the *refinery fire* its a peashooter – hell, the refinery fire was probably a lot worse than Chernobyl, although its hard to say because I can’t find any data at all about it, to our media’s shame.
    So my advice to you is don’t be bipolar on this one – ie: don’t switch 180 degrees just because you were a bit polyanna about it up front. It takes courage to admit you are wrong, but it doesn’t pay to be just as wrong on the opposite side. Your original view was probably closer to correct.
    Fukushima is, and will continue to be, a moderate scale industrial disaster. We should take away the right lessons so it doesn’t happen again, yes, but to mischaracterize it as even approaching Chernobyl would be irrational.

    1. “I realize that you are not happy with your original claims of complete safety, and some regretful bad assumptions, but to say that this accident is even close to being in the same league of the Chernobyl disaster really both vastly overstates this accident and understates Chernobyl.”
      We don’t know how bad it is – or isn’t – yet. One of the many things that made Adams’ original post so foolish was a premature declaration of that the extent would be limited. You just made the same mistake.

      1. PeakVT,
        You forget something – what made Chernobyl such a mess was the high amount of energy that was used to propel the waste skyward, in graphite fires that burned so dramatically for days. There isn’t the energy here to do the same thing.
        So yes, materials are at risk, but there isn’t nearly the same amount of energy needed to propel it skyward, so that eliminates all non-soluble waste products being at risk.
        And when you compare the amount of material vs material released in other disasters (including the refinery fire which basically got a free pass), it really does amount to a tempest in a teapot. That’s what I said at the start of this – that it’s likely to be serious, but not nearly in the same league as Chernobyl, that’s what I’m saying now.

        1. Is it a myth that graphite can cause a reactor to burn? Graphite does not easily burn, in the windscale fire there was little damage to the graphite around the burning fuel which contained lithium to create i think tritium for an H-bomb. Graphite might burn if vaporised at very high temperatures but in that case the source of the ‘fire’ is not the graphite but rather the nuclear fission creating the heat.

          1. just to add, the windscale graphite pile was forced air cooled only, however they did not have a criticality event but rather the reactor fuel/contents with lithium/aluminium cladding caught fire when they tried to recondition the graphite by allowing it to get hotter.

          2. Under standard atmospheric conditions, nuclear-grade graphite will oxidize if it is heated to sufficiently high temperatures. This is quite different, however, from what is usually meant when something is said “to burn.”

    2. @horos22 – from an economics point of view, Fukushima Daiichi may already have surpassed Chernobyl – it is likely to have destroyed the economic value of 4 and perhaps 6 reactors with a total output capacity of more than 4,000 MW. It is affecting the ability to ship goods in and out as far away as Tokyo. The are affected is also not a poor, backward, Soviet block satellite country, but a major portion of the third largest economy in the world.
      The numbers are going to make it even more difficult to finance and insure nuclear projects – not impossible, just more difficult.
      You are most likely correct about the health effects, but there have been some rather substantial uncontrolled releases and those are not yet fully contained.

      1. Rod,
        Well, yes, but I’d still put that in perspective – at ~2 billion per plant, that might be a total of 8 billion for the plants themselves. Interference on shipping, maybe another billion.
        But even then you are commingling the costs of the earthquake and the tsunami, and at a certain point, its hard to assign fault between the two for other damages. The best guesses on the tragedy’s total cost is northward of 300 billion.
        So yes, it *is* a huge loss, but it still pales in comparison next to what mother nature did.
        As for the uncontrolled releases, last take was that it was the ventilation system, not containment damage:

      2. Just a nitpick about Chernobyl — it was not in a satellite country, but in the Soviet Union itself.

  14. It is not worth it to engage in efforts to slice a few dollars from initial costs by slimming down the defense in depth that has made most nuclear plants the safest, cleanest and most reliable energy production systems on the planet.
    Worth it to whom? In profit-driven organizations it clearly will always be worth it to slice a few dollars because the time frame for risk and reward are so vastly different.
    There’s a lesson in there, btw.

    1. @PeakVT: This is why I’m a believer in regulation, unlike, it seems, many fellow conservatives – regulation allows us to take safety-related decision making out of the hands of corporate management teams whose chief focus/duty is to maximize profit. It allows us to decree that everyone will follow proper safety steps (not just companies that ‘opt’ to do the safe thing, as opposed to their competition who ‘opt’ not to do it), or face losing their operating licenses, or in lesser cases, getting levied with painful fines that make the ‘shortcutting’ not worth it for the company.
      I recognize there is such a thing as *bad* regulation – rules which increase costs without actually increasing safety; we should always be re-evaluating regulatory regimes, to see how they can be improved. But, I think for an industry like Nuclear Power, regulation is both vitally necessary, and can be effective at protecting public safety.

    2. I disagree. The risk that comes from slimming down on defense in depth may not show up for many years, may not show up ever, or may show up within months. Though the Fukushima Daiichi reactors were 35-40 years old, TMI happened just a few months after the plant achieved commercial operating status.

  15. Building rad-hard robots that can operate in the halls and around the corners of a nuclear power plant is not a trivial task:
    Sandia deployed a Radiological Assistance Program team to assist White Sands Missile Range in resolving a problem with a stuck 15 kiloCurie Cobalt-60 source at its Gamma-Irradiation Facility. The RAP team, consisting of personnel from Emergency Response Systems Engineering Dept. 12345 and Mobile Robotics Dept. 6644, successfully returned a source to a safe condition with minimal radiation dose to personnel. Activities included tooling development, robot repair, entries into a potentially lethal radiation area, and dynamically modifying a Sandia robot to perform the most hazardous operations. The front cover photo shows the robot modified by the team to solve the problem.

  16. Certainly this accident has changed the game. Three cores and four spent fuel pools are involved. While this will be a rethink for nuclear, it is still a safer way way to make 24/7 baseload power than fossil fuels. What we need to do is get into Fukushima after things are stabilized and find out what backups they had vs other countries so we know which regulations and programs need to change. I see a more transparent industry coming out of this with more spent fuel in dry cask. In addition, there may be renewed interest in GEN IV designs.

    1. Give nuclear power a break! We had 25 years of safe operation worldwide since Chernobyl. With over 400 operating reactors worldwide an accident “somewhere” was a matter of time. Reactors built at a time 40 years ago – when there were no seat belts, no health movement, no catalytic converters, no green movement to speak of – are now being scrutinized with 21ist century precision and a green movement so powerful it has taken over whole governments and led to offshoring and outsourcing in the entire western world. The only “mistake” made by the nuclear industry was that it promised to be 100% safe, 100% no side effects, and now it turns out they only have 99,9% – so what?

      1. I thought I said that nuclear is still safer 😉
        Actually I find that the media is not as bad as they were for TMI and Chernobyl. There seems to be a consensus to learn from the accident, change what we need to, and move on. New reactors will still be built in Asia and eventually in the US when natural gas prices go up and the public places nuclear in its proper context. We will be just like airplanes: accidents will change the industry, but the industry will remain without the hub-bub.

        1. As far as Asia and the former Soviet republics are concerned, I would not expect much change. Japan’s energy minister has already said nuclear will remain the main energy source for Japan. Their attitude is different. But in the western world it will take more economic pain (higher natural gas prices, perhaps a new oil embargo) to remind them of how important energy is and that playing foolish games with windmills and solar panels leads nowhere but to ecomomic ruin.

          1. Isn’t natural gas more expensive in most Far Eastern countries because it arrives by ship rather than by pipeline? That (along with the relative lack of domestic fossil fuel resources) could be a reason why the Far East is more pro-nuclear than the United States and Europe…

    2. What seems odd to me is that the US fleet of Mark I containments were require by the NRC to retrofit in a “torus hardened vent” so as to avoid the hydrogen explosion that happened at Fukushima. It is frustrating to see now in retrospect that the other regulators of the world didn’t effectively communicate their insights to each other, so that other countries could take similar precautions.
      Somehow, there is a lesson to be learned here for the worlds nuclear regulatory agencies to more effectively share insights between each other.

  17. @Rod, a former boss of mine when discussing a severe accident sequence analysis that was giving us difficulty, had the habit of saying “well, we don’t design for the meteor strike either…”
    That kind of keeps it in perspective for me. The plant held together far better than expected for an event that was way beyond what the designers expected. The people that needed to had time to evacuate.
    If a far more severe natural event occurs than what you’ve designed for, the nuclear power plant is probably the least of your worries. You’ve got a lot of other “prompt” victims that need assistance from the disaster.
    Adding more safety systems (or hardening the ones you’ve already got) only protects you from the disasters you can anticipate. Where all plants can take a lesson for the future, might be to have a more robust “ad hoc” disaster strategy to provide improvised power, cooling, pressure suppression, etc. so that you can get those functions going sooner after the “big one” that you didn’t design for.

  18. Rod,
    I was disappointed to read this post. While I agree it is important to admit when we are wrong, and I agree your early posts turned out to have been overly optimistic, I feel you have gone too far in your retraction. The central point of your early posts could be summed up by one line from Ted Rockwell et al’s 2002 paper; that a worst case accidnet would cause “few, if any, off site deaths” That central arguement still holds. This incident turned out worse than we might have hoped but will still fade into insignificance when placed into rational context with the other destruction brought on by the earthquake and tsunami.

    1. @Chuck P – the problem is that I viewed that statement as needing to be true without measures like large area evacuations from radiation dose rates high enough to actually cause sickness without mitigating efforts. That has not been the case at Fukushima. Though you are correct that a great deal of destruction has been wrought by the earthquake, it should have been possible for the nuclear plants to keep their fission products within established defense in depth barriers. I was too optimistic about the layers of defense in the case of the used fuel pools and also did not recognize how much material could escape from damaged fuel held inside containment structures that were undersized.

    2. Chuck – In my opinion, Rod is simply grieving over the loss of his belief that Western nuclear plants are invulnerable. He has exhibited the classic stages — denial, depression, etc. Don’t worry, grief doesn’t last forever, and acceptance that extraordinary disasters can overwhelm even the most thorough defense-in-depth strategies is healthy.

    3. I mostly agree with Chuck on this one. I think we need to remember that this event has required a constant juggling of several different frames of reference. In this latest post, Rod sounds to me likes he’s speaking from within that frame we use to judge and analyze nuclear power according to its own standards, expectations, and performance history. Seen from that frame, Rod’s comments make much sense: This has been an epic and indeed an epochal failure in terms of the very standards the nuclear power community has more or less imposed upon itself — to the extent that Fukushima will join TMI and Chernobyl as historical “markers.”
      That said, however, we also know that viewing this event from a different frame of reference, such as the relative “lethality” of various energy sources (or even, as in this case, Nature), will lead us to different conclusions. I think the challenge of this event for the nuclear power community will involve integrating these various perspectives when we speak and think about “where do we go from here.” It is altogether too easy to take the deeply ideological and frankly lazy position of a person whose only principle is the abolition of nuclear power at any cost (or, for that matter, the production of nuclear power at any cost). If we’ve learned nothing else from the coverage of this event, we’ve learned that this kind of thinking — prejudice in its most literal sense — remains a very powerful force in the world and can corrupt even the best of intentions.
      So I take Rod’s post in this case as a timely reminder that all of us have to fight against our own prejudices (assumptions, received notions, even a wealth of first-hand experience). However, I also think that the Fukushima crisis, and the Japan catastrophe in its entirety, demonstrate the moral validity — and maybe even imperative — of situating our discussions, our advocacy, and our criticism within the framework of relative risk.
      If our prejudices, as members of the nuclear power community, have led us in the past to make the kind of assumptions Rod seems to be accusing himself of, then the simple fact remains that our prejudices have been FAR LESS LETHAL to the human community than those operating behind virtually every other major form of human endeavor — even up to and including the one explicitly designed to save and preserve life, medical science.
      And this is not a backhanded form of congratulation, either. The nuclear industry practically invented “safety culture,” and we all know that a high degree of shame attaches even to the most trivial mishaps within this culture. So again, given this particular frame of reference, Fukushima seems an almost unforgivable disaster. But at the same time, that very culture also demands of us that we pick ourselves up, put our personal feelings aside, and get out our clipboards and start gathering “lessons learned.” It is, after all, a kind of “discipline” in the old semi-religious sense of the word, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to demand it from all sides in this debate as we move forward.

  19. Here’s a link to a DOE briefing on the 25th that includes a plot from the Aerial Measurement System. I shows what I thought would be the case, which is even though contamination extends to a radius greater than 40km, most of the area within that zone is not contaminated.

    1. Technological progress in locating and cleaning up radioactive fallout can greatly help make nuclear technology more acceptable. Then Chernobyl style “exclusion zones” could become obsolete. Now we can use GPS coordinates and databases, digital radiation meters – something the Soviets hadn’t imagined in 1986.

  20. I don’t think we can say as to what geographic extent is affected yet. Mountains act like funnels.

    1. The DOE has been flying their AMS equipped C-12 up and down the Japanese coast as well as deploying ground stations. The link I posted below is to briefing slides DOE put together, including plots of the data.

      1. The DOE slides that are publicly available aren’t high enough resolution to make a definitive statement.
        I live in a mountainous region, one can go from calm wind to 20+ MPH and back to calm wind in the space of a few hundred yards. The DOE map tells up the bulk of fallout was generally to the Northwest extending out 30 km or so.
        IMHO There are definitely going to be hot spots. Whether those hotpots are measured in 10’s of sq km or sq km is currently unknown.

        1. The slides are pretty course resolution, but the data is much finer. I’ve worked with the AMS folks where we’ve put out several sources within a hundred meters of each other. we could tell which sources were which both in position and energy.

  21. Well said Chuck. No form of energy is without risk.
    And While I wished a better result for the Fukushima Daiichi plant, nuclear power has caused fewer deaths even with this event in its entire history than coal does in one year in the USA alone.
    We have three choices to power our earth Coal or Nuclear or Poverty.
    Well we sure aren’t going to choose Poverty and perfectly operating coal plant is a daily mass murderer even before mentioning Climate Change. So I choose the energy source which has the lowest down side; Nuclear.
    Yes the three worst accidents in of all nuclear history do not even approach mass death cause by one month of coal power. This is the time to win this battle for the nuclear power.

  22. Rod:
    I’ve been enjoying reading your blog during this Japan disaster. Consider me a fence-sitter. I’m an engineer and I realize that wind and solar aren’t going to do it, but I went to the Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor anti-nuke concert when I was a kid and have great memories of it.
    You wrote this:
    There has been enough damage to the plants and enough radioactive material released to pose a danger to public health for someone who does not take any precautions, though actions to evacuate, shelter and monitor contamination have minimized the actual effects – so far.
    Do you now think that they were correct to evacuate such a large geographic area? What about the US government telling everybody in an even wider area to take off?

  23. Another Thought
    Coal has a spent fuel problem too; it is called coal ash. I wonder how many square miles would have been poisoned if Fukushima was a coal plant. instead of a nuclear plant.
    A life time of coal ash washed in land for six miles seems more damaging than the nuclear plant damage so far. Oh yeah, the daily emission over forty years from a coal is just mass murder.
    We have two choices to power our planet; coal or nuclear. It seems to me that the nuclear option is the safer option, but I could be wrong.

  24. Rod, I had to giggle how gracefully you took the egg in your face by admitting your over confidence. For a proud nuclear sub mariner it is quite an accomplishment. Nevertheless, your comment that cheating on nuclear safety can become very expensive is absolutely right on mark. In the case of BWR in Fukushima the whole fiasco would be avoided by installing steam driven turbo pumps for emergency reactor water feed, condenser circulation and SFP cooling water circulation. Steam generated in the reactor from decay heat is sufficient to drive these turbo pumps long enough until devastated electric systems are repaired. Such emergency turbo pump system does not require any electric control whatsoever to operate and is very low in cost. It should be mandatory to have such system installed in addition to electric back up in all nuclear plants. Also, adding steam driven small electric generator in hardened reactor building location to run emergency lighting and to run at least basic reactor instrumentation is a must.
    As an electrical/steam power engineer(retired), strongly pro nuclear for over 40 years, I always considered the reliance on electricity for emergency reactor cooling as a torn in the side. The electric system can be easily damaged in natural calamity at several locations by many causes, such as broken wires and cables. broken electrical control equipment, short circuits in power circuits and control circuits. At Fukushima where the electrical equipment got swamped by sea water, after earthquake shaking, it became an absolute electricians nightmare. In any case, the inexpensive steam driven turbine pumps would avoid the very unpleasant Fukushima situation and it would make nuclear power a lot safer.
    The event in Fukushima is a vindication to Alvin Weinberg who got fired from his job because of his nuclear safety concerns, plus to many other concerned scientist and engineers about nuclear safety issues due to cutting corners, mostly as a result of political decisions.
    Just like you say, I too believe we must continue with nuclear power, however, the safe nuclear technologies such as LFTR and PBR must take the front seat. The risk in existing LWR can be minimized by incorporating natural safety features. Exclusive reliance on electric power for emergency is not one of them, the Fukushima fiasco proved it beyond any doubt.

      1. @Bill – the challenge with your idea is that there is still a need to have power to move that sea water that you mentioned. With your conceptual system, how does the sea water get to the outside of the torus and then back to the sea?

        1. Rod, the water on hand in the CST and torus should be enough for at least several hours of cooling. The first choice would be to refill the CST as needed with clean water.
          The decay heat after several hours is less than 1% of full power, 20MW in this case. Evaporating one gallon of water takes 2.37 kWh

  25. I have re-read the comments on Rod’s original posting. Several things come to mind.
    Perhaps most important is answering the question: Where do we go from here? In the heat of the moment, it is tempting to say that we need to abandon nuclear energy. But we need to be careful about what we wish for, as we just might get it.
    1. We could go even further with fossil fuels which would certainly kill even more people. The “advantage” is that it is very difficult to identify those individuals who are killed — they die of things like acute asthma attacks, where it is nearly impossible to identify the specific trigger. And the trigger is not tied to a spectacular plant malfunction, since it is a result of normal operation. To compound the problem, fossil fuels are sure to become much more expensive.
    2. We could go with politically correct renewables such as wind and solar. Unfortunately, this is the way to a future with expensive, scarce energy, where people have to hunker down around a single light bulb during cold, calm winter nights.
    3. We could go with more nuclear. Certainly this is an unpopular choice right now. However, what is being built now is safer than what was built 40 years ago. What is more, what will be built in the future will be even safer.
    There is an interesting book titled To Engineer Is Human, subtitled The Role of Failure in Successful Design, by Henry Petroski. He sites many examples of failures of bridges, buildings, aircraft, the space shuttle, Three Mile Island and more. Failure is a great teacher. Unfortunately, the test is given first and the lesson is taught afterwards. Nevertheless, those lessons will be learned. They will be used to design even safer nuclear power plants.
    It is impossible to use nuclear energy and never have another nuclear accident. What is possible is for nuclear to provide more benefit to society with less risk than other forms of energy.

  26. I recently read a very good article on Fukushima by M.Miles. Two corrections. Oyster Creek is BWR/2, Fukushima unit 1 is a BWR/3 with MARK I Containment, also, for decay heat of 1% , that is 1% of MWth, not MWe.

  27. Rod> “The good news is that no one has been building [these] types of boiling water reactors … in many decades. ”
    If only that were so Rod. The GE BWR Mark II Containment uses the same principles as the Mark I – main changes are simplification and cost reduction. The most recent Mark II Containment was started Nov-2000 and started commercial ops December 2005: HIGASHI DORI 1 (TOHOKU) .
    That’s one of the things I find shocking. It seems Japanese companies did not switch to the much better GE Mark III Containment design, and carried on building Mark II until they had the ABWR sorted.
    The first BWR/6, using the Mark III Containment (classic PWR-type dome with enough space to refuel and have at-reactor spent fuel pond within the secondary containment) started commercial op 1981-Dec: KUOSHENG-1 Taiwan.
    After that date, Japan carried on building Mark II BWRs for around twenty years, presumably for commercial reasons, possibly including avoiding the licensing costs of the GE Mark III. They built 11 Mark IIs after the Mark III was proven:
    StartBuild CommercialOp ReactorName
    1987-08 HAMAOKA-3
    1989-02 SHIMANE-2
    1993-07 SHIKA-1
    1993-09 HAMAOKA-4
    1995-07 ONAGAWA-2
    2002-01 ONAGAWA-3
    2005-12 HIGASHI DORI 1 (TOHOKU)

    1. “Japan carried on building Mark II BWRs for around twenty years, presumably for commercial reasons, possibly including avoiding the licensing costs of the GE Mark III.”
      Did GE ever license the BWR/6 technology? I cannot think of a single BWR/6 that was not built by General Electric itself. Can you?
      By the eighties, Japan had switched to buying reactors exclusively from domestic vendors. This is not unusual or surprising. France did the same thing. They acquired the basic technology from Westinghouse and then had their own French company build (and design) their plants.

  28. The situation may not be quite so grim as we suppose. They’ll do what we’d do in the U.S. nuclear power business — prioritize, assign resources, fight the thing until it’s fully contained, then get about the business of clean-up. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry needs to continue thinking about how to lend a hand. http://www.otherbrothersteve.com/2011/04/real-men/

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