Nuclear Energy after the Fukushima Disaster

03.13.11

Nuclear Energy after the Fukushima Disaster

03.13.11
Greg Webb

The potential nuclear meltdown of two Japanese nuclear reactors resulting from the March 11th earthquake and subsequent tsunami has the nuclear industry anticipating questions regarding overall plant safety. Nuclear power plant safety in developed nations like Japan and the U.S. does not elicit the same levels of alarm as potential disasters in developing nations. Several Eastern European states still use the same High Power Channel Reactor design as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine that has since been taken offline.

Around 200,000 people have been evacuated from a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. All four Units at the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant were shut down because of radiological contamination. If the situation worsens at Fukushima additional evacuations will become necessary. Officials are under the assumption that a meltdown at Daiichi’s Unit 3 reactor is under way. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters that a meltdown is “highly possible” at Daiichi’s Unit 1 reactor and briefed reporters on Daiichi’s Unit 3 reactor, “Because it’s inside the reactor, we cannot directly check it, but we are taking measures on the assumption of the possible partial meltdown.”

Because of failures to bring conditions at Unit 3 reactor under control an explosion caused by a buildup of hydrogen is now possible. Edano warned, “At the risk of raising further public concern, we cannot rule out the possibility of an explosion.” A meltdown of either reactor would be comparable in some respects to the Chernobyl accident in 1986. If a meltdown cannot be averted long-term solutions would have to be considered like a containment structure. Stalling efforts to secure the reactors are the ongoing aftershocks which are registering above 6.0. The safety mechanisms were knocked offline by the tsunami.

Efforts to deal with the evolving disaster at the plant were stalled when a tsunami warning was issued following an aftershock. The owner of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co., planned to pump a boric acid and seawater mix into Daiichi’s Unit 1 reactor in order to cool it but the plan was abandoned when a tsunami warning was issued. One employee died when he became trapped in the exhaust stack and another was hospitalized when Tokyo Electric attempted to vent radioactive steam to relieve pressure at its other reactors.

Compounding matters, an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 reactor caused by a buildup of hydrogen destroyed the building that housed the containment structure and the reactor vessels. This has made efforts to contain the disaster more difficult. Because the power grid was offline as a result of the earthquake, and the backup diesel generator was flooded by the tsunami and forced offline, the emergency batteries ran out.

In any nuclear power plant, within the reactor, water is kept inside giant pools and this keeps the reactor from overheating which manages the nuclear chain reaction. Because the power grid was offline and other sources of power could not be found, the water in the reactor was not cool enough to keep the reactor from overheating. When the cooling water reached a certain level the reactor became superheated and this set in motion the problems at Daiichi’s Units 1 and 3.

As the reactor superheated it produced a high level of steam which when mixed with zirconium produced the hydrogen that caused the explosion. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) describes the process of nuclear fission, “In the vast majority of the world’s nuclear power plants, the heat energy generated by uranium fuel is transferred to ordinary water and is carried away from the reactor’s core either as steam in boiling water reactors (BWRs) or as superheated water in pressurized-water reactors (PWRs). In a PWR the superheated water in the primary cooling loop flows through a special heat exchanger called a ‘steam generator’ that is used to boil water and create steam in a secondary loop that feeds the turbo-generator.” Power is produced when steam is fed into the turbo-generators.

The earthquake should not have caused the potential meltdowns at Daiichi’s Units 1 and 3. The subsequent tsunami knocked the power offline at the whole facility just long enough for the reactors to become superheated. Power plants are designed to have several layers of safety mechanisms but they all failed. The Chernobyl accident occurred for similar reasons. Instead of an earthquake and tsunami it was human error that caused the 1986 accident as several safety mechanisms were taken offline during an exercise at the plant.

Nuclear power is a much-lauded form of energy. While it does not produce CO2, which is a byproduct in the production of energy from coal, “clean” or “dirty,” accidents like Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Chernobyl illustrate that an accident at a nuclear power plant can be potentially catastrophic. The accident at Fukushima is inevitably going to undercut the argument from pro-nuclear power advocates that nuclear power is a safe and clean energy alternative than coal power plants.

The accident in Japan will also increase pressure to drill in the Gulf of Mexico and ANWAR. Even though oil from domestic drilling is an important source of energy for the U.S., if sites were opened tomorrow, the product would not reach consumers for some time. The former commissioner of NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) Peter Bradford, suggested that an outcome of the meltdowns in Japan “[the disaster] is obviously a significant setback for the so-called nuclear renaissance; the image of a nuclear plant blowing up on the television screen is a first.”

NRC released a statement that seemed to be an attempt to address fears about the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants, “U.S. nuclear power plants are built to withstand environmental hazards, including earthquakes and tsunamis…Even those plants that are located outside of areas with extensive seismic activity are designed for safety in the event of such a natural disaster. The NRC requires that safety-significant structures, systems and components be designed to take into account the most severe natural phenomena historically estimated for the site and surrounding area.”

The process of issuing permits, construction and when a plant comes online typically takes over a decade. A day before the accident struck in Japan, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Republican Fred Upton said “We want to find out why it takes so long to go from start to finish on a new nuclear reactor…Why does it take us 10 to 12 years and it takes the French and Japanese four to five years? We want to see what we can do to change that. By lowering the number years, we can lower the cost.”

Whether it was Three Mile Island or the recent BP oil spill, disasters always result in policy advocates offering a defensive response. While it is too early to suggest that the construction of more nuclear power plants should be cancelled, some studies should be pursued to help avoid future disasters. Robert Dillon, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) office, suggested, “It’d be poor form for anyone to criticize the nuclear industry or pronounce the end of nuclear power because of a natural disaster that’s been a national tragedy for the Japanese people.”

Joshua Freed of Clean Energy Initiative at Third Way suggested, “What we’re seeing is a classic ready-fire-aim scenario, where various advocacy groups that had positions set before the disaster are now rushing ahead to use the same talking points they’d have used a week ago.” Freed continued, “It’s ridiculous and appalling that less than 48 hours after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan that they’re trying to make political hay out of this and turn it into an American political debate.”

As a result of the disaster in Japan questions arise as to the safety of domestic nuclear power plants in earthquake prone regions. Shortly after the earthquake in Japan, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) sent a letter to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko. In the letter, the Congressman expressed, “This disaster serves to highlight both the fragility of nuclear power plants and the potential consequences associated with a radiological release caused by earthquake related damage.”

Congress will inevitably hold hearings on overall safety of nuclear power plants. Because NRC requires all nuclear power plants to withstand devastating earthquakes the likelihood that one could pose a severe threat to any number of power plants currently in operation is doubtful. In particular, NRC requires that power plants be designed to survive the strongest quakes recorded in that particular area but also exceed the danger by a certain level.

The danger for 23 U.S. reactors is that they use the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 boiling water reactor (BWR) design. The BWR design has been compared to a matroyshka doll. If any of the various shells shatter in an earthquake this increases the chances of a core meltdown. As the permits and construction of new plants move forward it is highly likely that NRC will institute new levels of safety mechanisms to insure that as nuclear power plants come online there is less of a threat to the natural environment and populations.

It is too early to suggest that nuclear power is dead on arrival. What is likely is that safety at U.S. power plants will be reviewed. Already a number of plants are under construction and to halt their completion would be premature given U.S. consumer demands for electricity. Permit reviews are underway at a dozen U.S. plants to continue operation and a number of reactors are currently being built including one by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Because the U.S. is an energy reliant nation, its dependency on inexpensive forms of energy will have to be addressed in the short-term by Congressional action. Part of this effort will include renewed pressure for nuclear power.

The accident in Japan can partly be explained by the age of the reactors affected. While nuclear power plants are designed to withstand sizable earthquakes the Fukushima nuclear power plant was not designed to withstand the size of the recent earthquake. Unit 1 was built 40 years ago and was in-fact scheduled to be taken offline.

Going forward the U.S. Congress will have to assess what resources it is willing to devote to the issue of nuclear power and other forms of energy. Simply drilling more in the Gulf of Mexico will not provide the silver bullet that will solve America’s reliance on energy. Nuclear energy if developed properly and if the plants are designed to withstand human and natural disasters is a reliable form of energy.

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