In a previous, very long blog entry I chronicled the events of the first 5 days following the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, a very large nuclear facility on the Pacific coast of rural Fukushima Prefecture, about 155 miles north by northeast of Tokyo. The title metaphor metaphor exactly captures my thoughts as Japan braces for a worst-case outcome at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant: Partial meltdowns at multiple nuclear reactors, at least 2 of which have breached containment structures. These developments occurred in the strangest manner possible–at a mostly well-designed (though significantly early-generation) and fully-staffed nuclear power plant that survived a magnitude-9.0 earthquake intact, where the reactors automatically powered down 2 weeks ago and the nuclear chain reaction has long-since ceased completely, where some of the best nuclear scientists in the World were readily-available and many of them were likely obsessing over this problem, where the whole World was watching and where the irony has already been acknowledged that Japan is the nation where the people have the deepest fears of nuclear catastrophe.
This is the setting for might still be the first textbook full-core nuclear meltdown in the World. For want of water on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, as many as 3 nuclear reactor cores may be heating up into a pile of highly-radioactive slag, melting through their zirconium alloy casings at a temperature of about 2,200 degrees Celsius and plummeting in a molten heap at the base of the reactor’s inner containment structure–still heating further. The worst-possible outcome would be this: If the uranium core at any of these 3 reactors melts through the hardened steel and concrete of that structure, it will burn its way into the Earth, bubbling down until it reaches the water table. At that point the superheated water will blast back up through that hole in the Earth as if through the barrel of a rifle, scattering the entire disintegrated nuclear fuel mass into the atmosphere, to be borne where the wind will take it. In theory the steel inner containment structure of these reactors should prevent the overheating fuel rods from melting through the slab of the reactor like that, but this is now a problem of applied engineering where all of the relevant information about the status of the containment structure and the reactor cores isn’t currently-known.
In any case this multiple meltdown happened in Japan, over the course of several days, with the World watching and with first 800, then a very-dedicated plant crew of 50 risking their lives to prevent it. Nuclear catastrophe was an explicit fear in the Japanese popular consciousness long before it became a source of fearful speculation among many Americans. Japanese filmmakers gave us Godzilla as a means of embodying and narrating the destruction caused by nuclear weapons without explicitly ascribing blame to the country that wielded first an atomic (Hiroshima) and then a nuclear (Nagasaki) bomb against them. 2 of the 8 dreams recounted in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams were intense nightmares about nuclear apocalypse. The latter of these is of an unspecified origin, but the former, “Mount Fuji in Red,” is explicitly a nightmare of nuclear meltdown. (It ends badly-with the great director hopelessly swatting at a large oncoming cloud of vaporized plutonium.) Japan long-ago declared itself a nuclear weapons-free zone, and only uses nuclear power because its natural resource endowments are so small that it had to depend upon technical mastery and efficiency to drive its manufacturing powerhouse.
The relationship between nuclear power plant operators and regulators in Japan has come in for pointed criticism in the past for being too cozy, and both TEPCO and the Japanese government have been criticized at different points for not taking every precaution in estimating the danger posed to surrounding communities during this unfolding nuclear crisis. Still, no one has denied that both the power utility and the government take the problem at Fukushima I completely seriously and are working around the clock to get that plant under control. And while assisting officials of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission have voiced disagreements about the amount of attention the Japanese have given to cooling the plutonium-hybrid Reactor No. 3 while overheating spent fuel rods at Reactor No. 4 remain exposed to the air, there is no denying that plant workers have been working around the clock in sometimes-dangerous conditions. So, how could the condition of 3 nuclear reactors get so completely out-of-hand?
The answer lies in a long succession of choices that may appear stupid in retrospect but which probably could not have been anticipated. It’s ironic that the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck some distance off the eastern Honshu apparently caused no direct damage to Fukushima I, because the trouble started when 3 operational reactors there all successfully powered-down automatically in response to the strength of the quake. 3 specific events seem to have been the cause of the 2nd-worst incident in the history of nuclear power:
1.) Fukushima I’s automatic power-down at Reactors 1-3 removed primary power from their coolant systems.
2.) The earthquake destroyed some of the transmission towers that can bring electricity to the plant after a power-down, thus cutting off the coolant system’s primary backup.
3.) The tsunami destroyed the gas generators that provided secondary backup power to the coolant system.
With these 3 developments occurring over an hour or so 2 weeks ago, everything that has happened at Fukushima I has followed as a matter of course. The odds of a dangerous malfunction at a nuclear power plant are very low, but to the Liberal Ironist–until about 2 Saturdays ago an unabashed defender of the potential of nuclear power–that sounds like another way of saying we are playing a game-of-chance. We will have to play this game of chance not only with enriched uranium and plutonium nuclear fuel rods in use at nuclear power plants, but with spent nuclear fuel rods for the same reason. We nearly lost this game of chance at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant back in 1979, and the Soviets lost this game most-famously at Chernobyl in 1986. There have actually been several reported low-level civilian nuclear accidents every decade since the 1950s; for perspective, note that Soviet authorities initially tried to keep Chernobyl a secret. Since we are already committed to play this game-of-chance with all the spent nuclear fuel we have yet to sequester somewhere for tens of thousands of years, we should ask ourselves now: How many times and in how many places do we want to play such an easy-odds but high-stakes game-of-chance, every day?
Or maybe we should be asking the Japanese, the people who take nuclear catastrophe as seriously as any and who now face a triple meltdown 155 miles away from the largest metropolitan area on Earth. This is what those “long odds of a disaster” look like–this. If this pessimism about nuclear power sounds too alarmist, the Liberal Ironist will explain himself in upcoming post. Spoiler: You can have a safe nuclear power plant, but this requires a high level of state centralization for their construction and proper maintenance–and the expense will be so high that the paper efficiency of nuclear power will turn out to be an unreality. Bite those 2 bullets (and thereby completely repudiate electricity deregulation for nuclear power), and the Nuclear Renaissance might still happen.