With the World Watching, a Pot Boils

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.

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2 thoughts on “With the World Watching, a Pot Boils

  1. Kukri

    1) Dont build a nuclear reactor on or near sea level, and 2) store the spent nuclear material somewhere else, like a Yucca Mountain.

    I don’t see too many alternatives. The amount of wind or solar generators that would be needed to replace a nuclear reactor is astronomical. And if you want to stick to oil or natural gas, we will keep giving money to the Kremlin and OPEC.

    Nuclear power shouldn’t be the only source of power, but to get rid of it entirely is out of the question. Let’s keep exploring new technologies as well.

    Reply
    1. liberalironist Post author

      1.) You’re talking about evading the last long-shot nuclear emergency–which I’m all for in principle, but the point I was trying to make was that we’re playing the odds on a number of physical dimensions. The fact is that any fuel rods from a conventional reactor will melt down from their own radioisotope heat if they are not water-cooled for *several weeks* following the shutdown of the fission process. This is a practical fact that I didn’t appreciate before the ongoing incident at Fukushima I, and one which I think should play a greater role in the debate on the utility of a nuclear reactor in any location.

      2.) Yucca Mountain is on a fault line. It is in a remote region, but it isn’t geologically-secure. Not surprisingly, Congress has acted as if the only dimension of geography its members are sensitive to is demography.

      As far as alternatives to nuclear power are concerned, I really think we ought to give them a once-over now. Wind power will play a growing but always-marginal role; solar power remains pretty-much out of the running in terms of cost-effectiveness, except on a decentralized level in some sunny places. Our domestic natural gas reserves are quite huge, it turns out, and yes, our large domestic coal reserves produce a much cheaper way to generate a lot of power. I know, coal is coal, but we should continue experimenting with carbon capture and sequestration technologies. There are some very good, completely-renewable biofuels. Sugar-based ethanol is cleaner and more-efficient than corn-based ethanol; as of 2008 Brazil produces most of its gasoline out of its own sugar. With enough political commitment we could get the corn farmers’ beloved tariff out of the way and taste that sugar, at least figuratively-speaking. Finally, methane gas works as a power source (as we see from the large landfill featured on the recycling episode of Bulls***!) and potentially as a fuel for large vehicles. While methane-burning emits carbon, methane is 23 times worse as a greenhouse gas. (The joke is on Senator McCain: The Federal government’s studies of flatulence in cows were quite illuminating.) If we could trap methane gas produced by livestock, we would have a completely renewable, domestically-produced biofuel, the burning of which would be a positive good (given all the livestock).

      I know nuclear power isn’t going anywhere as an alternative. Right now, Chancellor Merkel is proposing phasing-out nuclear power in Germany; this will simply make it a cheaper proposition in France, which has pretty clearly cornered the market for nuclear power. Sparsely-populated and authoritarian Russia probably feels little motivation to abolish nuclear power, and China and India are very unlikely to scale-back their long-term plans for nuclear power due to their similar but complicated ambitions to tackle poverty through development. So, there will be nuclear reactors, but other than France I don’t see a country that has the political will, regulatory centralization and financing on-hand to build lots of safe nuclear reactors. We’ve been trying to *encourage* nuclear reactor construction for the past 10 years, but unlike renewables like solar and wind power which rely on subsidies but can be tried out at little impact in a variety of different settings, nuclear power has traditionally been built with generous subsidies which have to be in large lump-sums at a single site that often can’t be negotiated.

      In short, all of your points are reasonable (as they pretty-much always are), but my point is that nuclear power’s cost savings sort of disappear in the face of effective safety and environmental regulations. It remains the most-efficient power source we have ever discovered in principle, but to build a lot of safe plants may be impossible without large government subsidies. So, safe, efficient and carbon-neutral nuclear power may not work in this country, because we might have to raise taxes on millionaires to the rates they paid in the 1990s to do it.

      Reply

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