I’ve got your meltdown right here

So far, Japan’s nuclear power plants represent an amazing triumph of design robustness


Like some of you, I’ve been trying to follow the post-earthquake events at the nuclear facilities in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture. This effort has been both reassuring and infuriating. The bottom line at this moment appears to be that, despite worst case being heaped upon worst case, the design of the containment apparatus of the Fukushima power plants has successfully prevented any danger to the Japanese populace.

Indeed, one is forced to conclude that we have witnessed a demonstration of the near-impossibility of public danger from nuclear power plants of this type. This facility is situated in what we would be tempted to call the stupidest possible place—though densely populated Japan does not have much choice in the matter. An earthquake of the magnitude of March 11’s was literally considered impossible by seismologists, and the plants were not built to survive it. (Some, in fact, will certainly not survive as power-producing assets; where there has been partial meltdown or cooling by unfiltered seawater, the economic value of the cores will have become zero—minus the cleanup cost—almost immediately.)

When trouble came, the onsite generators that are supposed to circulate coolant in an emergency had been wiped out by the tsunami, and mobile backup generators rushed to the scene could not be hooked up because of flooding. (Who could have seen that coming after a tsunami?) As a consequence of the resulting heat buildup, hydrogen started exploding all over the place—presenting no apparent threat to the integrity of the containment vessels, but quite a significant one to the integrity of emergency responders’ bodies.

It’s a frustrating sequence of events to behold, and it has been made more so by the poor crisis management of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and the Japanese government. A serious nuclear incident is the whole world’s concern, and TEPCO and Japan have an obligation to explain to the world just what has happened. But English-language reports from the state broadcaster, NHK, have been shockingly feeble and confused. TEPCO’s press releases, meanwhile, are masterpieces of indecipherable technical and even legal jargon. (“As the reactor pressure suppression function was lost, at 5:22am, Mar 12th, it was determined that a specific incident stipulated in article 15, clause 1 has occurred.”)

The global public has been left to figure out for itself what to make of hazy videos of nuclear power facilities exploding. What little context we can assemble, as we try to interpret such a mortifying sight, arrives mostly in shreds provided by Western oracles—ones who, in their turn, seem to mostly be working from supposition and indirect evidence, and who may not be particularly independent from the nuclear industry.

No one should forget, while trying to make sense of what’s happening in Japan, that something like 300 people died in major coal mining accidents around the world in 2010 alone. None of those accidents involved natural disasters, and probably not all of them even involved culpable human error. We just accept a certain quantum of mortality as the cost of keeping the lights on—when it comes to every means of power generation, that is, except nukes. A death toll in the single digits from the Fukushima troubles would represent an amazing triumph of design robustness. (Especially if we judge the quality of Japanese engineers and regulators by their competence at communications.)


I’ve got your meltdown right here

  1. "I've got your meltdown right here"

    That just sounds dirty, Colby.

    This whole thing sounds like more of a failure of communications instead of containment.

  2. Yeha, but when Godzilla is awakened it's a whole new story.

  3. I can't think of more a important story that I've decided to almost completely ignore. The reporting is just as Colby has described, contradiction piled upon incomprehension. When I saw the video of the first hydrogen explosion, I thought "I don't know what that was, but I guess if it was the containment being breached (which it probably wasn't), we'll know soon enough." My near-complete stupefaction places me in the pack of people reporting on this, I think.

  4. How many comments before this is linked to Linda Keen?

  5. I certainly agree that the people involved could do a better job of communicating what's going on, but I would point out two things. One, all the people we're talking about here are currently living through possibly the greatest natural disaster in their country's modern history; and two, I'm guessing most of the people who could sufficiently explain the state of the work being done keeping multiple nuclear reactors from going critical after a once in a lifetime earthquake/tsunami combo probably have their hands full right now, you know, DOING THAT.

    Perhaps it's naive of me, but right now I'm focusing mostly on the fact that the reactors aren't totally melting down, and less on the fact that no one has time to fully explain to us how on Earth they're managing that! I CERTAINLY hope they don't decide to pull any of the engineers working frantically at addressing the problems at the plants away from their work to hold a press conference. One thing that will hurt the nuclear industry a lot more than us not having a fulsome understanding of how the reactors aren't melting down yet, is one of the reactors melting down.

  6. They never expected a 9.0 earthquake, and they never expected a tsunami going 6 miles inland….which is why they ignored the seismologists warning about how vulnerable the plants were, and refused to spend the money to make them safe.

    They gambled, and they lost. And perhaps, so did we.

    • Well, there you go Colby.

      You weren't getting the information you wanted because you weren't asking the right experts.

      And not even a language barrier to overcome.

        • Your linked article doesn't support your conclusions.

          • Yes, it does.

          • I was trying to edit my comment with this…

            The warnings that were issued were – hopefully – more clear than the article presents. But the fact that some facilities have failed is not really the issue. The question is; have they failed safely? To this point (knock wood) it appears that they have despite the occurance of the worst localized natural disaster in 1200 years.

            It's too soon to come to any conclusion. But feel free to keep racing ahead.

          • Yes, the warnings have been long and loud.

            'Failing safely'….now there's an interesting concept.

            'Dodging a bullet' throuh sheer dumb luck is no way to run nuclear plants.

            By the time YOU come to a conclusion it'll be 2020. No doubt you're still considering 3 mile island.

          • What do you think "fail-safe" actually means?

            Only a person of truly towering personal arrogance would comment on nuclear power engineering from a position of abysmal ignorance of basic engineering practice such as yours.

          • It means the plant blows up, obviously. LOL

            Now how be you stick to the topic and keep the patronizing to yourself.

  7. Although I think most of the fear of nuclear power plants comes not from the likelihood of something going wrong, but the catastrophic potential of what COULD go wrong.

    • Like there could be an earthquake and a tsunami and volcanism… AND a meteor strike? "What could go wrong" is pretty much what we're seeing here, I think.

  8. There has been little discussion about the fact that these reactors are breeder reactors and perhaps inherently more dangersous than the Candu type of nuclear reactor.

    I hope that the steps being taken by the Japanese will prevent further radiation contaimination.

    • Their anti-tsunami program is up and running and wll be online by 2017.

      Unfortunately, if the anti-tsunami equipment breaks down, it will cause an explosion 100x worse than an exploding nuclear reactor.

  9. "No one should forget, while trying to make sense of what's happening in Japan, that something like 300 people died in major coal mining accidents around the world in 2010 alone."

    Sounds like you're getting the media releases ready for them. Perhaps you can volunteer your services to improve their apologiescommunications.

    • Yeah, I'd hate to have facts rather than hysteria come into this discussion.

      • It IS hysteria to quote coal mining deaths as a calming comparison before we even know if there is going to be a human health hazard, especially since the blog itself is about how information hasn't been made available. We don't know the extent, if any, of radioactive release, and that's pretty critical to deciding how big the problem is/was.

        Next time there is a police officer killed while on duty, I'll come back here for the comparisons with other hazardous occupations such as mining and forestry to help me make sense of it all. In the mean time, I don't think coal mining fatalities are any comfort to people who worry about exposure to radioactivity.

  10. "Especially if we judge the quality of Japanese engineers and regulators by their competence at communications."

    I'd like to retort that I prefer to judge them by their cars and cameras, but if that's my standard, I have to concede that those particular reactor designs aren't Japanese, they're American, circa late 60s/early 70s. That's the era of the Chevy Corvair and Ford Pinto.

    Surprising choice on Japan's part, considering how their first encounter with American nuclear technology turned out.

  11. "This facility is situated in what we would be tempted to call the stupidest possible place—though densely populated Japan does not have much choice in the matter."

    I see Mr. Cosh is using that drgree in power systems engineering at long last.

    Riddle me this…how many thermal generating stations (anywhere in the world) are located away from water? The answer is none. Having a large source of water close by is an essential element in producing electricity on any type of scale. Water is used to spin the turbines, and its used to cool the thermal plant. No water means no electricity.

    Japan's problems are even larger as so much of their fresh water is used for human and animal consumption and agriculture. There really is no other place to build a power plant in Japan than next to the sea.

  12. A couple of points.

    1) These reactors are about 40 years old. They were to be taken out of service fairly soon. It is extremely unlikely that any of them will ever be operated again.

    2) DianeG: these are _not_ breeder reactors. The only breeder reactor in Japan is the Monju demonstration reactor at Tsuruga, which on the Sea of Japan west of Tokyo, i.e. nowhere near Fukushima.

    3) The Chernobyl reactor suffered a complete meltdown. The graphite-moderated core caught fire, and the resultant explosion scattered many tonnes of its contents to the four winds. (There was no containment rupture, because there was no containment.) Only few dozen deaths have been directly connected to Chernobyl, and the most authoritative estimate of long-term fatalities is about 4,000.

    There has been no containment rupture at Fukushima. All the reactors are shut down. There is a lot of heat from residual radioactivity, which has caused partial melting of some of the cores and may cause more. Some radio-isotope-contaminated steam and gas has been released, and more will almost certainly be released. But the total amount of radiation released is unlikely to be even a tenth of what was released from Chernobyl, so it is unlikely that that the resulting deaths will be more than a tenth of the of Chernobyl toll, that is, about 400.

    The Sendai earthquake and tsunami has already killed about 10,000 people and probably more.

    In other words, while the reactor failures are scary and dramatic, in terms of the total loss of life, they’re minor.

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