DailyDirt: Nuclear Power Plants 101

from the urls-we-dig-up dept

It’s hard to express the devastation caused by the earthquake in Japan. And even though the aftershocks have subsided, now there’s the threat of radioactive pollution from a nearby nuclear power plant. But make no mistake, the majority of the disaster has been caused by natural forces — and the nuclear power plant meltdown(s) shouldn’t shoulder too much blame.

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Comments on “DailyDirt: Nuclear Power Plants 101”

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49 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Wow, we are in the beginning stages of this problem and the spin is already starting about how Japan is different than current plants? It isn’t as bad as what happened in Russia? Gee, maybe we should wait to see what actually happens?

I spoke with some people in the PI today and they are being warned by their government that they may have to take precautions because of fallout.

Mudlock says:

Re: Re:

Fukishima 1 is (was) the oldest operating nuke plant in Japan. So yes, it really is different than current plants.

We are also well passed the beginning stages of the problem. The problem is decay heat, and as time passes, there is (literally) exponentially less of it to deal with. As long as they can keep pumping cool water in, it’s unlikely the situation can get any worse.

The question is how many fuel rods were damaged, which would determine how much radioactivity is escaping with the steam. We’re a ways beyond Three Mile Island (which, it should be pointed out, resulted in zero immediate deaths and no statistically significant increase in cancer rates in workers or the community), but at this point, the (already low) odds of getting to a Chernobyl level are dropping, NOT rising.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I am ambivalent about it. On one hand, as you say as time passes the decay heat problem becomes smaller. On the other hand, as time passes the infrastructure problems become greater. They started with mostly intact machines, and now they have missing walls, fire-damaged equipment, something in reactor no. 2 is broken, and probably several other things nobody knows about yet (they seem to have lost most of their monitoring capabilities already).

I deeply hope the decay heat and the fires become manageable before the infrastructure degrades too much for them to handle the situation.

Beta (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The problem is decay heat, and as time passes, there is (literally) exponentially less of it to deal with.”

Exponential with a very small decay constant. The half-life of 235U is about 700 million years, so it takes about 10 million years for the heat output of a single fuel pellet to drop by 1%.

In real situation is complicated by the fact that neutron chain reactions are involved — the fuel rods don’t just decay, they bombard each other with neutrons, like lumps of burning coal keeping each other hot in a furnace — so the drop-off is actually faster than exponential, but the fact remains that the problem is not fixing itself at a significant rate.

Beta (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

And those shorter-lived fission products are replenished and maintained at an equilibrium population by decaying uranium (which does produce decay heat).

Are you suggesting that the dominant source of heat is secondary isotopes which were maintained at high concentration during the fission-promoted period of normal operation (and maybe even higher when the cooling system failed, pressure rose and the coolant stopped boiling, before things started exploding), and now that a lot of the fuel rods are exposed to the air, the neutrons are too fast to cause chain reactions, the uranium fission rates are low, and the secondary isotope populations are declining (with a time scale of days) toward a lower equilibrium? That would be very interesting, if true– do you have references?

Anonymous Coward says:

Mike, your captialization of the word AND suggests that you don’t think they could have predicted this disaster. I know it’s the largest earthquake near japan in modern history.

But don’t tsunami’s and earthquakes go hand in hand? Doesn’t Japan see earthquakes rather frequently?
Not planning for a wall of water to come rushing in at some point is a lot like putting a city in a giant bowl just under sea level in hurricane alley, then pretending to be amazed when a major storm comes in and sets the record for largest kick in the ass.
Just because you haven’t had an event this large, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for it.

Michael Ho (profile) says:

Re: Re:

My “AND” wasn’t meant to suggest anything other than that if it was *just* an earthquake, the reactor design wouldn’t have failed so spectacularly.

The one-two punch of an earthquake and then a tsunami made this “generation II” reactor vulnerable to meltdown. I don’t know what a “generation III” reactor would have done, but with passive cooling, a newer design might have held up better.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Michael,
The one two punch of earthquake and tsunami should hardly be unexpected. I realize that this earthquake is beyond anything Japan has had in recent history but if your designing a nuclear reactor or other life critical system, shouldn’t the safety factors been increased? Mudlock says the design parameters called for a 7.2 earthquake. With the risks involved shouldn’t they have designed to a 9.5?

Monday morning quarterbacking,
AC

Michael Ho (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There’s always a cost-benefit analysis to building nuclear power plants… Sure, they *could* have built it to withstand a 9.9 earthquake and 100m tsunami waves and a 200mph hurricane — but the cost would have been ridiculous.

They picked a threshold and gambled that there wouldn’t be a worse quake coming before the plant served the end of its operational lifetime. Everyone takes a risk… otherwise no one would cross the street.

Anonymous Coward says:

But here is the catch.

Japan is a very safety thinking country. They built the plant for earthquake resistence. They built a barrier to prevent flooding. They looked at those two safety actions and thought they were safe, then located the backup generators in low spots.

It will always be something, you can not prepare (or even know) where the next problem may come from. Knowing that, what happens in the worst case? With a nuke plant the worst case is bad, very bad.

Add in the fact that the waste generated can’t be safe, where does that leave us?

Chargone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Worst Case

hence, tidal generators, wind turbines, solar power (focused light gives you heat for the typical steam turbine reaction, not reactive chemical cells) who’s ‘worst case’ is more along the lines of ‘wow, that takes up a fair amount of space’ combined with ‘aaand… now it’s broken. no power until we fix that.

Cynyr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Worst Case

not to say that nuclear is all rainbows and unicorns, but you see to have missed the waste products of producing your tidal generators, wind turbines, and solar collectors.

I expect nuclear to have a fair sized pile of waste as well, but i fell fairly confident that the energy used to produce, store, and cleanup the “waste” is far less than the amount of power the plant will produce over its life including upkeep. So no the worst case for a wind turbine, is “wow, look at the huge Cu sulfur mine, and that ruined ecosystem, and we aren’t getting much power from it because we built a solar collector in Pennsylvania, and it is cloudy 3/4ths of the year and 1/8 of the year the damn thing is broke”

Again a similar statement can be made of generation II reactors(like this one in Japan), but not all Gen3 or Gen4 designs have the huge fuel processing requirements of U-233/U-235.

proximity1 says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Worst Case

Interesting.

So, let’s test this safety-of-nuclear-poweer theory of your in the marketplace. I dare you–though there’s no more chance of your taking up such a test than there is a chance of nuclear power from fission ever becoming acceptably safe in fact, as opposed to the fantasy world of denial in which we are literally raised and taught to live:

Make all nuclear power plant owners/operators FULLY financially responsible for ALL economic loss and material damage to life and property–no exceptions, no “liability limits”, just flat out financial responsibility for every single computable loss, those to people, their property, their future lost earnings from death or injury, the economic losses due to degraded natural environment—E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

Now, who will insure power plant owner/operaters against such huge potential losses? The short answer: no one, because it becomes quite clear and quite simple: the potential catastrophic losses implied in the exploitation of nuclear fission power plants (no matter what their design) are so colossal as to be beyond the capacity of any imaginable insurer.

You’ll say, “But, but, but, that would mean the end of nuclear power plants!”

Exactly. They are, when viewed fairly and realistically, simply too fantastically expensive and dangerous for the simple reason that “We cannot ‘afford’ to destroy the entire planet ‘even once’.”

I’ll be told that I’m not being “realistic.”

Here is reality for you: you who defend and promote the exploitation of nuclear power are systematically dooming practically all higher life forms to extinction in a time frame which is a tiny fraction of the existence to date of human kind. In short, not only is nuclear power’s exploitation impossible to sustain financially, this reality must and will necessarily be imposed upon us one way or the other (there are only two basic options).

One way

is to respond with a premeditated and chosen plan of action, to face hard facts and accept them and depart from the exploitation of nuclear power in the shortest possible delay–that is, a very few years, adjusting, accordingly, population growth to something within the limits of sustainable power’s availability. And, yes, this means instituting some manner of voluntary population control–for our problem is not “too little safe power”, it’s rather too many people for the safe forms of power which we are so far capable of devisign.

The second way

is wait and to watch, (that is, pursue our present and long-followed course) helplessly as accidents repeat until finally at catastrophic event occurs which finishes off human kind and most higher life forms with us.

The recent disaster at Fukushima could easily have gone much differently–easily have been much worse, much sooner, with, as a consequence, what is simply the human unihabitability of the entire Japanese penninsula, period.

But, no matter that this didn’t happen ‘this time.’ It is bound to happen sooner or later unless we radically change course.

proximity1 says:

Re: Re: Re:2 hardly the Worst Case...

Sheesh! I forget to include my final point concerning the following absurdly naive view, where you write,

Factoid:

Deaths per terrawatt-hour:

Wind: 0.15

Nuclear: 0.0009

And that’s counting Chernobyl.

Your calculations ignore that we don’t know and never shall be able to know what the so-called final balance of loss and damage is–whether from Chernobyl’s wreckage or that of the still-very-much-with-us disaster of Fukushima.

Tomorrow, or in a week, a month, a year, a decade or in anything from that to five hundred or a thousand years–though, at this rate, mankind will never see another thousand years—either of these disaster sites could degrade and release radioactivity which wipes out half the remaining human population and goes on to do this again and again–even supposing that in each case, the breach is “repaired.”

proximity1 says:

Re: Re: Re:3 "Worst Case"--you have no idea, none...

Michael,

Chris wrote, above,

“People die all the time in wind power and solar power production (falling off roofs or out of the towers, for example). For the amount of power they generate, Nuclear is much safer than any other option out there.”

and in your opinion this qualifies as an excellent point?

What if you were to consider the Chernobyl incident as if it had been such a major “dam-burst” instead of the nuclear accident that it was? I ask: in that case, would it remain, twenty-five years after the incident, a still-deadly site? one which will require continuing clean-up efforts for generations to come?

And this, “People just have an innate fear of radioactive materials,”

–that means what, exactly? That the fear is unjustified? Irrational? You?–you don’t have an “innate fear of radioactive materials”?

It’s not so much a fear of the materials themselves as it is a fear that these are loosed on a defenseless public, isn’t it? Yes, some people–many, I hope– have an “innate fear”— not of radioactive materials but, rather, of being exposed to deadly levels of radiation which come, as it happens, from radioactive materials. And you don’t? Are you content to hear the authorities report via press and radio, no matter the particulars of the circumstances, that “No harmful radiation was released”?

As a thread calling itself “DailyDirt: Nuclear Power Plants 101” this thread strikes me as absurdly ‘thought-lite’. I’m a little surprised to find that former students of Cornell or Stanford could be apt to use such expressions as “the resulting disaster would be way worse” or that a person with such experience could present so cartoonish a portrayal of the reasoned fears of millions of others, dismissing them as just so much “innate fear”.

I’m “way unimpressed” with the level of critical analysis shown here; “way worried” about the prospects for society when an alumnus of some of this nation’s supposedly best universities can reason and write so about such a very serious and enduring life-and-death issue.

The topic’s gravity deserves much better than the treatment it has received here.

teka (profile) says:

Re: Re:

smaller reactors

A reactor complex a quarter the size of “normal” would not have a quarter of the space requirements, development expenses or ongoing maintenance or security costs.

So there is no great savings there, and with More reactors required dotted all over the place, there are only more chances for accident(INCREDIBLY SMALL) as well as the difficulty of finding places to actually put them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Much smaller reactors can run completely without human intervention so they would operate at a fraction of the cost of current reactor projects. The only real reason cited against the idea is security concerns which I think are bogus. We can’t live our lives in fear of terrorists IMHO.

Yes, reactors would be dotted everywhere but they would be small enough that you could literally lift them out of the ground and dispose of them if absolutely necessary. Even if they are compromised it isn’t that big of deal because there is not that much nuclear material in them.

Simply put decentralizing our current power grids and just about everything else is exactly what we need to do.

Coward in a Radio Active Suit says:

Redundant Cooling

Re : Mudlock, Mar 15th, 2011 @ 6:22pm

Design parameters called for a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and a 25 foot tsunami. The prepared for it.

They got a 9.0 and 30 feet.

Yes, the Japanese are, in fact, aware of tsunamis.
_____________________________________________________

Personally, I think the International Nuclear Community should not allow countries to build nuclear facilities in earth quake zones, I always have.

However, humanity’s in its insistence to have it their way, will always create these very situations to prove they are not responsible enough to play with such things with out adequate foresight.

Yes, they planned for an earth quake, but it was inadequate,
as was the CHEAPER GE Design. But this is not newsworthy, they’ve known these should have been outlawed in the 1970’s.

Its unacceptable that the cooling system had NO redundant backup systems for cooling of the cores. The fact that it was not PASSIVE is monumental stupidity. As was the fact the switching control systems room below sea level with no water tight seals. No systems for automation or lock down of critical systems infrastructure assets in the event of a threat of water to critical systems in a Tsunami event scenario to protect them.

Give me a break, the pumps needed electricity to pump water!
Does that not seem silly? No proper generators to backup system failure?

The fact that proper planning for something this simple could have averted this tragedy of nuclear melt down, not the earth quake,is sad. It would have cost a little more, sure. But this event is going to cost them a TON MORE with MASSIVE Knock on effects. Not to mention, pumping sea water and boron has killed the reactors future dead. In other words, dead and buried never to be active again, because of corrosion.

Best thing to come out of this short term. Is hopefully the nuclear global community will learn and prevent the insanity about to occur in Indonesia with their plans to bring on a string of Nuclear facilities smack bang in a MAJOR Earthquake zone, that in my view will be SUB STANDARD and a GLOBAL DISASTER.

Long term, hopefully the scientific community will be given new drive to implement REAL SOLUTIONS to the ensuing ENERGY Crisis.

Thorium reactors? Nice, but I said REAL SOLUTIONS 😉

ChrisB (profile) says:

Re: Redundant Cooling

> But this event is going to cost them a TON MORE with
> MASSIVE Knock on effects.

What are you talking about? A few people have an elevated risk of leukemia? Have you just totally forgot about the BP spill, which was a man made disaster? It’s not like someone spilt some coffee on a terminal at the reactor station. They had one of the worst earthquakes in history and I doubt anyone will die because of the nuclear plant failure. I cannot, for the life of me, see how this can be anything but a gold star for the nuclear industry.

Well, I guess its people like you that keep my job in the Oil and Gas industry safe.

Coward in a Radio Active Suit says:

Redundant Cooling

Just in case you think negligence isn’t routine with Tokyo Electric. . . .

On August 29, 2002, the government of Japan revealed that TEPCO was guilty of false reporting in routine governmental inspection of its nuclear plants and systematic concealment of plant safety incidents. All seventeen of its boiling-water reactors were shut down for inspection as a result. TEPCO’s chairman Hiroshi Araki, President Nobuya Minami, Vice-President Toshiaki Enomoto, as well as the advisers Shō Nasu and Gaishi Hiraiwa stepped-down by September 30, 2002.The utility “eventually admitted to two hundred occasions over more than two decades between 1977 and 2002, involving the submission of false technical data to authorities”. Upon taking over leadership responsibilities, TEPCO’s new president issued a public commitment that the company would take all the countermeasures necessary to prevent fraud and restore the nation’s confidence. By the end of 2005, generation at suspended plants had been restarted, with government approval.

In 2007, however, the company announced to the public that an internal investigation had revealed a large number of unreported incidents. These included an unexpected unit criticality in 1978 and additional systematic false reporting, which had not been uncovered during the 2002 inquiry. Along with scandals at other Japanese electric companies, this failure to ensure corporate compliance resulted in strong public criticism of Japan’s electric power industry and the nation’s nuclear energy policy. Again, the company made no effort to identify those responsible.

Nobody says you shouldn’t take risks, but there is risk minimization. Redundant passive cooling mechanisms should be implemented and compliance forced by international authorities by law, since this affects those beyond any nations boundaries.

If quakes are an accepted occurrence of nature, then adapt and implement solutions designed with this in mind.
The additional expenditure on redundant cooling was negligible.

You can distract people all you like with talk of quakes.
But when you get down to it, this is not the deciding factor in safety of core integrity. Only collateral damage to building assets. Water was the decider, not the quake.

This meltdown should never have happened, pure and simple.

Anonymous Coward says:

It should never have happened but it did. That is the point. Something is always going to go wrong, sooner or later. Can we live with the risks? Can we live with the worst case?

New Orleans faced the worst case and look how that turned out. Did we then rebuild the levy to face another Cat 5? Of course not.

Something will always go wrong, we just have to know what the risks are and take that chance or at least make the decision after knowing the true risks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Btw, what people blame about the Japanese power plant is that they make fake safety and safety check reports in the past, plus the fact that their management hide the actual level of how serious the situation is in the beginning, so their president refused assistance from US in the first day. Not directly to the incident itself.

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