Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A very short note on Japan

The New York Times has been doing an absolutely stirling job on reporting on the disaster in Japan, both the aftermath of the tsunami itself, and the evolving crises at the stricken nuclear plants.  The situation seems increasingly ominous:
Japan’s nuclear crisis verged toward catastrophe on Tuesday after an explosion damaged the vessel containing the nuclear core at one reactor and a fire at another spewed large amounts of radioactive material into the air, according to statements from Japanese government and industry officials.

In a brief morning address to the nation Tokyo time, Prime Minister Naoto Kan pleaded for calm, but warned that radiation had already spread from the crippled reactors and there was “a very high risk” of further leakage.

The sudden turn of events, after an explosion Monday at one reactor and then an early-morning explosion Tuesday at yet another — the third in four days at the plant — already made the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl reactor disaster a quarter century ago.

Engineers at the plant, working at tremendous personal risk, on Tuesday continued efforts to cool down the most heavily damaged unit, reactor No. 2, by pumping in seawater. According to government statements, most of the 800 workers at the plant had been withdrawn, leaving 50 or so workers in a desperate effort to keep the cores of three stricken reactors cooled with seawater pumped by firefighting equipment, while crews battled to put out the fire at the No. 4 reactor, which they claimed to have done just after noon on Tuesday.

But late Tuesday, Japan’s nuclear watchdog said a pool storing spent fuel rods at that fourth reactor had overheated and reached boiling point and had become unapproachable by workers at the plant. The fire earlier Tuesday morning was sparked by a hydrogen explosion generated by rising temperatures at the fuel pool, which released radioactivity directly into the atmosphere.
I don't have much value to add at present.  However, I have been deeply impressed at the ability of nuclear facilities to act as a multiplier of other kinds of disasters.  A tsunami destroying a sizeable chunk of a country's coast is enough of a disaster, and yet here it's almost overshadowed by the potential for this nuclear power plant to start irradiating much of Japan, and indeed the western Pacific.

So one lesson I've taken away is that I want to understand nuclear hazards much better than I do at present. In particular, the way in which nuclear plants are dependent on the correct functioning of other infrastructure just to stay intact at all is not something I appreciated prior to this incident.


Alexander Ac said...

Globally, nuclear power peaked in 2006 (MazamaScience based on BP data).

Current disaster will reduce nuclear output by another +10 GW.

I guess nuclear industry is (or was) quite heavily subsidized by cheap oil... growth in the future is at least questionable, also given that this is highly complex technology and we are moving into simplified (less complex) society.

Stoneleigh has nice article on Japan disaaster on TOD,


kjmclark said...

I've been less and less interested in "TheAutomaticEarth" recently, but Alexander's right. Turns out Stoneleigh is actually pretty knowledgeable about nuclear plant safety (master's thesis on the topic, and worked in the field for awhile), and she did what looks (to a layman) like a pretty good description of the situation.

It looks like they underestimated the intensity of an expected earthquake, and weren't prepared for such a large tsunami. It looks like the plant mostly survived the earthquake, but the tsunami took out the backup systems that the earthquake didn't.

I suspect this will severely damage the nascent renaissance of nuclear power.

Stuart Staniford said...

Wow - now Germany has decided to close seven plants for a safety review. That suggests the implications of this incident for the future of nuclear power are very considerable.

Hypnos said...

I only hope coal won't be the back up of choice. After reading news on Italy's PV growth - met the 2020 target of 8GW installed capacity by Q1 2011 - I was feeling a bit more positive.

Then the earthquake struck.

What next?

I'm nervously looking at this:

Next election is this April.