On Thursday I had a meeting with a magazine editor looking for a story about earthquakes and Nelson. The very next day we were confronted with the horrifying but gripping images from the Sendai earthquake. I’ve been to Sendai a few times, enjoyed the nearby beautiful Matsushima archipelago. I have many Japanese friends to worry about. But the tragic earthquake and tsunami are actually not my real topic. I found myself bursting into print in the weekly newsletter for my Rotary Club (editor’s privilege). Here’s what I wrote last Sunday 13 March:
“When the first news came out concerning the Fukushima nuclear reactors, especially reports that backup diesel generators had failed, I became very worried indeed. It was as if all the process engineering stuff in my head, almost an obsession for the first 20 years of my working life, popped up to the surface again. I brushed up on BWR type nuclear reactors and tried to make sense of the often completely garbled news accounts.
At the time of writing, around 30 hours after the event, information is still very sketchy. We hear that the fuel rods have been exposed, fission products have been detected outside the plant which indicates that a partial of fuel elements may have occurred, and seawater is being used as a coolant. I understand that last step, along with the injection of boric acid to “poison” the reactor, may be fatal for the reactor, ending its useful life.
Even though the outcome is still very unclear, some things are:
• Traditional media? Great images, best viewed with the sound off. The accompanying commentaries have been garbled, full of nonsense statements and contradictions. Surely the networks could have people on tap have at least some scientific and technological literacy, to help the editors? It was almost 24 hours before we started to see intelligent comment.
• The web, social media, etc? Light years ahead. With just Google, Wikipedia and the knowledge of what to search for, I was able to find some great material. Wikipedia was being updated every hour or so, for example.
• The reassuring statements provided by the nuclear power industry, for example,
There seem to be three distinct kinds of “expert” opinions out there:
• The ‘anti’ lobby, emphasising radiation risk, questioning design decisions and noting a lack of transparency about risks and incidents.
• The nuclear power sector, reassuring us that reactors are extremely safe, that such an accident could not happen elsewhere. The level of redundancy built in to their safety systems means the probability of multiple failures such as those at Fukushima is apparently vanishingly small (but we are seeing them!). Confidence seems to be especially high in the US, rather ironic in view of recent events (e.g. Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil leaks).
• Academics, whose contributions are often great: clear, well written and informative. I’ve yet to find one however that moves beyond the theory into the real world, where things don’t always happen as expected and people don’t do what they are supposed to.
I note that GE say that their newest reactors are designed to withstand seismic forces of 0.18 G, in any direction! Ground shaking in Christchurch last month reached more than 10 times that level.
If the authorities were to gain control of all the reactors right now, this would apparently still rank as the third most serious accident in the nuclear power industry. It will probably have a major effect on the political acceptance of nuclear energy as a low-carbon power source.
I’ve worked in heavy industry, industrial plants with potential hazards, where safety was critical. For years I subscribed to a journal which documented case studies of failures so we could learn from others’ mistakes. I was acutely aware of the variety of mistakes that can be made, by owners, operators or designers.
Now we are being reminded of the role that nature can play. For geologically active New Zealand, with its miniscule infrastructure, (not to mention its free, easy-going culture) to consider nuclear power as a credible option for the future is just crazy!
Some relevant links:
Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant accident
Boiling water reactor safety systems
The Energy Collective (an independent, moderated community of professionals focused on the complex challenges of meeting the world’s energy needs sustainably)
World Nuclear News on the battle to stabilise the reactor (12 March, additional coverage after this date)”