The Acts of Man – Concerns about ‘Mark 1’ nuclear reactors go back years

The unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors has begun to prompt a re-examination of Japan’s failure to respond to decades of concern about the design of the Mark 1 reactors used at the Fukushima Daichii plant and a wholesale refusal by that country’s Government and Courts to address citizen-led concerns about the inadequacy of reactor designs for earthquake-prone locations. Wikileaks Central writer kgosztola has reviewed Japan’s  history of downplaying accidents and lax regulation.  The Citizens Nuclear Information Centre in Tokyo has documented links between one top politician and a land deal that was instrumental in siting the KK reactor in a seismically sensitive location. That reactor was damaged during an earthquake in 2007.

The authoritative Union of Concerned Scientists is posting a regular update on the crisis, including a regularly updated Frequently Asked Questions section and a recent briefing to the US Senate, which reminds legislators that problems with General Electric-designed boiling water reactors raise a number of searching questions for the industry in the US.

  • Comrade Stalin

    The reactor itself responded as designed to the (1 in 1000 year) earthquake.

    Unfortunately the designers didn’t account for the possibility of a tsunami knocking out the backup coolant pumps. That’s a monumental oversight that the country may well come to regret, but it doesn’t in any way change the fact that nuclear fission is, at present, the only chance we have to reverse our dependence on fossil fuel. The point has been stressed over and over again that fossil fuel plants, particularly coal ones, pump out tonnes of carbon dioxide and low-level but long-lived naturally occurring radioactive isotopes every day as part of their normal operation. Nuclear power stations operating normally produce no (as in zero) radioactive emission into the atmosphere.

    There is an awful lot of total nonsense being parroted in the media, including unfortunately by the BBC. There is no possibility of the fuel rods in an drained storage pond going critical, something which should be self-evident by noting technology involved in building a reactor which is designed to do just that. The problem is to do with the potential of the latent heat in the fuel rods to start a fire. If that happens and cannot be properly contained, the disaster will be on the level of Chernobyl – a completely different failure mode, but with the same outcome ie. a fire releasing highly radioactive compounds into the atmosphere. The images of helicopters dousing water and boric acid on the burning reactor buildings evokes chilling flashbacks to Chernobyl incident. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

    The news that people in California are taking iodine pills is hilarious given that so many of them lived directly downwind, and a relatively short distance away, from the USA’s principal atmospheric nuclear weapons testing site.

  • Cynic2

    “That’s a monumental oversight”

    ………..being hit by a 1 year in 1000 event?

    As for the rest, I generally agree. The BBC and the rest of the media cant even distinguish between ‘radiation’ and ‘radioactive material’. The Daily Telegraph keeps putting up scaremongering nonsensical headlines

  • Turgon

    CS and Cynic 2,
    I agree entirely. There is one point,however, which is sometimes overlooked: I am not an expert here but my father worked for BNFL years ago; Joe Canuck I think knows a bit about this and may be able to advise.

    My understanding is that Pressurised Water Reactors (the industry standard) which includes the Japanese ones and the Three Mile Island reactor whilst not unsafe by any normal definition can have some problems. The old British design of Magnox reactors are inherently safer and the Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors (the British second generation) are safer again.

    My father said that at the time of three mile island a journalist asked a BNFL engineer what they would do in a Three Mile island typed problem and he said “Go and put the kettle on” because it would by many hours before anything bad could conceivably happen allowing more than enough time to fix the problem.

    Sadly the superior British design has been consigned to history and cheaper inferior designs are planned for the UK’s new generation of reactors.

    As I said JoeCanuck may be able to rubbish / modify these comments.

  • aquifer

    “the fact that nuclear fission is, at present, the only chance we have to reverse our dependence on fossil fuel. ”

    Eh? This island is headed for 40% renewable energy by 2020 without hardly trying. Loadsa wind, great tidal, and unbelievably, hot geothermal energy under Ballymena.

    Nuclear is an expensive bad joke grumpy old men play on other people’s grandchildren.

    What is it about men and nuclear? Is it about sticking hot rods in,succeeding as a provider, showing no fear when dealing with risk, being in charge of something really scary, or just wanting to tell the Arabs and Russians to get lost?

    Kinda understandable, but look at the cost overruns and the repayment schedule. Nuclear is just stupidly expensive even when it does not blow up. But those big centralised budgets pay for a lot of apologists.

  • Starviking

    Comrade,

    “Unfortunately the designers didn’t account for the possibility of a tsunami knocking out the backup coolant pumps.”

    The may well have. The Tsunami we got was an odd one. It suddenly surged from 3 metres in the ocean to 6 metres. The general rule of thumb is that when a tsunami hits land its height doubles – I’m not sure there were plans for such an event.

    “The point has been stressed over and over again that fossil fuel plants, particularly coal ones, pump out tonnes of carbon dioxide and low-level but long-lived naturally occurring radioactive isotopes every day as part of their normal operation. Nuclear power stations operating normally produce no (as in zero) radioactive emission into the atmosphere.”

    Amen to that!

    “There is an awful lot of total nonsense being parroted in the media, including unfortunately by the BBC.”

    Most of my friends here in Japan are not only shocked, but angry at the sensationalist reporting in the Western Media. It’s pulling attention away from the people who need it the most – the evacuees sitting in shelter or exposed to the elements in a wintry Tohoku.

  • Comrade Stalin

    As for the rest, I generally agree. The BBC and the rest of the media cant even distinguish between ‘radiation’ and ‘radioactive material’. The Daily Telegraph keeps putting up scaremongering nonsensical headlines

    That part really annoys me. Radiation doesn’t really travel far. The nasty compounds like caesium-137 and iodine-131 are beta emitters and unless you’re standing within a few metres of them you’re not likely to be effected.

    It’s the radioactive particles which are the problem, and that’s why it is the fire which is dangerous; burning radioactive materials release radioactive smoke full of those particles which tend to be absorbed by things like wood, soil, bricks etc, and of course into the human body.

    Turgon,

    My understanding is that Pressurised Water Reactors (the industry standard) which includes the Japanese ones and the Three Mile Island reactor whilst not unsafe by any normal definition can have some problems.

    The Japanese reactors were BWR (boiling water reactors). The key difference is that the primary coolant loop through the reactor core is fed straight to the generating turbines; the secondary coolant loop is used for the condenser. In a PWR (Three Mile Island, and Sizewell B in the UK) the primary coolant loop is passed through a heat exchanger, passing the heat to the secondary coolant loop drives the turbines. These reactors are both safe provided that they are kept cool. I would have guessed that PWR would be slightly safer given that you don’t have so much irradiated water passing through all those turbines.

    The old British design of Magnox reactors are inherently safer and the Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors (the British second generation) are safer again.

    I believe that Magnox reactors are designed to tolerate a loss of coolant but I’m not sure how that works. The only way it could work would be if there was a lower energy density in the reactor itself, so there would be less heat to dissipate. They are, as you noted, rather more expensive to operate than BWR and PWR designs which I suspect is what is at the bottom of all this.

    British reactor design led the world at one point. It’s sad how British innovation over things like reactors, home computers or tilting high speed trains always ends up being copied and done more successfully (although not always “better”) by someone else.

    My favourite reactor design is CANDU. High capital costs but low running costs including the ability to burn unenriched fuels which is handy for avoiding nuclear weapons proliferation. Since the coolant is also the moderator, a coolant leak means that the reaction stops; since the fuel is unenriched, the reaction rate in the absence of the moderator is significantly lower in any case. It would be a bitch to lose all that heavy water in an earthquake, though.

    aquifier:

    Eh? This island is headed for 40% renewable energy by 2020 without hardly trying. Loadsa wind, great tidal, and unbelievably, hot geothermal energy under Ballymena.

    Renewable energy is great, I’d like to see as much of it as possible. But it can’t provide base load power as we have no control over the weather. I’d be very surprised if we hit that 40% target. And we still need to deal with where we get the other 60% from.

    Kinda understandable, but look at the cost overruns and the repayment schedule.

    Cost overruns and repayment costs often occur as part of any major civil engineering activity. They are invariably due to bad project management and poor governance. Plenty of power plants done right – Sizewell B was built to schedule and on budget.

    Nuclear is just stupidly expensive even when it does not blow up.

    It depends what you mean by “expensive”.

    But those big centralised budgets pay for a lot of apologists.

    Well, quite. It must be the case that people like myself, and environmentalists like James Lovelock, are secretly being paid by evil pro-nuclear lobby interests. I suggest you try sticking to the science.

    starviking:

    Be careful out there. There’s something admirable about the Japanese response to this; in all the quake footage videos there is no panic, everyone just calmly reaches for something to grab onto. I hope that the problems at the nuclear plant can be solved.

  • Starviking

    Be careful out there. There’s something admirable about the Japanese response to this; in all the quake footage videos there is no panic, everyone just calmly reaches for something to grab onto. I hope that the problems at the nuclear plant can be solved.

    I will be Comrade. Thanks for the concern, though to be honest I think the worst is over us. Things seem to be getting better at Fukushima Daiichi, we’ve got gas, water and electricity, we’re getting more kerosene in our area, and things like nappies and bread are getting less scarce – though not back to the normal “pick your favourite brand” we’re used to.

    I guess it’s a little bit like the Ulster Workers’ Strike – save the culprit is man and not nature!