Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fukushima nuclear plant in trouble

Nuclear power generation has been the subject of intense controversy since it was first proposed.  Originally it was sold as a vast improvement over methods for making electricity such as burning coal and a peaceful use of a technology first designed for warfare.  The original boosters of nuclear power claimed it was clean, modern, and in a phrase that would come back to haunt them "too cheap to meter."

Critics of nuclear power would argue that it was incredibly dangerous, created waste products that would be hazardous for thousands of years, and was hideously expensive if all costs were taken into account.

Red Wing Minnesota in the foreground
sunlight gleaming off the Mississippi River
The Prairie Island power plant about 5 miles upriver
I graduated from high school in a beautiful little Mississippi River town called Red Wing Minnesota.  In my senior year, I was treated to a front row seat of the nuclear power controversy because Northern States Power (NSP) had decided to build a nuke just upriver from town on a site called Prairie Island.  Red Wing was one of those interesting river towns that had become more prosperous than most over the years.  In 1967, one of the town's best employers was an outfit called Central Research that made parts for the nuclear power industry.  It had been formed by some M.I.T. Ph.D.s who had started their firm in the aftermath of WW II.  One of those Ph.Ds was Red Wing's mayor--another was the president of the school board.

Prairie Island plant shut down for spring refueling
Not surprisingly, approval for the Prairie Island plant breezed through the local licensing process because the elected officials were true believers in nuclear power.  In fact, because the approval process was so smooth and local construction firms were so competent and honest, the Prairie Island facility would become the least expensive nuke ever built.  The Red Wing officials extended the borders of the town to include the Prairie Island site on the tax rolls which has allowed them to build a wish list of infrastructure projects over the years.  NSP did not object because compared to the problems facing most nuclear projects, being included in a small town's tax base was NOTHING.

This morning, I am wondering if the good citizens of Red Wing are wondering what sort of deal they struck because Prairie Island and the failing Fukushima plant are of identical General Electric design.  And while the twin catastrophes of a 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami are impossible in the upper Mississippi valley, a catastrophic failure at Prairie Island would cause far more damage because it would probably contaminate the Mississippi basin all the way to New Orleans.
Sailing on Lake Pepin just downriver from Red Wing
on a sailboat purchased with funds earned from the nuclear power industry

Recently, the boosters of nuclear power thought that their brightest days still lay ahead of them. After all, the problems of climate change demand we stop burning coal to generate electricity. But it is likely that Fukushima has driven the final nail in the coffin of nuclear power because it is a disaster of mind-numbing proportions. 

Nuke engineer: Fuel rod fire at Fukushima reactor “would be like Chernobyl on steroids”
By: Kirk James Murphy, M.D. Monday March 14, 2011 12:14 am 
The Fukushima reactor building that exploded March 12 is one of a series of identical General Electric reactors constructed in Japan and the US. In this reactor design, the used nuclear fuel rods are stored in pools of water at the top of the reactor building. These “spent” rods are still highly radioactive: the radioactivity is so great the rods must be stored in water so they do not combust. The explosion at Fukushima Daiichi reactor unit 1 apparently destroyed at least one wall and the roof of the building: some reports stated the roof had collapsed into the building.
Two days later, the nearby building containing the plutonium-uranium (MOX) fueled Fuksuhima Daichiireactor unit 3 exploded. So why bother about the rubble of reactor No 1? The WaPo quotes a nuclear engineer who knows the answer:
Although Tokyo Electric said it also continued to deal with cooling system failures and high pressures at half a dozen of its 10 reactors in the two Fukushima complexes, fears mounted about the threat posed by the pools of water where years of spent fuel rods are stored.
At the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi unit 1, where an explosion Saturday destroyed a building housing the reactor, the spent fuel pool, in accordance with General Electric’s design, is placed above the reactor. Tokyo Electric said it was trying to figure out how to maintain water levels in the pools, indicating that the normal safety systems there had failed, too. Failure to keep adequate water levels in a pool would lead to a catastrophic fire, said nuclear experts, some of whom think that unit 1’s pool may now be outside.
“That would be like Chernobyl on steroids,” said Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer at Fairewinds Associates and a member of the public oversight panel for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is identical to the Fukushima Daiichi unit 1. more

Japan's Chernobyl
Fukushima Marks the End of the Nuclear Era
Japan was still reeling from its largest recorded earthquake when an explosion struck the Fukushima nuclear plant on Saturday, followed by a second blast on Monday. Despite government assurances, there are fears of another Chernobyl. The incident has sparked a heated political debate in Germany and looks likely to end the dream of cheap and safe nuclear power.By SPIEGEL Staff.
Japanese television brought the catastrophe into millions of living rooms throughout the country, where viewers watched in horror as an explosion struck a nuclear reactor in Fukushima.
The explosion on Saturday blew off the roof of the reactor building, sending a cloud of thick white smoke into the air. When the smoke had dissipated, only three of what had been four white reactor buildings were still visible.
Nothing but a ghostly shell remained of the fourth building.The outside walls of the reactor 1 building had burst. The steel shell that contains the red-hot fuel rods apparently withstood the explosion, but it was unclear if a major disaster could still be averted. In addition, four other reactors in Fukushima's two power plant complexes were not fully under control. more

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