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Reactor Design in Japan Has Long Been Questioned

Tom Zeller Jr., New York Times
The warnings were stark and issued repeatedly as far back as 1972: If the cooling systems ever failed at a Mark 1 nuclear reactor, the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactor would probably burst as the fuel rods inside overheated. Dangerous radiation would spew into the environment.

Now, with one Mark 1 containment vessel damaged at the embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and other vessels there under severe strain, the weaknesses of the design — developed in the 1960s by General Electric — could be contributing to the unfolding catastrophe.

When the ability to cool a reactor is compromised, the containment vessel is the last line of defense. Typically made of steel and concrete, it is designed to prevent — for a time — melting fuel rods from spewing radiation into the environment if cooling efforts completely fail.

In some reactors, known as pressurized water reactors, the system is sealed inside a thick, steel-and-cement tomb. Most nuclear reactors around the world are of this type.

But the type of containment vessel and pressure suppression system used in the failing reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant — and in 23 American reactors at 16 plants — is physically less robust, and it has long been thought to be more susceptible to failure in an emergency than competing designs.
(15 March 2011)
Related at Common Dreams: Will GE Get Whacked for the Catastrophic Failure of its Nuke Plants in Fukushima?.

Nuclear power: when the answer becomes the problem

Tony Barrell and Rick Tanaka, ABC (Australia)
… Hubris may apply to those who run nuclear power plants. They (and their supporters in the media) claim that because they are better designed and more rigorously constructed none of the 55 working reactors could suffer an accident like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. It’s a phrase we have heard many times in the past week or so that, even if it’s true, seems like an echo of an over-confidence which has now become intrinsic to their business.

There’s no doubt there was a decline in reactor-building over the past two decades, but in recent years there has been a lot of talk of a nuclear power ‘renaissance’. …

We have frequently been reassured that all Japan’s reactors have been built to withstand ‘known’ quakes (up to 7.9) but the severity of the tsunami that hit the east coast on March 11 was not in the plan; certainly no-one thought it would mean a disruption of national power and communication grids or the introduction of rolling blackouts affecting industry and households alike.

… what will be used to generate electricity in the short and medium-term?

Will it be coal or oil, and where will it come from? Already China consumes half the world’s coal and even without taking into account the cost of global warming, coal and gas will not be cheap. Then there’s the problem of instability in the Middle East (Japan relies on the region for most of its oil and gas) and the International Energy Authority has announced that the peak of oil production was reached in 2006 and it will continue to be more difficult and costlier to extract. Nuclear power has long been touted as the answer to the problem of peak oil and some climate change experts have touted nuclear as the answer to pollution and warming. Now that something not that unlike ‘another Chernobyl’ has occurred in the country where such a disaster was not meant to happen these people may need to think again.

Tony Barrell and Rick Tanaka have been working together on television and radio documentaries, book and articles about Japan since the early 1980s.
(15 March 2011)

What will spark the next Fukushima?

John Vidal, Guardian/UK
An untrustworthy nuclear industry, incompetently regulated, is leading the world into greater and greater danger

The gung-ho nuclear industry is in deep shock. Just as it and its cheerleader, the International Atomic Energy Agency, were preparing to mark next month’s 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident with a series of self-congratulatory statements about the dawning of a safe age of clean atomic power, a series of catastrophic but entirely avoidable accidents take place in not one but three reactors in one of the richest countries of the world. Fukushima is not a rotting old power plant in a failed state manned by half-trained kids, but supposedly one of the safest stations in one of the most safety-conscious countries with the best engineers and technologists in the world.

Chernobyl blew up not because the reactor malfunctioned but because an ill-judged experiment to see how long safety equipment would function during shutdown went too far. So, too, in Japan, it was not the nuclear bits of the station that went wrong but the conventional technology. The pumps did not work because the power supply went down and the back-up support was not there because no one had thought what happened was possible.

Even though Japan had been warned many times that possibly the most dangerous place in the world to site a nuclear power station was on its coast, no one had taken into account the double-whammy effect of a tsunami and an earthquake on conventional technology. It’s easy to be wise after the event, but the inquest will surely show that the accident was not caused by an unpredictable natural disaster, but by a series of highly predictable bad calls by human regulators.
(14 March 2011)

Nuclear power: After the flood

Editorial, Guardian
The tendency in Britain to postpone politically painful choices about building new nuclear stations is dangerous

… For all the emotive force of events in Japan, though, this is one issue where there is a pressing need to listen to what our heads say about the needs of the future, as opposed to subjecting ourselves to jittery whims of the heart. One of the few solid lessons to emerge from the aged Fukushima plant is that the tendency in Britain and elsewhere to postpone politically painful choices about building new nuclear stations by extending the life-spans of existing ones is dangerous. Beyond that, with or without Fukushima, the undisputed nastiness of nuclear – the costs, the risks and the waste – still need to be carefully weighed in the balance against the different poisons pumped out by coal, which remains the chief economic alternative.

Most of the easy third ways are illusions. Energy efficiency has been improving for over 200 years, but it has worked to increase not curb demand. Off-shore wind remains so costly that market forces would simply push pollution overseas if it were taken up in a big way. A massive expansion of shale gas may yet pave the way to a plausible non-nuclear future, and it certainly warrants close examination. The fundamentals of the difficult decisions ahead, however, have not moved with the Earth.
(15 March 2011)
In a similar vein, Michael White of the Guardian writes about what the scientists are saying.