Nuclear Rules in Japan Relied on Old Science

Norimitsu Onishi and James Glanz, New York Times
In the country that gave the world the word tsunami, the Japanese nuclear establishment largely disregarded the potentially destructive force of the walls of water. The word did not even appear in government guidelines until 2006, decades after plants — including the Fukushima Daiichi facility that firefighters are still struggling to get under control — began dotting the Japanese coastline.

The lack of attention may help explain how, on an island nation surrounded by clashing tectonic plates that commonly produce tsunamis, the protections were so tragically minuscule compared to the nearly 46-foot tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima plant on March 11. Offshore breakwaters, designed to guard against typhoons but not tsunamis, succumbed quickly as a first line of defense. The wave grew three times as tall as the bluff on which the plant had been built.

Japanese government and utility officials have repeatedly said that engineers could never have anticipated the magnitude 9.0 earthquake — by far the largest in Japanese history — that caused the sea bottom to shudder and generated the huge tsunami. Even so, seismologists and tsunami experts say that according to readily available data, an earthquake with a magnitude as low as 7.5 — almost garden variety around the Pacific Rim — could have created a tsunami large enough to top the bluff at Fukushima.

… “We can only work on precedent, and there was no precedent,” said Tsuneo Futami, a former Tokyo Electric nuclear engineer who was the director of Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1990s. “When I headed the plant, the thought of a tsunami never crossed my mind.”
(26 March 2011)

Countering Radiation Fears With Just the Facts

Demose Grady, New York Times
Less than a day later, ominous reports of failed cooling systems and radiation leaks at that plant began to emerge. Dr. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University — the oldest and largest such center in the world — found himself called on repeatedly to explain what was happening with the failed reactors and to assess the radiation risk to public health, both in Japan and around the world.

Dr. Brenner, 57, a native of Liverpool, England, is a physicist who has spent his career studying the effects of radiation on human health. He has published research showing that CT scans increase the cancer risk in children, and he recently testified before Congress, saying that the widespread use of whole-body X-ray scanners at airports would produce 100 extra cases of cancer each year in the United States.

He thinks CT scanners and the people who use them need more regulation to make sure the scans are medically needed and the doses of radiation as low as possible.

… From the start, he has spoken with a scientist’s caution, respect for facts and numbers, and keen appreciation of how much is simply not known or, at this point, even knowable. The situation changes constantly, and the path to the truth can be dicey, twisting through parties with passionate agendas for or against nuclear power, information meted out by government and industry, and public fears of radiation that many scientists consider wildly exaggerated.

How to explain the facts without scaring people needlessly? How to reassure without seeming to sugar-coat or patronize? The last thing people want, Dr. Brenner said, is a guy like him in a white coat on TV smugly telling them everything is fine.

“People are very worried, which is not surprising,” he said. “We want people to be able to make some kind of realistic assessment.”
(26 March 2011)

Nukes and Quakes

Tony Barrell and Rick Tanaka, Rolling Stone
Many of Japan’s nuclear plants are dangerously close to seismic fault lines. Only a few protestors, among them a Buddhist monk, are contemplating the aftershock.

…. Since the 1950s, uranium has become the core of a long-term plan to make up for Japan’s lack of oil.

… The biggest obstacle to this technopolitical fantay [nuclear power in Japan] is the threat from Japan’s other endemic primeval force — the earthquake. About ten per cent of all the energy release by the world’s anjual seismic events happens in Japan.

… The nuclear industry in Japan has assumed for years that it should be trusted without question, but as Nakajima says its safety measures are often just “desk-top” and don’t allow for more bizarre possibilities. Some plants in Fukui, including those at Oi, are built on the shores of Wakasa Bay and their cooling systems drain into the sea. A tsunami — the tidal wave caused by a quake — might suck water out from the pipes causing the core to overheat and explode like a bomb. It hasn’t happened yet but nobody can say it couldn’t. Also a reactor core and its buildings might withstand a hefty quake, but their all important cooling systems are made from narrow pipes that could rupture. If it isn’t shut down fast, a reaqctor without coolant quickly descends into meltdown mode.

Even without the help of another great quake, a whole clutch of reactors built a quarter of a century ago will soon reach their use-by date. They’ll have to be “decommissioned”, but nobody knows what it costs to dismantle a reactor in Japan because it’s never been done. Wishful thinking once again sets the agenda. As a Fukui nuke fan told us: “They’re checked out every year, if they get the OK they’ll keep on running.”
(June 1996)
Prescient article from almost 15 years ago. The original does not seem to be available on the web. For a PDF of the complete article, go HERE. Recommended by Adam Grubb, who is friends with the authors. -BA

What To Do With Nuclear Boy?

Craig Mackintosh, Permaculture Research Institute (PRI)
… There are several schools of thought on nuclear. Here’s a sampling. You may wish to add others:

  • “Let’s just do it!” Often said by those seeking the contract to design, build and manage the station, these conveniently don’t mention that their projections for total cost are normally half or a third or less of ultimate actual costs. Historically they are always over budget, and often significantly so. The same is true of time frames to build — normally much longer than initially outlined. It is said that no nuclear power station anywhere has come even close to being on time and within budget.
  • “Let’s not do it!” This comes from a several quarters — not just environmentalists, but also lobbyists for other power systems (from coal to solar and wind, etc.).
  • “Let’s do it, but very, very carefully!” There are a decent number of, I admit, realists amongst this group — including environmentalists like George Monbiot (see here and here for example). While I often run George’s pieces on this site, I can’t bring myself to do so, however, on this topic, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

… Advantages:

  • With nuclear we don’t need to burn trees — whether fossilised or living — to heat and light our homes, and… er… run our gadgets (although, we may need to dig up some forest and grassland here and there to access uranium deposits).
  • 1kg of uranium can produce more energy than 200 barrels of oil.
  • Small footprint for power plant, comparing area:energy ratio.
  • All of the above means less CO2 release, and also less destruction of CO2 sinks (forests).
  • Historically proven to be safer, to date. If you add deaths, casualties, shorter life spans and birth defects from nuclear accidents, nuclear has, so far, proven to be far safer. Add all the deaths from fossil fuel (coal, oil, gas) mining and distribution (mine collapses, explosions) and add in all the deaths, cancers and shorter life spans caused by particulate emissions and runoff (mercury, arsenic, uranium, etc.), and there’s really no comparison.
  • Steady, reliable source of electricity — unlike wind and solar in particular, which fluctuate greatly, and increasingly more dependable than power from peaking supplies of oil and gas.
  • Peak uranium is (arguably) likely to occur after peak oil and gas (PDF) and coal.
  • Once built, the typical fission power plant’s life span is 40 to 60 years.


  • Centralised power source. Unlike localised energy systems, where you become acutely aware of every kW produced and therefore every kW used (and so incentivises a frugal mindset and lifestyle), with centralised systems (be they nuclear, coal, gas or large scale wind and solar systems) when you flick the switch you are totally detached from any understanding of what it takes to support that flow of electrons. This results in profligate, unconscious, guilt-mollifying wastage. In short, we stick with the live-how-you-want-damned-the-consequences-as-technology-will-save-us mindset.
  • Very expensive to build, and with long time frames to do so — often more than a decade. With energy issues becoming acute today, the lights may well go out before we get new plants completed. More, those with a lucid understanding of the economic implications of peak oil will wonder how such costs can ever be met given present and impending financial circumstances. Without a rapid, holistic rework of our invisible social infrastructure (politics, economics) and the land and resource ‘management’ they incentivise, you could say we’re heading into economic armageddon. It seems unrealistic to begin mega-expensive ‘think big’ style energy projects which may never get completed, and that snatch funding from more sustainable, localised, decentralised options and the education that should go with these.
  • Potential for proliferation of nuclear weapons. This, in the words of Monty Python, “goes without saying.”
  • Terrorist attacks on nuclear power stations.
  • Cost cutting and the incompetence that can result.
  • Difficulty in sourcing necessary technical expertise to build and maintain. Most of the world’s fission power plants were built decades ago, and many are due, or are soon due, for decommissioning. (Considering the above-mentioned economic situation we’re in, you can be forgiven for shouting cynically: “What excellent timing!”) There’s now a definite deficiency in competent engineers to meet the scale of construction that many deem necessary to meet future demands for power. This can translate to increased likelihood of potentially dangerous errors.
  • Nuclear is not without its own CO2 implications (PDF).
  • Nuclear’s EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is decreasing already, as the low hanging fruit of high grade uranium is disappearing, and we’re using more fossil fuels to source and process lower and lower grade deposits. Whilst it appears we have enough uranium for the time being, if we don’t go overboard in building new plants, if current calls for widespread builds of new fission plants get the thumbs up, it’s quite possible that many of these plants would later have no economically viable material available to them — with this perhaps occuring long before the expected expiration date of the plant.
  • High cost of decommissioning. Closing up shop (prematurely or otherwise) is a problem compounded by the fact that the original people profiting from construction decades earlier are usually not there to make good on their promises. Nuclear liabilities funds, which set aside money for later decommissioning, also usually seriously underestimate costs (PDF), just as the industry does for construction. Many such funds are inadequate (PDF) and lead to bailouts not unlike those of banking exec’s and other corporate captains, and — also not unlike those bailout scenarios — can see rather inappropriate bonuses paid to industry staff regardless.
  • The “I want one too” reality. Every country and his dog will want one. That means all those who before hungered for an American lifestyle, and sought the oil that grants it, will now be seeking to build budget nuclear power stations instead. Think about countries that had cheap energy, but are seeing rapid declines — won’t they all want to make the nuclear switch if they possibly can? Won’t the goalposts for what a ’safe’ power plant looks like constantly move to accommodate the growing citizen demand for energy and to avoid the social unrest that will result if they don’t get it?
  • Oh, and, ah — what to do with the waste…? I think I’ll devote closing passages to this one….

(24 March 2011)
Recommended by Energy Bulletin founder, Adam Grubb. -BA