Japan and Chernobyl (updated)

From The Automatic Earth and author Nicole Foss who has a “master thesis at the law faculty of Warwick University in Coventry, England, where she studied International Law in Development”, in nuclear safety research. She later became a Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, where her research field was power systems, with a specific focus on nuclear safety in Eastern Europe (h/t 3d1k):

Containment structures are being flooded with seawater and boric acid as a desperation move to lower the temperature and poison any capacity for further nuclear reactivity. The latter is important to absorb neutrons in order to avoid incidences of potential criticality during a meltdown. Such an event would have the potential to cause much more widespread releases of radiation.

There seems to be considerable evidence that we are closer to the beginning of this disaster than to the end, and already it is almost unprecedented in scope.

“If this accident stops right now it will already be one of the three worst accidents we have ever had at a nuclear power plant in the history of nuclear power,” said Joseph Cirincione, an expert on nuclear materials and president of the U.S.-based Ploughshares Fund, a firm involved in security and peace funding.Comparisons are being made with the accident at Chernobyl, but there are a number of very important differences, notably in terms of reactor design, and therefore accident implications. Nuclear safety in the former Soviet Union was once my research field (see Nuclear Safety and International Governance: Russia and Eastern Europe), and the specifics of the accident at Chernobyl could not be replicated in Japan. The risk in Japan is primarily meltdown, not a Chernobyl-style run-away nuclear reaction.

RBMK (Reaktor bolshoy moshchnosty kanalny [high-power channel reactor]), Chernobyl-type reactors have a very large positive void coefficient, meaning that reactivity increases as a positive feedback loop. The presence of steam from overheating increases reactivity, which increases steam production. The graphite moderator in an RBMK is flammable, and RBMKs also have no containment system. If two or three of the 1700 channels in an RBMK are breached, the steam pressure will lift the lid, introducing air, while shearing the remaining tubes. Essentially, the reactor will explode on a sharp spike of reactivity. The moderator will catch fire, and a nuclear volcano will be the result. At Chernobyl, some 50 million Curies of radiation was released over several days.

Like the Fukushima incident, Chernobyl began with a loss of power, undertaken in that case as a test of safety systems commissioned long after the reactor became operational (the Chernobyl reactor had been in a state of critical vulnerability to blackout for two years at the time of the accident.) It could have been worse, however. Attempts to extinguish the fire at Chernobyl 4 came very close to causing a loss of power to the other three reactors at the site, which could easily have sent four reactors into into a critical state rather than one.

Non-technical comparisons between Fukushima and Chernobyl are more apt, specifically in terms of governance in the nuclear industry and complacency as to risk. Nuclear insiders in many jurisdictions are notorious for being an unaccountable power unto themselves, and failing to release critical information publicly.

The Soviet nuclear bureaucracy ignored obvious risks and concealed accidents wherever possible. While nothing remotely like so serious has occurred previously in Japan, Fukushima 1 has been at the centre of transparency problems in the Japanese nuclear industry before. In 2002, the president and four executives of Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) were forced to resign over the falsification of repair records.

Japan’s nuclear power operator has chequered past

The company was suspected of 29 cases involving falsified repair records at nuclear reactors. It had to stop operations at five reactors, including the two damaged in the latest tremor, for safety inspections. A few years later it ran into trouble again over accusations of falsifying data.

In late 2006, the government ordered TEPCO to check past data after it reported that it had found falsification of coolant water temperatures at its Fukushima Daiichi plant in 1985 and 1988, and that the tweaked data was used in mandatory inspections at the plant, which were completed in October 2005.

In addition, the Japanese government had been repeatedly warned about seismic risks:

[..] the real embarrassment for the Japanese government is not so much the nature of the accident but the fact it was warned long ago about the risks it faced in building nuclear plants in areas of intense seismic activity. Several years ago, the seismologist Ishibashi Katsuhiko stated, specifically, that such an accident was highly likely to occur. Nuclear power plants in Japan have a “fundamental vulnerability” to major earthquakes, Katsuhiko said in 2007. The government, the power industry and the academic community had seriously underestimated the potential risks posed by major quakes.

Katsuhiko, who is professor of urban safety at Kobe University, has highlighted three incidents at reactors between 2005 and 2007. Atomic plants at Onagawa, Shika and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa were all struck by earthquakes that triggered tremors stronger than those to which the reactor had been designed to survive.

In the case of the incident at the Kushiwazaki reactor in northwestern Japan, a 6.8-scale earthquake on 16 July 2007 set off a fire that blazed for two hours and allowed radioactive water to leak from the plant. However, no action was taken in the wake of any of these incidents despite Katsuhiko’s warning at the time that the nation’s reactors had “fatal flaws” in their design[..] The trouble is, says Katsuhiko, that Japan began building up its atomic energy system 40 years ago, when seismic activity in the country was comparatively low. This affected the designs of plants which were not built to robust enough standards, the seismologist argues.
Many countries are currently looking to nuclear power to carry the load as energy production from conventional fossil fuels declines. Japan has previously unveiled very ambitious plans to expand nuclear capacity:

The Japan Atomic Energy Agency has modelled a 54 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from 2000 levels by 2050, leading on to a 90 percent reduction by 2100. This would lead to nuclear energy contributing about 60 percent of primary energy in 2100 (compared with 10 percent now), 10 percent from renewables (now 5 percent) and 30 percent fossil fuels (now 85 percent).Proponents argue that the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for nuclear power is sufficient to power our societies, that nuclear power can be scaled up quickly enough as fossil fuel supplies decline, that there will be sufficient uranium reserves for a massive expansion of capacity, that nuclear is the only option for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and that nuclear power can be operated with no safety concerns through probabilistic safety assessment (PSA).

I disagree with all these assertions. Looking at the full life-cycle energy inputs for nuclear power, it seems to be barely above the minimum EROEI for maintaining society, and the costs (in both money and energy terms) are front-loaded.

Scaling up nuclear capacity takes extrordinary amounts of both money and time. While construction can be speeded up, where this has been done (as it was in Russia), the deleterious effect on construction standards was significant. Uranium reserves, especially the high-grade ores, are depleting rapidly. The reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over the full life-cycle do not impress me. In addition, nuclear authorities make risk decisions without informing the public. They have consistently made risk calculations that have grossly underestimated the potential for accidents of the kind that can have generational impacts.

In my view, nuclear power represents an unjustified faith in the power of human societies to control extremely complex technologies over the very long term. Any activity requiring a great deal of complex and cooperative control will do badly in difficult economic times.


There another relatively reassuring analysis of the low risk of radioactive fallout available at Business Insider.

David Llewellyn-Smith
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  1. @ H&H /TAE
    Excellent job on exposing the ongoing dangers, The MSM is salivating over almost anything and everything fictional – as usual.

    “In my view, nuclear power represents an unjustified faith in the power of human societies to control extremely complex technologies over the very long term. Any activity requiring a great deal of complex and cooperative control will do badly in difficult economic times. ”

    I had a bit to do with the building and commissioning of one such Nuclear Power Station and as it turned out, the wall built below ground were built hollow and covered over – US contractor if I remember correctly. And there have been many such events over the decades – as you correctly report.

    The next events will be triggered on the integrity of these systems, the integrity of the emergency engineering Teams – I believe China has sent a specialist Team – Government interference, government intervention, corporate intervention, shareholder intervention and horse-pucky from the MSM PLUS of course, further earthquakes and after shocks, erupting volcanoes and such like.

    To me the outcome does not look good and I would place a bet that the people who would have the best chance to minimize damage to the population, will be ignored.

    Nuclear Power Generation is a product of madmen – but we should be warned that there are many in the Australian government (and the US government) that desire Australia to become THE dump for Global spent nuclear fuels. The next push for Madam Gillard, now that she has confirmed the Military Occupation of Australia by the US. Why will Australia have imposed on it the nuclear waste of the USA?
    Because after a few decades and and many tens of billions of $, the US Yucca Mountain facility is deemed too unstable geologically. Strangely, the other 120+ US toxic dump facilities are also of unstable conditions and hence why John the Sheriff wanted to assist George the Moron, in making Oz the US preferred radio-active waste dumping spot. And the WA boys want their very own nuclear waste dump as well.

    You would think that all this that Australia is geologically stable? It isn’t, it’s just that nobody cares what happens.

    Keep watching Japan and then possibly the caldera at Yosemite – and the thousands more around the globe as I believe it is now earthquake and volcano season.

    Ring of Fire indeed.

  2. I guess not many people would be on the Nuclear side now… but I still firmly believe its the only viable alternative to coal, and it is NOT that dangerous, of course if you build your nuclear plant on a fault line expect trouble. Just as dumb as building a 20million resident city on a fault line.

    But if you build a nuclear plant, a modern one (not the dodgy generation 1 Chernobyl stuff) in the desert in Australia (with Australia being on the middle of a tectonic plate, not a fault line, with its very low risk of earth quakes), and its run correctly I don’t see a problem.

    I was quite disgusted by Bob Brown flapping his lips off on the news the other night saying this proves how dangerous nuclear power is, if you’re a greenie, and you want to get off coal/CO2, what alternative is there? We all use tiny LED lights and walk to work?

    You just can’t have it both ways, either its coal or its nuclear supported by solar/wind (which would reduce the size of the nuclear plant required).

    • Well said sir. Those living near coal stations are permanently exposed to toxins.

      It took about 60 years after the invention of the airplane to be reasonably ‘safe’ (hull losses per take off).

      In the early part of the 20th century the doomsayers far outnumbered the visionaries.

      ““In my view, nuclear power represents an unjustified faith in the power of human societies to control extremely complex technologies over the very long term.”

      Such as gravity?

    • In the middle of the desert? Are you not following the current disaster in Japan? Nuclear power plants require a LOT of water for cooling purposes. Sticking a power plant in the middle of a desert is not going to help here. Also transporting the electricity such distances will be costly.

      Renewables are the way forward.

      • Yea right. Cooling is a closed loop in a PWR and a BWR. Plenty of inland reactors…

        Don’t understand the technology? Don’t comment on it.

        The Japanese reactors shut down IMMEDIATELY the tremor was felt as they are designed to do (Chernobyl was ACTIVE and generating when it went). The issue is that the generators didn’t start to keep coolant circulating.

        Its 40+ year old reactor, hardly cutting edge. I for one don’t fly 40 year old aircraft.

      • The nuclear disaster in japan is an economic one, not an environmental one.
        Western reactors can’t generate a self sustaining nuclear reaction without a moderator to slow down the neutrons. However when they run out of coolant the fuel can melt and end up as a radioactive mass at the bottom of the reactor. This is what happened at three mile island and has now happened in japan. It poses no real threat but it does destroy the reactor for good. There is also a need to release pressure during this process and normally this releases only radioactive noble gases that are not that dangerous. At three mile island the relief valve jammed open and eventually allowed fluid to escape and contaminate the plant. This is unlikely to happen in japan.

  3. There are other ways than either/or to get that baseload to replace coal Peter.

    I’m no Green (or Socialist, but I repeat myself) or expert in energy, and I’ve heard conflicting reports with regard to the viability of solar power generation (i.e ROI).

    I think geothermal and hydroelectric as major power providers (with wind and solar assisting) is the way forward. The technology is there for both and has no localised (i.e no wind, no sun) problems, except the natural aversion to dams that Australians seem to have.

    It takes some political leadership to get those two major forms off the ground

    e.g why not buyout all the coal fired stations and close down the aluminum smelters and invest Brazillians in renewables. Fund it with borrowing and/or taxing the miners to (near) death.

    I’d rather see the interest payable on that debt reflected on my tax bill than a complex carbon price/tax/levy/entitlement/transfer….

    I still hold out hope for fusion, but that is just hope. There are other high tech methods (e.g solar power satellite) that could be made viable, but too far away in time.

  4. Modern coal power plants are by far the cheapest and most environmentally friendly form of energy generation. CO2 is not a pollutant but the foundation of all carbon based life on this planet. It’s effect on the climate is tiny compared to natural forces such as the 5% cloud reduction that occurred during the 1990s. The computer models have been proven to be out by a factor of ten. the current Nuclear plants on the other hand produce huge amounts of dangerous elements like plutonium.
    The 4th gen thorium reactors have the potential to overcome most of these problem as they are extremely safe, cant be used for weapons and only generate 1/1000th of the long term waste of the current plants. There are still many technical hurdles to overcome before they could see widespread use.

    As for renewables like solar and wind, you folk need to read up about the lakes of toxic waste the have been created in china due to the extraction of raw earth metals for their construction.

    • The next generation of reactors will always be safer than the existing. Ad infinitum.

      Rare earth metals usage is not confined only to wind-turbines. The resulting environmental damage in China does not make wind-power generation inherently a bad idea; I don’t think you can blithely dismiss wind and solar power generation in this way. One needs to know the energy input/output ratio involved in any clean-up or prevention process, or in leaping ‘technical hurdles’ in rare earth extraction, in order to make a reasoned assessment of wind-power’s viability. As with thorium reactors’.