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« The Gray Hairs and the Slick Hairs | Main | UEC CEO Amir Adnani Interviewed Live on BNN »
Sunday
Mar112012

Blow-ups happen

 

Nuclear plants can be kept safe only by constantly worrying about their dangers


FOR THE SURFERS offshore the wall will be almost invisible, hidden behind the existing sand dunes and pine trees. From the land it will tower 10-12 metres above the Hamaoka nuclear power plant’s perimeter road. It will be 1.6 kilometres long and two metres thick; its foundations will be deeper than the wall itself is tall. It will weigh the best part of 1m tonnes. This is what Japan’s Chubu Electric Power thinks it will take to stop a tsunami a touch bigger than the one that hit Fukushima, which is slightly farther from Tokyo to the north-east than Hamaoka is to the south-west. Chubu expects to have the wall finished by the end of this year. Until then Hamaoka’s three reactors—two of them similar to those at Fukushima—remain shut down.

At Fukushima the 14-metre tsunami easily topped the inadequate defences. It flooded all but one of the plant’s back-up diesel generators and trashed the pumps meant to dump the reactors’ waste heat into the sea. The plant’s reactors had been scrammed 40 minutes before the wave hit, but although shutting down a reactor’s chain reaction lowers its heat output by about 97% almost instantaneously, the other 3% takes some time to drop to negligible levels, and that still amounts to a lot of heat. With no electricity either from the grid or from diesel generators to pump the heat away, all that was available were back-up systems powered by steam from the reactors themselves.

In part because of human error, they failed. The fuel in the reactors’ cores got hot enough to melt. The cladding on the fuel rods reacted with steam to produce hydrogen. Systems that should have flushed the potentially explosive hydrogen out of the containment vessels around the reactors also failed, so the gas started to accumulate in the buildings housing the reactors. One after the other, three of the buildings blew up, releasing radioactive material and contaminating an area that in some directions went well beyond the 20-kilometre evacuation zone.

The reactors at Fukushima were of an old design. The risks they faced had not been well analysed. The operating company was poorly regulated and did not know what was going on. The operators made mistakes. The representatives of the safety inspectorate fled. Some of the equipment failed. The establishment repeatedly played down the risks and suppressed information about the movement of the radioactive plume, so some people were evacuated from more lightly to more heavily contaminated places.

The outcome could quite easily have been even worse. Fukushima had a lot of used fuel in spent-fuel ponds, which keep it cool and absorb its radiation. 

To read this article in full please click here.


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