Monday, March 14, 2011

Unfolding nuclear disaster(s) in Japan

We don't yet know how this is going to turn out.  In general, the situation at the Fukujima plant has gone from bad to worse from Saturday to Monday.

Nuclear engineers in the USA have responded to the problem with various arguments to the effect "don't let this convince you that nuclear power is not the safest kind."  Some of these seem incredibly shallow from a social welfare perspective (can you really say nuclear power is fine if it only kills 1/10 as many people as the disaster which caused it?).

Where do you go for an authoritative account by experts who aren't nuclear power ideologues (and aren't necessarily anti-nuclear ideologues either, but just calmly look at the facts)?

The All Things Nuclear blog  of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

David Lochbaum of UCS has also written a great Op-Ed in the New York Times.

I learned about these by reading comments on Brad DeLong's blog, an excellent place to start every day.

Greg Palast has some interesting stories about other backup generators at nuke plants failing the test too, under nothing like the aftermath of a Tsunami.

Don't believe the constantly repeated lie that we need nuclear power.  Scientists have shown that we could meet all our energy needs with renewable energy and energy storage.  Of course it will take a massive rebuilding of our energy and transportation infrastructure.  But that would be required for the full on nuclear strategy as well, and the full on nuclear option is actually more costly (and less safe) when all costs are factored in.

*** Tuesday Update

The New York times has published article on the Mark I containment system (designed in the 1960's by GE) used in the Fukushima reactors as well as 23 operating in the US.  As far back as 1972, US regulators questioned the wisdom of this design and considered banning it.  The plants were not banned for political reasons, essentially that it would make nuclear power look bad.  Instead, a series of retrofits were ordered to beef up emergency systems.

The problem with Mark I is that the lighter weight containment structure might fail due to loss of power and other events during a critical cool down period.  Mark II reactors use a much heavier "brute force" containment structure which is believed to be better be able to contain such failures.  However, no reactors have ever been built with the ultimately proposed Mark III containment, which was claimed to be able to withstand any kind of cooling failure without releasing radiation.  Here is a map of nuclear facilities in the US with the ability to show reactors of different types:

The whole rationale for the Mark I system was that it was cheaper to build.

Closest to my home, the existing South Texas plants are typical Mark II "Pressurized Water Reactors."  However, the new proposed units at South Texas were going to be similar to Mark I "Boiling Water Reactors" but redesigned with better containment structure (and built by Japanese).

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