March 14, 2011

∴ What's Surprising About the Japanese Nuclear Crisis?

The recent Japan earthquake and resulting tsunami were each stunning in their scope and awesome energy release. What can it be like for the earth to shake, non-stop, for five minutes? How frightening is it to look up from a city street and see a tall building sway, as if blown by a wind you cannot feel? Imagine the horror of a wall of seawater, four stories high, rushing at you faster than you can run. The mind boggles.

More surprising is the ongoing crisis at several Japanese nuclear power facilities. The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant sustained damage to its diesel power generators and battery backup system as the tsunami swept over it. The cooling system shut down even as the reactor core itself ceased operation. Nuclear cores operate at very high temperatures, though, and they take a long time to cool down. It would take the better part of a week to cool down the Fukushima reactor cores with a functional coolant pumping system. And there's no electricity at that facility anymore.

The systems designed to keep those plants safe for human habitation are the most surprising failure. Granted, a twenty-four foot wall of water is hard to plan for. But those plants were built on the Pacific coast of Japan, a country squarely situated on active, major fault lines. Tsunami warnings are not uncommon, no less common than offshore earthquakes. How do you run a diesel generator when it's under water? How do you cool a reactor core with a battery backup that depletes in twelve hours? The technology has failed because someone didn't design it to do what we needed it to do given known history. Now we wait to see which way it goes, peak heat followed by a slow cool-down or a full meltdown and potentially lethal radiation release.

Our impressions of the nuclear industry have been formed by two notable accidents, at Three Mile Island in the US and Chernobyl in Ukraine. Blame for the accident at Three Mile Island was ultimately assigned to employees who shut backup cooling valves shortly before the primary cooling pump failed, preventing the backup pumps from functioning. The Chernobyl disaster was blamed on multiple flaws in reactor design. Public outcry in response to these accidents effectively halted further development and construction of nuclear plants in the US.

Attitudes changed over the decades since the Chernobyl disaster as technical innovation produced safer designs. One design in particular, the Toshiba 4S (via Bob Cringely), provides near meltdown-proof safety in a smaller, easier to maintain structure.

Attitudes changed, too, as the price of oil and other fossil fuels climbed. $4-per-gallon gasoline has a way of changing minds. Environmental concerns over the effects of burning fossil fuels have helped turn minds toward emission-free nuclear power production.

At the same time, people have come to rely upon and accept technology in their everyday lives. We not only expect our technology to work, we expect it won't kill us while doing so. The events in Japan are stunning in that the technology we expected to protect us from exposure is close to failing.

The right way forward is to pursue nuclear energy. In each case, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima, humans formed the weakest link in the safety chain. The technology only did as well as it was designed to.