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Japan: nuclear crisis « Previous | |Next »
March 14, 2011

Three days after a devastating earthquake unleashed a tsunami in which at least 10,000 people are feared dead Japan faces a deepening nuclear crisis. An intense public-relations battle has already started.

RowsonMJapanearthquake.jpg Martin Rowson

Damage has been caused to the antiquated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in northern Japan from the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tusnami. The outer containment wall was destroyed in an explosion on Saturday.

All three reactors (units 1, 2, 3) are threatening to overheat. The auxiliary buildings of the nuclear plant were destroyed by an hydrogen explosion and the plant will have to be decommissioned because seawater is corrosive.

In response to the disaster the nuclear lobby in Australia are quick to say that we don't need to worry about a thing. Nuclear power is safe.

It is emerging that the government, the power industry and the academic community had seriously underestimated the potential risks posed by major earthquakes to their nuclear plant. The designs of plants were not built to robust enough standards for serious quakes caused by the build up of tension from the movement of tectonic plates.

The threat is real but unclear. Japanese authorities are doing all they can at the moment to keep the core of units 1+2 cooled with seawater after emergency cooling systems failed to stabilise the radioactive cores. If the cooling fails, the reactors could overheat and cause a total meltdown of the radioactive fuel rods in the core. This would only lead to a major release of radiation if the reactor's containment vessel was breached.

In this account it is stated that once a nuclear plant shuts down, it has two ways to get electricity, one is from the grid, and another is from emergency diesel generators that they have on site. In Japan's case:

because of the magnitude of the earthquake, the grid basically went dark, so they were operating on their diesel generators and everything was functioning as it should be. But then, based on news reports, about an hour after the earthquake and the shutdown, the tsunami hit, and flooded the plant, where the diesel generators were, and that caused them to lose their diesel generator power and reduced them to their emergency battery backup power only.

The problem is that emergency backup on the batteries gives them very limited capabilities---they are only good for a few hours--- and so they were having a very difficult time keeping the plant cool. Using sea water to cool the reactor means that they’re basically down to their last option.

Even though they must have got additional generating power onto the site to pump the sea water, it seems that they have experienced a partial core meltdown.

In The Australian Brendan O'Neill says that the response by Western reporters and experts to the explosions at the nuclear power station in Fukushima in northern Japan is seriously overblown, and that it reveals more about us and our fears than it does about the reality on the ground in Japan. He adds that this response:

has been driven not by hard evidence that there will be a devastating radioactive leak, but by a culture of fear which feverishly seeks out the worst-case scenario; by an almost pornographic apocalyptic outlook unsatisfied by the images of waves of water wiping away towns and villages - no, it needs a nuclear component to this tragedy too.

O'Neill says that many observers are now fantasising about a possible meltdown at a nuclear energy station that was badly shaken by the quake, which apparently could give rise to a radioactive holocaust that would make nature's fury look like a tea party in comparison.

The problem here is that the nuclear situation in Japan is developing rapidly. It now appears that all three nuclear reactors are likely to have suffered partial meltdowns, though this could mean just one fuel rod or nearly all of them melting within the cores. The reactors are at risk of going into meltdown because although they had shut down, the fuel rods continue to give off heat. Reactors 1 and 3 appeared stable for the time being, but that reactor 2, where fuel rods were most exposed, was still a concern.

We also know that radiation has spread from the three reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex and that the level seems high enough to damage human health.

Update 3
A large blast was heard at the No. 2 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. It happened in the “pressure suppression room” in the cooling area of the reactor, raising the possibility to damage to the reactor’s containment vessel. Any damage to the steel containment vessel of a nuclear reactor is considered critical because it raises the prospect of an uncontrolled release of radioactive material and full meltdown of the nuclear fuel inside. If there is heavy melting inside the reactor, large amounts of radiation will most definitely be released.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) is warning that "it had lost the ability to cool Fukushima Daiichi's reactor 2," and the current failure of officials to keep water levels up to cool the fuel rods has heightened the possibility of a meltdown.

Update 4
The Australian says that it stands for science and knowledge against the irrationality of environmentalism that distorts public debate. The editorial says:

It is the triumph of reason that sets humankind apart, that has freed us from superstition, enabled us to prosper, to develop wondrous cultures, to travel and explore from the depths of the oceans to the fringes of the universe.

The Australian says that they are opposed to fearmongering and hysteria over climate change that has been propagated by scientists, educators and politicians; and the fearmongering in the wake of the Japanese tsunami disaster. They say that the Japanese tsunami tragedy was caused by a shift in tectonic plates and that climate change is irrelevant to this event.

I haven't come across any commentary that links the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to climate change--it's a straw dog argument. What we have is anti-nuclear activists talking in terms of a Japanese Chernobyl occurring at Fukushima, even though the nuclear reactors are quite different.

What I have come across is commentary that critiques the optimist view of the nuclear lobby (eg., Switkowski and O'Neill) in The Australian that talks in terms of a culture of fear, that says there is little to worry about from the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, and that it's mostly fearmongering and mass hysteria by the "antinuclear power bandwagon" and environment groups who are opposed to the development of nuclear power in Australia.

I would consider The Australian's kind of crudity a distortion of the public debate. This video from Britain’s Channel 4 News on the deteriorating situation at the Fukushima plant is a rational voice based on knowledge rather than the voice of someone fighting the culture wars:

At Three Mile Island, there wasn’t any loss of power and the equipment functioned. The mistake was that people turned off the emergency cooling. At Fukushima there is a loss of power and the equipment malfunctioned. So the situation in each of the four troubled reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant is much more serious than the Three Mile Island incident.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:22 AM | | Comments (25)


It's a double-edged sword for the nuclear power industry. Yes it's a reminder of the risks, but then again it seems also to suggest (on what we know so far, at any rate) that even old reactors can withstand massive natural disasters.

I say 'on what we know so far, at any rate' because the coverage by the MSM has been grossly uninformative. As I noted in my own blog, speculative opinions by anti-nuclear propagandists are being passed off as fact, most irresponsibly by our very own ABC. Nobody seems to have bothered to have done some proper reporting by asking true experts what they thought. But that's the nature of contemporary 'journalism': passively waiting for someone to send out a news release or call a press conference so you can summarise what they said.

Courtesy of a comment at John Quiggin's place, here is an analysis of what is happening by an actual scientist (with a PhD n everything, working at MIT):

Money quote: 'I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single (!) report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism – that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are build and operated. I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error.'

Dr Oehmen's conclusions:

'The plant is safe now and will stay safe.
Japan is looking at an INES Level 4 Accident: Nuclear accident with local consequences. That is bad for the company that owns the plant, but not for anyone else.'

We do know that the blast at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was caused by hydrogen gas. We also know that engineers are pumping seawater up a pipe from the north Pacific to keep a trio of aged reactors from heating up and to prevent meltdown.

We also know that nuclear scientists and the industry are saying that this incident is not as bad as it seems.

This is a nuclear disaster in high-tech Japan caused by the generators being positioned so low that they were affected by the tsunami.

The publicists of the nuclear industry are quick off the mark to say that everything is under control in Japan. It's not surprising since the nuclear lobby have a a history of spending big on PR to present their industry as the safest in the world.

The economics of nuclear power do not stack up in Australia: the installation and control costs are enormous, there's the decommissioning costs and the problems handling nuclear waste.

The nuclear power lobby in Australia is whistling in the wind

The message from the nuclear power lobby is that Australians should be "reassured" by the crisis unfolding in Japan. The reason is that there hasn't been any significant release of radiation.

Injection of sea water into a core is an extreme measure and is not according to the book.

It's really rather funny that an earthquake in Japan should be the factor which provokes a new round of discussion about nuclear power in Australia. Never mind peak oil, never mind sustainability, never mind global warming, never mind pollution, the video of a Japanese power plant blowing up is what it takes.

For those interested, Ziggy Switkowski's old (2006) report on nuclear in Australia is downloadable from:

There is a critique of Switkowski's paper here (EnergyScience Coalition):

There is a more recent Parliamentary Library "pros and cons" paper here:

And there is a useful collection of resources under the sub-head "Articles, Reports etc." here:

it is still difficult to find good material on the nuclear crisis in Japan. Background material is starting to appear on the web.

What is available suggests that it is a serious emergency--- an emergency shutdown that gone wrong. The emergency diesel generators were flooded by the tsunami and they were reduced them to their emergency battery backup power only.

What we know so far is that this incident is not like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island in that we do not have a core meltdown. We know that the Japanese nuclear emergency at the old Fukushima Daiichi plant has been rated a 4, meaning an accident with local consequences. Though that is one level below Three Mile Island, the indications are that they have experienced a partial core melt.

I guess we have to rely on information coming from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to which Japanese authorities must report. However, Japan's nuclear industry has not exactly been renowned for openness and transparency.

I presume that the goal of the emergency shut down is to keep the reactors stabilized long enough with cooling water that the shutdown can be completed fully.

The Japanese experience does cast doubt on the very premise that engineers can build enough redundancy into nuclear plant safety systems to overcome dangers. The plant was not designed for the tsunami because it flooded the location where the emergency diesel generators were, and caused them to lose all power.

If this had been a tidal or wave power generation plant there would be no headlines, accurate or inaccurate.

The key issue is whether operators of the Japanese plants are able to control and contain the nuclear materials and keep the containment barriers intact in order to prevent widespread radioactive release.

The message here is we should be really cautious about nuclear power

Has the price of coal gone up?

coal...coal...coal...coal...c'mon you guys...sing along

Am a bit puzzled at Ken L's eqivocal response to this, although I do concede that he left his comment prior to subsequent explosions there.
To me, it proves you cant trust politicians and companies when it comes to "infrastraucture" and "development"- Sendai-Fukushima experienced another huge quake in 1931, yet in the wake, with history for reference, they built these reactors?
And where do people think the resurgent nukes industry will site future plants, if history is anything to go on?

the immediate tragedy is that the government is having to deal with an emerging crisis with substantial health implications at the same time as it is trying to manage all the issues associated with a natural disaster on a huge scale. This must stretch the management and decisionmaking capabilities.

I'm sorry, but those who scoff at people's concerns surrounding this nuclear crisis are inept at realistically calculating risk. They also put far too much confidence in Tepco to publicise all their (Tepco's) concerns.

Scenarios that we have been told were very unlikely seem to keep happening, every few hours; it now seems like that there is a partial breach in one of the containment vessels. And even if there is only a very small chance of a full meltdown and release of radioactive material, this is extremely serious, considering how much area might be rendered uninhabitable, and for how many centuries -- or possibly thousands or tens of thousands of years, depending on the type of contamination. Remember how close Chernobyl came to rendering the majority of Europe uninhabitable?

But these are strongly armoured reactors, unlike Chernobyl, I hear you say. Yes, but they're also bigger, and use much nastier MOX fuel. And they have spent fuel holding pools sitting just above each reactor, which may hold much greater quantities of fuel than the reactor itself, and are much more easily breached. These pools are potentially a much bigger risk for meltdown, and Tepco have said nothing about them, despite all the questions raised, until recently they admitted that there had been a partial exposure of the rods in one of these pools. They seem pretty hazy on whether they're managing to keep this spent fuel cool or not.
The possible (and increasingly likely) disaster scenarios with upwards of 3 reactors in various stages of meltdown are absolutely horrific.

What would happen if a nuclear power station tried to get insurance against accident through a normal insurance broker? Great safety, on the one hand -- Only three serious accidents worldwide in 50-odd years. On the other hand, if there is a calamitous accident, we could lose millions of lives, lose the use of a continent for a few hundreds (or tens of thousands) of years, and all of us worldwide have to live with increased cancer and birth defects for the same period. The insurance rates to cover such an event would be astronomical.

Small possibility x global catastrophe = unacceptable risk.

And while everybody watches Japan, The Saudis and Emirates armed forces roll into Bahrain to suppress the demonstrators:

Never waste a good crisis!

There has been a drip feed of disclosure coming from Tokyo Electric and the Japanese government.

Radioactive iodine particles have escaped from the Daiichi complex came yesterday afternoon, some 24 hours after the authorities grudgingly conceded the presence of caesium fallout contamination outside the plant.

There is also an elevated radiation level emergency declared at the Onagawa nuclear plant, which comprises three reactors, and is 120 kilometres from the NE outskirts of Tokyo.

Re O'Neill's claim that:

the explosions at the nuclear power station in Fukushima in northern Japan is seriously overblown, and that it reveals more about us and our fears than it does about the reality on the ground in Japan.

The situation must be grave on the ground: the nuclear authorities on the spot in Japan j have ordered the immediate evacuation of more than 200,000 residents, began the distribution of iodine tablets (to minimise the threat of thyroid cancer) and recommended those that remained within a 20-kilometre radius of the plant close their windows and cover their heads in wet towels.

The nuclear energy lobby is trying to sell the industry as a credible long-term alternative to coal and gas. Would they be behind the attacks in Australia that seek to blame climate-change policies such as the Renewable Energy Target (RET) and carbon pricing for skyrocketing energy bills?

There have been two major prongs in the argument for nuclear power in Australia: first, that nuclear power plants do not release carbon emissions that cause climate change; and second, that nuclear power generation is completely safe. Nay, nuclear is one of the safest industries that's ever been invented by human beings.

The latter argument has taken a battering with recent events in Japan.

The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is clearly deteriorating. The range within which citizens should remain indoors has been expanded to 30 kilometres. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has warned that further radiation leaks are possible.

"The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is clearly deteriorating."

(1) Non-essential personnel have been ordered to leave the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the radiation levels have become too high for staff to remain in control rooms.

(2) Engineers are now locked in a desperate fight to prevent all three reactors overheating. Officials are considering using helicopters to try to drop cold water on a boiling rooftop storage pond for spent uranium fuel rods at reactor 4. For now, the spent fuel pool is being cooled by police and firefighters on ground.

(3) Nuclear authorities in the US (The Institute for Science and International Security) and France (ASN nuclear safety authority) are saying that the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant could now be classed as level six. Level six is an intermediate level between what happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

(4) a fresh fire has broken out at reactor four of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

"I would consider this kind of crudity a distortion of the public debate."

The Australian's culture of fear strategy is to turn a humanitarian disaster in Japan into an criticism of environmental alarmism.This becomes a template for conservative wing nuts to continue to get their kicks from bashing environmentalism.

According to the conservative wingnuts the current nuclear problems in Japan are just a leftist agenda to smear the opportunity that nuclear power represents.

Their position appears to be that there was no chance "significant radiation" would be released from damaged reactors in Japan.

Well, consider this. We were told from the start that this type of reactor was almost impossible to breach, with a 15cm stainless steel reactor vessel surrounded by thick reinforced concrete containment. But MOX fuel melts at temperatures between 2400 and 2800 degrees C, well above the melting point of stainless steel, a point where even concrete has crumbled and is starting to turn to molten lava. So uncooled MOX fuel will just melt down through whatever containment is there. Simple as that. And the official story is starting to change now: we're starting to be told that this is a "known weakness" of the Mark 1 reactor design.

From "virtually impregnable" to "known weakness"... a u-turn like this doesn't inspire confidence.

I've heard some argue that it is appropriate to mislead the public, to avoid panic. Hey, we're not stupid. If we are given accurate information and advice, we can have a sense of trust that we're being properly looked after. But if I know I'm being lied to (and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work that out by now), I'm going to be far more worried, I'm going to lose trust in the leadership of our governments and our media agencies and I'm going to start making my own decisions. Which is exactly the kind of "panic" I imagine they're trying to avoid.

Ben, the gap between what the Japanese are saying --things are stable and under control--and the Europeans and Americans is growing.

The Europeans say the Japanese have lost control of the situation whilst the Americans are saying that the situation is deteriorating rapidly.

I'm inclined to go with the European and American state authorities, given the deception practised by Tepco, the plant operator and the Japanese Government in the past.