Japanese earthquake sparks nuclear emergency
Updated The magnitude 8.9 or 8.8 earthquake that struck northeast Japan Friday has forced the evacuation of thousands within a three-kilometer radius of a nuclear power plant, after a failure in its cooling system lead to the threat of a fuel-rod meltdown that's yet to be fully mitigated.
According to Japan's Juji Press, the government declared a "nuclear emergency" after emergency diesel backup systems ceased functioning at the Tokyo Electric Power company's Fukushima No. 1 plant in Fukushima Prefecture. The same report indicated the government's concerns at the time that the plant "may not be able to have sufficient reactor cooling functions."
According to an AFP report, the International Atomic Energy Agency's Incident and Emergency Centre has said that they were informed by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) that: "The four Japanese nuclear power plants closest to the quake have been safely shut down."
METI did not specifically mention which four plants those were, but a later Juji Press report said that in the Fukushima No. 1 plant's No.2 reactor, which had been shut down, water levels had dropped, "posing a threat of a radiation leak," and that the local government had urged residents within a two-kilometer radius to evacuate immediately.
A third Juji Press report extended that evacuation radius to three kilometers, and noted that Yukio Edano, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary – a position that includes press-secretary duties – had urged the 5,862 affected residents to remain calm.
The government also instructed the 45,345 residents within a 10-kilometer radius of the plant to remain in their homes, despite the fact that no radiation leak had yet been detected.
According to The New York Times, near midnight Friday Japan time, Japanese Trade Ministry officials told Jiji Press that the cooling system was to be reactivated and "should resume normal operations." The Reg however, was unable to find a second source for that report, nor is there any mention of it on the Jiji Press website.
According to Reuters, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association – a nuclear industry trade group – told them that "we understand this situation is under control," after a battery-powered backup system was brought online and began pumping cooling water back into the affected reactor.
A source familiar with battery-power backup cooling systems, however, told the NYT that such systems typically have enough juice for only about four hours of operation. Should a consistent source of power not be restored by that point, the cooling water would boil away, and a fuel-rod meltdown would likely occur.
In perhaps the oddest detail in this still-developing story, the NYT also reported that: "United States Air Force planes based in Japan delivered emergency coolant to the plant, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said." ®
Although the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant was still unsettled as of Saturday morning in Japan, some additional details have emerged:
- Japan's Kyodo News reports that the country's nuclear safety agency is "set to issue an unprecedented order" to open a relief valve at the plant. Juji Press says that the release will involve not only reactor No.2, but reactors Nos. 1 and 3, as well. Venting the dangerous pressure build-up will also release radioactive steam into the environment – according to Yukio Edano, however, winds are blowing out to sea.
- Canadian television reports that "radiation has jumped to 1,000 times the normal level" inside the Fukushima plant.
- METI has now said that its earlier estimate that pressures inside the plant had reached 1.5 times normal levels were incorrect; the correct figure should have been 2.1 times overpressure.
- US officials have denied reports that they have provided coolant for the stricken plant.
"Expensive and dirty dinosaur" being the problem
The Fukushima station reactors have mostly been online since the early 1970s. Forty years on, we have a pretty good idea how to build safe reactors -- check out the CANDU design, for example, which would've failed safe in a situation like this because, unlike the reactor technology of four decades past, it's designed sensibly and hasn't got enough excess reactivity to run away even if its cooling system fails instantly and completely.
Or, you know, I could put it a different way:
"Okay, so which numbnuts is going to be first to write off the entire civilian nuclear industry despite two generations' worth of technological advances, arguing without the slightest hint of accuracy that forty-year-old boiling-water reactors are OBVIOUSLY the best we can do?"
But, you know, I do generally try not to be a complete fucking muppet, so...
Expensive and dirty? You really are a bloody idiot*
Nuclear is as clean as large-scale power generation is possible to get, and the cost per MWh is roughly on a par with coal plants. (Depending on what emissions filtration the coal plant has fitted, and which method of waste disposal you choose for each)
Nuclear has truly zero emissions (unlike all fuel-burning plants), and a very small footprint (unlike hydro, wind and solar).
As to safety - this plant hasn't had the cooling going for many hours - and it's still safe.
Even if it melts down, it's still going to be safe - just impossible to repair. A meltdown means that the fuel rods become a molten blob inside the core. In modern reactor designs, that molten blob just stays there, eventually reaching thermal equilibrium. All you have to do at that stage is keep the outer containment closed, and wait. Dousing it is optional, but means less time to wait.
Once it's all cooled down, you're left with a sealed containment vessel with a solidified blob of radioactive material. It's safe like that - but no use as a power generator.
So they don't want it to melt down because it'll be very expensive to replace.
*Seeing as you started the ad hominems, I thought you'd be upset if I didn't join in.
I'll justify it. The windmills so beloved of the Green lobbying mill should be providing about ~5% of the UK's power at the moment. In a recent cold spell, they managed an of so impressive 0.2% because the wind wasn't blowing. Any twit can figure out that Solar is useless in the UK, and unless your thinking that you can get the entire energy output for the country from tidal, then you have to accept that renewable energy is not going to provide everything, or even a significant amount of our energy requirements.
That means that either you depend on Gas & Coal for your baseline supply, which produce quite a bit of carbon or you use Nuclear. Which is more dirty, Nuclear or burning coal/gas/oil?
Despite ignorance and hysteria from certain parts of the population, Nuclear technology has progressed a lot and continues to do so. China has just started building a lot of new Thorium reactors which frankly, appear to be a far better than traditional (uranium) nuclear plants due to being inherently safe (if you turn the power off to the reactor then the reaction just stops of it's own accord) and the fact that the radioactive waste problem is down from half a million years to safe (which is a PITA to manage, but possible) to 300 years to being safe. 300 years seems to be a pretty easily manageable problem given the planning already done for half million year storage.
Now, could I have your *rational* justifications to being anti nuclear?