Saturday, March 12, 2011

Japan Quake: Nuclear Realities.

With the collapse of the containment building due to an internal explosion today, the reactor is done. I'm amused at the "experts" who are shocked, shocked I say, at the reality that the country is essentially conceding this by bringing in seawater as a coolant prelude to neutron poisoning the core due to the reality that this would cause sufficient damage from corrosive effects to preclude a restart in the future. They say this in a way that gives you the feeling that they believe any alternative is somehow preferable as long as the reactor can be used again despite the reality that it's now covered in rubble. Literal conversation:

Expert: Well, there's a reason why flooding with seawater isn't part of any manual. It's...
Newscaster: But, will it work?
Expert: Well, um, probably but... <insert ramble about pipe corrosion and the reactor being a write-off here>
Newscaster: In that case, what would you propose as an alternative?
Expert: ... I'm not sure.

Sheesh... there's a point at which you've got to be prepared to cut your losses and get the job done folks: when the building falls in, we're there.

Over the next couple weeks there's going to be a lot of renewed hot-air debate as to the advisability of nuclear power after such an event, especially if a meltdown actually occurs and there's a substantial radiation leak. That's to be expected because, lets be honest, if Japan was powered entirely by windmills and there were to be video of blades shaking loose and wildly spinning through structures and people there would be folks would be going apeshit about that too. But, the technology is not going away. Reactors simply provide too much power/space with minimum, shall we say, "conventional" CO2 pollution output to be ignored as an energy source even against the reality that, as my dad once said, it's quite possibly the only industry we allow to operate where we know damned well that the consequences of running are the production of lethal levels of toxic waste with no effective means of disposal for centuries.

The prevailing argument ATM is that super happy fun question that's been popping up as a machine designed to win in a battle against nature runs smack into nature on steroids: "why would we ever build a nuclear reactor near a fault line/earthquake zone????"

Um... because we need electricity to run the modern world?

To be less glib, you need to consider the reality that Japan, containing a little more than 127M people in an area ~1/3 the size of Ontario, is one of the most densely populated land masses in the world (37th highest country in that regard. If you limited the list to those with more than 10M People, it'd be 8th. Move to 100M people, and it would be 3rd behind only India and Bangladesh), before you also note that much of it's population and infrastructure is coastal because the interior terrain is largely mountainous. The country can also stand with any in the world in terms of industrialization. It has huge power/land demands to service those realities and has for decades.

It also poses a very odd dichotomy upon the local decision makers when you think about it: Japan goes to extensive efforts to preserve both it's history and arable land to try and limit the impact of all these people on the environment and maintain some level of self-sufficiency but it's also singularly positioned to be quite aware of the dangers of the atom left unchecked. If anyone knew what they were doing here, and why they were doing it, it was the leadership of this country. So, they designed, doubled up on the checks, did everything possible to make it "safe"... and then ran smack into both the passage of time and Murphy's Law.

I say that because, by all current accounts, the reactor building did what it was supposed to do and held up to the force of the initial earthquake... and then the unplanned happened: a much larger Tsunami than anyone likely modelled came rolling through and took out the reserve diesel power generation for the coolant systems and left them with 8 hours of battery backup (which, would later be supplemented).

"Fuck" at this point would be an understatement.

So, more important than the usual sniping between those pro and anti nuclear is the post-mortem on this event which, given the consequences, must be thorough and impartial because Japan relies on this technology for upwards of 34% of their power and that can not be supplanted by other technologies easily when you consider that Japan also lacks for fossil resources save Coal. Questions like "were the diesel generators left too exposed", need to be addressed and alternatives investigated to prevent loss of backup power in the future. Just as importantly, in an country with access to internal and US military heavy lift equipment, why does it seem to be so difficult to get additional portable generation to the site? Finally, any mistakes that might have been made need to be identified to try and prevent this from happening again when the next combination quake/tsunami strikes.

I'm interested in what comes out of that discussion because the answers to how and why systems failed and how difficult the issues are to resolve will directly impact how Japan attacks their energy issues going forward.

Addendum: as I'm writing this, they're announcing that they're running out of the battery power packs they'd shipped in to maintain the coolant systems of the affected plant and there's increasing risk of meltdown. This apparent inability to identify and shift the necessary portable generating capacity to the site after almost two days is honestly confounding to me and I'm wondering what's going on.

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