Category Archives: Fukushima

Three years of available lessons from Fukushima

By Rod Adams

During the three years since March 11, 2011, the world has had the opportunity to learn a number of challenging but necessary lessons about the commercial use of nuclear energy. Without diminishing the seriousness of the events in any way, Fukushima should also be considered a teachable moment that continues to be open for thought and consideration.

As a long time member of the learning community of nuclear professionals, I thought it would be worthwhile to start a conversation that will allow us to document some of the “take-aways” from the accident and the costly efforts to begin the recovery process.

Since there are many people who are more qualified than I am to discuss the specific design details of the reactors that were destroyed and the specific site on which they were installed, I will shy away from those topics. Feel free, however, to add your expert views in the comment thread.

Before Fukushima

fukushima 216x144The overriding lesson for me is a recognition that people who favor the use of nuclear technology were quite unprepared for an event like Fukushima. Our technology had been working so well, for so long, that we had become complacent perfectionists.

In some ways, we were collectively similar to perennial honor roll students who prefer doing homework to engaging in risky sports. We have been “grinds” who studied hard, followed the rules, became the teachers’ pets, scored high marks on all of the routine tests, and were utterly devastated the first time we moved to a new level and encountered a test so difficult that our first attempt to pass resulted in a D-.

Many of us—and I will freely include myself in this category—had become so confident in our ability to earn outstanding grades that we did not pay attention to the boundaries of the box in which our confidence was justified.

We confidently accepted the fact that our technology was safe, had numerous layers of defense-in-depth, and was designed to be able to withstand external events, but we forgot that those statements were only true within a certain set of bounding parameters we normally call the “design basis.” Because we had only rarely approached those boundaries, we had no real concept for what might happen once we found ourselves outside of our expected conditions without most of the expected supporting tools.

An extended period of exceptional performance not only made us over-confident, it raised expectations to an unsustainable level. Corporate executives, the media, and government leaders played roles similar to the parents, teachers, and administrators associated with precocious straight A students. They were used to dealing with serious mistakes and outright failures among the rest of the student body, but were surprised and flustered when one of us let them down.

We also failed to understand that we were in the same vulnerable and unpopular position as the geeks who continuously break the curve and make others look bad, year after year. As the excellent report cards kept coming, we did not pay attention to the effect those high grades were having on our peers. We did not see other students gathering into groups after the grades were posted. We did not sense their anger or overhear their plans to be ready to take advantage the first time we gave them an opportunity.

We had no similar plans prepared in case we failed; we expected we would keep performing exceptionally well.

The Fukushima test

fukushima tsunamiWhen the nearly impossible test came, our technology performed as designed, but that was not good enough. Our technology was not designed to match a natural disaster that destroyed all available sources of electrical power. The loss of vital power at a large, multi-unit facility interfered with the ability to understand plant conditions and to put water into the places that desperately needed it.

Aside: That is not to say that it could not have been designed to handle the imposed conditions. As the performance of Onagawa and Fukushima Daini demonstrate, it is possible through better design or more fortuitous operational decisions to improve the chances of avoiding the consequences seen at Fukushima Daiichi, but there is never a guarantee of perfection. End Aside.

Without water flow, the rate of heating inside the cores was determined by inescapable laws of physics. As nuclear energy and materials experts have been predicting for nearly 50 years, once the temperatures inside the water-cooled cores reached a certain point, the zirconium cladding of the fuel rods began reacting with the water (H2O) to chemically capture the oxygen and release the hydrogen.

Fukushima Daiichi plant designers expected that human operators would pay attention to the pressure building inside the primary containment and release some of the steam before breaking the containment. They apparently neglected to consider that operators would not be able to monitor pressure using their installed systems without any available electrical power.

For valid reasons, the designers did not make containment relief an automatic function or even an easy process. They probably did not expect that the operators would wait for a politician located at the end of a tenuous communications link to make the decision to release that pressure, expect that they might feel the need to wait for a report that evacuations had been completed or realize that the time delay could allow pressure to rise so high that it would be almost impossible to open the necessary valves.

The operators performed their tasks with dedication and tenacity, but their efforts fell a little short of the heroically successful similar efforts at Fukushima Daini. It’s worth mentioning one particular example of unfortunate timing; the Daiichi operators invested dozens of back-breaking man hours to install a mobile generator and run heavy cables across 200 obstacle-filled meters in order to provide emergency power. They completed the hook up at 1530 on March 12. At 1536, the first hydrogen explosion injured five workers, spread contamination, and damaged the just-installed equipment enough to prevent it from functioning. (See page 8-9 of INPO Special Report on the Nuclear Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.)

The excessive pressures in the primary containments did what excessive pressure almost always does; it eventually found weak points that would open to release the pressure. The separated hydrogen left the containments, found some available oxygen and did what comes naturally; it exploded to further complicate the event and provide a terrific visual tool for the jealous competitors who were ready to take advantage of our failure.

The lesson available from that sequence of events were not design-specific. More foresight in the design process, solid understanding of basic materials and thermodynamic principles, and, if all else fails, empowered operators with the ability to resist political pressure can further reduce the potential for core damage and radioactive material release.

Once one of us encountered a test we could not pass, we were dazed and confused, obviously unsure what to do next. That period of uncertainty provided a wonderful opening for the opponents and competitors to take charge of the narrative, emphasize our failure under our own mantra of “an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere” and spread the word that we should not be allowed to get up anytime soon. They reminded formerly disinterested observers that we had fallen far short of our claimed perfection, took the opportunity to land a few blows while we were down, and made arrangements to ensure that our recovery was as difficult and expensive as possible.

Fears of radiation

As a group, nuclear technologists have often emphasized our cleanliness, our ability to operate reliably, and our improving cost structure.

radiationsafetyWe overlooked the efforts over the years by opponents and competitors to raise special fears about the materials that might be released in the event of an accident that breaks our multiple barriers. Though we all recognize that exposure to radioactive material at certain doses is dangerous, our opponents—sometimes aided by our own perfectionist tendencies—have instilled the myth that exposure to the tiniest quantities also carries unacceptable risk.

We had become so good at keeping those materials tightly locked up that we accepted ever-tightening standards, because they were easy enough to meet under routine conditions. Even under the “beyond design basis” conditions at Fukushima, our multiple barriers did a good enough job of retaining dangerous materials so that there were no immediate radiation-related injuries or deaths, but that isn’t good enough.

There were dangerous radiation levels on site; workers only avoided injury and fatalities by paying attention and minimizing exposure times. The myth of “no safe dose” and the reality that any possible effects may occur in the distant future has continued to result in fear that effects are uncertain and will probably get worse.

The no-safe-dose assumption has made us terribly vulnerable to an effort to force us to continue meeting the expectation of zero discharges. Our stuff does “stink” on occasion; in this case if we try to hold it all in we are going to eventually suffer severe distress. The tank farm at Fukushima, with its millions of gallons of tritiated water cannot expand forever, but our opponents will prevent controlled releases as long as they can to make the pain as large as possible.

It’s worth quoting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent report about its late 2013 visit to Japan to provide an independent peer review of recovery actions. This passage comes in the context of a carefully-phrased “advisory point” that strongly recommends that Japan prepare to discharge water where most isotopes other than tritium have been removed.

… the IAEA team encourages the Government of Japan, TEPCO and the NRA to hold constructive discussions with the relevant stakeholders on the implications of such authorized discharges, taking into account that they could involve tritiated water. Because tritium in tritiated water (HTO) is practically not accumulated by marine biota and shows a very low dose conversion factor, it therefore has an almost negligible contribution to radiation exposure to individuals.

Reliability and perfection

Not only did the accident destroy the ability of four plants to ever operate again, it has reminded us that reliability is not just a matter of technology and operational excellence. If the powers-that-be refuse permission to operate, the best technology in the world will fail at the task of providing reliable power. Our competitors are perfectly content to take over the markets that we are failing to serve. The longer they perform the easier it is for people to assert that we are not needed.

We have also been taught that we have no real control over cost. The aftermath of Fukushima has shown that it’s possible to establish conditions in which even the most dire prediction of economic cost is an underestimate. There is no upper bound under conditions where perfection is the only available standard.

If we do not learn how to occasionally fail, how to make reasonable peace with our powerful opposition, and continue to help everyone understand that a search for perfection does not mean that its achievement is actually possible, nuclear energy does not have much hope for rapid growth in the near future.

That would be a tragic situation for the long term health and prosperity of humanity. The wealthy portions of our current world population can probably do okay for a while without much nuclear fission power. However, that choice would harm the underpowered people who are already living and innumerable future generations who will not live as well as they could if we shy away from improving and using nuclear fission technology.

Fission technology is not perfect and poses a certain level of risk, but it is pretty darned good and the risks are well within the range of those that we accept for many other technologies that can perform similar tasks.

References:

INPO 11-005 Special Report on the Nuclear Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station

IAEA INTERNATIONAL PEER REVIEW MISSION ON MID-AND-LONG-TERM ROADMAP TOWARDS THE DECOMMISSIONING OF TEPCO’S FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI NUCLEAR POWER STATION UNITS 1-4 (Second Mission) Tokyo and Fukushima Prefecture, Japan 25 November – 4 December 2013

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Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

Fukushima Three Years Later

KashiwazakiKariwa

Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Station; Units 6 and 7 were submitted for safety screening in September 2013.

By Will Davis

In our collective memory, disturbing images played out on video around the world in the days following the apocalyptic Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami have somewhat receded, even if they haven’t lost their impact—images of rushing waters, floating vehicles, buildings and debris, massive (and unstoppable) outbreaks of fire, and implications of lives lost and lives ruined.

Peculiar among these images, however, are those refreshed by their association with the nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station; peculiar because people remain out of their homes, because the cleanup at the plant has been protracted and troublesome and failure-prone, peculiar because a seemingly insidious enemy of people and life—ionizing radiation—is completely invisible in our images and films, quite unlike the rushing and thundering waters.

Indeed, what is not seen can be frightening, and what is not known can be daunting; what is happening is that the public, both evacuated Fukushima refugees and other peoples around the world, are beginning to grasp the realities of the present in addition to focusing on the days of the tsunami, the nuclear accident, and the evacuation—and the world is starting to respond.

The plant

In the past several months, the story at Fukushima Daiichi has had one parallel with the original disaster—the problem, quite plainly, is water. Lots of water. Millions of gallons of it, coming onto the site at a rate of several hundred tons per day, in the form of runoff and precipitation, and millions of gallons of water that have been used to cool the damaged reactor cores at Units 1, 2, and 3. This water is being both cleaned up and stored in a dizzying array of onsite tanks, and unfortunately occasionally is escaping out of the nuclear plant buildings and tanks and into places onsite where it should not be.

Personnel patrols among the giant, fabricated tanks now beginning to fill the entire hillside behind the nuclear plant (the shore side) have been stepped up to ensure tanks that overflow do not continue to; however, exposure rates can be high in areas around these tanks and failures have been missed. The news continues to be of struggles with these systems, and with those systems purifying the water.

What has received less press has been occasions of positive news—perhaps foremost of which is the continued, methodical removal of fuel elements from the spent fuel pool at Unit 4. As of now, 462 of the 1533 fuel elements stored there have been moved safely to the site’s common fuel pool. None of the dire predictions made by numerous anti-nuclear prognosticators concerning this spent fuel pool and its contents have come to pass, and TEPCO’s continued methodical removal of the elements emphasizes the fact that nuclear energy is a practice of procedure, of care, of attention to detail, and that this environment does indeed exist at the Fukushima Daiichi site.

Progress is in fact taking place on the water issues as well; the plant site is fairly well sealed from the harbor, and the harbor from the ocean. The mechanisms behind the spread of contaminated water around the site are known and preparations are underway to stop it using means both tried and new. The TEPCO video below demonstrates just one of the “small victories” that can be checked off in the massive effort to first contain the water and then decommission the nuclear plants.

The actual moment-to-moment actions that were taken during the progression of the accident—indeed, even the natural events such as the exact timing of the arrival of the first tsunami wave—continue to be debated, questioned, and analyzed by expert panels worldwide. Just this week, an analysis was released by the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, backing up the theory that the earthquake itself did no critical plant damage, and that the tsunami was the triggering event for the accident. This theory is espoused by a large number of experts and was backed up by evidence presented at the American Nuclear Society’s 2013 Fukushima Daiichi embedded topical meeting in November.

Questions about the operation of the isolation condenser systems at Unit 1, and the high pressure core injection system at the other units, remain at the forefront of discussion, as does the question of containment venting. Only the full decommissioning and teardown of the nuclear plants, piece by piece, will finally yield all the answers about what happened and when. For now what matters is preventing anything like it from happening again—anywhere.

Hokuriku Electric Power Company's Tomari Nuclear Station.

Hokuriku Electric Power Company’s Tomari Nuclear Station.

Prevention—machines and manpower

An approach to prevention underway in Japan is similar to that of the United States in one respect; it is recognized that preparation for cataclysmic events that could cause interactions among nuclear units on the same site is of utmost importance (e.g., a hydrogen explosion at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 stopped efforts for a time at all other units). To that end, Japanese nuclear plant owners and the Nuclear Energy Institute in the United States recognize that a massive array of stand-by generating trucks (for electric power), fire engines (for water pumping) and other vehicles, as well as personnel and the ability to get all of this to a plant site in short order are necessary developments. And the progress to this end is remarkable in both countries.

In Japan, there is a growing desire to get nuclear plants restarted so that they can provide energy at far lower cost than the fossil fuels that are now being imported. However, no nuclear plants can be started back up until they’ve passed new safety inspections mandated by the new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in Japan. Not surprisingly, the plants at which the most upgrade work has been completed are those that have already applied to restart. Seventeen units have applied as of now—see the NRA graphic below.

NRAplantrestartappsMarch2014

The efforts underway to allow restart are well known; this link details the work done at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s giant Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant and at Chubu Electric Power Company’s Hamaoka plant. Since that article was written, the containment vent filters have been delivered to and installed at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Units 6 and 7. Other plant owners have begun to take steps as well, including Hokkaido Electric Power Company at its three-unit Tomari Nuclear Station, as seen in the graphics below excerpted from an official company report.

HEPCOTomariPlan1HEPCOTomariPlan2

The steps above concerning plant additions to adapt to use of portable power and water supplies, in addition to the mobile supplies themselves, are typical of provisions being made throughout the country.

In the United States, similar work is also in process and showing real progress. By the end of this year, two regional centers, each with five full sets of mobile backup emergency equipment, will be opened. This backs up equipment already bought by and stationed near the nuclear plants themselves; NEI informs us that 20 nuclear plants will complete their FLEX preparations by the third quarter of 2014 in the area of mobile electric power. Twenty plants will also have installed spent fuel pool water level monitoring equipment. Already completed are plant-specific seismic walkdowns and flooding walkdowns; actions resulting from these are all forthcoming. In all, over 1500 pieces of equipment (such as generator trucks and water pump trucks) have been purchased for this FLEX effort, or are on order. NEI reports that all FLEX modifications at all nuclear plants in the United States will be complete by 2016.

In Japan, it’s expected that at some plants the modifications and provision of equipment will occur much sooner so that plants can be restarted in the near-term. The NRA has recently bolstered its staff significantly after having merged in an outside professional organization, and with the help of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the safety reviews (delineated in the table above) are now well underway. However, it may not in fact be the final safety reviews that hold up restarts. For example, TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant is assumed in TEPCO’s business plan to restart after July this year, but a revisit of the seismic conditions under the plant may take as much as six months by itself. This would push the safety review out at least that long; further, TEPCO may not finish all of the physical upgrades by July either. In a similar fashion, some of the other operators may not complete some large construction projects such as seawalls by summer. What’s important to realize is that operators now have safety squarely in mind, and not only do not wish to attempt to restart until it’s nearly assured as possible, but cannot do so anyway without NRA approval.

Public 0pinion shifting, people moving

According to a recent Kyodo News poll, 37 local governments in Japan (out of 156 total) would today allow restarts of nuclear plants when the NRA safety checks are passed. This is a surprise, given a continuous flood of negative press covering anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan. This follows the election of a government in Tokyo that is, at the very least, not anti-nuclear, and of course the exploits of Prime Minister Abe who is pushing for the restart of nuclear plants. Abe is also pushing to repatriate displaced families back to areas where safe return is assured.

As reported by NHK World, Abe visited Fukushima Prefecture last week, and held a meeting with persons displaced from Miyajoki District who will be allowed to return home April 1. This step is the first in the real recovery of Fukushima; the “real recovery” isn’t just about the nuclear plant, and “Fukushima” isn’t a nuclear plant, but a giant prefecture that was and again will be the home to many thousands of people, and the site of farms and villages and fishing ports—just as it was before March 2011. Prime Minister Abe was quoted as saying that the recovery of Japan cannot begin until the recovery of Fukushima is underway, and the progress seen so far as well as the ongoing efforts to ensure future nuclear safety (and thus reliable energy supply, safe living, commerce, and prosperity) are absolute sign posts on the road to a recovery that we all know is coming, and we can just see dawning on the horizon.

For more information:

NEI has very recently published a new resource entitled “Fukushima Daiichi Recovery:  The Facts,” which addresses many issues both in Japan and the US

Utilities Service Alliance: USA Fukushima team ensuring plants can respond

Events and Highlights on the progress related to recovery operations at Fukushima Daiichi NPS. IAEA February 2014.

Events and Highlights on the progress related to recovery operations at Fukushima Daiichi NPS. IAEA March 2014.

(Above two links contain information provided to International Atomic Energy Agency by the Japanese government.)

OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency: Accident Management Insights after the Fukushima Daiichi NPP Accident

June 2012 TEPCO handout on tsunami protection, other measures being installed at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa

Kyushu Electric Power Company – Initiatives for Ensuring Safety in Nuclear Power Stations. (Sendai NPP and Genkai NPP)

Kyushu Electric Power Company – Application for compatibility check to New Regulatory Requirements (Sendai NPP and Genkai NPP)

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WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is the communications director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian and as a member of the board of directors. He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is secretary of the board of directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants. 

Carnival of Nuclear Energy 187

ferris wheel 202x201The 187th Carnival of Nuclear Energy is here – the weekly compilation of the best of the internet’s pro-nuclear authors and bloggers.  This time-honored feature appears on a rotating variety of the top English-language pro-nuclear blogs every weekend, and is a great way for readers of any persuasion or approach to find out what the people who write about nuclear energy all the time think are the most important or most resonant issues for that week.  With that, here are this week’s entries!

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Nuclear News Wire from Michele Kearney

Michele has pointed up this blog post on The Hill, which is really a result of the earlier announcement by the Obama administration that Federal agencies will be targeting a 20% share of renewable energy for their use, but which didn’t mention nuclear.  That announcement prompted this response from the Nuclear Energy Institute, and that was the trigger for the post on The Hill.

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Nuke Power Talk – Gail Marcus

Nuclear Liability – The Logic of Liability Regimes

At Nuke Power Talk, Gail Marcus reacts to an article from Japan arguing that Japan should not adopt the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage, but rather should go after GE, where the author of the article believes the blame lies.  Gail recounts the logic that has led the authors of all the major liability regimes to limit financial responsibility to the operator, and points out how that provides much faster and more certain compensation than an endless series of lawsuits.  She takes on some of the arguments about GE’s liability by the author of the article and points out how a counterargument can be made about the responsibility of the operator.

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Canadian Energy Issues – Steve Aplin

How to tell if electricity decarbonization is working: replace renewable energy standards with a simple carbon standard.

There is no shortage of advice out there about how to decarbonize the economy. A lot of it focuses on electricity, and power generation especially. However, too many jurisdictions have opted for the so-called Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) approach to decarbonizing electric power generation—these mandate a certain percentage of renewable energy like wind and solar. Steve Aplin of Canadian Energy Issues suggests an alternative: a simple carbon emission standard. He holds up spectacular examples that illustrate why the carbon standard approach is far more effective at actually reducing carbon.”

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The Hiroshima Syndrome – Les Corrice

Fukushima Evacuees Get More and More Money, but not Tsunami Victims

An objective comparison between tsunami refugees and Fukushima evacuees paints a very disturbing, and downright infuriating picture. The Fukushima evacuees are far, far better off than tsunami refugees.  Fukushima evacuees have been given many times more temporary housing and a lot more subsistence money.  The world’s press wants everyone to think all is going great with the tsunami victims and horribly with the Fukushima evacuees.  How long will this smoke screen be permitted to exist?

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Next Big Future – Brian Wang

American Physical Society recommends 80 year operating licenses for US nuclear reactors; there are no technical show stoppers.

Senior researchers give a major endorsement to the Lawrenceville plasma physics dense plasma fusion project.

All electric cars would mean 20-50% more electricity generation would be needed in the US and a moderate boost in nuclear energy from uprating and new reactors could be a part of that clean energy and clean transportation future.

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ANS Nuclear Cafe – Mark Reed

The ‘I’m a Nuke’ Project: The Epic Saga of Tim the Vagabond Nuclear

After Tim Lucas completed his PhD in nuclear engineering at MIT, his
insatiable wanderlust compelled him to sail around the world. He shows
and tells the story of his world travels in this video from the ‘I’m A
Nuke’ series – an integral part of the ‘Public Image of the Nuclear
Engineer’ theme at the 2013 ANS Student Conference.

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Yes Vermont Yankee – Meredith Angwin

Vermont Yankee’s Closing Will Hurt Vermont

In this op-ed, Meredith Angwin reviews power contracts, power availability, and Vermont’s relationship with Canadian suppliers and oil-fired plants.  Without Vermont Yankee, electricity will be more expensive, more dependent on fossil fuels, and less reliable.

Reference list about effects of closing Vermont Yankee

The op-ed above was dense with information—perhaps too dense.  In this post, Angwin backs up her op-ed statements with links to FERC reports, newspaper articles, ISO-NE statements and more.  Hopefully, this blog post will also stand alone as a reference list on the electricity outlook in New England.

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USA-CARGO

In Remembrance Of…

A brief piece about the end of the Fast Flux Test Reactor and fuel reprocessing.

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That’s it for this week!  Thanks to all of the authors, and submitters, for a highly informative and relevant set of posts.  (Carnival post for ANS Nuclear Cafe assembled by Will Davis.)

Nuclear Matinee: Removal of Spent Fuel from Fukushima Pool No. 4

News out of Fukushima-Daiichi this week is encouraging:  TEPCO successfully transferred the first batch of fuel rod assemblies from the reactor unit No. 4 spent fuel pool to a common fuel pool building offering longer-term stable storage conditions. Completing the process for the more than 1,000 fuel rod assemblies that remain at No. 4 is projected to take a year, and will be a first major step toward decommissioning of the site.

The following video may be of interest to those who are watching and following events at Fukushima closely, as it shows the removal of one of the fuel rod assemblies via underwater camera. Much ink has been spilled over the past year concerning perils and hazards of this stage of decommissioning—so one might as well see part of how it’s done.

 

Cask with 22 fuel rod assemblies headed toward common fuel pool building (Kyodo News)

Cask with 22 fuel rod assemblies heads to common fuel pool building (Kyodo News)

 

Decommissioning of Private Assets is Public Matter in Japan; TEPCO Forges Ahead

FukushimaDaiichi5and6breakwall

Fukushima Daiichi Units 5 (left) and 6 (right) seen in October 2012 behind the newly completed breakwall.

by Will Davis

Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conducted a visit to Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station to examine conditions at the site and to gauge TEPCO’s response to numerous ongoing problems. When Abe spoke to reporters after the visit, he mentioned (for reasons still unknown) that he had suggested to TEPCO that it decommission Unit 5 and Unit 6 on the site, so that it could focus its efforts squarely on the work required to recover from the nuclear accidents at Units 1, 2, and 3. This was reported with some surprise in many quarters.

Fukushima Units 5 and 6

At the time of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, Units 5 and 6, which are sited several hundred feet to the north of the other four units, were already shut down for their periodic detailed inspections—a normal practice in Japan. Both units’ reactors had fuel installed, with the reactor vessels closed and bolted and all control rods fully inserted; Unit 5 was undergoing a pressure test at the time of the earthquake. Because the units were not at power, no nuclear accident occurred at either plant, although decay heat from the fuel did have to be dealt with. The plants suffered some damage from the tsunami, but it was less serious generally with these units because they sit three meters higher than the other four units on the site.

The emergency diesel generators at these two units were not flooded out, but did lose their cooling when plant service water went down, and so were unavailable for providing electricity. Three diesel generators on site (one each at Units 2, 4, and 6) were “air cooled,” meaning that they had self-contained radiators that didn’t require the plant’s seawater systems to be operable. Flooding damage to electrical switchgear rendered these engines at Units 2 and 4 useless, but the Unit 6 equipment remained fully operable throughout the event; this was the only installed plant diesel generator at any location on the Fukushima Daiichi site to remain operable. All others were disabled by direct flooding, or by flooding of switchgear used to distribute power, or by loss of seawater cooling pumps required for their operation, or loss of fuel supply, or a combination of these factors.

Emergency cooling restoration methods such as were being attempted at the other four units were successful at Units 5 and 6, for both the reactors and the spent fuel pools; a condition of “cold shutdown” was declared on March 20, 2011, for Units 5 and 6.

Because these two units weren’t damaged nearly as seriously by the tsunami, or even by the explosions at the reactor buildings of Units 1 and 3, they were more or less wrapped up and put in stasis—that is to say, while TEPCO initially included references to these units in its timeline plans for the site, reference was dropped some time ago and the units were essentially left out of all official announcements.

Perhaps Abe questioned efforts (whatever they might be) being put into the units on site, or it occurred to him to ask whether TEPCO had any plan at all for them. This remains unknown. What seems clear, judging by TEPCO’s response, is that TEPCO did in fact have plans to operate the units at some time in the future, because it says that it will decide their fate by the end of the year.

At least one Japanese government official has floated the concept that demolition of these two units could serve as valuable training for personnel that will have to dismantle the damaged units on the site—and this would add the option that once the units are gone, extra space for contaminated water storage on site would be available. TEPCO has made no response to this suggestion.

Fukushima prefectural government

What stands (and has stood) in TEPCO’s path, of course, is the adamant refusal of the Fukushima prefecture’s local government to allow any future nuclear plant operation on its soil. This situation is somewhat analogous to what we’ve recently seen in Vermont, where the Vermont state government has continually (and unsuccessfully) tried to insert itself into what is really the scope of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s authority.

In Japan, the prefectural governments do absolutely have a say in the operation of nuclear plants within their borders, and ever since the Great East Japan Earthquake, utility companies have been deeply engaging these governments around Japan to attempt to restore trust lost after the Fukushima accident. Consideration has also been made in some prefectures that neighboring prefectures, potentially affected in case of an accident, might also be included in the decision-making—rendering the process more regional than local.

What Abe’s statement to the press might actually mean is that TEPCO and the Fukushima prefecture could get forced into a discussion that TEPCO likely does not want to have—that is, a discussion about what the eventual fate of not only Fukushima Daiichi 5 and 6 is, but also the fate of all four units at the distant Fukushima Daini nuclear station will be. Fukushima prefecture has publicly and clearly said “never again” many times to every press agency and outlet in Japan, so its stance could not be more clear. TEPCO would have to get permission from this government first before even thinking of petitioning the new nuclear regulator in Japan for checks in advance of operation. This seems extremely unlikely at best.

Kashiwazaki-Kariwa

TEPCO does have one piece of good news to embrace, coming not from the east coast of Japan where Fukushima is located, but from the west; TEPCO’s president has twice visited with the government of Niigata prefecture, wherein is located the gigantic Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear station, in order to get permission for safety checks of this plant. Stress tests for Unit 1 (oldest) and Unit 7 (newest) were completed some time back, but permission for operation now depends on the new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) checks and inspections.

Niigata prefecture previously rebuffed TEPCO’s efforts at permission for these checks for Unit 6 and Unit 7 on the site, since TEPCO had made overture to the NRA prior to making overture to Niigata. In fact, Niigata’s governor refused to accept a report from TEPCO in a public display of displeasure. However, just this week the same report was accepted by Niigata’s governor, and it has just been announced that Niigata prefecture has approved TEPCO’s application. TEPCO will apply for checks on Kashiwazaki-Kariwa tomorrow (September 27.)

The checks will be conducted only for Units 6 and 7 at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. These two units are the only Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) units at any TEPCO site, and are among the most modern in Japan—having entered service in the mid 1990s. TEPCO however certainly expects, eventually, to operate all seven units at the site and has, as we have reported on this site before, been pouring massive amounts of money and material into the entire site.

It may be inaccurate to say in astronomical terms, but it appears for the moment that in the case of TEPCO and nuclear energy, the sun is rising in the west, and potentially setting forever in the east.

Background and News Links

Abe tells TEPCO to scrap remaining reactors

Preparing to Restart:  New Tsunami Safety Measures at Japanese Nuclear Power Stations

TEPCO report on new equipment at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Units 6 and 7 to comply with latest NRA requirements

ANS Nuclear Cafe’s most recent previous post on the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi recovery and remediation can be found here.

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WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016.  In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is Secretary of the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.  He’s also an avid typewriter collector in his spare time.

Fukushima Daiichi: Bolted tanks, blast from NRA

by Will Davis

Developments this week at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station have been relatively few—but they’ve made headlines.

The recent announcements concerning leakage of contaminated water from bolted tanks (that is to say, fabricated with bolted joints as opposed to welded joints) has caused the Tokyo Electric Power Company to announce an inspection plan and to then publish the initial results of the findings. As might have been expected, two small areas of high level were noted in the tank farm (one was 100 mSv/hr, the other less than this) and cleaned up—hinting at some small, but very controlled, leakage from just two of the hundreds of such tanks built hurriedly on site to house the vast volumes of water that requires isolated storage.

As has been reported before at this site, the spread of any highly contaminated water into the ocean seems unlikely, even though China and South Korea have expressed a desire to get further information about the possibility of such having occurred from the Japanese government. This does not by any chance mean that TEPCO is idle; it has begun a pumping process that might see up to 15,000 tons of highly contaminated water get moved out of piping and wiring tunnels on the site into protected storage (after filtration, which is proving somewhat effective in removing radionuclides, according to initial TEPCO test results from filtering ground water).

A further visit to the site this week by Toyoshi Fuketa, a commissioner on Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), has however not necessarily fully endorsed TEPCO’s actions—and has resulted in another suggestion that TEPCO might need outside help. Fuketa is on record as having said, after the inspection of Fukushima Daiichi, that TEPCO was remiss in not having considered the chance of leakage from the bolted-joint tanks, was “ill prepared,” and noted that TEPCO didn’t keep survey records (of radiation levels) from walkdowns of the tank farm area. When TEPCO officials told Fuketa that they would need four times the number of personnel on site that they have now to properly handle the situation, apparently Fuketa told them “they should ask for help if they need it.”

This sentiment—that TEPCO might, or will, need outside help of large magnitude—echoes concepts previously reported here at ANS Nuclear Cafe, and which are also being heard elsewhere on the news wires. What seems significant here is that this feeling has now been expressed by the Fukushima prefectural government, the prime minister of Japan, and one of the commissioners of Japan’s NRA. To paraphrase Fuketa as quoted by NHK, TEPCO cannot just “continue saying it is doing its utmost” if the situation is not under control, and it is not making proper and timely admissions and requests for funding, technical assistance, and (if required) oversight.

The biggest story this week, it would seem, was the announcement that the NRA had decided that it was necessary to declare an International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) 3 level event upon discovering the information about the bolted tank leakage and a 10,000 mr/hr dose rate near the surface of an adjacent ground puddle. The revelation of the INES designation took the lead in news all over the world, in many cases drowning out the actual facts (an important one being that an INES designation is kind of like the speedometer in your car—it tells you how fast you’re already going). It’s also important to understand that no public indicator such as the INES level scale is perfect—we need only to look at the various iterations of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Terror Threat Levels to tell us this. What the scale does do is simply let everyone know that something happened with enough impact (real or perceived) that “business as usual” somewhere has to stop to fix the problem; the higher the level, the more people and wider area affected. If anything, the INES level declaration is just another symptom of the growing problem of management and manpower at the site—a part of the larger picture proving that TEPCO needs more manpower, more money, and more oversight. Or, in the case of the latter point, perhaps even a new contractor with total control of the process.

More Information:

We last posted about Fukushima Daiichi on August 15; that post had many background and information links included for reference.

Japan Times:  TEPCO testing tainted earth at No. 1 plant

NHK: TEPCO to begin removal of soil from tank area

Kyodo:  Regulator calls TEPCO “sloppy” in record keeping

More details on the INES scale at IAEA REGNET

(We continue to provide occasional updates on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant situation, as the story continues to make headlines all over the world.)

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WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016.  In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is Secretary of the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.  He’s also an avid typewriter collector in his spare time.

Scaremonger Week in the mainstream media

By Paul Bowersox

An unusual number of unusually ill-founded nuclear headlines appeared in the mainstream media last week. Among the more prominent:

  • The Opinion Pages at the New York Times lit up with A Nuclear Submariner Challenges a Pro-Nuclear Film, wherein John Dudley Miller espoused his disbelief of the pronuclear climate change film “Pandora’s Promise” and of climatologist James Hansen. More than 440 comments later (as of this writing) the debate goes on—click the ‘NYT Picks’ link above the comments section to save some time and see which way things are going.
  • But let’s get back to the serious scaremongering. “Apocalypse!” “Millions of Deaths!” So screams a headline at RT:  Fukushima Apocalypse: Years of ‘Duct Tape Fixes’ Could Result in ‘Millions of Deaths’ (Note: the headline got it wrong—not apocalyptic enough. The interview subject, fallout researcher Christina Consolo, says that “millions of people will probably die even if things stay exactly as they are, and billions could die if things get any worse…”)

Take a click and come back—if you are not so unnerved as to immediately take to the hills in a vain attempt to escape.

Well, perhaps you are not an online subscriber to RT. Mainstream media? Sure.  RT is the 2nd-most-watched foreign news channel in the United States, with 1 billion views on YouTube (more than Fox News). The article above has 23,000 Facebook ‘likes’. Articles such as this are linked all over the internet, diaries are written about them at political blogs, journalists become aware of them, social media spreads them to all corners…

ANS Nuclear Cafe readers will be familiar with Howard Shaffer’s contributions in promoting the benefits of nuclear technology and energy in Vermont. On the Social Media listserv hosted by ANS, he responded to the RT article by writing:

“This article is a wonderful piece of writing. It is a good example of the class of ‘Overblown SCARE STORY’ to promote a political agenda. It is not even good science fiction. Science fiction gets the basic science right. This article deals with the here and now, known science.

The writer does not understand the basic physics and engineering of nuclear chain reactions. Since the first controlled chain reaction in 1942, scientists, designers, builders, fuel processors, and operators have all known of the possibility of an unintended critical reaction. Every effort is always made at every step to prevent this. Still, human beings have made mistakes and there have been a few unintended criticalities.

The statement that the tiniest mistake in moving fuel BUNDLES (not rods) can cause a reaction is wrong. The entire process, beginning with manufacture, has been designed to prevent just this.

Pools were designed for storage for at least 5 years in the United States. Long enough so the fuel BUNDLES need only air cooling, as is being done now in dry casks. They can and are holding fuel much longer.

The discussion of the work conditions in protective suits degrading technician performance is silly. Cooled suits have been used for years.

At the end the writer refers to “reactor 4.” In unit 4, the reactor vessel—the “tea pot”—is empty. All the fuel had been removed to the unit 4 pool. It was of the most concern since the fuel just out of the reactor generates the most heat. Now that 3 years have passed, the heat generation is way down. It will probably be almost 5 years after the fuel was removed from the reactor before it is taken out of the fuel pool. At that point it needs only air cooling. Water is still needed for shielding.

The concern about fires at abandoned plants is silly too. After the 5 years or less of cooling, the plants can be walked away from, and the fuel will not be creating enough heat to cause melting and fires.

The writer says Russian help and an international effort should be used in the Fukushima-Daiichi site cleanup. Is the writer aware of the international effort going on at the Chernobyl site?

The writer has a good career— in fiction—ahead.”

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china syndrome

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Bowersox

Bowersox

Paul Bowersox manages social media at the American Nuclear Society

Carnival of Nuclear Energy 170

ferris wheel 202x201ANS Nuclear Cafe is proud to host the 170th edition of the Carnival of Nuclear Energy – a rotating feature that showcases the best pro-nuclear blogs and authors each week in a single, easy to access compilation.  Contributions are volunteered by the authors, with the exception of “Captain’s Choice” picks that the Carnival host makes from time to time.  With that, let’s get to this week’s posts!

This week, a paper was published that was authored by a graduate student – studying policy – detailing supposed dire security concerns at US nuclear plants.  There was even some misleading information that could have led casual readers to believe the paper was sponsored by the Department of Energy.  Professionals in the nuclear field who read the paper saw right through it, but James Conca stepped up to the plate and provided an excellent and much-needed public rebuttal.

Forbes – James Conca

Anyone Can Write a Story About Nuclear Terrorism

Jim Conca responds to a widely reproduced and quoted paper which at first take portrays the security situation at US nuclear plants as risky, but which falls apart very quickly upon examination.

Canadian Energy Issues – Steve Aplin

Keystone fight approaches criticality: TransCanada’s biggest clean asset stays critical

TransCanada Inc., the favourite pinata of green fashionistas because of its proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline, is a partner in running the Bruce nuclear plant—the biggest clean energy centre in the western hemisphere. As the fight over Keystone gains intensity, Steve Aplin of Canadian Energy Issues comments on the spectacle of Keystone opponents encouraging greater use of natural gas, a carbon-heavy fossil fuel, in electric power generation. Aplin notes that many of the same Keystone opponents would celebrate if not just the Bruce plant but all nuclear plants were running on natural gas instead of nuclear—even though this would put far more carbon pollution into the air than the pipeline.”

The Hiroshima Syndrome – Leslie Corrice

A Suggested Answer to Fukushima’s Wastewater Question

The wastewater buildup problem at F. Daiichi could be solved by setting up a closed loop.  The decontaminated turbine building waters could be sent back to the basements rather than to above-ground storage tanks.  This would provide several benefits and cause no additional problems.

Nuke Power Talk – Gail Marcus

Irradiated Food:  The Case for More

At Nuke Power Talk, Gail Marcus comments on a recent NRC blog, which in turn used the latest large-scale case of food poisoning (from lettuce imported from Mexico) to point out the safety and value of food irradiation.  Gail repeats some of the health statistics associated with food contamination, which are truly startling, and goes on to make the case for the use of irradiation in our food processing.  She does strike a cautionary note when she recounts the long history of efforts to increase the use of irradiation (including an ANS-centered effort), and hopes that incidents like the latest one will help some people see the light.

ANS Nuclear Cafe

Court Finally Rules on Yucca Mountain’s NRC License Review

After a year-long wait, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on
August 13 to grant a writ of mandamus on behalf of petitioners, ordering
the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume a review of the Yucca
Mountain nuclear waste repository.

Robert L. Ferguson, one of the citizen petitioners in the case, writes
on the ruling and what it means for the future of high-level waste
policy in the United States.

Power Play: People, Politics, Electricity, Nuclear

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled on August 14 that
Vermont legislators acted improperly in efforts to close the Vermont
Yankee nuclear power plant.

Howard Shaffer provides an overview and update of a busy summer of
energy-related activism, political maneuverings, grid and energy issues,
and of course events related to the Vermont Yankee plant – which
continues to go on providing most of the clean energy in the Green
Mountain State through it all.

Fukushima Daiichi:  Current Hurdles, Options, and Future Expectations

News coming out of Japan continues to be bad concerning the Fukushima Daiichi site – although much of the news is really hyperbolic and erroneous.  The bigger story is the Japanese people’s increasing mistrust of, and lack of faith in, TEPCO.

Will Davis provides the best and latest information on efforts at the site to halt the inflow and outflow of contaminated water as well as whether it’s getting into the ocean (it isn’t.) He also covers the decommissioning of the plant, and future options for this major project.

Yes Vermont Yankee – Meredith Angwin

Vermont Yankee Wins in Federal Appeals Court

Did the Vermont legislature try to regulate nuclear safety? Well, they did write a law that specifies how the fuel rods must be arranged in the fuel pool. Background, quotes, and more.

Next Big Future – Brian Wang

Husab Uranium Mine

Update on uranium mines.  Husab is gearing up for full 7500 ton per year production in 2017.  The Haggan mine is still pushing forward, and Tanzania is heading toward 14000 tons per year.

Nuclear Energy Roundup:  Russia has Big Ambitions

More nuclear power will allow Russia to export more oil and gas, and government plans call for nuclear energy to amount to 25 percent of the domestic energy market by 2030, up from 16 percent (currently produced by 33 reactors.)  Russia has nine reactors under construction, making it the world’s second busiest market behind China.  ROSATOM head Sergey Kiriyenko has predicted that China will soon become Russia’s main competitor on the global nuclear energy market.

NewsOK Science and Technology – Robert Hayes

Environmental Radiological Contamination

Robert Hayes explains radiological contamination, varied levels of risk, and points out that if it weren’t for potassium, which is radioactive, we’d all be dead.  A solid, brief, no-hype look at our radioactive world.

NEI Nuclear Notes

(ANS Cafe note:  Will Davis, in assembling the Carnival for ANS this week, has made a “Captain’s Choice” and included posts from NEI Nuclear Notes, with the blessing of Eric McErlain of NEI.)

The recent publication of a paper questioning the security of nuclear plants in the United States has already been mentioned at the top of this Carnival posting.  Not surprisingly, the Nuclear Energy Institute has also responded in an official capacity as representing the US nuclear industry, with both a descriptive blog post (first link) and also a post that links to an official NEI Statement on the topic.

A Fresh Perspective on Nuclear Plant Security

NEI responds to NPPP Report on Security at U.S. Nuclear Power Plants

Atomic Power Review – Will Davis

Russian Nuclear Sub Decommissioning – Sayda Bay

In what has developed into a brief series covering decommissioning of nuclear submarines, Will Davis takes a look at the massive improvements that have been made in the situation regarding Russian nuclear submarine decommissioning and notes similarities to the US Navy’s long-running program.

That’s it for this week’s Carnival.  Thanks to all of the authors who submitted posts in this very busy week for nuclear advocates!

 

Fukushima Daiichi: Current Hurdles, Options, and Future Expectations

by Will Davis

This week, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station’s long history was further appended by the approval of decommissioning plans for the site by Japan’s nuclear regulator, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). This approval both clearly sets guidelines for safety at the site, and puts the government stamp of approval on Tokyo Electric Power Company’s highly complicated timeline for the complete decommissioning and removal of Units 1 through 4 at the site.  This announcement follows closely the order by Prime Minister Abe to increase government oversight of cleanup efforts on site. What remains to be seen is whether or not the Japanese public has any more faith in their government regarding decommissioning of the site than it has with TEPCO, which by all accounts in the Japanese press is no longer considered trustworthy.

These developments, however, are largely underplayed in the media compared to reporting on the situation regarding contaminated water on the Fukushima Daiichi site. Indeed, the situation appeared so troubling, and the site itself so jumbled, that a recent tour of the site by Fukushima prefectural officials resulted in an immediate request to the NRA by the prefecture that the Japanese government completely take over the site—even though the Japanese government has no more experience in handling a nuclear accident site than TEPCO does. The realities of the situation are much less urgent than has been speculated in the press; less threatening to the public in the short-term, but indicative of a trend of continued nagging problems that incessantly hinder full remediation of the site.

Groundwater contamination

The biggest question surrounding the news of contaminated groundwater on the site, and leakage of some of this ground water into the waters off the shore of the power plant, is whether or not this contaminated water is affecting the food chain. “No, there’s no evidence of that,” said Leslie Corrice, a former Navy Nuclear Power Engineering Laboratory technician, and former commercial nuclear plant worker, who performed groundwater sampling at the Perry nuclear station in Ohio and has been writing about the Fukushima accident continuously since it occurred. “The contaminated water isn’t getting outside the inner harbor, the quay, which is sealed off.” Corrice also noted that there are indeed plans, speculative at the moment, to seal off the further or outer harbor area, and that land surrounding the station is unaffected “since water seeks the lowest level, and there, that’s the ocean.”

As has been reported elsewhere recently, TEPCO estimates that 1000 tons of water are coming onto the site every day from surrounding hillsides. Of that, 300 tons makes its way to the ocean uncontaminated; 300 tons is mixing with contaminated groundwater on the nuclear plant site and is moved occasionally to the waters off the plant, but inside the harbor area, when the tides move in and out; and 400 tons per day is making its way into the reactor, turbine, and other building basements. The leakage of groundwater into these buildings is increasing the amount of water that TEPCO has to pump, clean up, and store.

Corrice added that “the only isotopic increase found inside the quay has been tritium, and only at one location more than 100 meters north (next to Unit 1) of the suspected inflow point at the Unit 2 and 3 intake structures and the embankment in between, with no cesium in the quay. The current levels of non-tritium isotopes in the quay at all locations are within the range of testing data going back to April… in other words, no discernible increases.” He also noted that the area outside the quay shows nothing, not even tritium, and that samples in the Pacific Ocean on a 10 km radius show no detected radionuclides.

Water mitigation

“Right now, TEPCO is pumping groundwater from the area near the solidified soil by the harbor, and by the end of this weekend with 30 more pump locations will achieve 70 tons per day,” said Corrice. He added that the level of water in sample wells near this area has dropped 5 centimeters already. Eventually, TEPCO plans to solidify (chemically, using a glass-like material) the soil along the entire waterfront, which will reduce to an estimated maximum of 35 tons per day the water outflow from plant premises to the harbor area.

Of course, TEPCO needs to completely contain the highly contaminated water that is being generated on the site. This water is generated when cooling water, pumped into the three damaged reactors, leaks out into the primary containment vessels inside the reactor buildings, then into the reactor buildings, and finally into the turbine buildings. It was found in the past that this water was also in communication with piping and wiring tunnels that criss-cross the site; TEPCO has been working to seal off known leaking areas for some time.

A major new step under technical assessment by Kajima Corporation (original constructor of the nuclear station) would create an artificially frozen zone of soil around the plants, impermeable to water. Deep wells would be used to house refrigerant tubes that would freeze the surrounding soil, with frozen zones around each shaft spreading and eventually being conjoined. The depth of frozen soil could be up to 40 meters—this should be enough to prevent any water flow under an impenetrable wall. Kajima is tasked with studying the problem, and is due to issue a report on the concept March 2014. The soil would be kept frozen for a number of years while the reactor plants are defueled; the defueling of the reactors is scheduled to occur within 10 years after removal of all fuel from all spent fuel pools is completed, which may take up to two years.

This soil freezing technology has actually been employed previously at nuclear plants. “We did it at Midland,” said Glenn Williams, today a financial consultant in the energy field who has worked in energy for over 30 years, and in separate employments with Bechtel Corporation and Stone & Webster was involved with roughly half the nuclear plants in the United States. “We had a problem with soil liquefaction—you know, when what should be a solid acts like a liquid—under the nuclear plant, and it was decided to perform the soil freezing to allow the ground to be solidified where it needed to be. It’s actually an older technology than most people realize—we did this back in the ’80s.” The Midland plant, then under construction for Consumers Power Company in Michigan, was eventually cancelled without ever having started up. Williams recalled the use of the technique at another nuclear plant site in the United States as well, in addition to many non-nuclear applications.

Midland nuclear plant under construction, May 1978.  Wirephoto, Will Davis collection.

Midland nuclear plant under construction, May 1978. Wirephoto, Will Davis collection.

The freezing process (if employed, and if successful) would keep highly contaminated water within the immediate nuclear reactor plant area, and keep clean groundwater outside, but it won’t stop leakage of water from damaged reactors into adjacent buildings inside the ice shield perimeter. At present, TEPCO’s best guess is that nearly the entire reactor core of Unit 1, and parts of Units 2 and 3 have exited (melted out of) their reactor pressure vessels and fallen into the containments. The damaged pressure vessels are leaking water into the primary containments; the exact paths water is taking out of the containments into the reactor buildings are still under study and a source of wide debate.

In a recent presentation to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Shunichi Suzuki of TEPCO listed challenges in finding these leaks, including high radiation dose rate inside the buildings, the fact that a majority of suspected leak locations are underwater with poor visibility, and that repair work must be done in the midst of highly radioactive moving water while continuous core cooling is maintained. TEPCO and its contractors have been experimenting with a material it calls a “plastic grout” that can seal penetrations, even in locations where water is flowing, and has had promising results so far. Whether or not this can be used in the volumes required remains unproven, but tests with double concentric pipes have shown that the material can seal both annular spaces. Sealing of the lower portion of the primary containment, known as the suppression chamber, would finally halt the leaking of highly contaminated water, and would allow for a highly desirable “closed loop” system pumping water into and out of the primary containments to keep the reactor cores cool.

FukushimaCoolingFlow

Flow path of water used to cool damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. From TEPCO “Mid and Long Term Roadmap,” Information Portal for Fukushima Daiichi Accident Analysis and Decommissioning Activities.

Once the flow of water has been halted, cleaning up the contaminated water on the site will be needed—TEPCO intends to have storage capacity on the order of 700,000 tons by 2015. For that purpose, a system conceived by EnergySolutions and manufactured by Toshiba, called the MRRS (Multi Radionuclide Removal System) has been constructed on site and is being moved to readiness. This system will take water that has been processed by systems built very rapidly on site after the accident (the “SARRY,” “KURION” and “AREVA” systems) and after desalination will remove residual radioactivity to a quality below detectable levels, according to Toshiba materials. In the most recent orders given TEPCO by the NRA, operation of this equipment is to be expedited.

Installation of MRRS equipment; photo courtesy Tokyo Electric Power Company

Installation of MRRS equipment; photo courtesy Tokyo Electric Power Company

Site decommissioning

TEPCO—and now the Japanese government, as well—face many obstacles in the full decommissioning of the damaged reactor plants, in a process expected to extend four decades. Some of these could be described as self-imposed. It was recently revealed that the rather quickly constructed enclosure around the Unit 1 reactor building will need to be totally taken down to permit removal of debris from the top of the damaged building and prepare for installation of equipment required to defuel the reactor. This will nullify the protection of the building, set up to halt atmospheric release of radionuclides, but TEPCO expects that emissions from the building will be managed during the process by the gas handling system, already in operation at all three damaged reactors.

News came out soon after the accident in 2011 that two U.S. consortiums were offering to bid on a complete contract to decommission the entire site (a group consisting of Toshiba, the Shaw group, and four additional firms; and a consortium of Hitachi, General Electric, Exelon, and Bechtel; AREVA was also occasionally reported to have been in this mix). Nothing like this came to fruition; it is not known how far negotiations, if any, were carried out on these original offerings.

Would any major firms, particularly experienced architect-engineer firms like Bechtel, conceivably take on such a project today, given what we have learned since the early days? Glenn Williams said, “Yes, I think they might if the terms were okay. The big questions are which firms are qualified to do the work… and would they be sure they would get paid?” Williams noted, “The terms and conditions of such a contract would drive everything,” and that he’s “not sure the Japanese government or TEPCO are prepared to write a contract anyone would sign because they don’t know the scope, scale, and cost of the entire project. The best arrangement for now, for both buyer and contractor, is continuing agreements for commercial services and systems… agreements that can be changed, rather than an overreaching agreement.”

Indeed, the early days when an endpoint seemed perhaps a contract away have now given way to a reality of day-to-day operations, challenges, advances and setbacks, and mutually achieved, unexpected solutions. At Three Mile Island, for example, the condition of the damaged reactor core was not even known for approximately two years; the condition of the three damaged Fukushima reactors is far worse, and early plans have been superseded many times by modified or completely new plans as knowledge about the actual state of the plants improves.

Given this information, it seems unlikely that the recent further imposition of Japanese government control over the work at Fukushima Daiichi will materialize into a solid outsourced contract, although it’s clear that the prefectural government would lean that way. Instead, it might be more sensible to predict that the operations at the site will continue to involve a wide and mixed array of various government entities and contractors engaged in separate but co-mingled projects as has been the case until now, with more thorough government oversight and control.

The people of Japan have expressed all too clearly their distrust of TEPCO, made worse by the recent revelation that TEPCO officials didn’t report the facts about contaminated groundwater on the site (and potential leakage to the sea, possibly continuously since the accident) immediately as soon as they were known. TEPCO management has expressed deep regret over this, with TEPCO’s chairman saying that he “felt we (TEPCO) had improved our ability to be honest with the public, but in fact we have not.” However, the public trust might be broken. This is the larger story surrounding the revelation about groundwater at the site. While contaminated water leaking to the ocean makes headlines and is a major (and expensive) engineering headache, the fact that TEPCO hid information about it will have lasting repurcussions.

Background and more information

Information Portal for Fukushima Daiichi Accident Analysis and Decommissioning Activities (joint Government-TEPCO site)

TEPCO’s storehouse of information on the decommissioning process and the Road Map to Recovery is located here.

Recent News Links

Japanese Government will take on more responsibility for Fukushima Clean-up.

TEPCO faces new setbacks at Fukushima Daiichi (ANS Nuclear Cafe) July 25

Fukushima Daiichi update (Atomic Power Review) August 6

NRA approves TEPCO decommissioning plan, urges solution for water problem

TEPCO begins pumping up contaminated ground water

Fukushima Accident updates – Leslie Corrice

Other news sources continue to report on conditions at Unit 4 and its spent fuel pool. The most recent soundness inspection by TEPCO can be found here. In addition, background can be found here. More can be found here.

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WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016.  In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is Secretary of the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.  He’s also an avid typewriter collector in his spare time.

Carnival of Nuclear Energy 168

ferris wheel 202x201The 168th Carnival of Nuclear Energy has been posted at The Hiroshima Syndrome.  You can click here to see this latest edition of a long-running tradition.

Leslie Corrice, host of this week’s extravaganza, notes that this week features coverage of “why nuke plants are a compelling option, whether or not former anti-nukes are trustworthy pro-nukes, the potential for robotics with nuclear energy, why more nuclear energy would be beneficial, and the latest news about the groundwater contamination problem at Fukushima Daiichi.”

Each week, a new edition of the Carnival is hosted at one of the top English-language nuclear blogs. This rotating feature of nuclear “posts of the week” represents the dedication of those who are working toward a future of energy abundance through nuclear science and technology.

Past editions of the carnival have been hosted at Yes Vermont Yankee, Atomic Power Review, ANS Nuclear Cafe, NEI Nuclear Notes, Next Big Future, Atomic Insights, Hiroshima Syndrome, Things Worse Than Nuclear Power, EntrepreNuke, and Deregulate the Atom.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support.  If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brain Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation.

TEPCO Faces New Setbacks at Fukushima Daiichi

By Will Davis

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has found itself thrust into the spotlight again over the last two weeks as a series of events at and around the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station have triggered a large volume of negative press, government commentary, and regulatory backlash. The embattled utility clearly has its hands full on more than one front.

FukushimaUnit4July202013

Contamination Detected at Sea

On Monday, July 22, after a number of reports had circulated for some time, TEPCO admitted that it believed that highly contaminated water was again being admitted into the sea—specifically, the inner harbor area just outside the nuclear plant. In fact, elevated contamination levels had been detected in onsite sampling wells since May; TEPCO said that leakage into the ocean may have begun as early as April.

The revelations expanded to include the fact that as early as January, it had been noted that the water level in sampling wells on the site was fluctuating in concert with the rising and lowering tide—meaning that the ground water was in communication with the sea.

Of course, similar events had happened before—and triggered a plan, still underway, to construct impermeable walls in front of the station outside the present temporary silt fences and inside the harbor. Completion of this steel barrier wall was originally not planned until mid 2014; until that time, the temporary adsorbent towers (the “circulating sea water purification system”) as well as absorbent material placed inside the silt fences would have to suffice to reduce contamination levels outside the plant. Continuing with the same plan is not nearly enough for officials who expressed anger on Monday after the revelations by TEPCO.

Water leakage in cable trench at Fukushima Daiichi, May 2011.  Photo courtesy TEPCO.

Water leakage in cable trench at Fukushima Daiichi, May 2011. Photo courtesy TEPCO.

On Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was quoted by NHK as saying that the Japanese government “would instruct [TEPCO] to do a quick and secure job in preventing … further leaks,” adding that the government views this development as a “grave matter.” Hideki Moremoto, of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, was quoted on Japanese television saying “it is extremely regrettable that TEPCO was slow in announcing this problem.” On a site tour on Monday, Senior Vice Minister of the Industry Ministry Kazuyoshi Akaba described the plant site conditions as deplorable, and said that “TEPCO always seems to be one step behind the problems,” according to NHK.

That same day, government officials of Fukushima Prefecture called TEPCO representatives to their offices and rebuked them for having not publicly released the information as soon as it was discovered, and for not having done more to stop leakage into the sea in the interim. According to the Asahi Shimbun, prefectural official Tetsuya Hasegawa told TEPCO’s personnel that “the people of Fukushima become more anxious every time they hear of more safety failures; please put that thought at the center of your mind as you try to fix this situation.” Representatives of the local fishermen, who have been both vocal and important in local decision-making, also expressed shock and disappointment at the revelation, according to both NHK and AJW Japan.

In response to the immediate backlash, TEPCO invited reporters to the site to see the work being done between the damaged nuclear reactors and the sea on Monday evening. It was reported that completion of the inner barrier walls and cement improved (solidified) soil might be completed as early as the middle of next month; this providing an inner barrier between the nuclear plants and the sea, while the aforementioned steel beam and plate barrier will essentially wall off the inner harbor area. TEPCO revealed that this work was stepped up in May, after the first detection of increased levels in onsite sampling wells.

The source of the contaminated water is of course fairly obvious; TEPCO is presently injecting a total of roughly 364 cubic meters of water each and every day into the three damaged reactors altogether—or about 96,000 gallons. Some, but not all, is cleaned and recovered after having cooled the reactors (or if some theories are correct, bypassed the reactors) and then leaked into the reactor building, and then the turbine building basements. The water has long been known to have pathways into what the Japanese call “trenches,” which are the piping and cable runs at and below ground level that criss-cross the entire site relaying power, control and monitoring signals and water (in normal plant operations) all over the site for many functions. It was determined long ago that these tunnels were a prime conduit for movement of highly contaminated water, and some were sealed off with concrete relatively early (within months) after the accident.

It seems clear, given recent events, that two things are occurring at once:  First, that water from the reactor buildings or the turbine buildings is in communication with ground water and/or water in the tunnel systems; and second, that the tunnel systems have communication with sea water. In fact, water level in at least one of the turbine buildings is also following tidal variations as is water in some of the trenches/tunnels (TEPCO July 11 handout). This makes the completion of the multiple barriers (“cement improved soil,” steel inner barriers, steel outer harbor barrier) a top priority, in addition to further sealing of the tunnels, since TEPCO has continuously attempted to reduce the cooling water injected to the three damaged reactors to as low a volumetric flow rate as possible in order to maintain effective cooling. In other words, the amount of water being injected to the reactors and thus essentially supplying the driving force for contamination of water and one of the driving forces for its movement to various other areas can’t be reduced further; the effluent must be blocked, and the contaminated water either stored or treated.

Illustration showing pipe and power ducts at Fukushima Daiichi Units 3 and 4.  Illustration from Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) (now disbanded.)

Illustration showing pipe and power ducts at Fukushima Daiichi Units 3 and 4 and flow path to sea from previous leakages; new paths expected similar. Illustration from Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (now disbanded.)

TEPCO has stated at a number of times that at some point it believes that it will have no choice but to discharge very low-level ”treated” water to the sea; the total amount of water on site in tankage will only increase more rapidly as the sources of leakage to the sea are found and capped. Discharge of the low-level contaminated water to the sea may be the lesser of two evils and a better option—a choice that TEPCO and Japan may have to make sooner rather than later.

Steam Emissions from Unit 3 Reactor Building

Less than a week before the news of the contaminated water leakage broke, TEPCO had already found itself the focus of scrutiny after a contractor investigating debris removal on the top of the Unit 3 reactor building filmed what was referred to at the time as steam (actually, vapor would be the correct term) coming from openings in the structure; the initial discovery occurred on July 18. Since that time, the company has spotted this emission multiple times—most recently as early as the morning of July 24. The Japanese press quickly published and republished pieces about these events.

TEPCO has repeatedly sampled the air around the plant, assuring the Japanese people that no increased emissions of any sort (gaseous or particulate) are concurrent with this discovery. In addition, TEPCO performed radiation monitoring over the top of the building, and while it did find that there was a slight increase in dose rate near the area of the vaporous emissions, the dose rate, although high, was roughly 1/4 that found at some other areas on the same roof level during the survey.

The working assumption after having found no radioactive emissions increase and no zone increase in rad level has been stated by TEPCO as follows: “Given the result and the status of the plant, we assume that the steam was generated as a result of rain having leaked through gaps near the cover and has heated at the head of the primary containment vessel.”

Press on this issue has fallen off given that no outward effect is occurring, and given that the story of the actual contamination discovered in the trenches and seawater is far more significant in terms of impact.

What’s important to understand about both of these events—even given the extremely difficult situation on site (there are still wrecked vehicles and smashed equipment that have never been touched)—is that both of these events tend to violate important rules developed by NISA (now NRA) and TEPCO in the “Road Map to Recovery” of the site. The halting of any further spread of contamination was, and is, a major part of this plan; as readers following the story for any period of time will know, massive effort and many millions of yen have gone into various provisions toward this end, including covering of the No. 1 reactor building with a new structure, the closure of the blowout panel in the No. 2 reactor building, the installation of silt fences at the harbor, installation of active and passive filtration at the harbor, sealing of tunnels and trenches, provision of massive amounts of onsite added tankage, and more. At this stage of the recovery from the accident, both are setbacks—one simply a sort of thing that generates good news video and bad press (the vaporous emissions) but the other a very serious blow to the overall plan. And, it must be said, another serious blow to TEPCO’s image with the Japanese people.

Two lesser events have also made the news in Japan. First, it is being reported by several media outlets that plant site workers whose thyroid gland dose exceeds 100 millisieverts number almost 2000 people; second, that radioactively contaminated materials with a high dose rate have been discovered 15 kilometers away from the plant site—most probably having been blown there after the explosion in either the No. 1 or the No. 3 reactor buildings while the accident’s active phase was in progress. While these events have not made large news outside of Japan, they are becoming well known inside Japan this week.

A Work in Progress

TEPCO was unable to capitalize on a positive announcement it made during this same time frame—on July 20, the spent fuel removal structure for Unit 4′s spent fuel pool was officially declared completed. (An illustration of this structure opens this article.) The internal working parts, which constitute mainly a crane structure and fuel bundle handling equipment, began assembly even before the structure was completed. TEPCO now believes it will begin to remove the fuel from Unit 4′s spent fuel pool in November of this year. While this is probably the easiest task on site involving nuclear fuel in any way, the rapid and in fact ahead-of-original-schedule completion is itself notable, and is proof that at least some of the projects on site are being managed successfully.

Recovery work continues steadily outside the plant site as well. July 20 marks the start of the summer vacation for children in Minami-Soma, a city whose name became known world-wide after the Fukushima Daiichi accident. On that day, a new water attraction was opened for the children to play in, within a park that has been completely decontaminated. Photos of children playing in the new, modern fountain look for all the world as if nothing had ever happened. It’s clearly the prefecture and national government plan that this kind of experience will spread until all of the region has been decontaminated and reoccupied and life returned to normalcy. It’s also clearly obvious that positive news items such as this will continue to be ignored while it still appears to the Japanese that TEPCO and the Japanese government do not have the Fukushima Daiichi site under complete control.

It remains to be seen in the critical upcoming weeks how TEPCO responds to the primary problem of contaminated seawater, and further how the new nuclear regulator responds to this first very serious test after its formation. Indeed, NRA must act aggressively to ensure that further spread of contamination is halted as quickly as possible both to protect the environment and to ensure that the regulator earns the public trust.

For more information:

Click here to see a video from TEPCO showing “ground improvement” on the Fukushima Daiichi site on July 7, 2013.

Click here for a second video on “ground improvement” from July 17.

Click here to see a TEPCO press handout describing and mapping the recent findings of contaminated water on site, including mention of the fluctuation of water levels in trenches and buildings with the tide.

Click here for the most recent TEPCO report on the storage and treatment of accumulated water on the site, including water treatment system diagrams.

Click here for the latest NHK report on leakage of contaminated water to sea.

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WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016.  In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is Secretary of the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.  He’s also an avid typewriter collector in his spare time.

Two years after Fukushima, ANS members at forefront

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake and 40-foot-high tsunami waves hit Fukushima, Japan. The impact on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was a call-to-action for members of the American Nuclear Society.

Corradini

“As leaders in the nuclear power industry, ANS members were—and remain to this day—at the forefront of assisting in the analysis of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant accident and implications for the nuclear industry worldwide,” said ANS President Michael Corradini.

“Many of our members have advised the Japanese government and TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company, the company that owns the nuclear power plant] concerning nuclear issues and the decommissioning of the reactor,” he said.

As nuclear safety experts, ANS members completed a comprehensive assessment of the events. Their results appear in Fukushima Daiichi: ANS Committee Report (2012). The report was written by the ANS Special Committee on Fukushima and co-chaired by Dr. Corradini and by Dr. Dale Klein, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The report explained, reviewed, and analyzed the technical aspects of the accident, safety issues, health implications, the required clean-up, risk communications, and crisis communications.

Klein

Klein, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas-Austin, is the chairman of the TEPCO Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee that0 advises the Japanese company on actions needed to improve plant safety, safety culture, clean-up, and remediation.

Corradini is the chairman of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a member of the NRC Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, and is elected to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

At the time of the March 2012 ANS report, the long-term effects of the radioactive materials release were unclear. However, a newly released 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) report concludes “the increases in the incidence of human disease attributable to the additional radiation exposure from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident are likely to remain below detectable levels.”

“As a result of the Fukushima accident, ANS made a commitment to provide public access to up-to-date information about nuclear science and technology,” said Corradini. “Our new Center for Nuclear Science and Technology website will launch in May. In the meantime, we will continue to share our expertise for the benefit of the public and especially, the people of Japan.”

American Nuclear Society President Michael Corradini discusses the ANS international topical meeting on Fukushima, some lessons learned, and the next steps for the American Nuclear Society.


 

 

Fukushima Two Years Later

by Will Davis

At about a quarter to three in the afternoon on March 11, 2011, a gigantic and unprecedented earthquake struck just over 110 miles off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. The quake was followed, just over 40 minutes later, by the first of several rounds of tsunami, which inundated enormous areas and eradicated entire towns and villages. Over 19,000 people were killed or are still missing, and over 6,000 survivors were injured.

Central to most narratives on this cataclysmic natural disaster has been the story of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. While no deaths have been attributed to the nuclear accident itself, or to radioactive contamination released from the plant, and while deaths at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site proper have been very few (three persons were killed on the day of the earthquake and tsunami—one by falling from a crane, two by drowning), the story of the nuclear accident continues to dominate press worldwide.

As we approach the two-year anniversary of these events, it’s important to look back and ask some honest and direct questions about the nuclear accident and how it relates to us here in the United States. What do we know now that we didn’t in the early days? Can we say for sure what was happening, both on a large and on a minute scale? Could the accident have been prevented? What are we doing to ensure something similar never happens again? What about the radiation exposure to the public? We will try to answer these and other important questions as we look back at two years’ worth of study and analysis, recovery and cleanup, and planning and preparing.

(Above, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station under construction in 1971. To the left of the photo, Units 1 and 2 can be seen complete while Unit 3 is under construction; Unit 4 has not yet been started. Nearer the camera is the construction site for Units 5 and 6. Photo courtesy Will Davis collection.)

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami … and what we now know

As already described, the earthquake struck at 2:46 PM local time, and at that moment the three operating reactors at Fukushima Daiichi—Units 1, 2, and 3—detected the earthquake and were immediately shut down on a seismic scram signal. (The other units—4, 5, and 6—were shut down for maintenance.) Simultaneous with this event was a LOOP (loss of offsite power), caused by the electric distribution system outside the plant being damaged by the earthquake. At the Fukushima Daiichi station, the emergency diesel generators started as designed, and provided power to begin cooling down the three reactors that had been operating.

There has been speculation in some quarters that the earthquake caused damage to the plants and that this helped lead to the accident. In fact, all indications are that plant operations were nominal from the point of the seismic shutdown, LOOP event, and commencement of shutdown cooling at the three operating plants. As late as last November, presentations by the Tokyo Electric Power Company at the American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting revealed no suspicion of material failures at the plants prior to the tsunami’s arrival, as corroborated by recorded plant parameters and operator statements.

Of course, the actual triggering event of the accident was the tsunami-derived inundation of the plant 40 minutes after the earthquake, which, because of the pressure of the violent inrush of water, caused more physical damage than an equivalent–depth slow flooding event. The tsunami flooded the plant because the protection was inadequate; the protection guarded against tsunami of nearly 20 feet while the actual event was almost 50 feet. It should be noted, though, that an unanticipated factor in the event was the fact that the coastline actually dropped several feet—thus negating a percentage of the tsunami protection.

The inundation of the plants meant that both the (mostly below ground) diesel generators and near-grade electric distribution equipment was rendered inoperable. This is the situation called SBO (station blackout), where no AC power is available at all. Generators were called for, and shipped from outside the plant, but the sheer damage to the site made bringing them in and moving them around exceedingly difficult. In addition, procedures for their use did not really exist. The total loss of AC power meant that only DC power, to operate some valves and instruments, was available—and even this was limited not only by the time until the batteries discharged, but also by damage as well. At that point, the plant was crippled by loss of power, serious physical damage, confusion on site due to communication problems (and continued aftershocks), and lack of solid emergency operating procedures in such events. This led to a loss of cooling for Units 1, 2, and 3 reactor cores, ultimately resulting in severe core damage. Failure of the containment function of the reactor buildings led to the release of radioactive material to the environment.

At the ANS 2012 Winter Meeting, Akira Kawano of TEPCO stated that spare seawater pumps (both portable pumps, and replacements for built-in or installed pumps destroyed by the tsunami), spare sources of electric power (of all three ranges—high voltage AC, low voltage AC, and DC—used at the plant) and spare pressure cylinders to allow operation of valves after loss of electric power would have been exceedingly helpful in the hours after the tsunami. TEPCO has gone far beyond provision of these items, though, in its plan for tsunami protection at nuclear plants in the future.

It is important to point out that Units 5 and 6 did not experience a long-term blackout because one of the above ground air-cooled diesel generators installed at that northern section of the site remained fully operable. This diesel was at Unit 6, but power was patched in from it to Unit 5 later. Air-cooled diesels did exist at the area of Units 1 through 4, but the destruction of the electric distribution network inside the plants by water coupled with the loss of fuel tanks rendered these useless. (In this case, “air cooled” means that the diesels used conventional radiators to dissipate waste heat to the air, unlike the large emergency diesel generators that required seawater systems to be operable in order to dissipate engine heat.)

Regarding this tsunami damage and its implications, TEPCO has addressed its future commitment to safety at its nuclear plants by designating three courses of action:  First, it will take what it calls “Thorough Tsunami Countermeasures,” which means large seawall protection, protection of buildings inside the seawall should the seawall be breached, and also provision of multiple backup power sources. Second of the triad is ”Securing Functions by Adopting Flexible Countermeasures,” by which it is meant that many varied backup power sources and sources of site assistance will be spread among many other sites. Finally, under “Mitigation of the Impact after Reactor Core Damage,” TEPCO plans to make serious preparations to control events, even should the first two steps fail. This includes, but is not limited to, installation of hardened, filtered containment vents that can be operated remotely under even accident conditions. Click here to see a brief TEPCO synopsis of its accident analysis report that contains these three steps.

Eventually, all operators of nuclear plants in Japan will take serious measures like those described above, and more, to prepare the sites and personnel against future events like this. Some have already begun; click here to see a detailed account of preparations at two different sites in Japan. These efforts are enormous; Chubu Electric Power has stated that it will invest 140 billion yen (about US$1.47 billion)  in its Hamaoka nuclear plant upgrades.

At left, view of Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 through 4 after the accident. Photo courtesy Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force.

Two of the reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi were severely damaged, and another partly damaged, by explosions of hydrogen gas that was generated by the damaged fuel while in contact with steam. This hydrogen got into the reactor buildings, built up in concentration, and later (quite famously, for both explosions were filmed from a distance) caused explosions in Unit 1 and Unit 3 reactor buildings. Evidence delivered by TEPCO at the ANS 2012 Winter Meeting now shows that the probable leakage point of the hydrogen into the primary containments and into the reactor buildings (after first getting out of the damaged reactor vessels) was through the drywell head flange at Unit 1, and also possibly at Unit 3. (Other papers delivered at that meeting hinted at other possible leak points; none can be assured until the plants are decommissioned.) Unit 4 experienced a hydrogen burn event as well; this is now known to have occurred because PCV (primary containment vessel) venting at Unit 3 allowed hydrogen to enter a common exhaust stack, and flow not only out the stack but into Unit 4′s reactor building. Delayed and/or difficult venting of the containments is the key factor in this portion of the accident; venting would have prevented overpressurization of the primary containments, allowing them to retain physical integrity.

Containment vents have become a major topic of discussion after the accident. At the ANS Winter Meeting, Sang-Won Lee, a representative of Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power stated that all of its OPR1000 and APR1400 nuclear plants will have filtered containment vents installed by the year 2015 since KHNP considers  this the “final means to prevent an uncontrolled release of radionuclides to the atmosphere.” (Interestingly, all South Korean nuclear plants will fit or backfit seismic trip equipment as well.) Here in the United States, hardened vents, perhaps filtered, will eventually be fitted to all boiling water reactor plants with Mk I and Mk II containments; click here to see some detailed background on the decision-making process and on filtered vent systems at reactors in other countries. For more background on decision-making regarding filtered vents, click here.

Do we know all of the things that were going on at Fukushima Daiichi?

The answer to this question is a qualified “yes.” In the time since the accident, many reports have been developed by TEPCO (and many other bodies) to attempt to explain the accident progression. As these reports came out, each subsequent report has benefited from more and better detailed information on the actual minute-to-minute actions being taken by operators on site, and from more detailed records that have been released. As of November 2012, when TEPCO made presentations on the accident at the ANS Winter Meeting, there were no new announcements made about operator actions, equipment failures, and records—and TEPCO representatives stated on several occasions that it is thought that the full range of operator actions is as well known now as it will ever be.

In terms of what was happening mechanically, we might say, throughout the accident, the truth is less certain. The loss of most of the plant instrumentation and the inability to access parts of the reactor buildings (even today) means that the exact progression of events once serious core damage began isn’t known. It will not be known until the plants are more accessible (during defueling, years away) and not fully known until the plants are decommissioned and dismantled. It must be added that while these findings will eventually significantly add to our storehouse of knowledge, they’re not essential to setting up procedures and equipment to prevent any such accidents in the future.

For such detailed reports as mentioned above, you can click here to see the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations report on the accident; you can click here to see a massive 500 page report on the accident by TEPCO; you can also find the American Nuclear Society’s Fukushima Committee report here.

Could the Fukushima Daiichi accident have been prevented?

We could say “yes” at some, or many points along the way—for example, we might say (getting into details) that had the hydrogen explosion not occurred at Unit 1, there may not have been any serious core damage at the other units due to the site-wide problems caused by the Unit 1 hydrogen explosion. This is cherry picking, though; the best answer to the question is “yes, had the site been properly prepared for tsunami of the actual size experienced, and even if not, had it been prepared to respond both from inside the site and from outside to such a natural disaster.” I’ve provided a link earlier to show what’s being done in Japan to prevent such events; a clearly defined path for US nuclear plants to increase nuclear plant safety can be found in a document that the Nuclear Energy Institute calls “The Way Forward.”

Our first modern wake-up call in the United States to such events was 9/11, in the sense that this experience was applied to nuclear plants here; after this, what are called “B.5.b” enhancements to US nuclear power stations saw the provision of numerous pieces of equipment to help combat site emergencies that included physical damage. Since the Fukushima Daiichi accident, much more has been developed. The industry response to the accident is called FLEX, and it provides essentially the same sort of mobile backup responses that the Japanese are beginning to implement (for stations that will restart.) The FLEX response is by now well known; you can click here to see details of its implementation and progress.  There are also multiple documents available at NEI’s Safety First website, found here.

So, the answer to “could this accident have been prevented” is “yes”—which means that future occurrences can also be prevented. The important provisions are spelled out clearly in the FLEX plans, and in those fairly duplicate plans being pursued by the Japanese: prevent loss of all AC power (station blackout) and prevent loss of the ultimate heat sink (where heat from the reactors and spent fuel is ultimately deposited, be it water or even the atmosphere) and prevent core damage.

What about the radiation dose received by citizens off site?

The World Health Organization has just released a report that tells us that the dose received by persons not on the site was actually not dangerous—in fact, according to WHO, most persons in Fukushima Prefecture received no more than 10 mSv, although some received as much as 50 mSv effective dose. You can read the entire report by clicking here.

This is not to say that the trauma experienced by those evacuated from the prefecture is not real; it is. It is important to understand that prevention of future events like the Fukushima Daiichi accident will also prevent massive evacuations of people from their homes. What it does mean is that exposure received by most people is far less than what they normally receive through the course of daily living and travel in a year. Click here to calculate your dose rate where you live in order to compare it to the figures in the WHO report.

The Fukushima Daiichi accident has been given the same INES scale rating as the Chernobyl accident—a rating of 7, or “Major Accident.” This is because both accidents resulted in a release of radionuclides to the environment concurrent with reactor fuel damage. However, the release from Fukushima Daiichi was only about 10 percent that of Chernobyl; thus, the equivalent rating on the INES scale doesn’t tell quite the whole story.

Where do we go from here?

In terms of the Fukushima Daiichi site, the planned decontamination and decommissioning of the whole site might take as long as 40 years, according to TEPCO’s road map for site decommissioning. In the meantime, TEPCO will be performing a great deal of research on how to safely dismantle the nuclear plants, very likely with international cooperation.

Worldwide, each nation that either has nuclear plants or aspires to have them has made some hard decisions. In the case of a few, like Germany, the decision has been made to abandon nuclear plants entirely; Bulgaria recently decided not to build a nuclear plant, as well. In the cases of most nations, though, reviews and reports on ‘lessons learned’ from the Fukushima Daiichi accident have evolved into robust plans for action; this strategy applies to the United States, South Korea, and China as three of the foremost proponents of nuclear energy. Many other nations that did not have nuclear power prior to the accident but wished to have it are still on course to build nuclear plants; perhaps most well known of these is the effort underway in the United Arab Emirates. Many nations realize the need for electricity in order to have a more productive and safer society; in a number of cases, nuclear is the leading choice. (Also notable for entering into nuclear energy programs are Kenya, Vietnam, Turkey, and Kazakhstan.)

Indeed, it would seem that the greatly increased public dialogue and involvement after the accident on many varied aspects of nuclear energy (not just safety) has not led to widespread fear, shown by favorable poll numbers in the United States. Even as time goes on, the polls in favor of nuclear power hold up.

This has allowed the present-day general discussion about greenhouse gases and varied energy generating sources to, for the most part, include nuclear energy on an intelligent and rational basis. Much of that basis centers on the passive safety features of new nuclear plants such as the Westinghouse AP1000, which is designed to endure SBO events for 72 hours with no operator action whatsoever, and after that time and with some operator action to transfer water, can maintain core and containment cooling indefinitely. The reactor plant is also designed so that even in the event of a severe accident, the core will remain inside the reactor vessel—an important step in the prevention of release of radioactive material to the environment.

Nuclear plant operators and government regulators worldwide have responded to the Fukushima Daiichi accident with still-increasing vigilance, inspection, research, and action. It’s clear that such an accident must never be allowed to happen again—and by the actions being taken at least in the United States, it would appear that we are well on our way to ensuring that we can meet any and every challenge that future severe events might bring, for the safety of both the plant operators and the citizens they serve.

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Will Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society. In addition to this, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

Preparing to restart: Tsunami safety measures at Japanese nuclear power stations

By Will Davis

The approach of the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 finds nuclear energy in Japan at a crossroads. After the quake and resulting tsunami, the nuclear plants in Japan that did not shut down immediately eventually all had to shut down for their required, scheduled outages. Political pressures, for the most part, prevented any near-term chance of any of them restarting, it seemed at the time. When Tomari Unit 3 shut down in May 2012, Japan found itself with not one single operating nuclear power plant for the first time in decades. Since that time, only two nuclear units have restarted—Ohi Units 3 and 4 in July 2012. Other plants, rumored to be “next” to start up, have still not started up, although they may soon. The question that springs to mind is naturally, “When will the majority of the plants be allowed to restart?” The more insightful question, though, is, “What will have to be done in order to allow any plant to restart?” And how can we tell which will start first—is there any clue present now? Yes, there is.

Continued debate rages about the possibility of active faults being located beneath a number of plants—perhaps the most widely discussed being Tsuruga. For the plants experiencing this problem, restart is highly problematic—and highly politically charged. For the informed, it’s also no safe bet.

Other nuclear plants, however, are emerging as the “sure bets” of owner-operators who are pushing massive amounts of time, money, and material into them, preparing for restart whenever the Japanese government and the new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) allows it. The sheer amount of work being put into two of these is our focus today as we look forward to the time when Japan will return to generating a fair portion of its electric power from nuclear energy.

The photograph above was taken in April 2011 by the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, and clearly shows the debris and tsunami damage on the sea side of Units 1 through 4 of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear powers station. This damage—physical derangement of installed equipment, and water inundation of facilities—was the direct cause of the accident. (The tsunami was preceded by a massive earthquake that caused enormous power outages due to transmission line damage and reactor plant shutdowns, but did not lead to unusual events at the plant in and of itself.) This photo makes fairly obvious the damage, but perhaps not as obvious the height of the water to be defended against.

Kashiwazaki-Kariwa

At right, we see Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEOCO) Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station. This station has for many years been the largest (highest total output) nuclear station in the world, with seven reactor plants on one site.  TEPCO (also owner of Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini) has been pouring money and material into facilities on and around this site in order to prepare it for certification to start up.

It must be said right off that the most important tsunami defense this plant has is its location; it’s on the opposite coast from Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini, and according to TEPCO the undersea faulting that does exist west of Japan is not thought to be able to generate tsunami at all. Even so, TEPCO has implemented massive works at the site; click on the following link to see a detailed video of the size and scope of the project. (The videos linked in this ANS Nuclear Cafe article are detailed and impressive, and are “must see” to understand the real scope of the efforts being exerted.)

TEPCO Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Tsunami Protection Enhancements

The provision of seawall protection is fully and redundantly backed up by the protection placed around the reactor buildings in TEPCO’s protection scheme; at Units 1 through 4, a large new artificial sea wall defending against even 15-meter tsunami is backed up by protection of the reactor buildings themselves by new added enclosures, also proof against 15 meters of water. All doors on the reactor buildings will be water-tight, and all openings below 15 meters will be shielded with covers to prevent water entry. On the other hand, the three newer units—Units 5, 6, and 7—already sit on higher ground and thus don’t require as high of a new seawall; further, these units were built having no low openings that water may enter through below 15 meters.

Also notable in the video is the installation of fixed structure to allow portable generating and pumping equipment to supply plant cooling needs in case of long-term station blackout (SBO) and even in the event of serious damage to the site. The portable equipment is located at a high elevation near the plant; it includes mobile generating trucks (using gas turbine engines instead of diesel engines), diesel powered skid-mounted fire pumps, fire engines, and mobile units containing water-to-air heat exchangers. According to TEPCO, the SBO/loss of ultimate heat sink survival time for this site after an earthquake and tsunami is said to be 196 days as a result of the additions and enhancements.

Construction of this new protection and provision of the new equipment is proceeding at a rapid pace; it is expected to be completed this year. A further detailed video, also well worth watching, shows more of the construction of the protection and its progress as of the middle of last year.

Tsunami Protection Enhancements at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa:  Progress, June 2012

The Kasiwazaki-Kariwa station has undergone a complete stress test at Units 1 and 7 (which should cover most eventualities at other units, generally), although it seems clear now that the NRA might be inclined to develop further requirements; the final result of NRA’s decision making is due mid-year. For what it is worth, TEPCO believes that the plant is also immune, after the implementation of seismic enhancements, even to very large earthquake accelerations (which is supported by the fact that none of the reports concerning Fukushima Daiichi has so far proven out any of the assertions that the quake itself led to crippling or even problematic system damage.) A TEPCO video covering the stress test can be seen here. The video describes the stress test steps clearly for anyone, even with no knowledge of nuclear energy. It is important to add though that the stress test video portion describing the spent fuel pool “cliff edge” for Unit 1 is actually describing the effect should water overflow the new, outer 15 meter tsunami sea wall and get inside the site.

Overall, the safety measures TEPCO is implementing at this plant are impressive, on a grand scale; comparatively, absolutely nothing of the sort has been done at its other undamaged nuclear power station, Fukushima Daini. This most likely reflects the Fukushima prefectural government’s repeated assertions that no nuclear plant will operate in its territory ever again—dooming the four reactor plants at Fukushima Daini and the two undamaged units (Units 5 and 6) at Fukushima Daiichi. Judging all advance indications (including TEPCO’s investments and the political atmosphere) if any of TEPCO’s nuclear stations would ever restart, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa would be first.

Hamaoka

Whereas it’s reported that TEPCO has spent as much as 70 billion Yen on enhancements at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, Chubu Electric Power Company has spent 100 million yen at its five-reactor Hamaoka nuclear power station, and has increased the estimated total amount required to 140 billion yen. It has also pushed the expected completion of physical construction/equipment acquisition back an entire year from the originally expected date, to July 2013. This nuclear station is located on the same side of the country as Fukushima, but is well to the south.

At right, Hamaoka nuclear power station, courtesy Chubu Electric Power Company. This station has five nuclear reactor plants; Units 1 and 2, nearest the right of the photo, are undergoing decommissioning, while the other three units are expected to operate in the future.

Preparations at Hamaoka, which comprise over 30 different construction projects, mirror those underway at TEPCO’s plant quite closely, through the provision of sea-side protection, backup power generating, and water pumping equipment, and of course all of the training required to implement the new procedures (using new and unfamiliar equipment). As stated by Chubu, the improvements to the site were begun before a full understanding of the experience at Fukushima Daiichi was widely known. The 40-billion-yen increase in cost, to be spread over several years, comes from alterations to the protection plan that were pointed up from real experience at Fukushima. For example, the design of reactor building doors to be fitted at Hamaoka was changed to a swinging design of watertight door to reduce the time required to shut and secure the doors. It has become clear that in emergency and disaster situations, minutes and seconds count.

Chubu Electric has also produced an excellent video (also in English) quite similar to those by TEPCO, showing the enhancements specific to its Hamaoka nuclear power station site. Click here to see it. Chubu offers the public an excellent PDF file report titled “Tsunami Countermeasures at Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station“ on site protection enhancements that is quite minute in detail.

In December 2012, Chubu Electric also announced additional “Severe Accident Countermeasures” to be taken at Hamaoka that are intended to do three things:  prevent an uncontrolled radiological discharge (during an accident), prevent damage to the containment vessels of the reactor plants, and provide increased DC power availability. Specific actions called out included installation of filtered PCV vents, installation of water spray lines in the reactor vessel pedestals (to ensure debris retention), enhanced containment spray (to knock down airborne contamination in event of release inside containment), special cooling for the PCV head (through which it is now believed that hydrogen gas escaped into the reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi), provision of upgraded storage batteries, and provision of alternative (and mobile) heat exchanger equipment for core cooling. These are all enhancements directly developed as a result of accident sequence events and site complications known to have occurred during the accident progression at Fukushima Daiichi.

The plans, and the future

Parallels between the TEPCO and Chubu Electric plans are fairly obvious—both are spending large amounts of money on presently shut down nuclear stations of large generating capacity in order to help ensure that they are allowed to restart. When they do, the companies will begin to earn revenue to pay for the disaster enhancements (and, in the case of TEPCO, to pay for many other things, including decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi and, in all probability, eventually Fukushima Daini) and in addition will help restart Japan’s economy. Both companies are relying on a complex mix of physical enhancements to site perimeters, reactor plants, and interconnecting infrastructure (such as new remote wires and pipes). Both are investing heavily in mobile equipment of many types. While the training required to integrate all of this new equipment hasn’t specifically been mentioned, we know that it is exceedingly complicated and will be very time-consuming to get right. Both companies continue to conduct drills on the use of this equipment, with site-wide timed ‘disaster scenarios.’

Another parallel that is important not to miss is that much of what TEPCO and Chubu Electric are doing is quite similar to the FLEX approach backed by the Nuclear Energy Institute and owner-operators in the United States.

One contrast between the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and Hamaoka projects is that whereas the TEPCO plant, on the west coast, is being given 15m–high tsunami wall protection, Hamaoka, which is on the opposite coast, is being given 18m tsunami protection. This reflects the seismic environment of Japan, which as previously stated is much more likely to experience large tsunami on the eastern coastline of the nation.

It seems likely, given the Japanese public’s new well-publicized suspicion of nuclear energy (and particularly the Japanese government interrelations with the Japanese nuclear industry), that restarting plants in Japan will only come with a solid yet transparent combination of physical site protections, emergency backup plans, solid regulation and enforcement, and divorce of the regulator from industry interests. All of these are underway now, and as we’ve seen, at least two of the utilities owning nuclear plants are heavily investing on a nuclear future for Japan, even if the face it presents is very largely different to that it presented to a pre-Fukushima world.

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Will Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society. In addition to this, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

2012 ~ The year that was in nuclear energy

Plus a few pointers to what’s in store for 2013

By Dan Yurman

Former NRC Chairman Gregory Jackzo

On a global scale the nuclear industry had its share of pluses and minuses in 2012. Japan’s Fukushima crisis continues to dominate any list of the top ten nuclear energy issues for the year. (See more below on Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima.)

In the United States, while the first new nuclear reactor licenses in three decades were issued to four reactors, the regulatory agency that approved them had a management meltdown that resulted in the noisy departure of Gregory Jazcko, its presidentially appointed chairman. His erratic tenure at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cast doubt on its effectiveness and tarnished its reputation as one of the best places to work in the federal government.

Iran continues its uranium enrichment efforts

The year also started with another bang, and not the good kind, as new attacks on nuclear scientists in Iran brought death by car bombs. In July, western powers enacted new sanctions on Iran over its uranium enrichment program. Since 2011, economic sanctions have reduced Iran’s oil exports by 40 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In late November, the U.S. Senate approved a measure expanding the economic sanctions that have reduced Iran’s export earnings from oil production. Despite the renewed effort to convince Iran to stop its uranium enrichment effort, the country is pressing ahead with it. Talks between Iran and the United States and western European nations have not made any progress.

Nukes on Mars

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is a scientific and engineering triumph.

Peaceful uses of the atom were highlighted by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, which executed a flawless landing on the red planet in August with a nuclear heartbeat to power its science mission. Data sent to Earth from its travels across the red planet will help determine whether or not Mars ever had conditions that would support life.

SMRs are us

The U.S. government dangled an opportunity for funding of innovative small modular reactors, e.g., with electrical power ratings of less than 300 MW. Despite vigorous competition, only one vendor, B&W, was successful in grabbing a brass ring worth up to $452 million over five years.

The firm immediately demonstrated the economic value of the government cost-sharing partnership by placing an order for long lead time components. Lehigh Heavy Forge and B&W plan to jointly participate in the fabrication and qualification of large forgings for nuclear reactor components that are intended to be used in the manufacture of B&W mPower SMRs.

Lehigh Forge at work

The Department of Energy said that it might offer a second round funding challenge, but given the federal government’s overall dire financial condition, the agency may have problems even meeting its commitments in the first round.

As of December 1, negotiations between the White House and Congress over the so-called “fiscal cliff” were deadlocked. Congress created this mess, so one would expect that they could fix it.

The Congressional Budget Office has warned that if Congress doesn’t avert the fiscal cliff, the economy might slip into recession next year and boost the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, compared with 7.9 percent now. Even record low natural gas prices and a boom in oil production won’t make much of a difference if there is no agreement by January 1, 2013.

Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima

Japan’s major challenges are unprecedented for a democratically elected government. It must decontaminate and decommission the Fukushima site, home to six nuclear reactors, four of which suffered catastrophic internal and external damage from a giant tsunami and record shattering earthquake. The technical challenges of cleanup are daunting and the price tag, already in the range of tens of billions of dollars, keeps rising with a completion date now at least several decades in the future.

Map of radiation releases from Fukushima reported in April 2011

  • Japan is mobilizing a new nuclear regulatory agency that has the responsibility to say whether the rest of Japan’s nuclear fleet can be restarted safely. While the government appointed highly regarded technical specialists to lead the effort, about 400 staff came over from the old Nuclear Industry Safety Agency that was found to be deficient as a deeply compromised oversight body. The new agency will struggle to prove itself an independent and effective regulator of nuclear safety.
  •  Japan has restarted two reactors and approved continued construction work at several more that are partially complete. Local politics will weigh heavily on the outlook for each power station with the “pro” forces emphasizing jobs and tax base and the anti-nuclear factions encouraged by widespread public distrust of the government and of the nation’s nuclear utilities.
  • Despite calls for a phase out of all nuclear reactors in Japan, the country will continue to generate electric power from them for at least the next 30–40 years.
  • Like the United States, Japan has no deep geologic site for spent fuel. Unlike the United States, Japan has been attempting to build and operate a spent fuel reprocessing facility. Plagued by technical missteps and rising costs, Japan may consider offers from the United Kingdom and France to reprocess its spent fuel and with such a program relieve itself of the plutonium in it.

U.S. nuclear renaissance stops at six

The pretty picture of a favorable future for the nuclear fuel cycle in 2007 turned to hard reality in 2012.

In 2007, the combined value of more than two dozen license applications for new nuclear reactors weighed in with an estimated value of over $120 billion. By 2012, just six reactors were under construction. Few will follow soon in their footsteps due to record low prices of natural gas and the hard effects of one of the nation’s deepest and longest economic recessions.

The NRC approved licenses for two new reactors at Southern’s Vogtle site in Georgia and two more at Scana’s V.C. Summer Station in South Carolina. Both utilities chose the Westinghouse AP1000 design and will benefit from lessons learned by the vendor that is building four of them in China. In late November, Southern’s contractors, which are building the plants, said that both of the reactors would enter revenue service a year late. For its part, Southern said that it hasn’t agreed to a new schedule.

The Tennessee Valley Authority recalibrated its efforts to complete Watts Bar II, adding a three-year delay and over $2 billion in cost escalation. TVA’s board told the utility’s executives that construction work to complete Unit 1 at the Bellefonte site cannot begin until fuel is loaded in Watts Bar.

The huge increase in the supply of natural gas, resulting in record low prices for it in the United States, led Exelon Chairman John Rowe to state that it would be “inconceivable” for a nuclear utility in a deregulated state to build new reactors.

Four reactors in dire straights

In January, Southern California Edison (SCE) safety shut down two 1100-MW reactors at its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) due to excessive wear found in the nearly new steam generators at both reactors.

SCE submitted a restart plan to the NRC for Unit 2 in November. The review, according to the agency, could take months. SCE removed the fuel from Unit 3 last August, a signal that the restart of that reactor will be farther in the future owing to the greater extent of the damage to the tubes its steam generator.

The NRC said that a key cause of the damage to the tubes was a faulty computer program used by Mitsubishi, the steam generator vendor, in its design of the units. The rate of steam, pressure, and water content were key factors along with the design and placement of brackets to hold the tubes in place.

Flood waters surround Ft. Calhoun NPP June 2011

Elsewhere, in Nebraska the flood stricken Ft. Calhoun reactor owned and operated by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), postponed its restart to sometime in 2013.

It shut down in April 2011 for a scheduled fuel outage. Rising flood waters along the Missouri River in June damaged in the plant site though the reactor and switch yard remained dry.

The Ft. Calhoun plant must fulfill a long list of safety requirements before the NRC will let it power back up. To speed things along, OPPD hired Exelon to operate the plant. In February 2012, OPPD cancelled plans for a power uprate, also citing the multiple safety issues facing the plant.

In Florida, the newly merged Duke and Progress Energy firm wrestled with a big decision about what to do with the shutdown Crystal River reactor. Repairing the damaged containment structure could cost half again as much as an entirely new reactor. With license renewal coming up in 2016, Florida’s Public Counsel thinks that Duke will decommission the unit and replace it with a combined cycle natural gas plant. Separately, Duke Chairman Jim Rogers said that he will resign at the end of 2013.

China restarts nuclear construction

After a long reconsideration (following the Fukushima crisis) of its aggressive plans to build new nuclear reactors, China’s top level government officials agreed to allow new construction starts, but only with Gen III+ designs.

China has about two dozen Gen II reactors under construction. It will be 40–60 years before the older technology is off the grid. China also reduced its outlook for completed reactors from an estimate of 80 GWe by 2020 to about 55–60 GWe. Plans for a massive $26-billion nuclear energy IPO (initial public offering) still have not made it to the Shanghai Stock Exchange.  No reason has been made public about the delay.

India advances at Kudanlulam

India loaded fuel at Kudankulam where two Russian built 1000-MW VVER reactors are ready for revenue service. The Indian government overcame widespread political protests in its southern state of Tamil Nadu. India’s Prime Minister Singh blamed the protests on international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

One of the key factors that helped the government overcome the political opposition is that Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited told the provincial government that it could allocate half of all the electricity generated by the plants to local rate payers. Officials in Tamil Nadu will decide who gets power. India suffered two massive electrical blackouts in 2012, the second of which stranded over 600 million people without electricity for up to a week.

Also, India said that it would proceed with construction of two 1600-MW Areva EPRs at Jaitapur on its west coast south of Mumbai and launched efforts for construction of up to 20 GWe of domestic reactors.

India’s draconian supplier liability law continues to be an effective firewall in keeping American firms out of its nuclear market.

UK has new builder at Horizon

The United Kingdom suffered a setback in its nuclear new build as two German utilities backed out of the construction of up to 6 Gwe of new reactors at two sites. Japan’s Hitachi successfully bid to take over the project. A plan for a Chinese state-owned firm to bid on the Horizon project in collaboration with Areva never materialized.

Also in the UK, General Electric pursued an encouraging dialog with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to build two of its 300-MW PRISM fast reactors to burn off surplus plutonium stocks at Sellafield. The PRISM design benefits from the technical legacy of the Integral Fast Reactor developed at Argonne West in Idaho.

You can’t make this stuff up

In July, three anti-war activitists breached multiple high-tech security barriers at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Y-12 highly enriched uranium facility in Tennessee. The elderly trio, two men on the dark side of 55 and a woman in her 80s, were equipped with ordinary wire cutters and flashlights.

Y-12 Signs state the obvious

The intruders roamed the site undetected for several hours in the darkness of the early morning and spray painted political slogans on the side of one of the buildings. They were looking for new artistic venues when a lone security guard finally stopped their travels through the plant.

The government said that the unprecedented security breach was no laughing matter, firing the guards on duty at the time and the contractor they worked for. Several civil servants “retired.” The activists, if convicted, face serious jail time.

None of the HEU stored at the site was compromised, but subsequent investigations by the Department of Energy found a lack of security awareness, broken equipment, and an unsettling version of the “it can’t happen here” attitude by the guards that initially mistook the intruders for construction workers.

The protest effort brought publicity to the activists’ cause far beyond their wildest dreams and produced the predictable uproar in Congress. The DOE’s civilian fig leaf covering the nation’s nuclear weapons program was once again in tatters.

So long Chu

Given the incident at Y-12, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who came to government from the quiet life of scientific inquiry, must have asked himself once again why he ever accepted the job in Washington in the first place.

DOE Energy Secretary Steven Chu

Chu is expected to leave Washington. That he’s lasted this long is something of a miracle since the Obama White House tried to give him the heave ho this time last year after the Solyndra loan guarantee debacle, in which charges of political influence peddling by White House aides colored a half a billion dollar default on a DOE loan by a California solar energy company.

The predictable upswing in rumors of who might be appointed to replace him oozed into energy trade press and political saloons of the nation’s capital.

Leading candidates are former members of Congress, former governors, or just  about anyone with the experience and political know how to take on the job of running one of the federal government’s biggest cabinet agencies. It’s a short list of people who really can do the job and a long list of wannabes. With shale gas and oil production on the rise, having a background in fossil fuels will likely help prospective candidates.

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Dan Yurman published the nuclear energy blog Idaho Samizdat from 2007–2012.