April 09, 2012
The Avoidability Of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Failures

Just getting around to posting about a Technology Review article from March about how the Japanese reactor failures could have been avoided with fairly modest measures.

"Fukushima Daiichi ... was not just due to an inadequately sized seawall—that is the wrong way to look at it," says Edward Blandford, a professor of nuclear security at the University of New Mexico and a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. "The events at Fukushima Daiichi were due to a series of failures, including failures in plant defensive actions, mitigation efforts, and emergency response. If backup equipment had been stored in waterproof vaults or higher elevations, the accident would have most likely been avoided."

How hard is to built waterproof vaults that a wave could wash over? Not very. How hard to build up an elevated platform to keep some generators above a wave? Again, not very. As the article relates, the nuclear industry has resisted some forms of safety upgrades because to admit the upgrades were necessary would call into question how safe nukes were before upgrades.

Look around and ask yourself: What rare events are we not preparing enough for? I'm thinking an electromagnetic pulse from a repeat of the 1859 solar Carrington event. We should be better prepared for the potential frying of our electric power grid.

I also wonder about the costs of stockpiling enough food to handle a large volcanic eruption, perhaps one big enough to bring on another Little Ice Age or worse. The 20th century was pretty tame as far as natural phenomena are concerned. The 19th century was much worse.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 April 09 09:57 PM  Dangers Complex Engineering

Fat Man said at April 10, 2012 5:58 AM:

"What rare events are we not preparing enough for?"

Bankruptcy. The United States is running on printed fiat currency. The world's productive enterprises, which we (at the urging of our "environmentalists") have exiled from the United States, will stop accepting the US$. At that point the $ will be worthless, and the US government will be insolvent. The enormous number of US residents who depend on the US government for a handout, will not be able to buy anything with their worthless currency. Heretofore, prosperous middle class citizens will be impoverished. Civil unrest will spread. Governors will have to call out the National Guard. It will make a Carrington event or a super volcano look like a Sunday School Picnic.

The difference between the collapse I am worried about and a "natural disaster" is that we have already reached the first stage of insolvency and the light at the end of the tunnel is a hundred car freight train headed at us at full speed.

BTW, the US no longer has the resources to spend on protecting against rare natural disasters.

Catastrophe: Risk and Response by Richard A. Posner

Lono said at April 10, 2012 7:31 AM:

Fat Man,

Let me assure you that the SP&P treaty is all about preparing for this eventuality. Like I have said before - I have a friend whose father is a billionaire - and he used to have Vicente Fox over for dinner - years ago when he was President of Mexico - to discuss the business opportunities that will open up when our country is rebooted into a new North American Union and associated currency.

Ron Paul was the only mainstream candidate who opposed this strategy - and he was likely our last hope of preventing it.

The two puppets that will be on offer in the 2012 elections will be on board with the SP&P plan from the get go - if you follow the money you will see the corporations and bankers and other 1% have everything to gain from this profitable and convenient merger.

I imagine there will be a small opportunity to make a lot of money in the first two to three years of the consolidation - followed by a much longer period of heavy handed over-regulation and over-competition for jobs for the 99%.

Good Luck!

(to us all)

PacRim Jim said at April 10, 2012 9:10 AM:

Fat Man, assuming your sequence of events, guess whom the dumbed-down electorate would blame: Republicans. Guess whom they would still support: Democrats.
The patient is a drug addict who takes more drugs to cure himself.

anonyq said at April 10, 2012 5:22 PM:

This assume that the nuclear disaster was do to having no power and not because the piping inside the nuclear plants were smashed by the earthquake. I would go with the latter one because of the reputation of the operator

John K Berntson said at April 10, 2012 6:49 PM:

Certainly there are many possible disasters ahead, political, economic, technological, and natural. The one that worries me the most right now is our transportation system, which always seems to be functioning at maximum capacity most of the time, especially on the coasts. All we need is a good couple of storms to take out some bridges and the goods stop moving to where they need to be. Most cities are only a few days away from starvation.

We need to expand our highways and freight lines. Yet, as has been commented elsewhere, we cannot build big things anymore. Between NIMBY and environmental regulations, we cannot get things built in a reasonable time or at a reasonable price. It took more time and money to rebuild the two wings of the Pentagon damaged in 9/11 than it did to build the whole damned building just before WWII.

Still - and I cannot prove this - I suspect that life will be better for all in fifty or a hundred years. It pretty much always is.

Ronald Brak said at April 10, 2012 7:02 PM:

If the Fukashima nuclear disaster had been the result of some unlikely technical failure that no one had seen coming, the result wouldn't have been quite as bad for the nuclear industry, as unlikely techical failures can be fixed so they won't happen again. But as the accident was at its heart the result of incompetence, that's a heavier blow, as we can engineer away technical problems, but it's much harder to engineer away human nature. As incompetance can't really be fixed, the costs of insurance have quite logically gone up.

As for disasters we are inadequately taking precautions against, climate change is at the top of my list.

Engineer-Poet said at April 10, 2012 8:10 PM:

Arguably, Fukushima wasn't the result of incompetence but political ass-covering being stronger than truth-telling.

Societies with stronger attachments to truth-telling than social conformity would not be expected to have the same problem.  The USA is one of those societies.

Ronald Brak said at April 10, 2012 9:33 PM:

Personally, I would call siting emergency generators so they get flooded out by a tsunami at a nuclear plant by the sea in Japan incompetent. Another, more neutral sounding term would be negligent, although in these sorts of situations the modifier grossly tends to get put in front of it.

As for cultural differences, if Japan is more likely to suffer accidents than the US as a result of their culture, this should show itself in differing rates of industrial accidents and causes between the two countries. I don't know how they compare, but my mostly evidence free guess is that they would be about on par once Japan approached US levels of technical and economic development. South Korea has had some severe accidents because of people not speaking truth to power, so I have heard. This is anecdoctal, but something I understand they have had trouble with.

Anyway, my point that if there had been some sort of more or less unforeseeable technical problem that had caused the disaster, then that problem could have been fixed, but as it was more incompetence, or negligence, or bad planning or whatever one wants to call it, insurers (or those who are in the position of acting as insurers) now see nuclear power as more risky than before, as these problems are difficult to fix. Or to be more precise, it is difficult to demonstrate to an insurer that they are fixed and wil stay fixed in decades to come.

Cyril R said at April 11, 2012 4:46 AM:

Agree with Ronald Brak. The Daiichi plant has surprising poor design basis against tsunamis. The geologists knew 10 meter plus tsunamis happen relatively often. Often enough for it to be included in the probabilistic risk assessment. So this raises questions about the Japanese regulatory and industry environment. For comparison, look at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California; built on a buff 85 feet above sea level, and having gravity fed makeup water (no electricity required) makes this plant impervious to a Fukushima type situation.


On the other hand, the newer plants in Japan also appear to have much higher design basis tsunami and generally increased thermal margins in the core and spray systems itself etc. Basically all of the newer plants on the Japanese east coast did not have core damage or radioactivity release (Daiichi means "first" - they are the oldest reactors in Japan). That last point is important. It means nuclear can be done safely, and making it safe is straightforward, and is being done safely even in severe natural disasters. But it takes common sense which failed at the oldest nuclear plant Daiichi. That's a nuanced conclusion. The media and activist groups like Greenpeace don't seem to care anything about nuance, and I think their treatment of the issue is appaling. I don't know why the professor in the MIT article says its more complicated than a higher seawall; had there been a higher seawall there wouldn't be any of the subsequent defense in depth equipment failure (emergency valves, steam driven systems, batteries... all not needed if you have AC electricity from the diesels). But I do like a defense in depth approach and would agree to add passive hydrogen recombiners, valves that have their own energy sources, standpipes with hydrants for emergency water refilling, etc.

JP Straley said at April 12, 2012 6:39 AM:

If you look at an aerial photo of the Daiichi site you see some high bluffs not a kilometer away from the reactor site. If the utility had sited their backup generators on the bluff and ran a cable down to the plant, they could have gotten those coolant pumps running almost immediately -- certainly soon enough to prevent the overheating/hydrogen generation event that cracked open the enclosure and released radionuclides.

If they had indulged in a typical structured "what if" safety analysis, it seems reasonable that this alternative would have come up. Grrr.

Jerry Martinson said at April 14, 2012 1:03 PM:

"As the article relates, the nuclear industry has resisted some forms of safety upgrades because to admit the upgrades were necessary would call into question how safe nukes were before upgrades."

It's not surprising that organizations behave this way because we subsidize disaster by not requiring the costs to be internalized.
It's the car insurance 15/30 personal bankruptcy loop hole scaled up to mammoth proportions.

The nuclear industry doesn't have to pay for credible insurance for meltdowns so there's no private sector regulator incentivising responsible behavior. So we're leaving it solely to government to regulate them. Effectively we are left to a system where regulatory capture, PR, and unproductive political scaremongering is playing a central role in our power generation. TEPCO laid a $400B+ egg but it doesn't matter because they are bankrupt and can't pay so it's the same as laying a $10B egg for them. Fukashima got hit with a known 1000-year Tsunami risk - TEPCO should have been paying a $400B/1000y = $400M/year insurance policy on that plant until they fixed the Tsunami vulnerability. It's "heads I win tails you lose" corporate risk management. I think I've written about this topic before on the nuclear industry on this blog. At best slowly new reactor designs get fixed but we hardly ever approve new reactor designs so we are left with a PR machine that justifies the status quo.

What else are we ignoring?

In California we ignore earthquakes with legacy buildings. In NorCal, the prevalent "tilt-up" an "ding-bat" construction is likely to kill many thousands in California when the Hayward fault goes. We know this because we've seen how these structures have performed in the past but were lucky in the past because Northridge happened outside of work hours and Loma Prieta (1989) happened deep in a mountain range far from people. Outside of ranch homes and some of the very solid new construction, we're not a whole lot better prepared than Turkey for an earthquake. Landlords don't care to upgrade their old buildings because they don't have to carry credible insurance covering the costs of deaths that will result. Landlords should be required to have $2M/typical occupant wrongful death coverage on their dwellings - if we did that this "tilt-up" problem would be gone in 5 years.

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